The Life of Saint Columba, Abbot, and Apostle of the Northern Picts and Patron of the Monastic Order in Ireland

detail of a stained glass window depicting Saint Columba, created c.1900 by Meyer and Co; Cathedral of Saint Eugene, Derry, Northern Ireland; photographed on 17 September 2013 by Andreas F Borchert; swiped from Wikimedia Commons

“Iste est qui ante Deum magnos virtutes operatus est, et de omni corde suo laudavit Dominum.”

“This is he who before God operated wonders, and with all his heart praised the Lord.”

Birth and Holy Dispositions of Saint Columba – His Ecclesiastical Training at Saint Finnian’s – He Receives the Holy Order of Deacon

After having attempted to write the life of our illustrious Saint Patrick, with that of his spiritual daughter Bridget, the saintly patroness of Ireland, it is but meet, and may be expected, that we should also endeavor to furnish the biography of the holy Columba, or Columkille, who, living almost in the same era, filled with the same spirit, and enclosed in the same shrine, has ever been deemed with them one of Erin’s chief patrons, his name being interwoven with theirs in the reminiscences of Irish piety.

This glorious saint was born about the close of the year 521, so that as a spiritual star, he began to rise in the firmament of the Irish Church, just as Saint Bridget had disappeared therefrom to shine in heaven. His birth and future eminence were predicted during the lifetime of Saint Patrick, perhaps by the holy apostle himself. By his father, Mancanava, the blood of the Nialls, princes of Tyrconnel, flowed in his veins, while by his mother Aethena, who drew her origin from an illustrious family in Leinster, he was connected with Caithir, the reigning monarch of all Ireland.

Previous to his birth, a dream or vision of singular import admonished Aethena that her child was to be specially blessed by the Most High. While asleep one night, it seemed to her that an angel approached, bearing in his hand a robe of unparalleled beauty, which having presented to her, he after a short interval withdrew, and spreading it forth suffered the wind to carry it away. Disappointed at this strange proceeding, Aethena anxiously inquired why she had not been permitted to retain this beauteous garment, and her interrogatory was met by the reply that it could not be allowed to remain with her. Meanwhile, and as the angel spoke, Aethena kept her eyes steadfastly fixed on the mantle which was now balanced in the firmament; and as it ascended towards the heavens she perceived that its dimensions became so expanded, as that it extended over mountains, forests, and distant plains. The novelty and grandeur of the spectacle increased her regret for the loss of so extraordinary and magnificent a costume; but while feeling thus sadly, a voice consoled her with those words: “Woman, grieve not, for you shall bring forth a son, who will guide innumerable souls to heaven, and be counted among the prophets of the Most High.” This promise must surely have brought comfort to Aethena; our business is now to show how it was fulfilled. In early youth, or we might perhaps say infancy, Columba, owing to the piety of his parents, was committed to the tutelage of the venerable priest by whom he had been purified in the waters of baptism. Even then, the whole tenor of his conduct showed how strongly imbued he was with religious principles, for even then did he furnish presages of his future sanctity. “From his very childhood,” says Adamnan his biographer, “Columba was devoted to those exercises of piety which befitted his tender years; and so holily solicitous was he for the preservation of spotless purity of mind and body, that by the superior sanctity of his manners, though dwelling upon earth, he was already ripe for heaven.” But it was not alone by the pious life of the saintly Columba that the special predilection of heaven in his regard was made manifest; by the exercise of His omnipotence, too, did the Lord display the extraordinary love with which He cherished him. It happened, that while still abiding with Cruthenan, the holy priest who, as we have said, superintended his education, the good ecclesiastic returning home one day after the discharge of some sacred function, beheld as he approached his dwelling, the house illuminated with a pure and serene light, and as he entered he saw over the head of his pupil Columba, a luminous globe of fire as if suspended in the air, from which there was emitted a clear and steady radiance. Filled with amazement at this marvellous scene, the venerable man prostrated himself on the floor and admired in profound silence this expressive indication of the spiritual effulgence with which the soul of his favored charge was illuminated by heaven. Indeed, Columba was singularly favored in various ways; even when still a little boy, he recited the Psalms together with Brugacius, bishop at Rathenaigh, whither he had accompanied his preceptor, whom the prelate had invited to spend with him the Christmas festival.

