Our venerable father Kevin of Glendalough, Wonder-worker of Ireland (also Coemgen, Caoimhghin, Coemgenus, and Kavin) 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.
Birth and childhood
St. Kevin was born in the year 498 in the Irish province of Leinster to noble parents, perhaps even descendant of the Kings of Leinster. Tradition holds that when he was born, his mother felt no labour pains, and the snow that fell on the day of his birth melted as it fell around the house. An angel is said to have appeared during the child's baptism, telling his parents that the child should be named "Kevin." St. Cronan, the officiating priest, said, "This was surely an angel of the Lord, and as he named the child so shall he be called." So the babe was baptised Kevin, Coemgen in the Irish tongue, which means "He of Blessed Birth." He is the first person in history to be called Kevin. His childhood was marked by a horrible temper and dislike of other people, although he loved animals.
The blackbird's nest
At the age of seven, his parents sent him to the monastery run by St. Petroc in Cornwall. While there, Kevin was kneeling, his arms outstretched in prayer, on the first day of Lent in a small hut in the wilderness when a blackbird landed in his palm and proceeded to construct a nest. Kevin remained perfectly still, so as not to disturb the bird, for the whole of Lent. Kevin was fed by the blackbird with berries and nuts. By the end of Lent, the last blackbird hatchlings had flown from the nest, which now lay empty in his hand, and Kevin returned to the monastery for the Paschal celebration.
After being ordained to the priesthood, Kevin spent seven years as a hermit in the mountains surrounding Glendalough, which comes from the Gaelic words glen (meaning "valley") and lough (meaning "lake"), meaning "Valley of the Two Lakes." He lived in a small, five by seven by three foot cave, now know as St. Kevin's Bed, which was, legend holds, shown to him by an angel. His life was spent in prayer and self-denial, and he lived off herbs and fish an otter that lived in the lake would bring Kevin whenever Kevin visited the lake, which he did in the winter, when he would stand up to his neck in the ice cold water to pray. During one of these sessions of prayer in the Upper Lake of Glendalough (which he preferred to the Lower Lake, because it was much more remote and colder), he dropped his breviary into the lake. An otter appeared from the bottom of the lake with the prayer book, unstained or damaged in any way, in its mouth. Henceforth, the otter would bring fish to Kevin for food.
Kevin valued his solitude very much; overmuch, some would say. When, at the beginning of his hermit's life, a woman followed him constantly, trying to get him to marry her, he eventually solved the problem by pushing her off a cliff.
Return to society
Kevin returned to society when a farmer, named Dima, followed a cow of his who would continually wander off. The cow would come every day, when the erd was sent out to pasture, to St. Kevin's cave and lick his clothes and feet while he was in prayer. When the cow returned at evening, she would produced unbelievable amounts of milk. Dima, wondering greatly about this, one day resolved to follow the cow. When Dima stumbled upon Kevin's cave, and saw what was the cause of this, he fell to his knees in penitence. Kevin raised him up, and, as Dima was a pagan, taught the farmer about Christ and the Gospel. Dima eventually begged Kevin to come out of his isolation and teach his family about Christ. After a day of prayer, Kevin saw that it was God's will that he return to society to spread the Gospel. He began by teaching Dima's family, but his tutelage soon grew to dozens of families and he began to attract followers. And so, seeing the need of a central place from which to teach, Kevin decided to establish a monastery.
However, Kevin could not establish a monastery, since King O'Tool of Glendalough, a pagan, would not allow it. It happened that the king had a much beloved pet goose, which was now old and grey. As time passed, the goose also became so aged and weak that it was soon unable to fly. As a result, the king was very upset, for he loved the goose very much. Hearing of Kevin's sanctity and power, the pagan king sent for him, and asked that he make the beloved goose young. Kevin asked for a payment of whatever land the goose would fly over. As the goose could no longer take flight, O'Toole agreed. When Kevin touched the bird, it grew young, and flew over the entire valley of Glendalough, and on that site the monastery was established.
Rocks were plentiful. The farmers pitched in and built Kevin a monastery in the solitude of Glendalough. The workers agreed to work from when the larks woke till the lambs slept. This grueling work schedule began to affect the quality of construction, and Kevin decided to investigate. It turned out that the larks were apt to rise unfashionably early, and so Kevin told them not to. From that day forth, no skylark has ever been heard in Glendalough. The construction continued, and the monastery was complete.
Soon, other monks came to help teach all who would come to learn, old and young, rich and poor alike. More buildings were added to the little settlement. Among them was the famous tower, which still stands today, along with the large hut used by St. Kevin. Many people from far afield came to Kevin for advice, which he gave freely, and the monastery grew to such fame and renown that it was considered equal to a pilgrimage to Rome for a penitent to travel seven times to Glendalough monastery.
It is said of Kevin that he was the fulfillment of the prophecy of St. Patrick—that he was the one to come who would evangelize the region of Ireland just south of Dublin.
Pilgrimage and death
Kevin went once, upon the founding of his monastery, to Rome, where he received relics for the monastery. Many years later, his hair and beard white but his eyes sparkling and his step quick and firm, he felt the desire to go once again to Rome. However, he also knew he was bound to the duties of the abbot of the monastery. He went for advice to his old friend, Bishop Kiernan of Clonmacnoise. Kiernan understood Kevin's longing but he knew that it is better for one missionary to train many others than to leave the others half-trained in order to go to the missions himself. "Birds do not hatch their eggs while they are flying," Kiernan said.
