The Blackbird's Nest is the story of St. Kevin of Ireland (498 A.D-618 A.D.). I first became acquainted with his legend in Seamus Heaney's poem, St Kevin and the Blackbird. In both Heaney's poem and in this beautiful picture book it's a fabulous story about a real historical figure, the abbot and founder of the monastery at Glendalough. And it's full of the most marvelous of medieval flights of fancy, typical of that era's hagiography, that carry deep spiritual truths, even if they may perhaps seem a little hard to swallow as historical fact.
The crux of the story is that St. Kevin, kneeling in prayer one day with his arm stretched out the window, has a blackbird build its nest in his hand. He then must continue to hold that posture for forty days until the eggs have hatched and the babies grown up and flown away. The book points out that the forty days has a spiritual significance:
Just as Kevin waited for the baby birds to break open their eggs and come to new life in his hand, during Lent we wait for Christ to break open the tomb and bring new life into our hearts.
The book follows St. Kevin from his miracle-touched birth (the snow melted all around his house) to his holy death at the age of one hundred and twenty and has a wonderful message about loving nature and our fellow men.
The story also highlights that Kevin is an imperfect person who grows in holiness. At first he is rather anti-social preferring to spend time with animals. He tormented other children, puzzled his parents, and often wearied the monks. His experience with the blackbird's nest teaches him reliance on God's strength as he turns to God in prayer to carry him through his ordeal (He repeats, "Lord have mercy," three times and concludes with "Amen" when the last of the baby birds flies away,) and teaches him gentleness and compassion toward his fellow men, not just to animals.
My two-year-old daughter loves the pictures of the animals and is especially enchanted with the image of infant Kevin's baptism. When we read the story she chatters about the priest "putting water on the baby's head" (just as her sister was baptized recently).
I love the fact that the book concludes with a historical note that includes a beautiful icon of St. Kevin, a short biography, and a prayer to St. Kevin, reminding readers that he's more than just a storybook figure, he's also an intercessor in heaven, a real person with whom we have a wonderful relationship as fellow members of the Body of Christ. I always conclude our reading of the story by reciting the prayer and having my daughter repeat, "St. Kevin, pray for us."
You were 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.
Although the publishers recommend the book for ages 9-12, I think the inspiring story and beautiful illustrations will appeal both to much younger children as well as to older children and to adults, who can also benefit from the spiritual insights the book offers.