Once upon a time (because all the best stories start that way) there lived a man whose name was Virila. Virila was a holy man, but a curious one. His holiness had made him the Abbot of the monastery of Leyre high in the mountain; but his curiosity sometimes led him to question parts of the bible where his fellow monks simply accepted them as God’s word and then went back to their work.
One fine spring morning, Virila was pondering the words of the 89th psalm which says that God is ever-lasting and his Glory transcends even time. Virila set out to walk in the herb gardens but while he was wondering how it could be that one day in the presence could seem like a thousand years, he found himself some way from the monastery in the orchard. As he continued walking up the mountain he began to think: “Wouldn’t someone get bored with such a long stay?”, and the idea of celestial eternity tired his brain so much that he sat down on a rock by a natural spring to ponder on it, twirling his ring round and round on his finger as he contemplated temporal infinity.
Just then, a nightingale flew into the orchard and settled on a tree just above the aged abbot. Virila paused to listen to the bird’s song and became so entranced that time seemed to pass without him ever noticing it at all.
When he finally realised where he was, it occurred to him that the day was well past and he had walked here after Matins.
“I had better get back,” thought Virila anxiously, “The monks will be worried about me.”
And he began to make his way carefully back down the mountain.
But when he arrived back at the monastery, everything seemed to look different. Some parts of the building looked as though they were in need of some repair, and others were new and not something Virila had ever seen before!
A man came out of the main door. He was wearing the black robes of the Benedictine Friars, Virila’s own order. But his face was unknown to the abbot.
“Good evening, Father,” said the monk. “You have come far today I think, and you are welcome here.”
“Who are you?” said Virila, rather pointedly. “I don’t remember news of any new novices arriving today.”
“Novice!” said the other, “Perhaps you have not noticed. I am no novice; I am the Abbot of the Monastery of Leyre and have been for nigh on 50 years now following my master the old abbot.”
“That is nonsense,” snapped Virila, “because I am Virila, the Abbot of Leyre. And I have never met you before in my life!”
By this time, a group of monks had gathered to find out what all the fuss was about. One monk, old and grey-bearded with barely any hair on his head suddenly said:
“Wait a minute…there once was an abbot called Virila here. When I was but a young lad fresh from the seminary, the oldest monks remembered a story about him because the strangest thing happened. One morning, after Matins, this abbot went out on the mountainside to take the air, and was never seen nor heard from again!”
“Surely not!” said the “new” abbot. “And when was this fairy tale supposed to have taken place?”
“Three hundred years ago, Father.”
At this, all the other monks laughed and turning prepared to get back to their work.
And then something special happened. Out of the sunset there flew a nightingale. He swooped low over Virila and dropped something at his feet. The new abbot bent down and picked it up.
It was an abbatial ring, the very ring missing from Virila’s finger.
“Forgive me, father, for doubting you!” the new abbot said. “Please come and join us. We have a lot to tell you about this great monastery. Are you hungry?”
St. Virila carefully placed the ring back on his finger as the nightingale flew back into the dying sun:
“After 300 years, I should think so,” he said.
This is my version of the St. Virila story. I heard it years ago and it was a joy to stay at the monastery where the great saint lived and died. There are versions of this story all over Europe. I love it.
For more information about the Monastery of Leyre this is a good site to visit