St. Kevin and the Blackbird


A little over a year ago, Dave and I were in Ireland traveling with my women's chorus. It was an organized tour, which isn't the way Dave and I usually travel, but you have to take the opportunities when they’re presented to you.

In Glendalough, in the hills south of Dublin, I found out about St. Kevin.

That's such a wonderful earthy name for a saint. That alone gives him charm. He was born in somewhere around 498. St. Patrick’s impact on Christianity in Ireland had firmly taken hold, and Kevin was educated by priests from his early days.

Kevin was a hermit. He was such a successful hermit that others flocked to join him and an entire monastery grew up around his hermitage. This monastery of Glendalough is considered one of the most important sites of monastic ruins in Ireland.

Seven hundred years before St. Francis of Assisi, St. Kevin had a reputation of associating with animals. The story about Kevin that most caught my attention was the story of the blackbird.

Modern poet Seamus Heaney tells the story:

And then there was St. Kevin and the blackbird. The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands and lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow, Imagine being Kevin. Which is he? Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?

Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees? Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him?

Is there distance in his head?

Alone and mirrored clear in Love’s deep river, ‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird

And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name

Think about being a hermit. Your daily existence is nothing but you and God. Along comes this intruder, a blackbird, who requests your sacrifice and patience in order to survive. Kevin accepted the challenge. He did not ask for recognition, he gave up everything, and turned himself over completely to the task.

Do we shoo away the blackbirds that come calling in our lives, or welcome their challenge?

- Ann Warner

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