Saturday, June 09, 2007

St. Columba, Abbot of Iona

Columba, son of Phelim, of the royal house of Niall of the Nine Hostages, was born in the year 521 at Gotten, in the wilds of Donegal in northern Ireland. He was given two names at his baptism: Crimthann, meaning wolf and Colum, which means dove. It is said that as a child he was in church so often that he was nicknamed Coumcille, meaning dove of the church. History knows him by the Latin form of his name, Columba. Bishop Moorman describes Columba as "Tall, broad, vigorous, tempestuous, with a voice of thunder, he could strike terror in to the heart of any who opposed him." R. H. Hodgkin describes him as "A typical Irishman, vehement, irresistible: hear him curse a niggardly rich man or bless the heifers of a poor peasant; see him follow a robber who had plundered a friend, cursing the wretch to his destruction, following him to the water's edge, wading up to the knees in the clear, green sea-water, with both hands raised to heaven." Not exactly a docile sounding fellow!

Being of royal blood, he could have been raised to be a chieftain, but his parents dedicated him to God and gave him to the priest Cruithnechan for his education. He was an industrious student and moved along quickly in his studies. He was ordained a deacon by St. Fingan of Cionard, and, at the age of 24, was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Echtam. He began his religious vocation as a monk at the monastery in Glasnevin, but the community was forced to disband by an epidemic, and he returned home. He then traveled all over Ireland and established monasteries and churches, including Durrow and Kells.

Columba may have been a priest, but that didn't prevent him from getting involved in tribal politics and feuds. Around the year 560 a dispute regarding a copy of the psalter of Finian of Moville which Columba had surreptitiously, devaluing the original. Finian brought the matter to High King Dermott for his judgment, and Dermott ruled in favour of Finian, saying "to every cow its calf; to every book its copy." Columba refused to hand over the copy and the dispute escalated. Another reason for the escalation of the issue was that High King Dermott had slain Prince Cuman, a kinsman of Columba who was under Columba's protection, and Columba desired revenge. The dispute developed into a quarrel and soon entire tribes were involved and a battle took place at Culdreihmne. Columba led his forces to victory, killing three thousand of the enemy. He was filled with remorse and turned to his confessor, St. Molaise, who advised that Columba go into exile in the "land of the heathen Picts." Columba was not to return to Ireland until he had won for Christ as many souls as he had slain on the battlefield of Culdreihmne.

In 563 Columba left Ireland with twelve companions in a curaich, a frail, open, leather boat. They crossed the sea to Kintyre where they met with Columba's cousin, Connail. The monks then headed north and on May 12, 563, the eve of Pentecost, they arrived at Port-na-Curaich on an island which would become known as Iona. The island was barren and the monks had to ferry materials such as twigs and branches from the island of Mull. They built their monastery in the Celtic style, of course, with a church and refectory of wood, bee-hive huts of mud-and-wattle, and a wall surrounding the entire enclosure. The branches and twigs were even scarce on the island of Mull, and Columba rewarded the peasant from whose fields the materials were gathered with several bushels of barely which produced an abundant crop in record time! The oak logs used to build the church and refectory had to be brought over from the mainland. The monks later built a stable, granary and a mill.

The routine of the monks was very much like that they had lived in Ireland: they tilled the soil, fished, copied manuscripts and followed the routine of prayer and praise of the Monastic Hours. Columba is credited with bringing the art of writing to Scotland. He is said to have written or copied some 300 books. He developed his own Rule of Life with was different than any in the Western or Eastern Church. The monks fasted strictly, but they also practiced hospitality as a missionary tool, and they welcomed many visitors to Iona. The monks were encouraged to make the sign of the cross often: over the pail before milking (this would cast demons out of the bottom of the pail and prevent the spilling of any milk), over a lantern before lighting it, and over tools before using them. Columba saw the sign of the cross as a particularly powerful tool. It is said that when he and two interpreters went to see King Brude and his foster-father and close advisor, the Arch Druid Broichan, they found the gates of the castle locked. Columba made the sign of the cross over the gate and it swung open on its own. Columba was unimpressed with the power of the Druids and he often beat them at their own game, crying "Christ is my Druid!" Broichan realized that he was facing a rival, so later, when Columba and the translators were on their way back to Iona, the Arch Druid conjured a great wind to frustrate their setting sail. Columba cried out "Christ is my Druid!" and sailed straight into the storm. The wind suddenly shifted and quickly propelled their craft on its way home. According to Columba's biographer, Adamnan, Columba was granted the gift of healing and prophecy. Water blessed by Columba had curative powers, and he also changed water into wine. When he celebrated the Holy Eucharist, an uncreated light was seen to shine down upon him. He went on many missionary journeys, to Northern Scotland and the Heathen Picts, to Aberdeen and the Orkneys and he even converted King Brude at Iverness. Columba divided his time between the communal life of the monastery and in the solitary life of a hermit. His bed and pillow were made of stone, and he often spent the night in prayer by himself in some solitary corner of the island.

One day in June, when he was 77 years old, an angel appeared to him while he was at the altar, celebrating the Holy Eucharist. The angel told him that he would soon be with the Lord. The next Saturday he went with his servant, Diarmid, to bless the winnowed corn in the barn. He told Diarmid that this would be his last Sabbath, and that he would be with the Lord on the Lord's Day. While on the path, he stopped to catch his breath and the old white horse of the community came to him, laid its head on his breast, and wept, knowing that they would soon part. He then climbed the hill above the monastery, looked down upon the island of Iona and the monastery and blessed it. He then prophesied that Iona would always be held in honor by kings and people, by the Scots and by churches across the sea. He then returned to his cell and resumed his work of copying the Psalter, stopping at the ninth verse of the thirty-fourth psalm Fear the Lord, you that are his saints, for those who fear him lack nothing. At midnight he rose from his bed and hurried into the church and straight up to the altar. The brothers found him lying on the ground before the altar and the entire place filled with a heavenly light. Diarmid knelt and put Columba's heard on his breast, and then lifted Columba's hand to so that the Spiritual Father could bless his children. The monks were weeping, of course, but Columba's face was beaming with ineffable joy. The monks were convinced that he saw the angels coming to take him home. He gave them all his benediction and then breathed his last. It was the dawn of the Lord's Day, June 9th, 597.

O God, by the preaching of your blessed servant Columba you caused the light of the Gospel to shine in Scotland: Grant, we pray, that, having his life and labors in remembrance, we may show our thankfulness to you by following the example of his zeal and patience; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


June Butler said...

Lovely, El Padre.

Mike Farley said...

Wonderful account - what a glorious man he must have been!

Now for something entirely off-topic. I hope you don't mind, but I've tagged you for one of those mad, confessional memes... see today's post on The Mercy Blog. Totally optional, of course... but you'll see why I tagged you when you get there!

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