The Question of St. Kevin

St. Kevin’s Bed, Glendalough, Ireland, Wikimedia Commons

St. Kevin is not the most famous Irish Catholic Saint, but he has a Feast Day that is celebrated by both the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Christian traditions — June 3rd.

Kevin wasn’t as ambitious and heroic as St Patrick, which may be why people were drawn to him and why the remains of his small spiritual community is still considered one of the most sacred places in Ireland.

He was an extreme ascetic among extreme ascetics, living alone in nature for years at a time and praying constantly. Without ever seeking anything, he became a leader, an itinerant community builder, and a world traveler at a time the world was falling apart.

His life is full of questions we will never be able to answer.

His story and the end-times in which it was set, have echoes for today.

My personal project is to bring St. Kevin’s life back to life, using a new medium — immersive Virtual Reality. Bringing poetry, pics and Irish folk music into Kevin’s place in the Metaverse lets us step right into those questions and feel those echoes more deeply.

Author with storytelling props in VR

In Part One of the story, I put Kevin’s life in its time and place, mostly a difficult time in a remote place. I use a map of Ireland that’s as big as I am, and a few big jpgs, to describe the dynamics at play that shaped him and that he went onto shape.

Kevin was born at the intersection of a Celtic culture administered by Druids and a Roman-style culture increasingly administered by Christian Priests — right when both were breaking down.

It was these circumstances plus his extreme personality, I think, that led him to become St Kevin.

Who Were the Celts?

I don’t know. No one knows. It is one of the great researched and debated topics in our early history. But they were not the original inhabitants of Ireland.

The original inhabitants walked there at least 30,000 years ago across an ice bridge that didn’t melt away for another 20,000 years. They lived in small settlements around 10,000 years ago and by about 6,000 years ago they were planting crops in small fields.

That’s pretty much all we know because they were almost completely annihilated by relentlessly westward moving Celts. Long Irish family genomes contain less than 10% pre-Celtic material.

It’s best to think of the invaders as large semi-coordinated waves of migrating people repopulating Europe from Ireland to Iberia over several hundred years. Their culture varied in some aspects but was consistently animist, seeing all of nature infused with the spiritual.

Celtic Kings and Dukes and Princes fought incessantly among themselves, but were united at some level of governance under a special class of Druids. These educated elites were part of something larger too — networks of trade and information moving around the British Isles to the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and Eastern Europe.

Author with Druids on one side and Irish Saints on the other

Much of Rome’s growth came at the expense of Celtic people. Roman armies under the Emperor Claudius came to Britain in 43CE and held it for four centuries. But not Ireland. They noticed it, though, and Julius Caesar even wrote about at least sixteen separate Gaelic kingdoms that were always fighting. Rome called the place, Hibernia and Scotia.

There were Celts in Britain too, but they were subdued by the Romans and some of them became Romanized, which eventually meant, among other things, Christianized. When the Emperor Constantine converted, Church and State were one and they traveled together.

When the Roman State began to break down, the Church still had its own network, a transnational network, with headquarters in Rome and Constantinople. The last Roman legions left Britain in 410 and the Angles and Saxons de-camped almost immediately from northern Germany to fill the void. And they didn’t like Christians.

St. Patrick was one of the first educated, Romanized Priests sent out from Britain in 432, to colonize Ireland for God. He is in the First Order of Irish Saints, patrician-class foreigners from Britain, with Angles nipping at their heels back home and Rome itself in disarray.

He faced a tough warrior people connected to their territory through their religion and led by Druids. He was not Irish.

St. Kevin, wikipedia

St. Kevin is the next generation, the Second Order of Irish Saints, the ones who were born there. The ones who are Irish Celts and who bring together every thread of Irish history.

He was born in 498, the son of Celtic nobility — Coemlog and Coemell, who ruled the Leinster area west of Dublin. He birth came without labor pain and an angel announced he would be called, Coemgen (Kevin), the first person in history with that name, which means ‘beautiful birth.’

