I see you’re still on meditation. Why this new-fangled trendy stuff when the great dogmas of the faith are there waiting to be expounded – and there was never more need for that than now. People can't live on a diet of pap, we need solid food. I thought that the Dominicans were strong on theology…. Not being offensive or anything, but take my advice and get your teeth into something more solid than meditation…. Matt B.
Your letter brought my mind back to St Kevin of Glendalough and a related image of meditation, which I'll come back to in a minute.
Most Irish people remember the gravelly voice of Ronnie Drew singing ‘The Glendalough Saint.’
“In Glendalough there was an oul’ saint
Renowned for his learnin’ and piety.”
That song, you remember, told of an incident where St Kevin heroically defended his celibacy against ‘Kathleen from over the way.’ She was a persistent one and followed him home – or rather she got there before him and seemed bent on taking over his life.
“When he got back to his rockery
He found she was seated therein,
A-polishin’ up his oul’ crockery.”
That did it for Kevin, and he cooled her ardour by submerging her in the lake on the coldest day of the year.
That was spirituality at its most robust – when men were men and women did the dishes.
Luckily that is not the only story about St Kevin. There's another, which you may not like as much. He was meditating one day with arms outstretched in his narrow cell. The cell was so narrow indeed that his hands protruded through the windows on both sides. He meditated so long that a bird came and built her nest in his palm. When she laid three eggs in it he decided that he would continue to meditate until the chicks were hatched and fledged – so reluctant was he to disturb this gentle process of nature.
Remember, these two stories are about one and the same Kevin. This seems to be telling us that there is no opposition between toughness and gentleness. Or, to the point here, between dogma and meditation. In fact, if anything, meditation requires more of you than the study of dogmatic theology does. Study claims your mind, but meditation claims your whole being. Try it and you will see for yourself that it is not easy. It is subtle and demanding and full-time. You have to be very tough and determined to keep at it for the rest of your life. It is not the easy option. Nor is it something new-fangled: even in 7th-century Glendalough it was already an ancient practice.
You don’t need to believe the story (it isn’t a dogma), but what a perfect image of meditation it is! You can find Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ on the internet. Here are a couple of lines:
“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.”
He wasn’t set to gain anything by it, he wasn’t looking for a miracle, nor even for higher wisdom, ‘he has forgotten self,’ wrote Heaney. He was just filled with tenderness for the world around him. And unlike us, he wasn’t trying to accelerate everything to a machine-pitch; instead he slowed himself down to the pace of living beings.
Make a pilgrimage to Glendalough, Matt. It is a wonderful peaceful gentle place. When I suggested to a visiting friend from Paris that we drive there she agreed at once. When we got there I noticed that she seemed familiar with everything. I asked if this was her first visit. “No,” she said, “this is my seventh visit.” And that was the literal truth, not a story.