A Lesson in Yielding: St. Kevin of Glendalough

(St. Kevin of Glendalough’s Feast Day is June 3 and I returned to my reflection just after we returned from our trip to Ireland in 2016. I offer it again to you.)

 

Kevin of G.

 

Last fall Kevin and I participated in the The Soul’s Slow Ripening: Monastic Wisdom for Discernment pilgrimage in Ireland. We learned about St. Kevin of Glendalough, an important figure in Celtic Christianity and we were intrigued with the most famous story about St. Kevin holding a bird in his hand while he prayed.

A little background: the original Kevin is somewhat mysterious—it is challenging to know where the facts about him end and the myths begin. For instance, it is said that Kevin was born in 498 and died in 618 giving him about 120 years of life.

He lived as a hermit in a cave in Glendalough yet he attracted people and created community—his cave became the hub of a monastery.

Many of the stories about St. Kevin suggest that he had a deep relationship with the natural world. For example, one legend is that the loneliness of a hermit’s life was alleviated when “the branches and leaves of the trees sometimes sang sweet songs to him.”

Then there is the famous story of St. Kevin and the blackbird.

One day, as the story goes, Kevin was praying with his arm outstretched in his cell in the monastery. The cell was so small that his right arm had to poke out through the window. As he was praying, a blackbird came and nestled in his hand. Then the blackbird started to build a nest. When the nest was complete, the blackbird laid an egg.

Once Kevin realized that the nest and the egg were in his hand, he decided not to move until the egg had hatched and the fledgling had flown away. He didn’t want to risk breaking the egg.

One of the great things about legends is that simple stories are never that simple. This one works on several levels: a good deal of Celtic spirituality is about finding love in hard places; it is about both blood and stone. So, here we have St. Kevin, in his austere cell, undertaking something which is painful and difficult. Another level of the story is the small chick, a fragile creature for which Kevin feels great tenderness, inviting nurture and the pain that might involve. And another facet is yielding to what is emerging.

When we returned home, I ordered the Dancing Monk icon of St. Kevin (from Rabbit Room Arts) then found a small wood hand sculpture and I added a small nest with a bird. These reminders of St. Kevin have been on our home altar since October and I pass it several times a day and  I reflect on these invitations:

*I am invited to yield to what is, to what has been, and what will be.

*I am also invited to pray for the patience of St. Kevin because I sorely lack it.

*And I am invited to submit to God’s work in me, in (my) Kevin, and in our lives.

Kevin of Glendalough Dancing Monk

Seamus Heaney wrote this lovely poem:

St. Kevin and the Blackbird

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 underneath

 

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.

The Spirit Level, 1996

 

Also, Christine Valters Paintner wrote this exquisite poem here.

Questions I ponder:

  • How many times in my life do I reach out my hands for a particular purpose and something else arrives?
  • What needs to be surrendered or yielded in my life for new life to emerge?
  • What might need nurturing? Is there anything holding me back from nurture: fear of pain, fear of loss, fear of what it might cost?

Where is God?

Wise men with Jesus

The Christmas pageants, nativity plays, and carols all seem very distant as we watch the news, as wars persist in Syria and Afghanistan and Congo and South Sudan, as we watch North Korea and the United States fire words at each other. We do our best to keep these tragic stories at bay and social media and popular culture work hard to collude with us.

Last month we heard, told, sang, prayed a Christmas story of love and peace, of a God who came to save the world.  But there are many who justifiably ask when tragedy strikes, “Isn’t this Christmas stuff absurd in the face of all this conflict?” Where is God in the mess of the world? Where is hope now? The safe, beautiful, idyllic scenes of the Christmas cards seem a million miles from the reality of the suffering people are facing.

But if our faith seems irrelevant or inadequate perhaps we need to share some of the responsibility. Christmas has become tame and domesticated–treated as either a cozy source of emotionally uplifting platitudes or as a way to help our American economy thrive through extravagant Christmas purchases. Perhaps we have neglected to take the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth seriously. It’s hard for us to appreciate the full impact of the stories about Jesus’ birth without entering into the brutality he confronted as an infant and the vulnerability of a peasant family like Jesus’ family encountered.  Jesus was born into a world ruled by a Caesar who spent resources glorifying himself as “savior of the empire” that should have been spent in saving his subjects from poverty, famine, or from Herod himself.  Jesus was born to a people who were delivered from slavery in Egypt, but ruled by a king who drove him and his parents back there as refugees. The gospel stories are very clear about just how great and how oppressive the powers and principalities were at the time of Jesus’ birth.  And when we read the story of the wise men, of Herod’s fury, of the slaughter of innocent babies, and of the fleeing of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to Egypt, we know life after that first Christmas was not the safe, beautiful, idyllic we prefer to portray about Christmas.  The “peace on earth” sung by angels is followed by death, destruction, suffering, and evil.

Where was God?

Last Sunday, we celebrated Epiphany, remembering when the wise men met and worshiped the Baby Jesus. They brought with them on their journey three deeply symbolic gifts. They came prepared to make a particular sort of response to the Messiah. They came with a set of expectations which make it much more likely that they would recognize God when they find him.

First, the wise men came with gold.  If we are serious in our discipleship we will let Jesus impact the material things of our lives. For instance, the way we earn and spend our money. Or, the way we spend our time, use our talents. Or, what we are prepared to let go of, give up.  It’s interesting that people’s first response to a tragedy is to give money—millions and millions of dollars of aid for hurricane, wild fires, and flooding relief. Our urge to be generous is a sign of God at work.

Second, the wise men came with frankincense. Frankincense–incense–was, and still is, used in prayer. It symbolizes openness to a world beyond the material, a world we can see and touch. Frankincense symbolizes our openness to mystery, an openness to the God who is infinitely greater than we can comprehend. We often feel–we often are–helpless in the face of tragedy. Our understanding fails. Our ability to act fails. If we are serious in our search for God we need to accept that we don’t already have the answers. Wise women and men searching for God today bear the frankincense that leads them into prayer, that says, I don’t know it all, I’m open to God’s unknown future, to what God may do next, not just what God has done already.

Third, the wise men came with myrrh. Myrrh is for embalming the dead. It is a bitter herb, a foretaste of the suffering that this Christ child, and those who follow him, would have to face. If we are serious about our search for God at work in the mess of the world, it is no good thinking that the journey will be without pain. Sometimes we feel the urge to turn away from the news. Sometimes we turn away from those in our communities. And sometimes we turn away from our own pain because we’d rather not “go there.” But the message of the wise men is that myrrh is an inescapable part of life. If God is to be found in war-battered places it will be by those who live already live there, the people who have the courage to go there and to stay there, who find the strength to rebuild and hope again.

If God is to be found in the painful places of our lives it will be by facing our suffering, sticking with the questions, not hiding behind platitudes and hoping it will all go away. We won’t find God in the mess of the world if we try to leave the myrrh behind, to avoid the death, to take the easy route.

Where is God?

God is present wherever love is expressed, in the tears of those whose lives are forever impacted by tragedy, and in the hearts and minds of those who respond with compassion, mercy, and devotion.