Legends of Saints and Birds – Saint Columbanus

You have heard of Saint Kentigern, who preached the faith to the people of Strathclyde, or Cumbria; of Saint Cuthbert, who laboured for Northumbrian folk; of Guthlac, who lived in the fens and in whose honour Croyland Abbey was built; of Columba, who left Ireland, going to Scotland to win souls for Christ. Hear now of another saint, an Irishman, as was Columba, bearing the same name too, for he also was called Columbanus, or Columban, which in Latin is Columba, a dove.

But this Columba was born twenty-two years after Columcille – the Dove of the Church – and though they bore the same name, held the same Faith, and preached the same Gospel, one of them took the glad tidings to North Britain, the other journeyed over sea and land to France and Italy. Ireland has been called the Isle of Saints, because of the number of holy, men and women who lived there, and these men remembered our Lord’s command, “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation”; so that all over Europe we find the monasteries that they built, the churches and bishoprics that they founded. From Iceland in the north, through England, France, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany, to Italy in the south, there are many places which might not have known the Faith had not God put it into the hearts of these men from that small green island in the Atlantic Ocean to go forth in His name, preaching the Gospel.

Saint Columban’s home was in the west of Leinster, and he was taught at a small school on the island of Cleenish, in Lough Erne, by a Saint who was a disciple of Saint Finnian of Clonard. From Cleenish he went to study at Beannchoir (Bangor), in County Down. Saint Comgall, of whom you have heard in the tale of the swans, was the head and founder of Bangor. Here Columban lived for a while, studying under Comgall. But often he thought that a voice called to him, and he could not forget its message, “Get thee out of thy country and from thy kindred and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee.”

Thus Columban, as Abraham of old, thought the Voice spake to him, and a desire came upon him to obey the command.

But at first Comgall begged him not to go. Why not stay in Ireland and teach there? But in Columban’s ears the message rang clear, “Get thee out of thy country.”

Then Columban’s will prevailed against Comgall’s, and sorrowfully the Abbot bade him good-bye, bidding him go forth in Christ’s name.

So Columban sailed from Ireland with twelve monks, whom Saint Comgall had given to him for companions in his journeying, Columban being at this time about thirty years old. To Scotland first they went, where perchance Columban saw his great namesake, and from England they sailed to Gaul, which in those days was the name for France.

Now, Gaul at this time was in a very troublous state: three brothers were Kings there, each ruling over a different part and ofttimes quarrelling. The people of Gaul were not altogether heathen; they knew of Christ, but heeded not His precepts, neither obeyed His laws, and Columban wished to turn their hearts from evil and bring them into the paths of godliness.

But for a while the saint could not teach the people, for he did not speak the same language; neither could the Gauls understand Irish nor yet Latin, which was the speech of the Church. Yet they watched the monks, wondering who they could be and whence they came, these men clad in coarse woollen habits, worn over white tunics, with staves in their hands and leathern water-bottles, relic-cases, writing-tablets, and wallets hanging from their girdles or strapped to their shoulders.

At last Columban could both understand and speak to the people, so when they asked, “Whence comest thou?” he answered, “I am an Irish pilgrim, and my speech and actions are like my name, which in Latin is Columba – a dove.”

And it was because he was so gentle and dove-like that those wild Gauls allowed him and his fellows to dwell there.

Now, Columban was sad to see the wicked ways of the three Kings, and he rebuked them. One of them listened to his words, at length telling the Saint that he would give him whatever he should ask if he would but stay in Gaul and help him to rule his part of the kingdom.

But Columban told him that they wished not for earthly comforts. “We are followers of Jesus Christ, who saith, ‘Whosoever will be My disciple, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.'”

When the King heard that, he still entreated the monks to remain, so they settled at a place called Annegray, on the borders of Alsace and Burgundy. Here they built their monastery; here they lived on the wild fruit and herbs, often hungry for want of food.

Like most Saints, Columban loved animals, and it is told of him how the wild forest beasts would come to him and obeyed his voice. One day many wolves came to him with intent to kill him, but when Columban spake to them they harmed him not, but went back into the forest. It was a wolf who lived high among the rocks whither Columban used to go to pray who gave up her den for an oratory for him, never hurting him when he rested and prayed there. The birds loved him, fluttering down from the trees to perch on his shoulders; the timid, bright-eyed squirrels ran to him, playing at hide-and-seek in his cowl. Here he and the brethren dwelt for some years; here he gave them their rule, bidding them wear white garments in token of the purity in which their lives should be spent. Two other monasteries he founded in Gaul – Fontaines and Luxeuil – ere he was called to labour in other lands. It is too long a tale to tell how or why he left Annegray, or of the trouble he went through ere on his journey to Italy he parted with one of the brethren, Saint Gall, who stayed in Switzerland, Columban going on to Milan. In Italy he laboured until his working time was over. At a place called Bobio his pilgrim feet had rest ere death came for him. Here the copy of the Gospels which he had carried in his wallet from Ireland remained, among other precious books, for the library at Bobio was one of the greatest there was.

Even after all these years some of the books remain carefully treasured at Milan, at Turin, and at Rome. And in one of the books which was taken to Bobio from Ireland in the ninth century, and is now at Milan, was found the hymn “Sancti Venite Christi corpus sumete.”

And the legend is that this Irish hymn was first heard by the great Saint Patrick as he drew nigh to a church wherein the Holy Sacrifice was being offered, but those who sang it were the angels.

We often sing this hymn, for a good man called Dr. Neale put it into English for us. Therefore when we sing

“Draw nigh and take the Body of the Lord,
And drink the holy Blood for you outpoured,”

let us remember to thank Him, who “His Saints in this world rules and shields,” for the lives of the men He called from Ireland to be labourers in His vineyard.

– taken from Legends of Saints and Birds by Agnes Aubrey Hilton