But the time had now arrived when it became necessary to direct more particularly the attention of the young saint to those studies in which candidates for the sacerdotal ministry should be skilled, and to afford him an opportunity of pursuing such learning with advantage, he was transferred from the house of Cruthenan to the school of Moville, whose president was the great Saint Finnian, renowned among his countrymen for learning and sanctity. In early life he had had the good fortune to be placed under the care of Colman and Cælan, two ecclesiastics of whom there is honorable mention in the ancient annals of Ireland; by their advice he passed over into Britain in order to profit by the lectures which were delivered by Nennius at his seminary of Whitethorn, and after some time, he returned to Ireland and began to impart to the youth of his own vicinity, in a building appropriated for the purpose, that learning which he himself had journeyed so far to acquire. The fame of this new teacher soon spread through the island, and drew to his school numbers of the youth who aspired to the service of the altar. Columba, among others, here devoted several years to sacred studies, and with all the success which had been anticipated. His proficiency in evangelical perfection was equally rapid, so that he was soon raised to the holy order of Deaconship. While officiating in that character on one occasion, his ministry was honored by heaven in the following extraordinary manner, the miracle of Cana being renewed at his instance. The bishop of the diocess on a certain morning being about to celebrate the Eucharistic sacrifice, Columba, who was charged with the care of the altar, by his office, found “they” had “no wine” in the monastery, and moreover, that it could not be procured until after considerable delay. Without more ado, he went to a neighboring fountain, and having filled a vessel, which he had brought with him, from its limpid source, he prayed that the name of the Lord might be once more magnified by a renewal of the wonder effected at the marriage feast. He was heard; for on the instant, the liquid element again felt the power of the Divinity, and Columba, full of rapture at the sight, exclaimed, as he returned to the assembled clergy, “Here is wine, which the Lord Jesus has furnished for the celebration of His Mysteries!”

When the period arrived which terminated the holy deacon’s residence in the monastery of Saint Finnian, feeling desirous of becoming still more perfect in virtue and learning, he did not on leaving Moville at once return home, but for some time placed himself under the tuition of a certain master named Germanus, who had recently come from a foreign country, and had already acquired a high reputation in Ireland for piety and literature. The same special Providence who had hitherto watched over and illustrated the opening career of our saint, still continued its loving care of him. His new preceptor clearly saw that Columba was a cherished object of the divine predilection, having among other proofs less equivocal, evidence that the Almighty on a certain occasion revealed to him the judgment which he was about to visit on a guilty individual.

Saint Columba Founds the Monasteries of Tyrconnel and Durrough – He Is Ordained Priest – Glorious Testimony to His Sanctity – He Establishs Other Religious Houses – And Finally Leaves Ireland for Hy in the Hebrides

But the time at length came in which our saint was to do great things for God, and to realize the projects which he had long conceived for promoting His glory. The fervent Columba was now in his twenty-fifth year, and perceiving from the example of the holy men his contemporaries, as well as those who had already passed to a glorious immortality, that the great object which he had in view would be best attained by multiplying throughout the land monastic institutions, he determined on laboring for their establishment, that the edifying example of the members should be every where felt; their observance of evangelical perfection invariably furnishing a powerful incentive to the national piety.

