Legends of Saints and Birds – Angus, Servant of God

In Ireland in the ninth century there dwelt those holy men, lay-brothers of the monasteries, who are known as Culdees.

“Servants of God” (Célé Dé) they called themselves, for were not they doing His work even though their tasks were humble and they gained no honour thereby. Not as the world counts honour, that is; for in the sight of God every work worthily done is pleasing to Him and honourable to the worker thereof, be it ever so lowly. And these lay-brothers served their Lord by taking care of His sick children – men and women loathesome with the scourge of leprosy, sore with wounds, wrapped in foul clouts; these were the charge of the “Servants of God.”

For few cared for the task of washing these poor creatures, few wished to bind their wounds, few even cared perhaps that they died untended, not cheered by hearing the Gospel Story. They were outcasts maybe for their own sins, or maybe for their fathers’ they suffered; but leprosy, like sin, is infectious and therefore to be shunned. Though it is to be feared that more folk shun leprosy than sin.

Now the Saints of God have ever been those who dared to heal the bodies and souls of their fellow-men. Following the example of Him the Sinless One, who was a Friend of sinners, who healed the sick on the Sabbath day, they too have been the friends of the sick and sinladen souls, and to nearly every monastery a hospital was attached for the ill, the poor, and the lepers. These hospitals were the care of the Servants of God; there was such a hospital at Armagh, another at Clonmacnois, standing apart from the main buildings. Conn-of-the-Poor was the name given to the head of the Culdees at Clonmacnois, because he laboured among those who lacked the riches of this earth; and to show how folk respected their work it is told that when the fierce Danes came to pillage Armagh they found there the little hospital of sick and dying poor, and spared the lives of the Culdees who ministered there.

But it is of Angus that I am going to tell you. Angus lived in the ninth century, and he, like many another man in the isle of Saints, was fond of learning.

When he was quite a young man, he was nigh to a place called Coolbanagher in Queen’s county, and he went into the Churchyard to pray. While there he had a vision of angels surrounding a certain tomb there. He wondered what this might portend, and why this vision had been vouchsafed to him. Then when he came from the Churchyard he asked whose body lay in that grave.

“But a poor old man who dwelt in this place,” he was told.

“What good work hath he done?” asked Angus.

“Nay,” said the Priest, for of him Angus asked this. “I know of none, save that it was his custom to tell the names of the Saints of the world, so many of them as he could remember, at sunset and sunrise.”

At that Angus said:

“Ah! he that should make a poem in praise of all the Saints would doubtless please God, seeing that the Angels take account of this poor man.”

And he walked away, communing within himself as to whether he might not sing the praises of the Saints of God; while the Priest gazed after him, wondering at his saying, for he had seen no Angel vision around the poor man’s grave.

Then Angus set himself to study. Long he worked and hard, for he craved to praise his Lord in the lives of the Saints.

He was not a Culdee at this time; perhaps he thought that God had set him a more noble task than to tend the Lepers or perform menial work, for the labour of the brain is counted by some to rank higher than that of the hands. Be that as it may, at this time his whole heart was set upon writing this beautiful song of the praise of the Saints; and from early morn to late eve he studied for this end.

In the fresh dewy mornings he thought upon the Saints; the great sun rising into glory and warmth was to him a symbol of the way the Gospel, carried by the Saints, spread its warmth over all lands, sending light into dark places, melting cold hearts by its soft rays. In the evening, when the sky reddened in the west and the sun sank slowly, he still thought upon the Saints.

“‘Tis the Light of the Gospel going to far places,” he thought, “even as Columcille carried the message to Hii: as Columban told it to the people of Gaul.”

The birds – for he loved the feathered songsters – sang to him songs of the Saints; the green grass of the Emerald Isle told him of their hopefulness; the white daisy blossoms of their purity; the red roses of their martyrdom. The mighty oak trees spake of their strength; all nature seemed to him to be singing the praises of the Saints.

Thus it was that after a time Angus became celebrated for his learning. He, thinking upon the Saints so much, preached about them, exhorting others to follow their example, to take the sweetness of those holy lives and make it their own, even as the bee gathers honey from the flower. And great company of people came to hear him whithersoever he went.

Now Angus was a humble-minded man: he loved to sing the praises of others, he rejoiced that he should have been, as he thought, set apart by God to tell the glory of the Saints; but when he found that folk came to hear him, thinking more of what he said than of those of whom he told them, he was troubled.

“Praised be God in His Saints,” he thought; “but these folk seek to glorify the creature rather than the Creator; and I, who am not even the least of His Saints, but a weak, erring man, receive praise of them.”

So he disguised himself and went secretly away.

