Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Brother Comgall and the mouse: A story for Christmas Day

Long ago, before the people of Ireland had ever heard of Jesus, a small band of monks came to found a monastery there. At their head was Brother Comgall,
a man of great and strange wisdom. It is even said that Brother Comgall could understand and speak the language of animals. When he and his brothers looked for a place to stay, the people were suspicious of them. No one wanted these newcomers near them with their strange new faith. But the wild creatures had no such fear. Birds and beasts welcomed him and guided him to the best place to build his abbey.

So the monks built their church and room to welcome guests as well, and though the people had been wary, they soon realised that these monks had a great gift to share, the gift of learning. Few people could read or write, but the monks could, and soon the local people realised that this was something which could change the lives of their children. So they began to send them to Comgall and his brothers for an education. Soon they were running a thriving school and taking in children who had no one to care for them.

It was hard work to look after so many, alongside all the other tasks of running the monastery. Night after night the other monks would find Brother Comgall still up at midnight, working in his cell by the light of a candle. They took to bringing him a little extra food, some bread and cheese to sustain him through the night. But unknown to them, Brother Comgall was not keeping even this to himself.  Every night, as he settled down to this bite of food, a small dark, twitching, whiskery nose would appear at a hole in the corner of the room, and two tiny shining eyes would peep out. “Come, Brother mouse”, Comgall would say gently. “Come and share what I have”. And a field mouse would creep quietly out of his hole and scamper ups the table leg and perch in front of Comgall. As Comgall divided the bread and cheese between them he would ask, “Now, Brother mouse, what news do you bring me today?” And the mouse would talk to him of life beyond the monastery, tales he had heard from other mice and the creatures which lived round about. Sometimes a migrating bird would bring news from further away too. Everyone wondered how Comgall knew so much about the world, but no one ever guessed the truth.

Illustration: Trina Schart Hyman

ow it so happened one year that the weather was unusually harsh and all through the land the crops failed. Comgall could see with his own eyes how it was, because the monks’ own vegetable garden gave little produce that year. To make it worse, the people were forced by the ruler of that land, the Prince of Ulster, to pay more and more of their crops in tax to him, so even the little they had was taken away. Comgall looked around at the children in his care. How would he feed them, not to mention the monks themselves? The autumn wore on, and the food stores dwindled. The monks were as sparing as they could be, each one eating less and less, so that there was enough for the children, but as mid-winter approached they could see that what they had would not last till spring.

One night, as Comgall sat up late worrying about what to do, the mouse appeared from his hole, looking angry and upset.  “What’s the matter, Brother Mouse?” asked Comgall. “Today when I was out in the fields with my brothers and sisters we came across a great white swan that had flown down from the north of our land, where the prince of Ulster lives. All the land he flew over is in the grip of famine. Yet he says that the storehouses of the prince are piled high with grain and meat and every delicacy you could imagine. Every night, he says, the prince and his friends feast till the small hours, while the prince’s subjects starve. There is food enough for all if only they would share it.”

Brother Comgall pondered the mouse’s words that night, and then he gathered the monks together. “Brothers,” he said, “we have barely enough food to last until Christmas, let alone to sustain us and the children till the spring. I have heard though, that the prince of Ulster has food aplenty in his stores. The Bible tells us that our Lord worked many miracles through the power of God. He fed 5000 with a few loaves and fishes. We can’t do that. But he did even greater miracles when he changed the hearts of selfish men and women and taught them how to love each other. This we can do, or at least we can try… I shall go to the Prince of Ulster and tell him that his people are starving while he has it in his power to feed them and see if I can’t melt his heart.” The other monks were afraid for Comgall. “The prince is no friend to us or to our God. He is as likely to kill you as to give you food.” “If we have no food we shall die anyway,” said Comgall “and so will the rest of the people around us, so I must at least try”.

It was a long, cold walk through the worst of the winter weather, and with little food in his pack Comgall worried that he would not have the strength for the journey, but at last he came to the castle of the Prince of Ulster and knocked on the great wooden doors. It was evening and from inside he could hear the sound of feasting and laughter. “Who’s there?” shouted the prince. “Just one of those monks, and a poor, thin, ragged specimen at that,” answered the doorkeeper. “Send him away!” said the prince. “I can’t be doing with having his sort in my halls!” But Comgall wouldn’t go. “I ask just a moment with the prince” he begged. Finally he was shown into the feasting hall. The tables were loaded with food and the smell almost made Comgall faint from hunger. “Well, what is it?” said the prince. “Your people are starving, yet you have food aplenty!” said Comgall, “The children we care for have nothing in their bellies and will die before winter is out if you don’t help!”

“What is that to me?” said the prince. “If the poor cannot care for themselves, why should I help them? You say your God is so great – appeal to him! Throw this man out!” he shouted to the doorkeeper. And Comgall was picked up like a sack and flung out into the cold night. He turned towards home with a heart made heavy by failure. By the time he got back to the monastery he was half-dead with cold and hunger. Just outside the monastery gates he collapsed in the snow, and if one of the monks hadn’t seen him there he would have died. They took him in and put him to bed in his cell as he told them what had happened. “Nevertheless,” he said, “Tonight is Christmas Eve, and in the morning we shall celebrate the birth of Christ. After all, it was no easier for the Holy Family than it is for us. There was no room for Mary and Joseph at the inn. If the animals had not given Jesus their manger he would have had no place to lie, and being poor folk I daresay they had little to eat either. Yet even so, at his birth the star shone and the angels sang, and so shall we.”

That night Comgall slept, and in the morning he got up and celebrated the Christmas Communion as he had said he would. The monks sang of the shepherds and the angels, the wise men and the star, and most of all that tiny poor child with only an animals’ feeding trough to lie in. Then, when they had finished their worship, Comgall said to the monks, “Go and look in our storerooms, and see if there might not be some scrap of food left for us to share.” Sadly he turned back to the altar to pray, but he had scarcely sunk to his knees when he heard shouts of joy and surprise. Hurrying off he found the monks gazing in astonishment through the storeroom door. There, stacked from floor to ceiling was fine food, food enough for all the people around to eat for months to come, and soon the invitation was sent far and wide for people to come and have their share.

But where had it come from? Comgall had no idea. That night, he sat in his room as usual. Sure enough, after a while, a small whiskery nose appeared, and two bright eyes. The mouse scampered up onto the table. “Brother mouse, do you happen to know how it came to be that our storerooms are full of food?” he asked. “Ah, well. It so happens,” said the mouse “that when the prince of Ulster so insulted and mistreated you, there were more creatures listening than he thought. One of my relatives was sitting in a corner unnoticed, and he heard every word. He knew of your kindness from the stories that had reached him from the other wild creatures and it pained him to see you so ill-treated when you were simply trying to care for people who might so easily be fed. So last night, the word went out and every wild creature in the land made its way to the castle and we crept our way into that storeroom and carried away every scrap of food that was there and brought it here to you. Not a slice of cheese is left to the prince of Ulster, and he has no idea why!”

Comgall laughed. “In years to come people will talk of this as a miracle, and probably give me credit for powers that I know and you know I have not got. But God be praised that the best and truest miracles of all are the ones which happen when every creature, great and small, works together for everyone’s good.”

And that's my tale, and it's absolutely true, whether it happened or not...


My version of this story is adapted from a variety of sources, with particular acknowledgement to Ruth Sawyer’s lovely old book of Christmas Legends, “Joy to the World” (Long out of print, sadly…)

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