Convinced that his native locality had a stronger claim on his exertions in the good cause, to Tyrconnel did Columba wend his way to solicit from his princely relatives still in power, a convenient site for a monastery, with as much of the adjoining land as might be deemed sufficient for its maintenance. He succeeded: such a request was quite in accordance with the noble and generous spirit that has ever characterized true Irish piety, and the monastery was erected full soon, on a gentle eminence adorned with a rich grove of majestic oaks, whence it derived its appellative of Doire Calgaich. When the internal economy of the new fabric was satisfactorily arranged, when hymns of praise and canticles of joy were sung, and above all, when the adorable Victim of our salvation was offered within its sacred precincts, the holy founder prepared to visit other parts of the country to make them participators in similar blessings. Dairmagh, now Durrough, was the next territory in which he erected a monastery; and here too were his efforts blessed with most complete success; for in a short time this structure might compete with its parent house at Tyrconnel, in confering great advantages on the community at large, as well as upon its immediate vicinity.

The period was now at hand when Columba was to be elevated to the priesthood; and how did he prepare to enter upon and receive so great a dignity? We may imagine something of the holy reverence, the angelic fervor, which he who had been brought up in the shadow of the sanctuary, and inviolably faithful to his first grace, brought to the priesthood; his great interior lights, the result of his purity of heart and strict union with God, enabling him to see more clearly that none but saints, or such as resolutely strive for the perfection of sanctity, are fit to “stand before the Lord to minister in His sight,” to interpose between Him and His people, and so to speak, “to make, by the word of their mouth, the sacred body of the Incarnate Word Christ Jesus.” It was to Etchen, bishop of Meath, that the holy candidate had recourse for ordination. This prelate was descended from an illustrious family in Leinster, but he had stronger claims to the veneration of his countrymen than any which can be derived from a glorious ancestry. Etchen, notwithstanding his noble birth, was remarkable for apostolic simplicity, and emulating the example of the first founders of the Catholic church, was distinguished for the practice of the most exalted virtues. Columba on arriving at his habitation, found this humble prelate at the plough, discharging during the hours which his episcopal functions left free, the laborious duties of a husbandman. He was welcomed with all that kindness and charity which religion inspires, and having made known the object of his visit, was duly ordained priest. Some of our ancient writers assert, that in commendatory letters from some of the Irish bishops which Columba produced on this occasion, there were instructions to Etchen to promote him not only to the priesthood, but even to the episcopacy, but that it happened through some inadvertence on the part of the prelate, that this was overlooked. When apprized of his mistake, he urged the new priest to permit him to supply the rite of consecration unintentionally omitted, but Columba conceiving that the occurrence was directed by divine Providence, could not be prevailed upon to acquiesce, and formed the resolution which he ever after faithfully kept, of remaining for life in the subordinate rank of the priesthood.

After his ordination, Columba returned to Durrough, and ere departing thence met with one of those trials which are not wanting to prove the humility and meekness of the saints of God, but which ended to his glory. The holy man, it seems, had adopted certain measures regarding his monastery, which being disapproved of by some of the neighboring prelates, were deemed a necessary subject of inquiry at a synod then holding, in a place named Geisille, in the vicinity of Durrough; and the result of this inquiry was a resolution to visit the holy founder with an ecclesiastical censure. Apprized of the matter under debate, the saint proceeded to the synod, which he reached just as the prelates had determined to impose upon him this severe punishment. As he entered, Brendan, abbot of Birr, an ecclesiastic of high character and great influence, rose to salute and welcome him, which was at once protested against by the bishops, it being, they said, a great impropriety to show any mark of attention to a person whom the council had condemned. “Ah,” replied the abbot, “had you seen what the Lord has been pleased to manifest to me to-day regarding this His elect, whom you are censuring, you would not have passed that sentence. Wrong it is, and the Lord by no means excommunicates him in virtue thereof, but rather more and more exalts him.” The synod were surprised at this remonstrance of holy Brendan’s, and at once the individuals composing it, each and all anxiously inquired in what manner God had manifested his approbation of Columba and his measures. The good abbot then informed them, that while the saint was on the way to the council, he saw a luminous pillar preceding him, and blessed angels accompanying him through the plain. “I dare not, therefore,” he continued, “treat him with disrespect, for I see that he is a man pre-ordained by God to be the guide of nations to eternal life.” This extraordinary announcement made by a witness whose sanctity was incontestible, induced the council to reconsider the proceedings which they had adopted against Columba, and the result was so favorable, that without further delay, the sentence of excommunication was reversed, and each person present emulated his brother in treating with respect and veneration “him whom the King” of heaven “had chosen” so “to honor.”

