Saint of the Week: St. Kentigern (Mungo)

St. Kentigern at the Kelvingrove Museum

My wife and I spent last weekend in Glasgow. All over Glasgow, you will find images and statues of St. Kentigern, as pictured in my photo to the left showing the entrance to the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery (which has some very nice mediaeval armour). St. Kentigern is commonly called by the name “Mungo” (silly as it sounds) which seems to be derived from the Brythonic word for “dear one”.

Dear St. Kentigern was born c. 518 in Fife to a family of local Celtic “nobility.”* He may have been raised in a monastery. It does seem, though, that at age 25, he was present in Glasgow as a missionary. He was welcomed by Roderick Hael, King of Strathclyde, and by 540 was consecrated bishop.  He lived an ascetic lifestyle and converted many people to Christianity through his preaching and holiness of life.

In 553 he was compelled to leave Strathclyde due to anti-Christian opposition.  He spent time in Wales with St. David and founded a monastery while there.  In 573, he was able to return to “Scotland”** after the triumph of Christians at the Battle of Arthuret.  He hurried back to King Roderick’s side with some Welshmen to join him.  He spent his first eight years of his return to Cumbria evangelising Galloway and Cumberland.  In 581 he returned to Glasgow and lived out the rest of his days as bishop of that city.

During this final sojourn in Glasgow, he was paid a visit by St. Columba (my post on him here).  The two Celtic missionaries had a long talk with each other and exchanged pastoral staves as a sign of friendship.  St. Kentigern died in 603 and was buried in Glasgow where he apparently still rests in the cathedral’s crypt.  His feast was this past Thursday, 13 January.

Enough with history, though.  St. Kentigern is well-known for his hagiography, with symbols from his miracles making their way onto the Glasgow coat of arms (as seen in my photo of them on the side of a bridge over the Kelvin).

Out of sheer laziness, I quote from Wikipedia:

Here is the bird that never flew
Here is the tree that never grew
Here is the bell that never rang
Here is the fish that never swam

The verses refer to the following:

  • The Bird — Mungo restored life to the pet robin of Saint Serf, which had been killed by some of his fellow classmates, hoping to blame him for its death.
  • The Tree — Mungo had been left in charge of a fire in Saint Serf’s monastery. He fell asleep and the fire went out. Taking branches from a tree, he restarted the fire.
  • The Bell — the bell is thought to have been brought by Mungo from Rome. It was said to have been used in services and to mourn the deceased. The original bell no longer exists, and a replacement, created in the 1640s, is now on display in Glasgow.
  • The Fish — refers to the story about Queen Languoreth of Strathclyde who was suspected of infidelity by her husband. King Riderch demanded to see her ring, which he claimed she had given to her lover. In reality the King had thrown it into the River Clyde. Faced with execution she appealed for help to Mungo, who ordered a messenger to catch a fish in the river. On opening the fish, the ring was miraculously found inside, which allowed the Queen to clear her name. (This story may be confused with an almost identical one concerning King Maelgwn of Gwynedd and Saint Asaph.)

Thus St. Kentigern.  His real legacy is the Christian faith that took hold in Glasgow and other parts of western Scotland and flourished for centuries, although it seems to be in a bad state just now.  Perhaps we need a new St. Kentigern, another dear Mungo, to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to the people of Scotland.

*I do not deny their nobility, just our postmodern, post-Germanic-feudal understanding of what Celtic nobility would have been.

**Not yet called Scotland; too few Irish Scots.  Called variously Cumbria, Caledonia, Alba.

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