Saint Columba, Apostle of Scotland, by A C Storer

Saint Columba, Apostle of Scotland, by A C Storer“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that brings glad tidings, that publishes peace.” – Isaias 52:7

In the foremost ranks of her great missionary saints Mother Church places Saint Columba, “the Apostle of Scotland,” whose zeal in founding churches and monasteries in Ireland, the land of his birth, and in Scotland, the country of his adoption, has won for him the endearing name, “Columbkille, the Dove of the Churches.”

Born December 7th, A.D. 521, at Gartan, amid the picturesque wilds of Donegal, Columba’s great future is said to have been foretold in a vision to his mother, the Princess Eithne of the royal house of Leinster, an angel declaring to her: “Thou art about to give birth to a son who shall blossom for heaven, who shall be reckoned among the prophets of God, and who shall lead numberless souls to the heavenly country.” Belonging, as he did, to a race which had reigned in Ireland for over six centuries, Columba might himself have succeeded to the throne had he not given at an early age unmistakable signs of having been called, not to the company of the princes of this earth, but to the ranks of that royal and eternal priesthood whose mission it is “to preach the Gospel to the poor, to heal the contrite of heart” (Luke 4:18). His biographer, Adamnan, the ninth abbot of Iona, tells us his early childhood was passed in the care of a learned and holy priest, from whose tutelage he passed to the great monasteries of Moville and Clonard, at both famous schools pursuing his theological studies with ardor, and finally receiving the crowning grace of ordination at Clonard. The young monk’s force of character, eloquence, rare administrative ability, and influential connection with many of the provincial kings, combined to raise him with surprising rapidity to positions of importance. He is accredited with the foundation of over thirty monasteries in Ireland during this period, the largest and most famous be ing that of Derry, in his native province of Donegal. While ever deeply attached to all his monastic creations, Columba regarded beautiful Derry with special tenderness, as is shown by the following translation of an old Gaelic song ascribed to him:

“Were all the tributes of Scotia mine,
From its midlands to its borders,
I would give all for one little cell
In my beautiful Derry.
For its peace and for its purity,
For the white angels that go
In crowds from one end to the other,
I love my beautiful Derry.
For its quietness and its purity,
For heaven’s angels that come and go
Under every leaf of the oaks,
I love my beautiful Derry.
Beloved are Sords and Kells,
But sweeter and fairer to me
The salt sea where the sea gulls cry;
When I come to Derry from afar,
It is sweeter and dearer to me –
Sweeter to me.”

Columba’s deep affection for the homes of his spiritual sons is still more ardently expressed in another writing attributed to the poet monk:

“O Arran, my sun, my heart is in the west with thee. To sleep on thy pure soil is as good as to be buried in the land of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. To live within the sound of thy bells is to live in joy. O Arran, my sun, my love is in the west with thee.”

Besides possessing this strong poetical taste and keen appreciation for all natural as well as spiritual worth and loveliness, he shared to an even unusual degree the national characteristic of intense restlessness and vehement inclination to travel and change of scene and action. Combined with these traits, the indirect cause of Columba’s migration to Caledonia appears to have been his assiduity in multiplying copies of Holy Scripture, the natural result of his great devotion to the study of God’s Written Word. Thus we are told that this zealous scholar, while visiting Clonard, without permission copied a Psalter particularly prized by its owner, the Abbot Finnian. On discovering this perpetration, Finnian very naturally waxed exceedingly indignant and demanded that the copy as well as the original volume should be at once returned to him. Columba’s peremptory refusal to comply with the abbot’s wish led to the matter being referred to King Diarmid, or Dermott, supreme monarch of all Ireland. The king, although a kinsman of the offender, decided against him, saying that “to every cow belongs its calf” and to every book its copy, and that consequently the copy of the Psalter as well as the original volume must be returned to Finnian. Columba protested, declared the verdict was unjust, and, monk though he was, for the moment desired revenge. Almost immediately an event occurred which still further increased his sense of wrong. A young provincial prince to whom the abbot was deeply attached, was slain by Diarmid’s orders while seeking refuge with him, and his indignation at this violation of the laws of sanctuary, as he considered the deed, was unbounded. He at once instigated his relatives, the kings of the West and North, to marshal their forces against Diarmid, who, with his followers, was defeated in the battle of Cool-Drewny and obliged to retreat to Tara. Al though victorious, Columba had soon to suffer both from remorse of soul and from the condemnation of his ecclesiastical brethren. The latter solemnly accused him of having caused the shedding of Christian blood, and charged him to win to Our Lord by his preaching as many pagan souls as the number of Christians who had fallen at Cool-Drewny.

