Saturday, March 9, 2019

The Holy Yew Becomes Holier

"That shady city of Palm Trees. . . ."

Palms don't grow in Britain. There are some surprising palmetto-types along the south and western coasts as the temperate climate is warmed by the Gulf Stream. And as Basil Fawlty explains, Torquay is the Riviera of Britain. . . .

So what do they use for Palm Sunday?

Yes, the Holy Yew!

My distant cousin, Henry Vaughan, knew this. And surprised I was to learn that when he wrote of the Palm Tree, it was the Yew! That poem makes so much more sense now so I share it here thinking of that peaceful resting place below the Yew in Llansantffraed Churchyard.

The Palm-Tree
By Henry Vaughan (1621–1695)
DEARE friend, sit down, and bear awhile this shade,
  As I have yours long since: this plant, you see
So prest and bowed, before sin did degrade
  Both you and it, had equall liberty

With other trees; but now, shut from the breath        
  And air of Eden, like a malcontent,
It thrives nowhere. This makes these weights, like death
  And sin, hang at him; for the more he’s bent,

The more he grows. Celestial natures still
  Aspire for home; this, Solomon of old,        
By flowers and carvings, and mysterious skill
  Of wings and cherubims and palms, foretold.

This is the life which, hid above with Christ
  In God, doth always hidden multiply,
And spring and grow,—a tree ne’er to be priced,        
  A tree whose fruit is immortality.

Here spirits that have run their race, and fought,
  And won the fight, and have not feared the frowns
Nor loved the smiles of greatness, but have wrought
  Their Master’s will, meet to receive their crowns.

Here is the patience of the saints: this tree
  Is watered by their tears, as flowers are fed
With dew by night; but One you cannot see
  Sits here, and numbers all the tears they shed.

Here is their faith too, which if you will keep        
  When we two part, I will a journey make
To pluck a garland hence while you do sleep,
  And weave it for your head against you wake.

This Palm Sunday, I will be decorating my front door with branches from my yew shrubbery. The Yew, as substitute Palm, watches over the saints in death until the Resurrection Day.

The Yew was also burned for ashes on Ash Wednesday. That inspired me this last week.

Yew needles do not flare with flame like pine which is good to know as I have some yew shrubbery up against my house. Not succeeding with lighting fresh yew, I gathered up some dried branches and got it going.

In olden times, my ancestors would have gone to the Priest in the King's Church. In Wales, it had a decidedly Celtic heritage to it if they were fortunate. Before Henry VIII's Protestant break, it would have been the Roman Catholic Church, once again, with Celtic tensions. And before that, the Celtic Christian Church that developed independently of Rome. And before recorded time, the yew was still likely to be considered a holy tree. Some of them have been around long enough.

I'm Priest, Traditionalist, and Peccator Maximus enough to cross myself on Ash Wednesday.

Morton, Andrew, Trees of the Celtic Saints: The Ancient Yews of Wales (Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, Llanrwst, Wales 2009)
Fogle, French, ed., The Complete Poetry of Henry Vaughan (Doubleday, New York 1964)

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