It was an auspicious start in a perilous time.

The Roman Empire was toast. Huns were running wild and Vandals had sacked Rome itself about 20 years earlier, in 476.

But the City and the Church did not cease to exist. People still lived in Rome, just a lot less of them. The Church had property and power, but not like it once had, when the Empire first went Christian under Constantine two hundred years earlier.

Meanwhile, the Orthodox branch of the Christian Church was rebuilding the brand out of Constantinople under Justinian the Great. The Byzantine Empire included a recaptured Rome for most of Kevin’s life, except the Great Schism was still centuries away.

St Kevin’s Feast Day is now celebrated by both branches of the Church.

Monastics, public domain image

What should good Celtic parents do with such a son, seemingly preordained for greatness, while the world was in turmoil? Coemlog and Coemell chose the Christians.

At the age of seven, Kevin was sent off to live with three holy men in a then-remote part of Ireland called Glendalough. Seven years old. Later he moved on to study with other Irish Christian thought leaders until he was ordained.

A portal was set on the large map of Ireland around County Wicklow and Glendalough. It led to a view above the valley, clearly showing the rugged terrain and the two lakes, from the Google Maps data base.

Looking down on Glendalough in VR, semi-transparent surface with seats for audience

When it was finally time for Kevin’s Priestly career to begin … ta da! … he moved back to the remote Glendalough area and lived as a hermit in a Bronze Age tomb an Angel led him to.

Not the typical first career move.

Now called, St. Kevin’s Bed, it’s a man-made cave cut in the rock face of the mountain, about 30 feet above the upper lake. On a nearby ledge he built St. Kevin’s Cell, for pious prayer and meditation.

Kevin lived the life of a hermit there completely immersed in nature. He slept on stones and didn’t eat much. His companions were the animals and birds all around him, including a cow who wandered his way every day. And wouldn’t you know it, that cow consistently gave the most milk.

Eventually the farmer followed that cow to see why— and that is how Kevin was discovered, after seven years off the human grid.

Folks must have realized they had a genuine Holy Person there in Glendalough. Disciples soon gathered and somehow they talked him into being their spiritual leader. They eventually built a Church.

I use a 360 degree image of the Reefert Church to let people who come to hear the story feel inside and closer to the work the people there did.

Reefert Church, old Irish Church
Reefert Church, Wikimedia Commons

For a while, as the story, goes, a friendly otter would daily bring a salmon to feed Kevin and his monks, hard at work building and praying.

After a while, someone decided to trap the otter, who sensed what was happening and never came back. Maybe that’s a story’s way of saying they ran out of food in the initial camp and moved to a better location for a permanent monastery.

By the time he was 40, Kevin was a local celebrity, dispensing advice and demonstrating a life of piety. The little Glendalough settlement grew. It drew scholars and other monks and Priests.

It is well-documented that in 544, he left Glendalough to establish more communities in the region and went into solitude for four years in one of them.

At some point in this period, he traveled to Rome. It would have been after the Justinian Revival, so it was a Byzantine Rome that he visited and perhaps Byzantine relics that he brought back. It must have been by sea, using the Celtic maritime networks connecting Ireland to all of Eurasia.

Returning from the Mediterranean to Glendalough by sea in the 540s — an adventure to imagine. The main narrative ends with Kevin running the monastery again and setting his ascetic example as always.

I tell the audience there are dozens of stories and folk tales about Kevin, mostly focusing on his way with animals, like the otter bringing food for his initial group of monks. But the best known of these is Kevin and the Blackbird

Blackbird, wikimedia commons

Plenty of Saints have had birds eating out of their hands.

Well, it seems that Kevin was praying one day with his arms outstretched, apparently long enough for a blackbird to fly down and build its nest in the palm of his hand. In for a dime, in for a dollar: The eggs grew. Kevin sat and prayed. The chicks hatched and fledged. Kevin never stopped praying.

