Updated: Nov 5, 2019
One of my favorite poems is by the late Irish poet and Noble Prize Winner,
Seamus Heaney: St Kevin and the Blackbird. St Kevin was an early Irish saint
who lived in the 5 th century CE as a hermit in a cave by a lake in the Wicklow
mountains (a place now known as Glendalough):
Kevin lived the life of a hermit there with an extraordinary closeness to nature. His
companions were the animals and birds all around him. He lived as a hermit for seven
years wearing only animal skins, sleeping on stones and eating very sparingly. He went
barefoot and spent his time in prayer. Disciples were soon attracted to Kevin and a
further settlement enclosed by a wall, called Kevin's Cell, was established nearer the
lakeshore. By 540 Saint Kevin's fame as a teacher and holy man had spread far and
wide. Many people came to seek his help and guidance. In time Glendalough grew into
a renowned seminary of saints and scholars and the parent of several other
The poem is above all a story of selflessness and loving connection with the
natural world. I also see it as a poetic description of an initiation into becoming
what in Buddhism is called a “Bodhisattva” - one who has found the path to
freedom but who then, instead of leaving the world of suffering, chooses to re-
enter it again and again, and if necessary again, until every living being is free.
As the sage Nagarjuna puts it:
As long as any sentient being
Anywhere has not been liberated,
May I remain in the world for the sake of that being
Though I have attained highest enlightenment.
I would like to read the poem through in this light. It begins:
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, still
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.
St Kevin is in his cell, a small cave above the lake, somewhere he has found
where he can be alone and undisturbed in the natural world. He knows this place
well – we’re told he lived there as a hermit for 7 years – and he has been there so
long and with such a listening and respectful attitude that the place has got to
know him well also. In fact, he is so well known to the inhabitants of this place
that a blackbird takes his turned-up open palm as an invitation to nest, and so
she does. The story continues:
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.
Mindful nature connection, where we align our awareness with a receptive sensing of a natural process or thing, is a portal to interconnectedness. Indeed, it is said that Gotama the Buddha was doing just this, mindfully attending to the natural process of his breathing, on the night of his enlightenment. Mindful nature connection can “link us into the network of eternal life,” and the realization that we are interdependent with everyone and everything else. Then, as we awaken to the truth which our indigenous sisters and brothers have been telling us all along that “all are relatives,” compassion arises, and we are moved to do what we can to bring the ones who are suffering, freedom and happiness.
And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time
From his 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?
These questions seem to be coming from the observing mind trying to make
sense of what’s happening here. Heaney offers an answer:
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
“To labor 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 Bodhisattva has come into a clarity and luminosity that is at one with his
body, which is nature, where he, where she, acts with selfless love and without
any expectation of outcome. For sure there is a forgetting here - of the solid,
separate self, but there is also a deeper remembering, or, perhaps more
accurately, a being re-membered.
(With big thanks to Seamus Heaney for the poem, and Irish artist, Catriona Sweeney for
the paining of St Kevin – and the blackbird)