After leaving Durrough, which took place immediately, it would seem, on the dissolution of the synod, our holy Columba exercised his zeal by erecting monasteries in several parts of the kingdom, similar to those already established in Durrough and Tyrconnell. “The rule which he gave to his monks, has not been transmitted to us by any Latin writer; and the Irish copies of it which have been preserved, have hitherto eluded the skill of the most patient antiquary. Venerable Bede, in various parts of his works, has borne most honorable testimony to their virtue. In glowing colors he paints their chastity, their poverty, their obedience, the essential virtues of the monastic state, as well as their patience and indefatigable efforts to attain the summit of Christian perfection. No motives but those of charity could induce them to leave their cells, except at the hours appointed for religious duties and manual labor. If they ever appeared in public, it was to reconcile enemies, to instruct the ignorant, to extirpate vice, and plead the cause of the unfortunate. That much of their time was devoted to prayer and contemplation, there is good reason to believe, as well as that their repasts were few and exceedingly austere, their holy founder himself being of such mortified habits, that his fast was continual, and that when he reposed the floor was his bed and a hard stone his pillow. He must, moreover, have taught his children to love well that prop, that necessary bulwark, that sine qua non of the monastic state, holy silence, except in time of recreation, or when duty or necessity required the contrary; otherwise the happy consequences which resulted, the glorious fruits which were produced by his conventual establishments, would never have consoled his piety and crowned his labors. Unhappily for the glorious cause in which Saint Columba was so engaged, the party feuds and dissensions which disturbed the peace of his own kinsfolk, interfered with the ulterior designs which his zeal meditated. So long as he could hope that his influence would conduce to the termination of the hostilities carried on between the chieftains and princes of his family, he was willing to labor for the restoration of union and peace; but when the continued renewal of contests and disputes which he thought had been composed by his decisions, taught him how unavailing had been his efforts, he resolved to leave Ireland and thus set aside a hindrance which could not fail to mar his exertions in the cause of heaven.

The northern parts of Britain presented at this juncture many attractions to induce the saint to select that region as a fit theatre for his future labors. On the Northern Picts the light of the Gospel had not yet shone. It is true that the Scots, a neighboring colony from Ireland professed Christianity, but the glories of religion had been almost shorn of their splendor, and it required an apostolic zeal to reinvest them with all their interest, and rekindle the sacred fire now slumbering under the embers of sinful indifference. The prospect of rescuing the Picts from their idolatry, and of reviving among the Scots connected with him by the ties of kindred and country, the fervent piety which so pre-eminently distinguished their common ancestry, afforded, though fraught with difficulty, the purest pleasure to the soul of Columba, and which pleasure was heightened by the hope, that in this region also he might be able to diffuse those monastic institutions, which had so much benefited and become the pride and glory of Ireland.

In the vicinity of that part of Caledonia where Saint Columba chose to begin his new career, there is a cluster of isles known at the present day by the synonyme of “The Hebrides,” which isles, or at least some of them, seem to have then been subject to the prince who ruled over the Scottish colony which had settled in Caledonia. The sequestered site of the present Hebrides admirably adapted them for the seclusion of the monastic life, and in such a retreat as they afforded, the saint felt convinced that the followers of his institute might devote themselves most freely to the holy exercises of the cloister. His connection with Conall, the sovereign of the above colony, (for Conall, like Columba, was lineally descended from the Dalradian dynasty,) gave reason to hope that he might obtain permission to found a monastery in one of these islands: he sought it and was successful; Hy, the smallest of them, now distinguished by the name of Icolmkille, being generously bestowed upon him by the prince for his use and that of his children in Christ. Taking twelve of these with him, Columba sailed from Ireland, and the weather proving propitious, all safely arrived at Hy of the Hebrides. The great things operated there for God deserve, and shall find place in a new chapter.

