Joanna Gerber Pinkerton experienced a holy threshold in Glendalough, Ireland, through the story of St. Kevin, who chose gentleness over violence
Joanna Gerber Pinkerton is a freelance artist, who lives in Wichita, Kansas, with her husband, Randy. They are members of Hope Mennonite Church. Joanne believes that the creative process is a reflection of God’s energy at work for healing and wholeness. This belief is fundamental to her art.
“This is the first, the wildest, and the wisest thing I know:
that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.”
— Mary Oliver
With enough attentiveness, any place is potentially a holy threshold. Recently, I went on a pilgrimage to Celtic lands. A pilgrimage is distinguished from a vacation in that the focus of a pilgrimage is the soul’s inward journey. By this definition, one could make a pilgrimage without leaving home; however, traveling to a place that has attracted pilgrims for hundreds or thousands of years creates an intentional liminal space, often occupied by seekers. Attentive solidarity with the past and present weaves the threshold of time into a thin place.
One “thin place” we visited was the monastery in Glendalough, Ireland, that was founded by St. Kevin in the late 6th century. Most of the ruins of the monastic city that can be seen today are relatively new — dating back 1,000 years — and are not part of the wild landscape that St. Kevin entered, when he sought to live as a hermit.
Maybe the most famous legend of St. Kevin describes his holy temperament: As his hand was outstretched in prayer, a blackbird laid eggs in his hand. Kind and gentle, Kevin continued in prayer — with outstretched hand — until the eggs hatched and the chicks fledged.
Another legend explains how he came to Glendalough: St. Kevin lived in simple union with God and all creation. As a hermit, St. Kevin was searching for a lonely place, away from the populace. He wandered down the Wicklow Way until he came upon a glen that held two lakes between the mountains, an upper lake and a lower lake: Glendalough —“lough” is pronounced like “lock” and means “lake.”
When St. Kevin arrived, there was a small village near the lower lake. He soon learned that the villagers lived in fear of a monster that hid in the lake. This monster would unexpectedly rampage, pillage and terrorize the villagers. St. Kevin had compassion for the villagers. Possessing holy power, St. Kevin banished the monster to the upper lake. Then, he proceeded to climb to the upper lake, above which he made his hermit cell in a cave. There, he befriended the monster. Tamed, the monster no longer threatened the village people.
What draws me to this story? Often stories include a hero who kills the monster to save the princess or the town. Eastern Christianity even has a dragon-slaying saint, St. George.
But here, in ancient Celtic Christianity, we find an attentive, compassionate saint, who is so secure in his communion with God and creation that he offers a nonviolent way through fear.
How might St. Kevin’s behavior inform our inner journeys or “soul building,” as Mary Oliver calls it? Through attentiveness and courage, St. Kevin tamed the monster with compassion. Perhaps, if we practice opening our hearts with gentleness and empathy when we face fears, we, too, can enter the holy threshold within us, to become peacemakers with ourselves, one another and creation.
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