Thursday, 25 September 2014

Brother Comgall and the Mouse

Once, a long time ago there was a monk called Comgall. A monk is someone who tries to live as Jesus did, very simply, helping others and praying. Brother Comgall lived in Ireland, with a small group of other monks in a little monastery there. A monastery is where monks live.
Comgall and the other monks had come to Ireland to tell people there about Jesus, because people in Ireland hadn’t heard about him before then. The monks tried to help the people around them as well, sharing what they had with them.
There was one skill the monks had which very few other people did at the time. They could read  and write. Very soon local people were sending their children to them to learn, and they started a little school, taking in children as well who had nowhere else to live.

Comgall was kind and wise. He loved not only the people around him but also the animals and birds. It was said that he could even understand and talk to the animals and birds.

One special friend he had, says the story, was a little mouse who lived in a hole in the corner of Comgall’s room. Every night the mouse would creep out of his hole and climb up onto Comgall’s desk. Comgall would share a few crumbs of the bread and cheese he had for supper, and the mouse would tell him news of what was going on in the countryside around the monastery.

One year it came around to harvest time, and the news the mouse brought Comgall was very bad. The weather had been dreadful and the people had hardly been able to grow anything. To make matters worse the ruler of that land, the Prince of Ulster, was a greedy man who had insisted that the people give him most of what they had managed to grow. Everyone was hungry.  Comgall knew this anyway, because the monks own vegetable crops had failed. They were as hungry as anyone else.
Worse still, said the mouse, was the story he had heard from a swan who had flown down to a nearby lake. The swan had flown over the Prince of Ulster’s castle, and inside the Prince and his friends were feasting and having parties every night. They had plenty of food piled high in their store rooms– the food they had taken from the local people – while everyone else went hungry.

Comgall thought this just wasn’t fair. He knew that it said in the Bible that God had meant everyone to share the good things of the earth, the vegetables and fruit and grain that grew in it. It even said in the Bible that when you harvested the land you should make sure there was some left over for those who had no land of their own to grow food in. Certainly no one should be taking food from the poor so they had more than they needed.

Comgall decided that he must go to speak to the Prince of Ulster, and try to tell him it wasn’t fair. The other monks thought he was mad. The Prince wouldn’t listen to him. It would make him angry, and it was dangerous to make the Prince angry – who knew what he might do to Comgall?  But Comgall was determined, so he set off to see the Prince. It was late in the year. Nearly Christmas. It was cold and dark and Comgall was weak and hungry when he set off through the snow to walk the long journey to the castle. He could hear from outside the feasting that was going in inside.He knocked on the door. “Who is that at the door,” roared the Prince. A guard looked out. “Just one of those monks – he says he wants to speak to you.” ”Send him away. I don’t want some ragged monk in my hall,” said the Prince. But Comgall kept knocking. He wouldn’t go away, and eventually the Prince let him in. “What do you want?” he asked. “Prince. Your people are starving because you have taken away what little food they have. That’s not fair. God gave us our food to share, not so that some could feast while others starved.” “Pah!” said the Prince. “I don’t care about that. So long as I have what I want why should I care about anyone else?.  – Throw him out!” he said to the guards. “He should be glad I’m not throwing him into a dungeon!”
And they threw him out into the snow.

Comgall was even hungrier and more tired than he had been before as he trudged back to the monastery. By the time he got there he was very ill. The other monks thought he might die. They put him to bed to try to warm him up, but they had no food left to give him.
The next day would be Christmas Day, but there would be no feast for them, or for the children who they looked after, or for the local people.

In the morning Comgall got up, very weak and ill. “It is Christmas Day anyway, brothers” he said, “and we should celebrate however we can, thanking God and singing and praying. After all Jesus and his mother and father didn’t even have a home to live in when he was born. They had to take shelter in a stable!”
At the end of their church service Comgall asked the brothers to go and check once more in their store room. Perhaps there might be just a little food there which they could share.
They went off to the stores, and suddenly he heard a great cry of joy. He went to join them and there in their storeroom he saw food piled high from floor to ceiling, more food than they could ever eat. Where had it come from? They couldn’t imagine. But they called all the local people to come and take some, and everyone had enough to eat that day and for many days more.

But where had it come from? Comgall didn’t know, until that night, his little friend the mouse crept out of his hole and onto the table as usual. “Brother mouse – do you know where the food came from,” he asked. “Well, yes, Comgall, actually I do,” said the mouse. “When you went to see the Prince of Ulster, one of my relatives was sitting in a corner of his hall. He had heard news of you and how kind you were to the people and animals around you. He thought it was terrible that the Prince of Ulster had treated you so badly, so he decided to do something about it. He called all the mice of the castle together and they spread the word to the other animals and birds around there. In the dark of the night, they crept into the storerooms of the Prince of Ulster and each one took a little of his food – and brought it here,  so that you could share it out fairly, as it should be shared.”

And Comgall laughed. “In years to come, people will say that this food appearing here was a great miracle, he said, but the real miracle is when God’s creatures learn to work together and share what they have!”

I originally told this story at church on Christmas Day - you can find that version here - but here I have given it more of a Harvest slant, as we are preparing for the Harvest service.  There are a lot of different versions of the tale around. In some the mice simply eat the prince's food, but that seemed to me to be profoundly unsatisfactory!
The children loved the story, though there did seem to be some concern about what happened to the Prince of Ulster afterwards - did he then go hungry? - and what he might have done in response. If it hadn't been home time we might have explored that a bit further. What can we do to bring about not only justice but also reconciliation?