Blackbirds in February
Faith is crafted day by day as we greet what comes with open hands.
There are three small trees in my garden and none of them is large enough for a bird’s nest, but whenever there is a flutter, I find I freeze and hope because February brings blackbird weather and blackbird song.
Growing up in Ontario, the first redwing blackbirds were an early sign of spring. I remember watching for them from the backseat on the way to Kingston to visit my grandmother. There – one, there – sitting on a fencepost, see that flash of bright red, that band of yellow. I’d shout and point and my younger brother complain I hadn’t showed him in time, but there’d always be another one on another fencepost further up the road. In my garden now, the blackbirds are different; their plumage is all black, their beaks a bright yellow, but they sing, too, and their song is a bright ribbon in the spring air.
There is an old story about a blackbird and an Irish monk. I heard a storyteller share it once on a night of Celtic tales, and I read it again recently in a poetry collection by Seamus Heaney. He strides right in with a storyteller’s flair. And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
COMMITTED TO PRAYER
Heaney shows us Kevin at prayer, with his arms outstretched, but the monk’s cell is very small, and one arm stretches right out the window, open-palmed as always to thank the Creator for the day. Then, a flutter, a weight. The wiry scratch of a bird’s feet on his palm, perhaps a twig. Who knows? Then feathers and moss, more twigs as the bird builds her nest and settles in. And Kevin stays still, committed to prayer.
In his poem, Heaney asks us to imagine what that was like. How did it feel? Did it hurt? Did the saint suffer? Or could he lose himself in the act of sheltering? Did body and mind pray together?
Kevin was a 7th century Irish hermit who founded a community at Glendalough, a valley in County Wicklow. He lived a simple, holy life, attuned to the natural world around him, a kind of Irish Francis of Assisi. This ancient story of the saint and the blackbird has reached down through the centuries, and I imagine different generations found their own depths in his simple, persevering act. As a hermit, he was seen as an eccentric, someone living against the grain of social life. Later, as a community leader, he was a figure of shelter and a model of strength. He was holy, a legend, an example, a saint.
But we all hold blackbirds. We live through our days with hands outstretched, cradling the living life of our prayers like small, feathered things. Their feet scratch. Our arms ache. We are surprised, awkward and willing all at once because we can sense there is life hidden there, fragile and protected. We learn to care. Sometimes, we find we shelter each other. We make soft, nesting places where others can rest. This, too, is prayer and a kind of discipleship. Faith is crafted day by day as we greet what comes with open hands and find the strength to offer shelter until the work is done and a moment comes for flight.