He came to the gate of a monastery at Tallaght, nigh to Dublin. Here he humbly begged leave to enter as a lay-brother; he was willing, he said, to perform the most laborious tasks, all he asked for was to be admitted as a serving-man. Here he laboured faithfully and well, not, indeed, having to tend the sick as did most Culdees – for Angus was one of them now; but having his work in the farmyard and the fields.

He cut the golden corn when the ripe ears were heavy with grain; he bore the sheaves on his shoulders in harvest time to the granary; his arm wielded the flail as he threshed the wheat.

He kept the birds away when the trees were laden with fruit, but he gave them of his grain when the snow covered the ground. And the birds loved him, and would perch on his shoulders as he worked, singing sweet songs to him; or in the harvest time they would flutter round the granary, watching as he threshed the corn, knowing that a portion of it would be set aside for them. It is told how, chopping wood one day, he cut his hand and the red blood flowed, redder than the breasts of the robins perched near to him, and how the little birds crowded round him, uttering loud cries because their friend was hurt, for “the little Redbreast teacheth Charitie.”

But with all this labour he had no time for writing the praises of the Saints. He lived with the birds and beasts for his companions for seven years, just a humble serving-man, and though oftentimes his heart yearned to be at his study, yet he felt then that he was doing well to live as a Culdee.

It was on this wise that it was found that the habit clothing this poor lay-brother was the covering of Angus, that learned man whom crowds had flocked to hear.

One day, as he was busy in the barn, he heard the sound of bitter weeping. He looked round, wondering who the unhappy one might be, and at last, hidden beneath some straw, he found a little lad. The child was a scholar from the monastery school, who did not know his lesson and had hidden from his master. He raised his tear-stained face to Angus, and began to tremble, for he was frightened at being discovered. And something in the large tear-dimmed eyes lifted to his reminded Angus of a leveret he had once taken from a snare, so he spake gently to the runaway.

The child begged Angus to let him hide in that barn. “The lesson was hard,” he sobbed, “and I could not learn it. I cannot understand great and difficult matters.”

Then Angus was sorry for the child, for he was not clever, and so soon as he had part of his lesson perfect he straightway forgot it while he tried to learn the rest. He was willing to learn and did his best, but, indeed, as he said, “great and difficult matters were not for him.”

“And if I know it not, I shall be beaten,” he said, his lips trembling. “Many stripes have I already received. They think I am idle, though ’tis not so. But my brain gets a-weary of this learning.”

And he drew his hand across his eyes. Angus looked at the spare little body and white face of the boy.

“Stripes will drive more learning from that clouded brain of thine,” he thought, “than all the blows in the world will put into it.” But aloud he said, “Come then, and see if I can teach thee thy lesson.” And he held out his arms.

Then the child nestled to him while Angus bade him dry his tears and be comforted. Over and over again he crooned the lesson, softly singing to the child in his arms, and the weary look left the boy’s face while Angus talked gently to him, and the difficult parts became easy when Angus taught him, so that presently he fell asleep, the tired brain lulled to rest by the Brother’s crooning. But still Angus sang on, looking through the granary door to the sweet still world beyond while the boy slumbered.

And Angus thought of the song of the Praises of the Saints which he yet had not written, wondering if, after all, he had chosen rightly.

“For seven years have I laboured here, doing what even this child could do had he the bodily strength yet hath God given me the brain wherewith to study.” And he was perplexed whether he ought to have hidden himself because of the praise of men.

Then the child awoke, for Angus had ceased his crooning. He gazed wistfully at the man.

“Thou must be happy,” he said, “to labour in the fields, with the dear birds to sing to thee.”

Angus smiled.

“Yet would I be more happy were I studying,” he said.

“Thou lovest books?” asked the child, amazed.

“Yea, I love them.”

I love the beasts and the birds and the fields,” said the boy; “learning brings but pain.” And again that weary look came into his eyes.

But Angus bade him go to the school, as now he knew his task. The child went, and said his lesson, repeating it perfectly, and his master wondered how he came to know it so well.

Then the boy told of Angus.

“He cannot be a serving-man,” mused the Abbot, “seeing he hath done wonders with this child, for no teacher hath taught him so well hitherto.” And he ran to the barn.

Well, there he found Angus, and knew he was the man whom all folk praised for his learning seven years ago, and he embraced him joyfully.

But he rebuked Angus for his false humility in hiding away from them all that time. “Thou hast not added to thy talent,” he said.

And Angus received the rebuke in silence, for he, too, had thought the same while the child lay sleeping in his arms.

So it was that Angus the Culdee returned to his study; and in an old poem written in praise of his learning he is called “The Bright Sun of the Western World.”

– taken from Legends of Saints and Birds by Agnes Aubrey Hilton