St. Kevin and the Blackbird is one of Seamus Heaney’s most famous poems, telling the tale and imagining what the experience might have been like for Kevin. It is freely available on YouTube and I played it during the event after setting the audience back in Reefert Church with a 360 pic.

What a guy. One with nature. Hold that thought.

There is also a folk song and another poem about Kevin that involves a female, of the human species, something conspicuously absent from the lives of most Priests.

Somewhere in Glendalough, an attractive young woman named Kathleen, who was said to have eyes ‘of the most unholy blue,’ was attracted to Kevin’s good looks, despite his vows. She pursued him and there are several versions of how he handles it. None of them seem very mature or Priestly to me.

In the version I’m most inclined to believe, he takes off his clothes and jumps into a thicket of stinging nettles, where he then grabs some and ‘scourges’ her with it, so ‘the fire without would extinguish the fire within.’ That’s the nice version.

In the most scandalous version, Kevin is so upset by her advances that he throws her off the cliff into the lake to drown, as the Dubliners sing stanzas that are based on something.

Blackbirds, with their sweet beautiful song, have always symbolized seduction, so maybe the two St Kevin stories are not so unrelated.

In the storytelling event, we jump back to the shore, in view of Kevin’s Cave, and reflect together on what stands out for each of us. Listening to others casts a different light on our own experience.

Why would he rather jump into nettles than even hang out and talk with Kathleen? What is it with Celibacy? There’s nothing in the New Testament forbidding Priests from marriage.

Remember what we’ve learned so far, I say — St Kevin was an extremist. That’s why he had a following in the first place. He didn’t market his brand. He lived it and created a community with a clear focus — praying all the time.

I know I’m wading into deep and controversial waters here but I don’t really belief the practice is fundamentally about following the Chaste Example of Christ, or that sex thoughts are impure.

However, impure or not, when someone has sex on their mind, it means something else is not on their mind, or a least not very much.

This is what the Apostle Paul says in his famous Letters about how-to-start-a-Christian-Church — that sex thoughts are a distraction from what you should be thinking about, which is God’s love, getting your work done, and unicorns.

But why?

A family is even more of a distraction and it’s what sex thoughts often lead to. I believe that as an internationally networked institution, the Church needed to have its local reps completely dedicated to the Church itself, and not to their own mini-empire building that can come with a family.

The stable Rome-centered Empire had fallen apart. Regional groups of Believers were on their own. All the more reason to resist the dynamics of building local fiefdoms with family ties. Better to have no family ties. Better to jump into nettles.

I like to look at it from the perspective of Kevin’s mom and dad. They’re the ones who set him on this path at age seven. Why didn’t they prepare him to Lord Kevin? Why didn’t they use their well-omened son to extend their family fortune?

We don’t really know of course, but I’m betting it was a free choice. I think they chose some weird new Church with only one God as the best career move for their son.

Worked out pretty well, I’d say. Kathleen even asks forgiveness and becomes a blessed nun in most of the folk legends.

St Kevin died in about 618, that would be at the age of 120, traditionally on June 3. For the next six centuries, Glendalough flourished during the hard times of Viking raids

He is a Patron Saint of Dublin and Glendalough, County Wicklow, Ireland.

He was canonized by Pope Pius X in 1903.

Thirty-five people attended the St Kevin’s Day On-Location Storytelling events and some stayed all the way to the end of the open discussion and reflection.

We talked about religions moving around and finding acceptance in new places. We talked about why an institution like the Church would want its middle managers to have no family other than the Church itself. e talked about feeling present together in Glendalough to experience St Kevin’s Story.

Image by David Denton

I write about VR and other topics I have no standing to write about on Medium and Substack.

I have a black belt in learning and I’ve been meditating for so long you’d think I’d be enlightened but I’m not.

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Tom Nickel

Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos