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?

Prayer of the Week

Praying Hands--blog--11-2-2017

 

 

(We prayed the following prayer and words of assurance on Sunday and the words resonated with me. I thought I would share them with you!)

 

Prayer of Confession

Happy are those who turn away from the counsel of the wicked.

But oh, that counsel can be so seductive

it draws us in,

holds us fast,

distracts our priorities,

obstructs our capacity to love.

 

But we seek no obstructions, we reject wicked counsel.

We embrace God’s embrace.

 

For whatever ways we don’t, we confess.

In whichever ways we sin, we repent.

 

Hear our prayers, O God, as before you, we seek wholeness.

Silence

God of mercy, grace, reconciliation and goodness:

We are sorry for so much—

For words we cannot bear to say,

For memories we cannot bear to relive,

For thoughts we cannot bear to admit.

But you know our hearts.

Relieve us of our burdens,

Bind our hearts not to the unbearable but rather, to you.

So that, in all ways,

We may live in the joy of your salvation

And the delight of your loving embrace.

 

Words of Assurance:

Praise be to God, our sins are forgiven.

God’s steadfast love endures forever. Amen.

 

–Local Church Ministries, Faith Formation Ministry Team, United Church of Christ; Rev. Kaji S. Dousa

In Prayer

 

800px-celtic_cross_knock_ireland

(Wikipedia; Creative Commons)

 

The Lord’s Prayer

(in the spirit of Celtic spirituality)

O God, you love us like a good parent, and are present in every aspect of our existence.

May your nature become known and respected by all.

May your joy, peace, wholeness and justice be the reality for everyone as we live by the Jesus Way.

Give us all that we really need to live every day for you.

And forgive us our failures as we forgive others for their failures.

Keep us from doing those things which are not of you, and cause us always to be centered on your love.

For you are the true reality in this our now, and in all our future.

In the Jesus Way we pray. Amen.

–David Sorril

Waving like the Rose Parade Queen at the Funeral

Mourners line up to pay respects. Photo by JMD

Saturday morning Nancy, Nina, and I pack our bags, preparing for our immersion into Kinshasa life. Nancy and I will spend a few days with Gaston and Marie-Jeanne while Nina stay at Pastor Francois and Felly’s home. Then the plan is to switch places.

I am feeling anxious, not knowing what to expect. Francois and our translator, Izir, arrive and we wait for Marie Jeanne and her driver. At last they arrive, we climb into Marie Jeanne’s SUV: me in front, Nina and Nancy and Marie-Jeanne in the middle seat, and Francois and Izir in the very back with our luggage. Suzanne stands outside my window saying good-bye. I am beginning to panic and I don’t want to leave Suzanne and her home. I get teary-eyed and she takes my hand and reassures me that all will be well. She tells me in a quiet voice, “They are not going to let anything happen to you. You are safe—don’t worry about your physical safety. You’ll do fine.” She kisses the back of my hand and says goodbye to me then says good-bye to the others.

I wipe away my tears and feel comforted by her words and kindness. As we drive away I replay her words and pray: “Yes, God, I am safe. Help me to be free and not so fearful.” At this moment I feel my heart open up—my binding fear is loosened and I can breathe again. I feel eager to experience DR Congo.

Originally we were to visit a hospital but plans were changed when the wife of a prominent Mennonite pastor died and the funeral was scheduled for this day. The challenge is that no one is exactly certain where the funeral is located so we spend a lot of time driving down narrow roads, asking for directions, backing up and turning around. (See Nancy’s terrific description here). At last we find the location tucked in the back behind some building. The funeral is in an open area with folding chairs set up for a few hundred people. The funeral has started and we are latecomers creating a distraction as we walk past a group of people in the back. I begin greeting them—they are looking at us anyway. I say, “Bonjour, bonjour” and receive “Bonjour” with smiles in return. I begin waving to people like I’m the Rose Parade queen, loudly whispering, “Bonjour, bonjour.” Thankfully, Izir is behind me and whispers, “We need to keep going” and directs me to the left for us to be seated. I am in the front row between Nancy and Izir, who tells me what is happening as the portable sound system pops and hisses as people speak in either French or Lhingalla, a dialect. I sit back and watch everything, occasionally asking Izir what is happening.

*I see the head usher working hard at directing people, or turning them away, consulting with the pastor, all trying to discreetly keep the funeral moving along. I think of William Carlos Williams poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow”—with apologies to WCW:

So much depends
upon

the head
usher

forehead glistening
with sweat

near the beloved
pastor.

*I see different families of the deceased wearing clothing from the same fabric as a way to identify themselves.

Members of the same family wear clothing created from the same fabric. Photo by JMD

*I see a group of mourners from the woman’s home village sitting around the coffin but allowing enough space for the guests to walk past to pay their respects.

Mourners from the village. Photo by Nina B. Lanctot

*As we pay our respects—trailing behind Pastor Francois—I see the woman’s husband greet Nina in English: “We are so glad you are here. We’ve been waiting a long time for you.” And he embraces her with the traditional pressing one’s check to the other face three times.

