On the Shores of Longing
I t was in the old forgotten days when all the western coast of Spain was sprinkled with lonely hermitages among the rocks, and with holy houses and towers of prayer; and this west coast was thought to be the last and outermost edge of all land, for beyond there lay nothing but the vast ocean stream and the sunset. There, in the west of the world, on the brink of the sea and the lights of the day that is done, lived the men of God, looking for ever towards the east for the coming of the Lord. Even the dead were laid in the place of their resurrection with their feet pointing to the morning, so that when they should arise their faces would be turned towards His coming. Thus it came to pass that the keen white wind out of the east was named the wind of the dead men's feet.
Now in one or these holy houses lived the monk Bresal of the Songs, who had followed Sedulius the Bishop into Spain.
Bresal had been sent thither to teach the brethren the music of the choirs of the Isle of the Gael and to train the novices in chant and psalmody, for of all singers the sweetest was he, and he could play on every instrument of wind or string, and was skilled in all the modes of minstrelsy. Thereto he knew by heart numberless hymns and songs and poems, and God had given him the gift to make songs and hymns, and beautiful airs for the singing of them. And for these things, so sweet and gentle was the nature of the man, he was greatly beloved whithersoever he fared.
A happy and holy life had he lived, but now he was growing old; and as he looked from the convent on the cliffs far over the western waters, he thought daily more and more of Erinn, and a great longing grew upon him to see once more that green isle in which he had been born. And when he saw, far below, the ships of the sea-farers dragging slowly away into the north in the breezy sunshine or in the blue twilight, his eyes became dim with the thought that per-chance these wind-reddened mariners might be steering for the shores of his longing.
The Prior of the convent noticed his sadness and questioned him of the cause, and when Bresal told him, "Why should you go?" he asked. "Do you not love us any longer?"
"Dearly do I love you, father," replied Bresal, "and dearly this house, and every rock and tree and flower; but no son of the Isle of the Gael forgets the little mother-lap of earth whereon he was nursed, or the smell of the burning peat, or the song of the robin, or the drone of the big mottled wild bee, or the cry of the wild geese when the winter is nigh. Even Columba the holy pined for the lack of these things. This is what he says in one of the songs which he has left us:
Now the Prior loved Besal as Jonathan loved David; and though it grieved him to part with him, he resolved that if it could be compassed Bresal should go back to his own country. "But you must never forget us, and when you are happy, far away from us, you must think of us and give us your heart in prayer."
"Never shall I forget you, father," the Singer replied. "Indeed, it will not be a strange thing if I shall long for you then even as I am longing for my home how; for in truth, next to my home, most do I love the brethren of this house, and the very house itself, and the hills and the sea and the dying lights of the evening. But I know that it will not be permitted me ever to return. The place of my birth will be the place of my resurrection."
The Prior smiled, and laid his hand gently on the monk's shoulder: "O Bresal, if it be within my power you shall have your will."
So he sent messengers to Sedulius the Bishop; and Sedulius, who also had the Irish heart with its tears of longing, consented; and not many days after the swallows and martins had gone flashing by into the north, Bresal of the Songs was free to follow as speedily as he might.
Long was the way and weary the pilgrimage, but at last he reached the beloved green Isle of the Gael, and fared into the south-west—and this is the land in which it is told that Patrick the Saint celebrated Mass on every seventh ridge he passed over. He came at sunset on the last day of the week to the place of bells and cells among the rocks or the coast of Kerry. In that blessed spot there is ever a service of Angels ascending and descending. And when he saw once more the turf dyke and the wattled cells and the rude stone church of the brotherhood where he had been a son of reading in his boyhood, and the land all quiet with the labour of the week done, and the woods red with the last light of the finished day, the tears ran down his face, and he fell on the earth and kissed it for joy at his return. It was a glad thing for him to be there once more; to recognise each spot he had loved, to look on the old stones and trees, the hills and sparkling sea, the rocky isle and the curraghs of the fisher-folk; to smell the reek of the peat curling up blue in the sweet air; for all these things had haunted him in dreams when he was in a distant land.
Now when the first hunger of longing had been appeased, and the year wore round, and the swallows gathered in the autumn, and every bush and tree was crowded with them while they waited restlessly for a moonlight night and a fair wind to take their flight over sea, Bresal began to think tenderly of the home on the Spanish cliffs overhanging the brink of the sunset.
