Can one person be a bird sanctuary?
June 3rd marks the feast day for Irish monk St. Kevin and his legendary blackbird. T’is a fine time for admiring flight, I’m thinking. Or savoring an omelette.
Celtic legend describes Kevin at prayer in his one-monk hut, an arm extended through the window, his palm raised.
Enter the Emerald Isle’s elite songster: a blackbird (not to be confused with big-mouth American blackbirds).
American blackbirds—especially en masse—can be bullies: strident, messy, a threat to crops and property.
Kevin’s songbird, on the other hand (literally), alighted gently, perhaps on his thumb. Finding his warmth congenial, she settled in, laid eggs.
Motionless, wonder-struck, Kevin offered her sanctuary. Day after day, so the legend goes.
Why sacrifice plans (and personal space) for a bird?
At home in the Temple
Psalm 84:3-4 celebrates those who dwell in God’s sanctuary—including birds. In ancient Israel’s temple, a swallow built her nest near the altar. Religious leaders with opinions and brooms probably gathered.
What message did that nest send? Shoddy upkeep? Lazy priests?
Or perhaps, more inclusively, Creation’s feathered counterpoint to the Levite choir?
The nest remained, an audio/visual for the radical hospitality of the One who knows when a sparrow falls to the ground.
Kevin’s hand graciously cradled one small bird—his spirit already a sanctuary for God’s presence.
Confined to his hut, the man’s surrender to the unexpected inspires me.
St. Kevin’s Blackbird
Outstretched in Lent, Kevin’s hand
did not expect
the blackbird’s egg, its speckled warmth,
new-laid, in his uplifted palm. Think prayer
as nest: an intimate travail whereby
fledgling hopes, like birds, leave behind
a kind of grave. Amen, seeming
premature, the saint-in-waiting
dovetailed faith with knuckles.
Faithfulness takes time. We knuckle down to wait, in hope, for things as yet unseen.
Cue impatience and hunger and the cramp of muscles and numbness and pins-and-needles. Cue ongoing attitude adjustments.
Had it been me in that hut, Mama Bird would have been relocated ASAP.
Saint Laurie, however, prefers to imagine catching aphids for her with my free hand. Naming her something mystical. Learning her song (while suppressing that niggling yen for applause, modest fame, a personal feast day).
Then, having waved farewell, I would weep (beatifically).
And afterward, did Kevin save those eggshell bits,
adorn his windowsill with each goodbye
the smallest beak ever made?
He never said. Nor will he
know these hearts of ours,
more shell than shelter…
Much as I want to faithfully be a safe place for those God sends my way—human, animal, avian—I’m bound to crack, then lament my frailty.
And then begin again, remembering He who was first broken for us will always lovingly
…know these hearts of ours,
more shell than shelter
as they fissure, let in light enough
for Christ to enter. Yes,
let grief be, with every breath, a readied womb.
How do you practice offering sanctuary? I’d love to know.
Click to hear “Lord, Prepare Me”
(sung by Kent Henry, written by Randy Scruggs/John Thompson)
Click to hear the European blackbird’s song
Click to watch blackbirds feeding their young
- “St. Kevin’s Blackbird,” from Laurie’s book, Where the Sky Opens