Arrival of Saint Columba with His Monks in Hy, Where He Builds a Church and Monastery – He Preaches to the Northern Picts, and Works Two Stupendous Miracles – Other Missionary Labors of the Saint – His Connection Still with Ireland and Interest in Irish Affairs – He Returns to That Country and Makes the Visitation of his Monasteries, etc.

The first care of Columba and his monks on arriving at their destination, was to erect a monastery and build a church. A period of nearly two years seems to have been engrossed in the completion of these undertakings, as well as in the settlement of disciplinary matters connected with the new establishments. When these were arranged, the saint proceeded to execute his purpose of evangelizing the Northern Picts, who occupied all that part of Scotland northward of the Grampian mountains. No missionary had as yet appeared in this inhospitable clime; the formidable barrier which separated its inhabitants from their southern neighbors, hitherto preventing the glad tidings of salvation from being wafted to their coast. The work seemed reserved for our own Columba, and to it he went accompanied only by a few of his disciples, with all the zeal and firmness which ever characterizes the truly apostolic man.

The news of his arrival having reached the ears of Brude, the sovereign who held dominion in these parts, he shut himself up within the walls of the royal residence at Inverness, hoping there to remain undisturbed from the intrusion of the man of God. Fearing, however, that the solicitude of the latter for his conversion should prove superior to this precaution, he moreover issued orders that if the saint approached, the palace gates should be closed against him. The apprehensions of the prince were realized; for, anxious to obtain the regal sanction, the royal mansion was the first place which Columba visited.

Finding on his arrival that the very posterns were secured against him, and that all access to Brude was denied, the saint nowise dismayed, calling to mind this promise of his loving and divine Master, “Amen I say unto you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard-seed you shall say to this mountain, pass from hence and it shall be removed, and nothing shall be impossible unto you,” (Matthew 17:19) fearlessly advanced to the palace gate, and impressed upon it the sacred sign of the cross; and lo! by the power of Him who dying for us thereon, shivered “the brazen gates,” and burst the chains of Satan; the royal portals yielded on the moment, and expanded widely, to the amazement of the Pagan bystanders. This was sufficient; confounded at “the power which was given to” the holy missionary, the monarch came forth, attended by all the members of his council, welcomed him with every demonstration of kindness and respect, gave him all the permissions he required, and never failed in their after intercourse to evince the courtesy displayed at this first meeting. The magi, or ministers of the national superstition, were the only persons from whom the missionaries had now any reason to fear opposition, and they gave it; for, despite of the sanction of the king, they used every artifice to render unavailing the labors of the saintly men. An entire family being converted by the blessed Columba to the Christian faith, their deadly hatred was so provoked, that they were disposed to view with pleasure any misfortune befalling its individual members. To their great joy one of the children grew sick, and died soon after baptism, which they at once proclaimed to be the punishment of its parents’ apostacy, and a certain proof of the superiority of the potency of their gods, over the God of the Christians. Columba being apprized of this circumstance, and fearing for the faith of his neophytes, repaired without delay to their abode. On arriving there, he first endeavored to console the sorrowing parents by enlarging on the Divine power, and by exhorting them to look with confidence for relief to the one true God, and next proceeded to the room where the body of the deceased lay, whence he obliged all to withdraw while he poured forth his prayer to God for the restoration to life of the departed child. At the close of his fervent orison, directing his eyes towards the lifeless remains, he exclaimed, “In the name of the Lord Jesus, arise, and stand upon thy feet!” The command was obeyed, the child was instantly restored to life, and the saint taking him by the hand led him to the apartment in which his parents disconsolately remained. We may guess at, but cannot speak their joy, their gratitude. Surely now they blessed the hour in which they embraced Christianity, and were more strongly confirmed in the belief of its mysteries: the people, too, assembled in crowds to witness the wonder which Columba had wrought, testified by their acclamations their grateful acknowledgments to him, and their faith in the omnipotence of the God whom he came to preach unto them.