We have seen thus far how Columba, passionate and imperious as he was by nature, was led by anger* but now, at this crucial point in his career, we be hold him responding wholly, and with no backward glance, to the leadings of Divine Grace. Profoundly moved by remorse, he bowed to the sentence pronounced and sought further direction from his confessor. The friend of his soul not only bade him anew tp devote the remainder of his days to missionary labors, but also to spend them in exile from his beloved Ireland. The severe judgment pierced its hearer to the heart, but like a true penitent Columba prepared to obey at once his friend’s bid ding. Nor was he destined to go alone into exile. Twelve young disciples, after fervent pleading, obtained permission to accompany their reverend abbot, the youngest, Mochonna, son of the King of Ulster, replying to those who would dissuade him from leaving his country, “My country is where I can gather the largest harvest for Christ.” These voluntary exiles chose as their field of labor unconquerable Caledonia, that dread land peopled by the imagination of the times with all manner of demons and evil spirits. Columba and his companions straightway embarked in a frail coracle or bark of osier covered with hide, and after a tempestuous voyage landed on the desolate little island to which they gave the name of I-Colm-Kill, or, as we know it today, the Isle of Iona.

This missionary undertaking, so fraught with mighty consequences to western Christendom, occurred in the year 563. Columba and his monks immediately commenced preparations for the peaceful mission to which from henceforth every energy was to be consecrated. Choosing for the site of their monastery the most sheltered spot the lonely isle afforded, they raised rude huts of branches and wattles, and a church, making its walls of wickerwork and mud, intertwined with growing ivy, and thatching its roof with heather and rushes. Columba’s successors replaced these primitive monastery buildings again and again by others hardly more pretentious, and it must be noted that the ruins seen at Iona to-day are of erections which, though very ancient and occupying the site of the original foundations, are in reality of a much later date.

Even while engaged in all this laborious manual labor, tilling the ground and preparing habitations for the community, Columba ceased not to mourn his beloved Ireland. “Death in faultless Ireland is better than life without end in Albyn!” he exclaims, and this intense home-longing is poured forth in a message to his native land:

“What joy to fly upon the white-crested sea, and to watch the waves beat upon the Irish shore! What joy to row the little bark and land among the whitening foam upon the Irish shore! * * * There is a grey eye which ever turns to Erin; but never in this life shall it see Erin, nor her sons nor her daughters. From the high prow I look over the sea, and great tears are in my grey eyes when I turn to Erin – to Erin where the songs are so sweet, and where the clerks sing like the birds. * * * My heart is broken in my breast: if death comes to me suddenly it will be because of the great love I bear to the. Gael.”

It is said that our saint through all his long exile could never trust himself to speak Ireland’s name, and when bidding farewell to guests who were to return thither, could only say, “You will return to the country you love.”

After having provided his monks with such material shelter as was needful, Columba devoted every thought to animating the new community with an exalted spirit of self-sacrifice and zeal for souls, and to establishing a comprehensive system of active service which combined the most fruitful forms of intellectual and manual labor. The great abbot then commenced making friendly overtures to the inhabitants of the neighboring regions, confirming, many in the faith, converting still greater numbers, and so, little by little, ever carrying the light of the Gospel farther and farther north. The Venerable Bede says: “There came into Britain from Ireland a famous priest and abbot, a monk by habit and life, whose name was Columba, to preach the Word of God: a perfect sage, believing in Christ, learned, chaste, and charitable: he was noble, he was gentle, he was the physician of the heart of every sage, a shelter to the naked, a consolation to the poor: there went not from the world one who was more constant in the remembrance of the cross.”

Thus during a missionary career of over thirty-four years Columba not only bore the Gospel’s glad tidings to the people of the neighboring islands, but undertook countless perilous sea-voyages to the war-like tribes of Caledonia’s uttermost north; to those formidable tribes who, according to Tacitus, inhabited the extremities of the earth and were the last and victorious champions of freedom against the Roman invaders. These fierce peoples, unsubdued by the swords of the Roman generals, were won by Columba and his disciples to embrace the standard of the Prince of Peace. Everywhere the indefatigable missionaries preached and baptized, planted churches and schools, and taught the civilizing industries of agriculture and navigation. An ancient song expresses the affection inspired by these daring navigators, who counted no danger of the treacherous sea too great to encounter when there was hope of winning souls to their divine Master:

“Honor to the soldiers who live at Iona.
There are three times fifty under the monastic rule,
Seventy of whom are appointed to row,
And cross the sea in their leathern bark.”

