Blessing in the darkness: the companionship of God
Image: St Enoch and her son St Mungo by Smug
**CONTENT WARNING: contains brief reference to sexual assault/rape**
Wherever we are, there are stories that are held within the very ground we walk on. Some stories are well known, some are partially remembered, and of course some are lost to time and only God holds the memories.
Today’s story is somewhere in that middle ground. Partially remembered but not entirely known. As you read it, I invite you to consider those aspects of old stories which can only ever be recreated by engaging our imaginations. We don’t have photos or films to show us the faces of the people involved. We don’t have access to their hearts, their emotions, their wills. So we hold the pieces in our hands, and allow the picture to emerge as best it can.
Do you know the story of Thenew? Maybe you know her better by the name Thaney, or Teneu, or maybe the name St Enoch is most familiar for those with Glasgow connections. They are all the same woman, and her name was recorded in various forms through history. She is the mother of St Kentigern, who himself is more fondly known as St Mungo. Mungo is the patron saint of the city of Glasgow, and regarded as the city’s founder too. Mungo is well known, Thenew perhaps a little less so.
Her story is one of my favourite East Lothian stories, which I first encountered in Tim Porteous’ book East Lothian Folktales (I really recommend you get hold of a copy, it’s a treasure trove, and beautifully illustrated by artist Mags Nisbet-Macfarlane). Let me share Thenew’s story with you.
Thenew's father was King Loth of the Gododdin tribe, and he reigned over his kingdom from a hillfort on top of Traprain Law. Loth decided it was time for his daughter to wed, so he commanded her to marry the man he had chosen for her; an advantageous match. However, Thenew refused. She did not want this marriage. Her father was enraged at his daughter’s defiance and so thought he would teach her a lesson. He sent her to live with a group of nearby swineherders, thinking this sudden fall in circumstance would jolt her out of disobedience. In fact Thenew discovered these were kind people, whom she quickly grew to respect and then love. According to the stories they were a Christian community, and Thenew grew to love their faith too.
In the meantime the man she had refused to marry, was enraged and hunted Thenew down, and assaulted and raped her, desiring to punish her what he perceived as his humiliation. It soon became clear that Thenew was pregnant as a result of the rape. The swineherders she was living with continued to love and care for her through this terrible trauma, but King Loth learned through his spies that, not only did Thenew show no desire to return home, but she had also become pregnant. King Loth was unaware of the violation of his daughter by the spurned bridegroom, and his fury knew no bounds at how his daughter was seemingly dishonouring him in every possible way.
Thenew was brought before him, and he looked at his daughter and sentenced her to death. The punishment for being ‘an immoral woman’ under Loth’s pagan rule was stoning, but Thenew was so well-loved by the Gododdin that no one would stone her. The king then ordered his soldiers to bind his daughter and place her in a cart, which would then be pushed by poles off the top of the precipitous hill Traprain Law (you can see this distinctive volcanic outcrop as you travel down the A1 south of Edinburgh, just past Haddington on the right hand side). Meanwhile at the foot of the sheer hillside the little community of Christian swineherders who Thenew had lived with had gathered to pray that God would interven and the king would have mercy.
All hope was finally lost when the cart plunged down the deadly cliff-face and smashed onto the rocks below.
Then, unbelievably, Thenew herself appeared from the wreckage, entirely unharmed. Her friends cried out in joy that it was a miracle...but the king’s whispering advisors still atop Traprain Law said it must be witchcraft.
And so for the second time that day Thenew was brought for judgement before her father. And for the second time on that terrible day he sentenced her to death.
She was bound once again, and then taken to the shore where she was placed in a tiny coracle and pushed far out into the Firth of Forth. The king abandoned her to the sea, and Thenew was finally lost and alone. In the old stories we hear that she had companionship from the sea, with marine life accompanying her on her dark journey.
Can you imagine how Thenew must have been feeling through all this? How she responded to her father’s cold abandonment of her? What kind of man could he have been? Was he perhaps a Herod of his time?
The story ends with Thenew falling asleep in the coracle, never expecting to wake again. Then a miracle happens. The coracle is not carried out to sea on the relentless tides, but instead brings her to the far shore of Fife. She tumbles onto the beach and, not surprisingly given all she has endured, goes immediately into labour. She gives birth that morning to an infant son and wraps him as best she can in her wet skirts.
The story goes that some nearby shepherds close to the shore saw her plight and came to her aid. They enlisted the help of St Serf, the local holy man who ran a school and served the community nearby. St Serf helps Thenew to care for her son, whom she calls Kentigern. Kentigern’s spiritual legacy continues to this day.
Yet let us honour Thenew today; a young woman whose moral courage led her into direct conflict with the society she was in, and whose faith gave her light in the darkest moments of her life. A young woman who shaped the future of Scotland in the most remarkable way.
May we find our home in you, when home itself rejects us, and
may we know there is no separation from your Divine and Loving Presence,
when the sea of our lives is carrying us to places we do not want to go.