St Kevin was a hermit who lived in Ireland in the 6th century. Some of the legends and stories about him that survive are starting to inspire the way that I make art and explore what it means to do the strange task that the church has given me here in Sheffield.
Kevin was a man who constantly sought solitude. He would go out into the forests of the Wicklow Mountains, particularly in the area known as Glendalough (the valley with two lakes) and then, amidst the deep dark mossy green, in the womb of the forest, he would pray. And as he prayed people would come to him. His fame spread and soon so many people sought him out that he ended up founding a monastery in the valley. From the stories that surround him you get the impression of someone unsettled by the limelight, whenever he is able to he retreats deeper into the woodland’s heart.
One of the stories told of his life tells of the time he went to pray in the forest with his arms outstretched. In the stillness a blackbird flew and alighted on his open hand. As he held that place of gentle meditation the bird laid her eggs. And so he held his palm open, cradling them, holding that still place, for the two weeks it took for the eggs to hatch.
I love this story of stillness beckoning and nurturing life. It’s the opposite model of Christianity that many churches seem to espouse today. This isn’t a faith that goes out and shouts about itself, urgently and eagerly trying to persuade people to a particular system of doctrines and beliefs. It’s a faith that takes an inward journey towards stillness; withdrawing into quiet. But that withdrawing isn’t a retreat from the world, instead it is a deep engagement with the world. It’s only in stillness that the timid creatures of the forest can emerge.
And so if we can find a similar stillness in our own souls then that enables us to be with people in such a way as to encourage their hidden riches to emerge. So often when we engage with others our own ego is to the fore: we’re thinking what to say next, how too look clever, cool or funny and how to forward our own agendas. It’s a discipline to allow our ego to withdraw from the shared space so that we can genuinely and deeply engage with the other person. If we can hold a space in that way, with St Kevin’s gentle outstretched hand, then all kinds of surprising life and wonders will come out of the shadows. Whatever does grow there we can be sure it will be outside of our control and that the moment we try to grasp it in order to own it we will destroy it as surely as a hand clenching around a little blue egg.
That’s what I’m aiming for in the space at 35 Chapel Walk in the heart of Sheffield, a place where all kinds of people hurry by each day. The desire is to create a still space, a sacred space, a beautiful and creative space. And in that stillness in the midst of the city who can tell what life might emerge from the shadows?
Even today, as I walked to the artspace in order to make the image to accompany this piece I was pondering on how to enable the premises to be used by art students in the city for their exhibitions. Who might we need to contact? What publicity might we need to produce? It turns out all I needed was the hand of St Kevin. When I arrived at Chapel Walk a handwritten note had been pushed under the door. It was a message from an art student who had been passing by and had looked through the window at the space inside. She was asking whether she and some of her fellow students would be able to show some of their work there for an arts festival this spring.
Slowly I’m beginning to trust that life will emerge if we take the time to find this stillness and to live with Kevin’s patient, open hand.