The interests of his monastery at Hy, required that the saint should occasionally interrupt his apostolic labors in Pictland, in order to revisit it. However, his stay was very short, being prolonged only as much as was absolutely necessary for the infant establishment; for as soon as it was possible he tore himself from his dear religious to resume his mission. And what a sacrifice of self, even in its minimum, and apparently lawful form, was not here! That Columba would have preferred communing with God in the seclusion of the cloister, and governing that little and most peaceful flock committed to his care was but natural; but like all saintly “hooded men,” he only thought of subjecting nature to grace, and knowing full well that when we leave God for God, we are most certain of finding Him.

It cannot be doubted that Saint Columba’s zealous exertions were crowned with great success, the vast majority of the inhabitants of Pictland being gained over to the belief and practice of the Gospel. Even during his first visit there, he was enabled to erect some few churches and religious houses, and appointed spiritual instructors to provide for the religious wants of the new converts, and propagate during his occasional absence the holy Catholic faith. Who these were we are not aware, the event being but imperfectly recorded, no less than the history of these first ecclesiastical foundations.

It is said, that our saint penetrated into the Orkney Isles, and with some success, but of his proceedings there we know little. Of those which took place in the Hebrides or Western Islands, which he also blessed with his presence, frequently visiting them, indefatigably preaching in them, supplying them with missionaries, erecting churches, and founding religious communities, there is more extant. Among these Islands, Hymba, where he established a monastery, over which, after some years, he placed his maternal uncle Erwan, seems to have been his favorite retreat, just as Sabhal, or Saul, in our own green isle was of his glorious and saintly progenitor in the faith, Saint Patrick. On various occasions, and at different intervals, he made it his abode. There it was that he was visited by four holy founders of monasticism in Ireland – by Comgall, Cainnech or Canice, Brendan of Clonfert, and Cormac Hua Liathain; – there while celebrating mass for them, Brendan saw a very bright flame like a burning pillar, as if rising from his head, which continued from the moment of the consecration to the termination of the sacred mysteries. It was there also that, on another occasion, he had some extraordinary celestial visitations, which lasted for three days and three nights consecutively. There were several monasteries also, founded by himself, or in virtue of his obedience by his disciples, in an island called Ethica, one of which was governed by Baithen, who subsequently succeeded him in the abbacy of Hy. While thus engaged, the saint was at times obliged to exert himself in defence of the new converts against certain marauders, who, though nominally Christian, practised the illicit trade of plundering. On one occasion, he proceeded to excommunicate some of the leaders, who were members of the royal house of the British Scots, but at the risk of his life, one of their partizans having rushed upon him with a spear, but providentially without effect. Adamnan says, that the name of this assassin was Lamh-dess or Right hand, and that on his advancing against Columba, Findulgan, a monk of Hymba, where this transaction occurred, being clothed in an outer garment of the saint, threw himself between him and Lamh-dess, who, notwithstanding he used all his might, was not able to transfix it.

