The 6th-century hermit Kevin lived in a rock cave barely big enough to sleep in, which he cut into a mountain overlooking the upper lake of Glendalough, in Ireland. His companions were the local animals, as commemorated in Seamus Heaney’s 1996 book of poetry, The Spirit Level.
One day, writes Heaney, Kevin sticks his arm out his little cave “when a blackbird lands / And lays in it and settles down to nest.”
Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity: 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.
There follows some discussion of this generous act, as the test for Kevin moves from physical to mental. Then the story ends this way:
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.
We won’t forget him, though.