Besides making these missionary voyages to Caledonia’s Ultima Thule, Columba, in his later years, visited his monastic foundations in Ireland, acting on these occasions as arbiter in various national difficulties, notably in that arising when the existence of the great bardic order as a corporate body was threatened. While thus engaged, Columba always returned in the intervals to the loved monastery at I-colm-kill and resided there altogether during his last years. Very soon after their erection, the original community buildings proved too small to enclose all who came thither, attracted by their founder’s holiness and the desire to follow in his foot steps. Modern research attributes to the mother-foundation at Iona the existence in Scotland of many churches, each with its monastery attached. Traces of many of these churches may still be found in the mainland of modern Scotland and in the Western Isles, and, according to Montalembert, the most enlightened judges among Scotch Protestants agree in attributing to the teachings of Columba, to his foundations, and to his disciples, all the primitive churches and the very ancient parochial division of Scotland. As the years of Columba’s ministry passed swiftly by, many be sides intending neophytes journeyed to I-colm-kill to seek counsel and spiritual enlightenment of the holy man, whose fame now extended to distant lands. Hither came kings and fishermen, prelates and monks, men and women of high and low degree, but whatever their station, none left Columba’s presence without receiving something of that supernatural life which in him, as in all God’s saints, ever burned luminously – a light unto the souls of men. Truly, as the Psalmist declares, “it is good to sing praises unto our God,” “who makes His ministers a flaming fire.”

Always eager in his all-embracing charity to succor the sin-laden, broken-hearted, oppressed or distressed pilgrims who visited I-colm-kill, Columba ever loved most devotedly his spiritual sons, those who were nearest to him, and towards the end appears to have even redoubled his unceasing thought of them. In Adamnan’s biography, every word from the abbot to his companions begins, “Dear children,” or, “My children.” He is always addressed with the same affectionate simplicity, and examples abound showing his tender solicitude and consideration for the brethren in the daily relations of the community life. However, though thus evincing extreme gentleness and sympathy towards all worthy such a bearing, it must not be forgotten that to the very end Columba remained dauntless and energetic of action whenever there was an injustice to be set right or an outrage to be punished with severity and promptitude.

The account of our saint’s “final fading heavenward is deeply touching. It appears that Columba, having received a revelation that his course was nearly run, asked to be led up the “little hill,” “the abbot’s knoll,” from whence all Iona can be seen, with the blue waters beyond, so often anxiously scanned for the first glimpse of his returning missionaries. Here, gazing for the last time on the scene which had grown so dear, he raised the wan hands so often extended in blessing, and said to the weeping brethren: “Dear children, unto this place, albeit so small and poor, great homage shall yet be paid, not only by the kings and people of the Scots, but by the rulers of barbarous and distant nations, with their people also. In great veneration, too, shall it be held by the holy men of other churches.”

After this prophetic benediction he spoke but once, counselling his community to ever observe in all things charity mutual and sincere, love of God and of their neighbor. Then, hastening to the church, the aged abbot bent in supplication before the altar, while his brethren gathered about “weeping as one man at sight of their dying father. Columba opened his eyes once more, and turned them on his children on either side with a look full of serene and radiant joy. Then he raised, as best he might, his right hand to bless them all; his hand dropped, the last sigh came from his lips; and his face remained calm and sweet like that of a man who in his sleep had seen a vision of heaven.”

So lived and died Columba, powerful of intellect, holy of soul, fired with burning zeal through all the strenuous and varied labors of his long, prayerful life. He was not merely a great apostle and monastic founder, but, above and beyond all these, a friend and benefactor to all men. An intensely positive character, whose growth and development it is rarely helpful to study, because we see therein revealed one who, like the very least of us in many ways by nature, imperious, intensely selfish, proud, little disposed to prayer and heavenly things, yet pressed steadily on in the narrow way, and at last by loving and generous obedience to the Divine Guidance so completely gained the mastery over these weaknesses and evil passions that he could say with his great prototype, Saint Paul, “I live now not I, but Christ lives in me,” to Whom be the praise and the glory.

– text and image from the article “Saint Columba, Apostle of Scotland”, by A C Storer from the The Rosary Magazine, January 1905