His Body a Prayer a Crossbeam

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St Kevin and the Blackbird (1996)

By Seamus Heaney

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.

The Spirit Level (1996)

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The Irish poet’s and Nobel Laureate’s, Seamus Heaney’s, extract from his Nobel prize speech, drawing a parallel between his labour as a poet in modern society and Saint Kevin’s labour of love, “to labour and not to seek reward”:

“Which is why for years I was bowed to the desk like some monk bowed over his prie-dieu … Then finally and happily, and not in obedience to the dolorous circumstances of my native place but in despite of them, I straightened up.  … I shall try to represent the import of that changed orientation with a story out of Ireland.
This is a story about another monk holding himself up valiantly in the posture of endurance. It is said that once upon a time St. Kevin was kneeling with his arms stretched out in the form of a cross in Glendalough, a monastic site not too far from where we lived in Co. Wicklow, a place which to this day is one of the most wooded and watery retreats in the whole of the country. Anyhow, as Kevin knelt and prayed, a blackbird mistook his outstretched hand for some kind of roost and swooped down upon it, laid a clutch of eggs in it and proceeded to nest in it as if it were the branch of a tree. Then, overcome with pity and constrained by his faith to love the life in all creatures great and small, Kevin stayed immobile for hours and days and nights and weeks, holding out his hand until the eggs hatched and the fledglings grew wings, true to life if subversive of common sense, at the intersection of natural process and the glimpsed ideal, at one and the same time a signpost and a reminder. Manifesting that order of poetry where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew.” (1)


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St Kevin of Glendalough, Wonder-worker of Ireland (also Coemgen, Caoimhghin, Coemgenus, and Kavin) is a Celtic saint, venerated in the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Anglican Communion. He was the abbot of Glendalough Monastery. He was born in 498, and fell asleep in the Lord in 618 at the age of 120 years. His feast day is celebrated on June 3. The icons suggest St. Kevin’s preference for the life of solitude, penance and prayer of a hermit, and also his affinity with nature and his love for animals and birds.

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The well known story of the black bird in his hand is a verbal image of his reverence for creation, while the fawn at St. Kevin’s feet is a symbol of his own gentle peaceful nature. … The deer recalls the providence of God who through a doe provided milk for a child Kevin had fostered, and at the same time reminds us of the deer in the psalms, who is the image of the soul that yearns for God – the living water. … The salmon again emphasizes for us the care of the Creator who provided for the monks of the nearby monastery, a salmon sufficient for their daily meal. It also recalls that the fish (ICTHUS) is an ancient symbol of the incarnation of Christ. … The cow highlights God’s providence, since it is recorded that a white cow brought milk each day to feed the infant Kevin.  … There is also the otter that rescued Kevin’s breviary from the lake and retrieved it undamaged and brought him fish also brought fish for his monastery. (2)

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(1) Excerpt from Seamus Heaney’s Nobel Lecture. For the full text go to  http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1995/heaney-lecture.html

(2) http://www.glendaloughhermitage.ie/hermitage/st-kevins-parish-church/icon-of-st-kevin-caoimhin/ and http://orthodoxwiki.org/Kevin_of_Glendalough