Then in the brown days of the autumn rains; and again in the keen November when the leaves were falling in sudden showers—but the highest leaves clung the longest—and puffs of whirling wind set the fallen leaves flying, and these were full of sharp sounds and pattering voices; and sixes of sparrows went flying with the leaves so that one could not well say which were leaves and which were birds; and yet again through the bitter time when the eaves were hung with icicles and the peaks of the blue slieves were white with snow, and the low hills and fields were hoary—the memory of the Prior and of the beloved house prevailed with him and he felt the dull ache of separation.
As the days passed by his trouble grew the greater, for he began to fear that his love of the creature was attaching him too closely to the earth and to the things of this fleeting life of our exile. In vain he fasted and prayed and strove to subdue his affections; the human heart within him would not suffer him to rest.
Now it happened on a day when the year had turned, and a soft wind was tossing the little new leaves and the shadows of the leaves and the new grass and the shadows of the grass, Bresal was sitting on a rock in the sun on the hillside.
Suddenly there flashed by him, in a long swift joyous swing of flight, two beautiful birds with long wings and forked tails and a sheen of red and green. It was the swallows that had returned.
For a moment he felt an ascension of the heart, and then he recollected that nearly a year had elapsed since he had seen the face of his friend the Prior for the last time in this world. And he wondered to himself how they all fared, whether any one had died, what this one or that was now doing, whether they still spoke at times of him, but chiefly he thought of the Prior, and he prayed for him with a great love. And thinking thus as he sat on the rock, Bresal seemed to see once more the dear house in Spain and the cliffs overlooking the vast ocean stream, and it appeared to him as though he were once again in a favourite nook among the rocks beside the priory. In that nook a thread of water trickled down into a hollow stone and made a little pool, and around the pool grew an ice-plant with thick round green leaves set close and notched on the edge, and a thin russet stalk, and little stars of white flowers sprinkled with red. And hard by the pool stood a small rounded evergreen tree from which he had often gathered the orange-scarlet berries. At the sight of these simple and familiar things the tears ran down Bresal's cheeks, half for joy and half for sorrow.
Now at this selfsame moment the Prior was taking the air and saying his office near that very spot, and when he had closed his breviary, he remembered his friend in Erinn far away, and murmured, "How is it, Lord, with Bresal my brother? Have him, I pray Thee, ever in Thy holy keeping."
As he spoke the gift of heavenly vision descended on the Prior, and he saw where Bresal sat on a rock in the sun gazing at the evergreen tree and the ice-plant about the little pool, and he perceived that Bresal fancied he was looking at these things.
A great tenderness for Bresal filled the Prior's heart, and he prayed: "Lord, if it be Thy holy will, let Bresal my brother have near him these things of which he is dreaming, as a remembrance of what his soul loveth." Then, turning to the tree and the plant and the pool, he blessed them and said: "O little tree and starry plant and cool well and transparent fern, and whatsoever else Bresal now sees, arise in the name of the Lord of the four winds and of earth and water and fire, arise and go and make real the dream that he is dreaming."
As he spoke the trickling water and the tree and the saxifrage, and with them parcels of soil and rock, and with the pool the blue light of the sky reflected in it, rose like a cloud and vanished, and the Prior beheld them no more.
At last Bresal brushed away his tears, blaming his weakness and his enslavement to earthly affections, but the things he had seen in his happy day-dream did not vanish. To his great amazement, there at his feet were the little pool and the ice-plant, and hard by grew the evergreen tree. He rose with a cry of joy, "O Father Prior, 'tis thy prayer hath done this!"
And care was lifted from him, for now he knew that in his human love he had in nowise sinned against the love of God, but contrariwise the love of his friend had drawn him closer to the love of his Maker. During all the days of the years of his exile this little parcel of Spain was a solace and a strength to him.
Many a hundred years has gone by since this happened, but still if you travel in that land you may see the ice-plant and the evergreen tree. And the name of the evergreen is the Strawberry Tree. The ice-plant, which is also called a saxifrage, may now be seen in many a garden to which it has been brought from the Kerry mountains, and it is known as London Pride. Botanists who do not know the story of Bresal of the Songs have been puzzled to explain how a Spanish tree and a Spanish flower happen to grow in one little nook of Erinn.