As the poet mounted the rocky steps, climbing higher and higher, he had a return of the irrational feeling of a visionary vertigo. He told himself again, as if in warning, that it was his whole duty in life to walk on a tight-rope above a void in which many imaginative men were swallowed up.
–– G. K. Chesterton, “The Shadow of the Shark” in The Poet and the Lunatics
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Like many notable Pilgrims, Kevin of Glendalough was what some of us might call an “odd duck.” If eccentricity and idiosyncrasy are to be regarded as marks of sanctity – as in some cases they may well be – then Kevin was surely one of the holiest of Ireland’s numerous saints and seers.
Even the hagiographical legends surrounding his birth are not so much miraculous as bizarre. The snow that happened to be falling on that occasion is supposed to have melted as it touched the ground around his house. It’s also said that when the time came for the child to be delivered, Kevin’s mother felt no labor pains. For reasons like these, and because an angel from heaven expressly commanded it, the boy was called Coemgen or Caoimhin in the Irish tongue (Anglicized as Kevin): “He of Blessed Birth.” He was the first person in history ever to bear this now very common name.
All this seemed propitious enough. Still, there were things about Kevin’s personality and character that were not particularly well suited to sainthood. For one thing, he is reputed to have had a terrible temper as a child. He also made it fairly clear that he didn’t like people. This circumstance may have had something to do with the development of his strong love and deep affinity for animals. Whatever the cause, one thing seems certain: Kevin did not grow up to be your average, run-of-the mill “regular Joe.” Today he would probably be known as a “nerd” or a “weird-o.”
In spite of this, he must have impressed the monks who raised him as an exceptionally holy man, for he was ordained a priest while still relatively young. Unlike most priests, however, he took this occasion to divorce himself from human society and move out to the wilderness of Glendalough, the Glen of Two Lakes, a remote spot in the province of Leinster. The reason for this move? He wanted to avoid the company of his followers. Not a great way to kick off a thriving ministry.
In Glendalough, Kevin took up residence in a Bronze-age tomb now known as St. Kevin’s Bed, a hand-hewn cave cut in the sheer rocky face of Lugduff Mountain about thirty feet above the surface of the lake. The name is apt, since the hole is too small – about four feet wide and three feet high – to have served him as anything but a sleeping place. Here for seven years he lived the life of a hermit, seeking God’s face in extreme asceticism and cultivating an extraordinary intimacy with nature. Birds and beasts sought his companionship. An otter once retrieved for him the psalter he had dropped into the lake while standing and praying waist-deep in the frigid water – an habitual practice with him. On another occasion – or so the story goes – a blackbird landed in his outstretched palm as he knelt in prayer and proceeded to build her nest there. Kevin’s response? He was moved to pity; and
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.[i]
Kevin must also have been a rather attractive fellow, for despite his efforts to stay secluded he somehow captured the attention of a pretty young maiden. Unfortunately, the girl did not experience the same degree of compassion at his hands as had the blackbird. When this bold Kathleen came looking for him in his wild abode, Kevin is reputed to have driven her away with a bunch of nettles. One writer goes so far as to make the doubtful claim that he “hurled the maiden from the rock into the black lake shrieking.” Strange behavior, to be sure. But such was the hermit’s devotion to his vows of chastity and purity.
Eventually Kevin came out of this long retirement, at which point one might assume that he would be singularly ill-equipped to get involved in the hands-on work of meeting the day-to-day spiritual needs of other people. Oddly enough, it didn’t turn out that way. In spite of his anti-social tendencies – or perhaps because of them – Kevin had acquired the reputation of being a man intimately acquainted with God. As a result, a group of monks gathered around him in Glendalough, where they built a monastery known as Kevin’s Cell. The saint had oversight of this community until he died at the age of 120, somewhere around the year 618. And as his fame as a teacher spread, people came from far and wide seeking his help and guidance; so that afterwards,
a great number of pilgrims out of every quarter of Ireland came to visit Kevin’s church; so that this is one of the four chief pilgrimages of Erin: to wit, the Cave of Patrick in Ulster, Croagh Patrick in Connaught, the Isle of the Living in Munster, and Glendalough in Leinster.[ii]
Is there a moral to this story? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But in any case it’s worth remembering that there may be more to the eccentric and curmudgeonly recluse than meets the eye; and that retreating from the world is sometimes the best way of impacting it for the kingdom.
(Woodcut by Clive Hicks-Jenkins)
[i] Seamus Heaney, “St. Kevin and the Blackbird,” 1996.
[ii] From The Lives of Irish Saints, quoted in Celtic Christianity: Ecology and Holiness, an Anthology by Christopher Bamford and William Parker Marsh (West Stockbridge, MA: Lindisfarne Press, 1987), 86.