St. Kevin of Glendalough

After this, I promise I'm going to take a break from Irish saints for a few months. I'm so drawn to their stories of unabashed hyperbole, oneness with nature, and deep, childlike faith. But the rest of the world has some awesome saints too, and they deserve a spotlight as well!

Anyway, today's saint is St. Kevin of Glendalough. As is often the case with Irish stories of the saints, his story stretches the limits of believability while making up for it by being just so heartwarming.



Lifetime: 500s
Region: Glendalough, Ireland
Patronages: Blackbirds; Dublin
Iconograpy: Blackbird in hand; Unkempt hair and beard
Feast Day: June 3

Kevin was born to a wealthy noble family, but after converting, gave away his wealth and became a hermit.

Kevin went out into the wilderness, the most remote area he could find, which turned out to be a cave tucked away on a cliff, which was too small to even stand in., Oh, and it was an ancient burial tomb, to add in a little extra creepy factor.

The reason that he went to such lengths to isolate is related to a few things. First, many Irish Christians were greatly inspired by the stories of the Desert Fathers (such as St. Anthony), whose stories were going the 500s Ireland equivalent of viral. However, living in a lush, green land like Ireland didn't pose the same challenges as isolation in the desert, so they compensated by other extreme acts of ascetism.

Also, Kevin and his bishop were both concerned about followers and pilgrims seeking Kevin out, as had happened to many other Irish hermits and the Desert Fathers themselves.

Kevin lived alone for seven years in this utter isolation, barefoot and without proper shelter, in order to sever his ties to the world and dedicate himself fully to God. After he returned form his time as a hermit, one of the most touching stories about a man's dedication to both God and nature occurred.

I'm going to retell the story here, but you'r doing yourself a misdeed if you don't scroll down and hear Seamus Heaney, one of the greatest modern poets, reading his poem about St. Kevin down below.

When Kevin returned from his 7 year hermitage, he still maintained ascetic practices in his monastery, especially during Lent.

One year, in the days leading up to Easter, Kevin had isolated himself in his cell for a period of extended fasting and prayer. He stood in the open window with his arms raised to God as he closed his eyes and prayed silently.

As he prayed, a small blackbird fluttered in the window, looking for a place to land. She saw Kevin's outstretched hand, looking to her bird eyes like a perfect little tree branch. She perched on his fingers, testing the strength, and found them quite sturdy.

Kevin didn't want to disturb the tired bird, so he remained perfectly still while she sat in his hand for a nap.

After a little while, the bird took off again. However, Kevin still wasn't done with his prayer, so he stayed in the same position, with his arms raised heavenward.

Then, the same bird flew back in, this time with a stick in her hand. Kevin was confused, but didn't want to interrupt his prayer so he paid her no mind. She placed the stick in his hand and left.

Soon, she returned with another stick, placing, and again left. Kevin stood praying all the while. She returned again and again, bringing new twigs and reeds each time, and it soon became clear that she wasn't bringing him gifts - she was building a nest.

Eventually, Kevin finished his prayer, but by that time the poor bird had spent the day building an entire nest in his outstretched hand. Kevin couldn't bear to make her waste all that work, so he remained standing with his arms raised all night long.

When he looked again in the morning, he saw a little glint of blue in the nest. The bird had laid an egg! He certainly couldn't disrupt her now!

Over the next couple days, she laid a few more eggs, and still Kevin stood.

In fact, he stood there all spring, waiting until the eggs hatched, and the hatchlings grew feathers and learned to fly before he finally lowered his tired hand.

This isn't the only incredible story about St. Kevin's interaction with creatures of the natural world. Another says how he fed his entire monastery just by fish that otters delivered to him. 

St. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals. It's worth noting that young Francis studied at a French monastery that was established by another Irish monk a little after the period of St. Kevin's life. It's easy to believe that Irish stories like St. Kevin's influenced Francis' own joy with nature.


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