The apostolic labors of Saint Columba were not confined to the territories of the Picts and Western Islanders, he superintended also the ecclesiastical affairs of the British Scots, and formed some religious establishments in their kingdom; one of them, near Loch-Awe in Argyle, was governed by one of his monks named Cailten, of whom it is related, that he died at Hy, the parent-house, if we may so call it. The holy abbot Columba, foreseeing that the death of this monk was nigh, sent for him that he might give him his blessing, as being in some sort necessary to his terminating his course in the true spirit of monastic obedience. In traversing the southern part of this kingdom, our saint visited Saint Kentigern, bishop of Glasgow, and spent with him a few days. Nor is it improbable that he visited South Britain, then possessed by the Anglo-Saxons, for there were Christians of that nation in Hy before his death, converted in all probability by himself or his disciples. Meantime, he did not neglect to watch vigilantly over his other monasteries, not only in Scotland and the Isles, but also those which he had founded in his own dear and more cherished land. Thither did he often send messengers on business connected with his monasteries, or with other pious objects. On one occasion he dispatched to Clogher, in all haste, Lugaid Laithir, one of his monks, (whom Adamnan calls his legate by excellence,) with a box containing a benediction, which, when dipped in water, was to cure the saintly virgin Mangina, whose limb was broken at her returning from the holy mysteries; which it did most effectually instantly on its application.

Saint Columba was frequently visited by persons from Ireland, who were either his former friends, or who wished to become so, or who desired to receive his advice on various matters; and these, with all other strangers, he received with the greatest kindness, and treated most hospitably. Besides the holy men already mentioned, Columbanus, bishop in the province of Leinster, came to see him. The holy abbot conceived a great friendship for this prelate, so that, being apprized of his death by revelation, he gave orders in the morning that the monks who were preparing for their respective occupations should refrain from work on that day; and when all was ready for the holy mysteries, the whole community, clothed in white garments as on a Sunday or other solemnity, proceeded to the church along with the saint. When the choir had come to a part of the service in which the name of Saint Martin used to be commemorated, the saintly abbot cried out, “To-day you must sing for the holy bishop Columbanus;” and thus they became informed of his death.

Another visitor of Saint Columba’s was Aidan, a very religious man, who had lived twelve years with Saint Brendan of Clonfert. On the day before his arrival, the saint said to the brethren, “We intend to fast tomorrow as usual, because it will be Wednesday; but, in consequence of the arrival of a stranger, the fast will be broken.” The event verified the prediction. Aidan did arrive; and Saint Columba’s dispensation with so holy an ordinance, observed even by the whole Irish Church, establishes his claim to great prudence and discretion.

We shall mention but one more of those visitors, Cronan, a Munster bishop, who, on the occasion, through humility, did all that he could to prevent its being known that he belonged to the episcopal order. Not having yet understood that he did, Columba desired him on the Sunday to celebrate Mass, “Christi corpus ex more, conficere.” He did so; and when he came to the division of the consecrated host, he called upon Columba to join him as a priest in breaking the Lord’s bread, “Ut simul quasi duo presbyteri, Dominicum panem frangerent.” Coming up to the altar, and looking him in the face, the saint said, “Christ bless you brother; do you alone break it, according to the episcopal rite, for now we know you are a bishop. Why have you hitherto endeavored to conceal yourself, so as not to let us pay you that veneration which we owe to you?”

