The other day I stumbled upon the story of St. Kevin, a Celtic hermit-monk born in 498 AD, and a blackbird. The saint raised his hands outside his cell and began to pray, and as he stood, a blackbird came and rested in his hand. He stood so long and so still in his prayer, that the bird laid her egg in his palm. St. Kevin remained there, hand outstretched, until the little bird hatched and flew away. An Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, tells the story this way:
“. . . Kevin feels the warm egg, 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 . . .”
I don’t know when or where through the years that our culture moved away from stewardship and towards an exploitive interpretation of dominion (domination) over the natural world. I am certainly glad to see that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are teaching a return to the care of the planet and all of creation. It is heartening to a tree-hugger like myself to see this happening.
This is an excerpt from the bishop’s statement: Renewing the Earth, November 14, 1991, quoting Thomas Aquinas from the Summa Theologica: God “produced man and diverse creatures so that what was wanting to one in representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another… hence the whole universe together participates in the divine goodness more perfectly, and represents it better than any single creature whatever.”
The bishops themselves go on to say: “Accordingly, it is appropriate that we treat other creatures and the natural world not just as the means to human fulfillment but also as God’s creatures, possesing an independent value, worthy of our respect and care.” (Renewing the Earth, Part III, Section B).
A little further research of my own revealed that however society might have strayed from this teaching and reverence for God’s creation, the church’s word has always been consistent. Many of our saints were living examples of this, from St. Kevin nurturing the blackbird, and other animals, to the beloved St. Francis of Assisi who tamed a wolf and preached to the birds. There are other saints with a great affinity for animals: St. Seraphim who befriended a bear, St. Macarius of the Desert, who healed a blind hyena puppy with the sign of the cross, and St. Hubert, who rescued and sheltered dogs during a medieval rabies epidemic.
St. Cuthbert, who lived as a monk and hermit on an island in Northern England, was widely loved and his wisdom sought after. He instituted special laws to protect Eider Ducks and other nesting seabirds on the island cliffs. His laws were the first bird protection laws in the world. The Eider Duck is known locally as the Cuddy Duck, after the saint who protected them.
The linguistics scholar Kenneth Jackson says this of the early hermits in his 1935 book, Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry: “The woodland birds might sing to him around his cell, but through it all, rarely expressed, always implicit, is the understanding that the bird and hermit are joining together in an act of worship; to him the very existence of nature was a song of praise in which he himself took part by entering into harmony with nature.”