After we pay our respects we leave. I wave again as I walk past people saying, “Au revoir!” Izir keeps correcting my pronunciation but I don’t fret—I am feeling safe and free and ready for the next event in our Congo adventure

My (foreign) jailbird life

My brother and I are separated. I turn to look for him while I am pushed from behind to a closed door. John is standing behind a rope with Frederico, the lawyer for the organization where I work.

“Don’t worry,” Frederico yells to me in English.  “I will take care of you.”

I don’t know why he is telling me not to worry. Nor do I know enough Spanish to understand what is rapidly said to me. Nor do I understand the building I am in.

The door opens and I am pushed into a room with three walls with the fourth a wall of prison bars. Behind the bars in another room are scores of men yelling, whistling, and gesturing at me, the only woman in the adjacent room. I am dressed in khaki shorts, a faded green knit shirt and worn loafers. I panic as I see all that male attention directed at me and I cover my breasts with my arms. A moment later, I am pushed through another door into the next room.

This room has a dozen women in it. It is all cement except for the small window in the right wall with bars that looks out onto the street. In the upper left corner is a cubicle with two half walls that contains the toilet and a floor drain.

I look around me and think: I am in jail. I. am. in. jail. I am in the city jail in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. This is one of my fears about living in a foreign country—that I will land in jail and never released. My fear spiked after my brother told me about the movie “Midnight Express,” based on a true story of an American held in a Turkish jail for drug smuggling. Although I am not smuggling drugs, the images of life in a foreign jail return to me.

“Oh God, help me,” I pray.

“Oh shit,” I whisper.

Some of the women look me over then turn away. An older woman gestures to me to sit on the floor near her.  As I sit she asks, in Spanish, “Why are you here?”  I suspect gringas don’t often appear in the city jail.

In my rudimentary Spanish with lots of gesticulating, I explain that while I was driving I hit a motorcycle rider.

“Este muerte?” (Is he dead?) she asks me while the other women lean in to listen.

“No. Uh … hurt,” as I show them my elbow and knee.

They murmur amongst themselves and then turn their attention elsewhere. I settle against the wall and attempt to calm my fear and wait. I have no idea where John or Frederico are nor do I know how to get out of jail in a foreign country where I hardly speak the language. I am trying to not to slip into a panic attack.

I see women talking at the window to persons on the street. The free people hand food and cups to the women through the bars.

A woman at the window turns to me and points across the street. “Es su hermano?”

I go to the window, which is about six inches higher than me, and I pull myself up to the bars to peek. Yep, there’s my brother talking with Frederico and another Dominican man. They are too far away to hear me when I call out but close enough for me to see that they each have a bottle beer on the table in front of them. I hope they are figuring out how to post bail and get me out.

“Si, es mi hermano, ( it’s my brother)” I tell the women as I drop from the window onto the floor.

Various women take turns peeking out the window to look at him as I return to my spot on the cement floor.

One woman, who is one of the friendlier ones, offers me her empty tin cup for a drink. I look quizzically at her as she walks to the bathroom cubicle. She waves for me to follow her then she points at the toilet tank that lacks a lid. She looks kindly at me and urges me to get some water.

I gingerly step into the cubicle, dip the cup into the toilet tank and fill the cup halfway. Her hospitality touches me and I am torn over refusing the water—and her kindness—and my general avoidance of water that is not sterilized.

I take a deep breath, smile at her, and drink the water. At the same time, I am inwardly praying, “Okay God. I’m trying to receive her kindness. Protect me.”

“Gracias por la agua (thank you for the water),” I say after finishing my drink and as I hand her the cup. We smile at one another and I slightly bow toward her. “Gracias.”

I return to my place on the cement floor and return to waiting.

An hour later another woman nearby receives a paper bag filled with food from her daughter. She pulls out her meat sandwich, tears it in half and leans toward me, offering me the half. At that moment I realize that the city jail is not providing us any food and this is probably the only food I will have for who knew how long.

Again, I am deeply moved by the kindness, the hospitality that is offered to me by strangers housed together in jail. I take the sandwich and am grateful.

“Gracias por la comida (thank you for the food),” I say. “Umm…muy bueno (very good).”

She beams at me and we smile at one another.  It is a grace-filled moment.

I wait a few more hours until mid-afternoon and a police officer sticks his head in the door and says something to the room. I don’t know what he says but the women turn to me, smile, and gesture for me to leave.

I turn to the women who offered kindness to me and say good-bye.

“Adios!” they say. “Vaya con dios (Go with God).”

I wish I knew Spanish better to tell them how grateful I am for their hospitality which eased my fear, for their generous spirits, and for their kindness that will live in me for decades. And, how they were the answers to my earlier prayers. But all I can say is thank-you.

“Gracias,” as I place my hand over my heart. “Muchas gracias.”

I step through the door, move past the leering men and into the gathering area. I am relieved that my worst fears were not realized. I see John and Frederico and smile, wave at them and walk toward them.