Ffald y Brenin Trustee, Richard Roberts, explores the possibility that the roots of our modern-day experience of Ffald y Brenin as a ‘thin place’ may reach back through one-and-a-half millennia, to the time of St. Brynach.
Ffald y Brenin is a retreat centre set in the remote and beautiful landscape of West Wales. In the 1980s, a farmhouse with outlying buildings was converted into accommodation for just over 20 guests. The centre receives visitors from all over the world who come to seek God, pray and review their lives.
At times, people find it easy to be aware of God at the centre. It is as if the veil between heaven and earth, the spiritual realm and physical realm, is drawn aside – what the ancient Celts described as a ‘thin place’. Bethel, a thin place for Jacob, is a biblical example of this (Genesis 28:16).
How did Ffald y Brenin become a ‘thin place’? I suspect that there are many factors involved, including ongoing continual prayer, the faithfulness of the team and the beauty of creation. There is also the hospitality that guests experience, because hospitality, God’s welcoming open arms, is the heart of the Gospel (Luke 15:20). These practices are ‘a long obedience in the same direction’. There is no quick fix ‘impartation’ that can make somewhere become a thin place.
But there is another factor that can be involved, related to the spiritual history of a particular place. A thin place is often somewhere where the Kingdom of God has been present in power. This brings us to the story of St Brynach.
Brynach lived in the 6th century, but most of the information we have about him comes from an account of his life penned 600 years later. How much is factual and how much is myth and legend is not known. Some events are certainly mythical, but the account of his life is not all fantastical. Most probably we have an account of actual events but expressed in the language of an epic tale.
It is likely that St Brynach was an Irish monk and we know that he founded churches in Wales, including one at Nevern, which is a few miles from the site of Ffald y Brenin. He arrived in Wales by sea and was nearly killed by some local ruffians, mainly because he resisted the advances of a noblewoman who had designs on him! He then migrated to the Gwaun Valley, where Ffald y Brenin is now based. The valley was said to be uninhabitable due to howling sounds that the locals heard at night, which they attributed to demons. Brynach had a prayer station on the small mountain above the valley. The howling ceased as Brynach prayed.
Brynach is reputed to have been of noble birth but to have given up his rights and privileges for the sake of the Gospel. He was austere by our standards, wearing rough clothes and frequently undertaking stringent fasts. He engaged in long prayer vigils and is reputed to have communed with angels. In fact, the mountain above the Gwaun Valley is called ‘Carningli’ which means ‘the hill of angels’.
Carningli overlooks Ffald y Brenin, which is situated high above the River Gwaun. Peter and Phyllida Mould purchased the site nearly 40 years ago, having had a vision of the farmhouse many years before. Their quest was to create a place for the restoration of the soul (Psalm 23). Its name means The Sheepfold of the King.
Ffald y Brenin is primarily a retreat centre, with a rhythm of prayer at its heart, but sometimes people are healed emotionally and physically. From its early days, there were extraordinary happenings at the centre. On one occasion, a guest fell and fractured her arm. An ambulance was called and Phyllida prayed for relief of the pain, but by the time the ambulance arrived, the arm was completely healed.
Ffald y Brenin is primarily a retreat centre, but things like this have happened continually since it opened. Over the past 25 years, I have certainly had tangible experiences of God’s presence there but for the most part, my experience has been that I have gone with questions and issues and ‘prayed through’ to a place of peace and new direction. My soul has been restored as I have set time aside to seek the Lord.
Perhaps the legacy of St Brynach lives on under Carningli. There is an ancient well, or a spring, that still flows there. It is a thin place. We cannot, by our own effort, make somewhere become a thin place. There is no technique or secret that we can employ. But we can pray, be hospitable and seek the presence of God’s Kingdom in our localities. This is likely to change the spiritual atmosphere around us. That is the basis of Ffald y Brenin’s Local Houses of Prayer network, employing simple practices in order to cultivate God’s presence where we live.
I am sure St Brynach had no idea that we would be contemplating his legacy after 1600 years. His example is an encouragement to us, to be obedient and bold in following the Lord. Our part is faithfulness, God will take care of our fruitfulness – both in our day and in the generations to come.
Dr Richard Roberts is a trustee at Ffald y Brenin and author of Cultivating God’s Presence: Renewing Ancient Practices for Today’s Church