In Ireland around the year 590 AD a young woman named Melangell, who was of royal birth, wanted to lead a religious rather than a royal life. Her father King Jowchel, a tribal chieftain, expected her to make a good marriage. Melangell fled to Wales to pursue her divine vocation and settled at Pennant, an isolated spot at the head of the Tanat Valley in North Wales. Here she lived a life of prayer and devotion to God, a cave became her cell and she lived as a hermit.
In 604 AD Prince Brychwel Ysgithrog of Pengwern, Powys was hunting and his hounds cornered a hare. The hare dived into a bramble thicket and then hid in the folds of St Melangell’s clothes, she was praying in a clearing in the thicket. The hounds would not go into the clearing to attack the hare and St Melangell would not give up the hare. Prince Brychwel asked her for an explanation. He was so moved by her story and devotion to God that he gave her the lands where she prayed for the service of God, to be a perpetual asylum and refuge. Prince Brychwel told St Melangell that if men and women flee to her to seek protection, provided they do not pollute the sanctuary, they will be left at peace and not dragged forth.
The heirs of Prince Brychwel continued to honour his bequest. The Pennant Melangell became and remains a sanctuary devoted to God. St Melangell lived on there for more than 35 years and gradually other women came to join her in a monastic life of prayer and good works. Hares continued to be much loved by St Melangell and were known locally as Wyn Mellangell (St Melangells lambs). Even in present times the local hunters in Cwm Pennant will not kill hares.
The fame of the Abbess Melangell grew during her lifetime and survived after her death. Her grave became and is a place of healing and of sanctuary for men and women in distress as well as for hunted animals.
One of the most striking things about this story is its sense that God is present and at work in all things and that he can be praised and glorified through the whole of creation. The people of that time lived a simple life: the ordinary work of daily living looking after the house, preparing meals, tilling the soil, growing food, and caring for animals took up a large part of the day. The people lived ‘very close to the earth’ and were aware of the changing seasons. They were in frequent contact with nature and animals tame and wild. Nature was not hidden from them, they were part of nature. It is a way of life that puts its trust in God, which is prayerful, quiet, and full of compassionate care for all living things.