Sometimes goodness can so upset other people that it causes them to resort to evil actions. The story of Piran’s journey to Cornwall, fanciful as it must be, is rooted in this understanding. It is said that the pagans of Ireland were so afraid of his authority and envious of his influence on their people that they took him to a cliff top, chained to a millstone, and threw him over into the sea in a howling gale. The wind died down to a gentle breeze, the rough sea calmed and his enemies saw Piran sitting on the stone, which floated on the water. From there it carried him to Cornwall, where he landed seven miles north-west of Truro, at the place later called Perranporth in his memory. He landed on March 5th, which, in the absence of a death date for him, became his feast day. This legend may be connected with the fact that Celtic saints of those times often carried altar stones on their journeys, so that they could set them up for worship on arrival.
Piran set about building a chapel in the sands along the coast from Perranzabuloe. It is said that his first disciples were a badger, a boar, a calf, a doe and a fox. Piran loved nature in all its forms, collecting stones and pebbles which attracted him, to decorate his altar and the hut that he added nearby. He chose a piece of black stone for the hearth in his hut and one night, when the fire was burning brightly, he was amazed to see a trickle of silver metal running from it. Not surprisingly, this was tin, and, although the people of Cornwall had been trading it for over two thousand years by then, Piran was said to have discovered this process of releasing it from the rock. He became the tin miners’ patron saint, thus becoming a rival of Petroc (see June 4th) for the title of Cornwall’s patron. The national flag of Cornwall has a white cross on a black background, symbolising the tin flowing across the black hearthstone; it is known as St Piran’s cross. It also represents the light of Christ shining in the darkness of the world.
Piran’s chapel may well be the oldest building for Christian worship still in existence in Britain today. Its walls are like drystone walling, tilted inwards to reduce stress on the roof. The east wall could date from Piran’s time, but the rest was rebuilt in early Norman style. Before the sand dunes threatened it, it stood at the top of a small valley. Converts were baptised in the small spring which rose next to the chapel. From the ninth century the oratory and hut were frequently lost under the sands which encroached upon them, but the oratory was excavated several times, becoming known as ‘The Lost Church’. Through the Middle Ages, hundreds of pilgrims walked into the sea to pray there. A second door was added to ease the flow of pilgrims through the building. In 1980/1 it was permanently buried in the sands in order to preserve it. It was marked by a concrete cover, but now that, too, is frequently covered by sand and a tall Celtic cross stands by it to mark the site. Piran is commemorated in Brittany and South Wales as well as in Cornwall, and maybe he travelled to and fro between the three. He is claimed to have lived to the age of 206. We do not know when he died, but afterwards his head was kept in a reliquary and his body on a ceremonial bier. Also preserved were his staff, covered with silver and gold and precious stones, a copper bell, and a silver cross containing small relics from the saint. From time to time, certainly into the sixteenth century, these relics were taken in procession around Cornwall. All of these, however, were lost in the seventeenth century. St Piran’s Feast was held as a holiday in Cornwall until at least 1760, when the tin workers were given quite a sizable bonus. Seven places in Cornwall are dedicated to him.
Lord Jesus, through You, the Word of life, the father brought all creation into being. Through You, the Light of the world, the message of love, forgiveness and eternal life was brought to the world. The darkness could not extinguish the Light, and after Your crucifixion You rose again to life. Through the power of Your Spirit in the world today, that same message is spread across our world. Show me the part You want me to play in Your great mission. Amen.