The Monk and the Bird

Once upon a time there lived in a monastery a very pious and diligent monk called Urban. One day he was entrusted the keys to the library, which he began to look after like a treasure. There he read many, many books, and wrote a few fine ones himself. One of the books that he avidly read was the Holy Bible. In it he found these words of St Peter: “Before God one thousand years are but one day and one night of vigil.” To the young monk this seemed impossible, something that he could not understand. From then on he was tormented by terrible doubts.

One morning, as he was leaving the library for the convent garden, he noticed a little, colourful bird searching for something to eat. No sooner had he tried to approach and grab the bird than it flew to a nearby tree and burst into a melodious song. It was not shy and even allowed the monk to come very close to it; but then it would fly from tree to tree. For some time the monk kept close track of the bird: its song grew clearer and sweeter every time but it would never come within grasp.

That made the monk to leave the garden and follow the charming bird into the forest; but at a certain moment he gave up the chase and decided to return to the monastery. What a surprise awaited him! The monastery now seemed completely different: Everything had grown in size and beauty – for instance, the main building, the garden, and in place of the chapel there was a large and majestic cathedral of three towers. Everything was so odd that he took it for witchcraft.

He walked up to the main gate and pulled the doorbell cord. The monk-in-attendance, unknown to him, was troubled on seeing him. The monk entered the convent and crossed the cemetery where he recognized not a single tombstone. Arriving at the cloister he spotted a group of monks and walked towards them. On seeing him they drew back frightened, with the exception of the abbot who, strangely, was not his abbot but someone younger. Holding a cross the abbot cried, “In Christ’s name, oh ghost, say who you are! And what do you seek, you who have come from the world of the dead?”

The monk was now trembling from head to toe. Looking downwards, he noticed that his beard had grown long and the library keys still hung down his waist.

To the other monks it seemed that something miraculous was happening. Very respectfully, they put him on the abbot’s seat while one of them went to the library to fetch the monastery chronicles, from which he read out to all. It was recorded that three hundred years earlier a monk called Urban had disappeared without a trace; nobody could say for sure if he had run away or some disaster had come his way.

“Oh wild bird, was this your song?” said the old monk. “I chased you only for three minutes and listened to your song – and three centuries passed by! Now I understand, and I adore Thee, Oh God, while I turn to dust!”

On uttering these words, he bowed his head, his body turning into a pile of ash!

(Translated from the Portuguese, as a tribute to my father, Fernando de Noronha (1920-2011), who told me this story when I was between six and seven years of age)

(First published in News & Views, newsletter of the Regina Angelorum Cultural Association, Miramar, 1992, and revised for publication in The Stella Maris Bulletin, Vol. 5, No. 1, July 2011)