Monday, June 03, 2013

St. Kevin and the Blackbird

Today is the feast day of St. Kevin of Glendalough, a seventh century Irish saint known as the founder and first abbot of Glendalough in County Wicklow, Ireland.

Oh, and he's also well-known for a wonderful story involving a blackbird. This is where Liz Budd Ellmann of Spiritual Directors International (SDI) comes in (along with poet Seamus Heaney and artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins).

You see, back in 2009 Liz composed the following reflection for the DSI newsletter Membership Moments. I came across a reprint of this reflection on Random Musings from a Doctor's Chair, the blogsite of Alex Tang. As you'll see, Liz incorporates into her reflection Seamus Heaney's famous poem "St. Kevin and the Blackbird," while I incorporate into this post the beautifully evocative artwork of Clive Hicks-Jenkins. Enjoy!

For more than a thousand years, pilgrims have visited Glendalough where Saint Kevin played, prayed, and discovered his purpose. One day, the legend tells us, while Kevin the monk was praying with outstretched arms, a blackbird landed in his hand and built her nest. Imagine holding a prayer stance – in Zen stillness – long enough for a blackbird to build a nest and raise her young. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney beautifully teaches us about the spiritual companionship between the blackbird and Saint Kevin.

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.

– Seamus Heaney
"St. Kevin and the Blackbird"

Saint Kevin’s whole body became a prayer of love that recognized God in an ordinary blackbird. Now imagine me, standing across the lake from Saint Kevin’s cave. Gazing into the lake, I contemplated the blackbird resting in Kevin’s hand and the call for contemplative action in today’s world to become responsible stewards of all God’s creation. Suddenly, my soul felt seen by Saint Kevin, staring out from his cave. In that instance, a robin started singing from a branch just over my head. In that thin place, I felt Saint Kevin’s love encouraging the kind of singing presence that sees God in all things.

– Liz Budd Ellmann

Image 1: "St. Kevin and the Blackbird" by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.
Image 2: "Nest" by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. About Hicks-Jenkins's St. Kevin series of artwork, "Zoe in Wonderland" writes: "This new collection of works seems to emphasize the idea of the entire world being present in the form of a Guardian, in this case a saint. In the story of St. Kevin, a bird comes to rest in his outstretched hand and stays to build its nest and lay its eggs and raise its young to first flight. The saint carries the life and safety of the forest in himself for the bird, and that incarnates as foliage on his flesh. After studying these works, you could enter the forest and see the larger shape of St. Kevin embracing you; as you peer up at the night sky, you could see, outside the smaller forms of the tales of Gemini, Cygnus, and Ursa Major, outside the patterns we use to map out our histories and our futures, the overarching story of Raphael and his healing waters. His wings alone carry all our stories of suffering and its defeat; they are larger than any of those stories – larger than all of them, even. He is himself giant and Romanesque, and the weight of all he carries and all he sees is present on his face. And it is therefore not ours to carry. That’s important. And it is the purpose, isn’t it, of those stories?"

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