Kevin saw that not to go was a sacrifice, and he knew now where God's will lay. So Kevin continued to teach and advise everyone who came to him until the peaceful June night in 618 when his soul sped heavenward to join the angels and saints around God's throne.
The precise location of Kevin's grave is lost, although it is said that at dusk, when no-one is about, blackbirds will flock to an unmarked cross above a forgotten grave, the grave of a wild boy who held a blackbird's nest in his unwavering, outstretched hand for forty days.
Saint Kevin loved animals and nature, and many of the miracles attributed to him involve them.
The Boar and the hounds
It is said that a hunting party was chasing a boar with their hounds. The boar came upon Saint Kevin in prayer beneath a tree and laid down at his feet. The hounds, when they saw the boar at Kevin's feet, also lay down near the saint, not daring to approach the boar while it was under Kevin's protection. The men decided to ignore these signs and to go ahead and slay the boar. However, a flock of birds landed in the tree, and the hunters took this as a sign and left the boar with Kevin.
One day in his youth, Kevin was tending sheep for his parents, when along came a small group of beggars seeking food. Touched by their poverty, Kevin gave them four sheep. However, when the sheep were counted at the end of the day, not one was found to be missing.
Water to ale
On a day in autumn, Kevin was working in the kitchen at St. Petroc's monastery. He was busy preparing meals for crop gatherers when a number of pilgrims called and asked for food. Kevin, filled with compassion, gave them the harvesters' dinner. He was rebuked by his superiors for his action. He then told the attendants to fill all the ale jars with water and gather together all the bare meat bones. Then he prayed alone and, it is said, the water turned to ale and the bones were covered with meat again.
The otter that rescued Kevin's breviary from the lake and brought him fish also brought fish for his monastery. One day, a monk, overcome with greed, decided to capture and kill the otter and make a fine pair of gloves out of the pelt. The otter, however, sensed the danger and disappeared, never returning to the monastery again.
King Colman's son
King Colman of Fælan had lost to early death, which he blamed on evil spirits, all his sons but one, his youngest. In order to protect him, the king entrusted the baby to St. Kevin's care. Unfortunately, the monastery could not provide for the baby, as there were no cows there to give milk for the babe. Kevin, seeing a doe on the monastery grounds, commanded it to nurse the babe prince along with her fawn, which it did. Alas, a she-wolf killed the doe before the child was ready to abandon milk. As a penitence for this murder, the wolf was commanded to provide milk for the baby and the fawn until both were weaned from milk, which the wolf did.
St. Kevin's apples
A young man living near the monastery was struck with epilepsy. One day, it was revealed that he would be cured of his malady by eating an apple from the monastery. Unfortunately, the monastery had no apple trees. When Kevin learned of this, he commanded a grove of willows to produce apples, which they did. The young man was cured, and the willows produced apples for over four centuries.
St. Ciaran's bell
St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise was St. Kevin's soul-friend, and they were very close. When Ciaran approached death, he said: "Let me be carried to a small height." When he looked up at the sky and the vast open air above his head, he said, "Terrible is the way of dying." Then angels went to meet his soul, filling as they did all the space between heaven and earth. He was carried back into the little church, and raising his hands, he blessed his people. Then he told the brethren to shut him up in the church until Kevin should come from Glendalough. Kevin arrived three days after Ciaran's death, having left his monastery as soon as he heard that his closest friend was dying, but he had been very delayed. At once Ciaran's spirit returned from heaven and reentered his body so that he could commune with Kevin and welcome him. The two friends stayed together for a long time, engaged in mutual conversation, and strengthening their friendship. Then Ciaran blessed Kevin, and Kevin blessed water and administered the Eucharist to Ciaran. Ciaran gave his silver bell to Kevin as a sign of their lasting unity.
Thou wast privileged to live in the age of saints, O Father Kevin, being baptized by one saint, taught by another, and buried by a third. Pray to God that he will raise up saints in our day to help, support, and guide us in the way of salvation.
With hymns of praise let us all bless the noble Kevin, who by his godly love poureth divine grace into the hearts of those who honor him; for he dwelleth now with the saints and angels in heaven, where he standeth before the throne of the Most High, praying unceasingly for us all.
Forsaking thy noble inheritance, and shunning all the crooked ways of this sin-loving world, thou didst apply thine obedient feet to the straight and narrow path of Christ, eagerly hastening throughout thy life toward the heavenly Sion, where with all the saints and the bodiless hosts thou criest aloud in ecstasy: Let every breath praise the Lord!
Ye lofty trees of Ireland, ever move your verdant branches, that with the rustling of your leafs, as with the strings of a multitude of harps, ye may make sweet music for the King of kings; for thus of old did ye delight His faithful servant, the venerable Kevin, with your melodious song, easing the severity of his ascetic life with the beauty of your hymnody, filling his soul with exultation, and causing him to cry aloud: Let every breath praise the Lord!
- Composed by Reader Isaac Lambertson.
St. Kevin's Cross
According to legend, anyone who can wrap his arms around St. Kevin's Cross at Glendalough will receive his wish. St. Kevin's Cross is a fine example of a plain cross, and it was carved from a single granite stone. It is over one meter across the arms. Its ring is very unusual, as it is not perforated at the intersection of the shaft and the arms.
- Glendaloch: An illustrated history and guide to St. Kevin's monastic city, by Kenneth MacGowan
- Wisdom of the Celtic Saints, by Edward C. Sellner
- The Blackbird's Nest: Saint Kevin of Ireland, by Jenny Schroedel and Doug Montross