Everyday and commonplace, the sight and sound of a blackbird is familiar and strangely comforting. According to Irish folklore, if we place blackbird feathers under someone’s pillow, they will tell us their innermost secrets. For some, blackbirds symbolise reincarnation. In the Christian tradition, a lover of nature, the 7th century Irish saint, Kevin, let a blackbird nest in his hand. The magical story of St Kevin and the Blackbird is expressed well by the poet, Seamus Heaney:
And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.
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: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.
Sensing the Sublime, the Sacred, through nature is as old as humanity itself. The shiny blackness of the male blackbird is striking. In Christian folklore, it is said that birds marked with red or pink, such as the robin, swallow or goldfinch, were present at the crucifixion and gained their colouring from the blood spilt as they pulled the thorns from Christ’s forehead. Blackness has a meaning and dignity of its own: a deep, black darkness fell in the final three hours of Christ’s life.
In the Christmas carol, ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, we sing the line, ‘four calling birds’. Written in the 18th century, it was perhaps originally ‘four colly birds’. Colly meaning ‘black as coal’ was a nickname for the common blackbird.
As I prepare this piece, a female blackbird gently hops around the garden at the front of the manse while another scuttles across the road, momentarily hiding in the shade beneath a neighbour’s car. One strong memory from my childhood was listening to a male blackbird singing each night perched high on a television aerial; a voice clear and out of all proportion to his size and slight frame, and heard as if there were no other sounds in the cooling dusk air. Another childhood memory is of a blackbird’s nest in the blackcurrant bush at the bottom of the garden.
For me, blackbirds, particularly their songs, are the subtlest reminder of God’s tender friendship from childhood. Plato said that, ‘Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything’. It is on the fifth day of creation that God said, ‘Let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the heavens’. In the Song of Songs, a poem of God’s unquenchable love for us, the Bride is elated when she sees the Bridegroom: ‘the season of birdsong is come’. And Jesus, mystic of Nazareth, attuned to the Presence, spoke easily of the companionship of the birds in the sky, birds which, with the eye of the heart, revealed ultimate trust in our Eternal Lover.
Let us not let familiarity blind us to the gift of blackbirds. I imagine heaven to be a garden in which we hear blackbirds sing.