The Yew Tree and Black Monk of Newry
In the year of our Lord 1283 the Cistercian monks shuffled down the long stone cold corridor; their ghostly shadows projected on to the wall by the flickering of candlelight. One by one they filed into the pews of the cold chapel to begin their Compline (or Night Prayer) which was the last prayer of the day.
They began - Psalm 90
“Lord you have been our dwelling place
Throughout all generations”.--------- and on and on they chanted.
The monks of Newry followed the strict rule of their founder St. Benedict. Each one had entered making vows of poverty, chastity and obedience; each one observed a rule of silence between the hours of 7pm to 7am and each followed the demanding timetable of prayer, study and work.
As they left to bed down for the night on hard cell floors all knew that morning would come quickly and another day would begin at 3.15am.
Within his subconscious Brother Annulus thought he could hear the furious clanging of a bell, he turned over half awakened - his ear sharply focused and yes! There it was again. He recognised it as the bell of the monastery gate. He took a candle with him and lit it off the night burner in the outside corridor and quickly made his way to the outer gate. The night wind caught the flame and he was left in darkness to unbolt the gate as the clanging became increasing more urgent. As he opened it, a dark cloaked figure rushed passed him collapsing in a heap within the safety and sanctuary of the monastery walls.
Aware of the hour of the day he knew that he could not break his vow of silence. He could not ask the dark prostrate heap of its nature of urgency nor was an explanation forthcoming other than the moans of a soul in agony.
He rushed back to the cells and to where the Abbot slept and knocked furiously on his door. And in what seemed like an eternity the door finally opened and there stood the Abbot none too pleased but perplexed at the sight of Annulus gesturing wildly in the eerie darkness.
“You have permission to speak brother” spat the Abbot.
“My Lord Abbot, my Lord Abbot you must come quickly- a poor soul seeks our help,
“A torch my Lord Abbot - we will need a torch” shouted Annulus
The Abbot grabbed the night burner from the outer corridor and both made their way to the monastery gate.
The black heap seemed motionless .The abbot moved the torch closer and there lying almost still on a bloodied cape was a boy child. The gate was still open and Annulus could see the outline of a body lying still, beyond the monastery grounds. It was the child’s mother. Without hesitation or permission he swiftly ran to her but the poor soul had already gone to her maker. He covered her as best he could and returned to the Abbot who by now had lifted the child from where it lay.
They made their way back to the cells. For the first time in their lives they heard the first cry of a new born child. The Abbot trust the child into the arms of Annulus; “Wait here” he said and ran off into the darkness.
At 3.15 am the monks began to leave their cells and gather for Morning Prayer. No stranger sight had they ever seen as on that morning as Annulus stood in his doorway with the babe in his arms breathing over it to inject some warmth into the tiny soul. They all shuffled by but no one dared speak.
By 5am the Abbot returned accompanied by an old woman.
‘Come with me’ he beckoned, and all three made their way hurriedly to a small thatched cottage close by the water’s edge. The Abbot knocked urgently at the door and a woman emerged carrying an infant at her breast. Both monks lowered their gaze. The old woman reached up to take the child from the arms of Annulus and for one hesitant moment he held on and slowly, protectively he handed him to her. In a second they were gone into the smoke smelling cottage. The door was closed.
In that moment Annulus felt a deep sense of loss, something he had never experience before. In that moment his whole life passed before him. He remembered the love of his mother, the times he was sick or afraid as a child and how she comforted him, the warmth of her and how she cuddled him. He felt protection of her arms, the love of her kisses. The deep sense of loss he felt as the cart carried her cold lifeless body through the muck and dirt of laneways on its way to the cemetery.
It was then that he had decided to enter the monastery. He remembered the door shutting behind him. He remembered discarding the clothes and the habit laid out for him in his cell. The vows he had taken thundered in his head - Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.
He was close to his cell now .The Abbot hadn’t spoken. He knew that he could not speak till 7am. He closed his cell door and the smell of infant permeated his senses .Poverty, Chastity, Obedience; the words pounded in his head over and over again. He could hear the monks chant coming from the oratory. He dropped to his knees and in that moment saw Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem. The joy of it -The Holy family! In that instant he knew that this is what he wanted for himself in his life.
He got up and turned towards the gate and in a short time passed the cottage by the sea where the new born lay. In the garden of the cottage there stood a Yew tree. He saw the tree as a sign from God. St Patrick had planted a yew tree in the 5th century in this very place that he was about to leave. He knew that the yew tree was symbolic of immortality, renewal, regeneration, everlasting life and rebirth.
He would begin a new journey, a new life. He was never heard of again but the place he left was known as An tlúr an abbreviation of lúr Cinn Trá (Newry) which itself means “Yew tree at the head of the strand”