“Joy is the serious business of heaven.” CS Lewis
Under the Yew Tree
The autumn air grew chilly as the sun dipped below the horizon. It was that time of day—just past sunset— that falls heavy in the air and everything on land, sea, and sky grows distant and melds into steely gray shadow. It’s that ponderous space called twilight that writers and poets have endeavored to capture as a source of human bonding and commonality. Emily Dickinson called it, “a certain slant of light that oppresses like the heft of Cathedral tunes—Heavenly hurt it gives—but we find no scar…when the Landscapes listen and Shadows catch their breath…”
And yet—here we stood positioned in merry, old England on a journey of discovery—in the middle of an ancient graveyard. We pressed our ears close to the Father’s heart to perceive his joy in our joy of putting the pieces of life together. Therefore, we have deemed this adventure a journey of joy.
We could’ve made this trip 20 or 30 years ago, but I believe God serendipitously reserves the best gifts for the mature years of our lives. We wouldn’t have had the capacity or the depth and experience of life to feel the overflowing joy of exploration and connection that comes from touching the root of family. Now is the appointed season for us to return home—home to England.
An invitation to speak in London is what brought us to the United Kingdom this time. However in recent years, my husband has poured over genealogical searches for both of our families, Wilks and Sauls. We could have followed many avenues of lineage but started with these. The family Wilks’ exploration began our 2-week adventure.
Research revealed 9 generations of Wilks’ family haling from Norbury, England. Many Wilks’ became christened, baptized, married, died and were associated with one church and region, Shropshire. This knowledge is mind boggling, especially to American thinking and transient living. This premise proved to be true, albeit with a few gaps and questions, as we arrived in the area and began to verify documents and explore the region.
We stayed in a quaint bed and breakfast called The Crown, situated with a pub below and guest rooms above. We quickly discovered that we enjoyed pub life! We ate two meals a day there and loved interacting with the staff and locals. This was British comfort and hospitality at its best with farm-fresh eggs, bacon, meat pies, prime rib and potatoes, fish and chips, shortbread, apple crisp, and sticky toffee pudding. Desserts come with every form of cream that you want and it’s not forbidden to use several!
As locals and guests streamed throughout the days and evenings, the conversations grew lively and interesting. To our surprise and delight, 2 waitresses had the surname of Wilks! Perhaps distant, distant cousins? We felt the kiss of God leading us on our journey.
It was incredibly miraculous that my husband’s search back home in Texas had turned out to be fruitful and had led us here! We discovered more documents, gravestones, even three octogenarians—stout-hearted widows—that knew the Wilks’ family in a neighboring hamlet of Polly Moor, verifying and expanding all the research we had! We continued here in Norbury to turn over stone after stone to touch the heart and root of the Wilks’ beginnings as far back as we could reach.
In the states, Wayne had contacted and we eventually met a couple of local historians, also octogenarians, that led us to the old Norbury church to explore ancient records and gravesites of the Wilks’ family genealogy connected in this geographical locale. Names, records, historic and geographical insights were exchanged as well as smiles and warm connection.
We walked together along the well-traveled and grassy lined pathway to the 1200th-century parish. Under the dim lights of the stony, cold-as-stone, and antiquated sanctuary, we busied our hands and hearts to explore the regular artifacts of church paraphernalia—the pews, candlesticks, Eucharist elements, hymn books, stain-glass and leaded windows, crosses, bouquets of flowers, musty velvet pew pads, old heavy and leathered Bibles, records, and not-the-least altar. Perhaps these would have been ordinary to others; but to us, they gleamed with an incandescent glow, even in artificial and faint lighting. Just knowing that generations of Wilks’ family members had possibly stood and knelt here to worship thrilled us. That they had spent the very important cycles of their lives here, and some had been recorded for the annuals of time and micro-fish like christenings and marriages—despite the upheaval and destruction of wars and calamities. These thoughts filled our hearts with such joy! We yearned for more discovery and for knowledge of our spiritual kinship that bound us together, as tight as any covenant, through the happinesses and hardships of generations and the promise of everlasting life in heaven with Jesus.
After exploring the church, we stepped outside the old wooden and weathered door that stood under the shadow of an ancient and massive tree. The behemoth trunk looked like it had been splitting open from its core for centuries, sending out shoots and branches that grew and bore into the ground to create more trees—a living symbol of a family tree. It emitted a kind of light and dark mixed aura, and a sappy stickiness hung in the immediate atmosphere.
I stopped in wonder to gaze, to smell, to perceive. It possessed an ancient strength and enormous presence, by way of longevity and mass if nothing else. It rose to tower high above and over the graveyard and rivaled the church spire in height but not, no not, in might.
Yes, I stood on the hollowed, mossy pathway below and marveled at the vast subsistence of this living and breathing forest contained in one unit.
A silent witness to history.
A speaking servant without syllable and sound.
Our church guide explained that it was 2700 years old. I gasped. The evening grew darker and a cold chill ran through me. We discovered that traditionally druids had planted yew trees and built pagans altars and temples surrounding them. To reclaim these places as an act of redemption, churches were built on these sites.
As an act of redemption and reclamation.
My heart warmed in the night air and joy peaked again.
Yews had a sacred role before the rise of Christianity. Many churches were built on the sites of temples and Christian and pagan imagery and beliefs often mixed together. In 601, Pope Gregory suggested that places of pagan worship could simply be converted into Christian churches. There was another reason for Christians to view yews as leaning into the divine: the heart of the tree is red, while its sap is white. These very colors symbolize the blood and body of our Messiah. As a sturdy evergreen tree able to survive on rocky and infertile soils, the yew also exemplified powerfully rebirth and resurrection. From the yew tree’s red core, sending shoots of new life, while dripping white sap as the broken body of Jesus, I am seeing now a crimson ribbon of joy here in the reconciliation and reclaiming work of Christ. He is always speaking, pointing to his extravagant love by way of extravagant creation.
In the last six days we have visited a dozen or more ancient churches with rows of yews and what a remarkable and redemptive history they bear.
Since my youth, I have had a love affair with trees. One house I grew up in the mid-west had a towering Colorado blue spruce in the backyard. This variety remains my forever favorite Christmas tree. Through the years, I have deeply connected to many trees and now in ancient graveyards, I have heard the redemptive story of the yew and stood in its shadow. Wayne and I have been following for many years that crimson flowing ribbon of joy that runs the circle of life from a rugged tree.