That Columba was held in the highest veneration, as well by the clergy and people as by the monarchs of his time, both in Ireland and Britain, is too well known to require proof. A very remarkable instance of it occurs in his having been the person applied to for inaugurating, or, as his biographers express it, ordaining, Aidan, king of the British Scots, after the death of Conall; with which request, by the way, he complied not, until after being commanded by an angel, preferring much that Eugene, Aidan’s brother, should sway the sceptre. He subsequently became very friendly towards the latter; and for his sake chiefly it was that he assisted at the assembly of Drumceat in Ireland, some differences between him and Aidus, the supreme monarch of the green isle, being to be adjusted therein. This was the last of the several visits with which our saint favored the land of his birth, and it is referred to the year 590. He was accompanied by some of his monks, together with his royal friend; and having, after a stormy passage, entered Lough Foyle, and landed near the mouth of the river Roe, they proceeded to Drumceat, to meet the states-general of the kingdom. Aidus, at first rather insolent and disrespectful towards Saint Columba, changed his tone altogether when he found that he came only to establish peace between him and the king of the British Scots. The respective claims of the royal opponents were simply these: Aidan, the Scottish monarch, asserting a hereditary right to the sovereignty of Dalrieda in Antrim, demanded that the inhabitants of that territory should be relieved from the tribute paid by the other Irish principalities to the supreme monarch; while, on the other hand, Aidus, contended that, as the aforesaid territory formed a part of his realm, it could not be exempt from the subsidy required from the several states of the kingdom by him and his successors in the monarchy. The decision of the matter being at length referred to Saint Columba, he, feeling unwilling to pronounce upon it, advised that it should be submitted to Saint Colman, a person deeply skilled in civil as well as ecclesiastical lore. Saint Colman decided for Aidus; but, to heal the dissensions which had arisen, he proposed that a solemn covenant should be entered into between him and Aidan to render mutual assistance, the one to the other, against any enemy who might invade their respective dominions. This proposal was received with joy, and being entered into, gave general satisfaction.

Another subject of no small national importance was subsequently discussed. The bards had incurred the displeasure of Aidus, and several leading members of the national council, being as it was said, a proud and venal order, who bestowed praise on, or loaded with censure, the nobles and other great men, not according to merit, but just as they were prompted by passion or interest. Their fate seemed decided – their proscription was about to be determined on, until our saintly abbot, who, at the same time that he protested against such an abuse, still loved, like a true patriot, the institutions of his country, claimed toleration for “the sons of song;” and pleaded their cause so successfully, that the assembly contented itself with limiting their number, and obliging them thenceforward to observe certain regulations. The assembly being dissolved, our good Saint Columba prepared to leave Drumceat; but, before he set out, his pity for the sufferings of Scanlan, prince of Ossory, detained in prison by Aidus for some political cause, induced him to petition for his release. Though disposed to receive favorably any request from such a holy man, the fears, or perhaps the prejudices, of the monarch against the unfortunate prince prevented his acquiescence: so, perceiving that further interference would not avail, Columba consoled the royal captive with the assurance that he should survive his imperial master, and be restored to, and govern for many years, his native princedom.

From Drumceat, Saint Columba proceeded to transact business far more to his mind, and according to his spirit, the visitation of his monasteries. The number which he visited on this occasion we cannot ascertain, to that of Derry, as lying within a short distance of Drumceat, he undoubtedly went; as also to that of Durrough, his favorite, then governed for him by Lasrean. In this latter he remained even for some months, arranging various disciplinary matters; during which time he visited Alitherus, abbot of Clonmacnois, who, with his whole community, and the people of the surrounding country, received him with all manner of respect and veneration. Having accomplished the business which brought him to Ireland, the saint set out for his adopted country, and, making the northern part of Ulster his way, had an interview with Saint Comgall of Bangor, and another with Conall, bishop of Coleraine. Taking shipping soon after, he sailed for Hy, where he landed in safety.

Last Years of Saint Columba – His Saintly Death

Not small, we may suppose, was the joy of the community at Hy on beholding once more in the midst of them their dear father in Christ; nor was his own less. It must, indeed, have been consoling to him to find himself once more in the calm seclusion of his cloister, after the noisy world whence he had just emerged. To hear again the vesper peal and matin toll in the still midnight – to view “at golden prime” (if, indeed, he looked upon) the angelic features of “those meek ones,” to whom the Lord, for whom they had “left all,” had given the inheritance “of the land.” Truly, our saint could better relish those delights on returning from the external world, as things are better appreciated by contrast.

It was now the year of our Lord 593, and thirty years had our earth performed her revolution round the brilliant orb which illumines her, since Columba had settled in that lonely and sequestered isle. He had often prayed to the Most High that, at the termination of such a period, he might pass from this exile, and he now looked with confidence for the grant of his request. But, while indulging in this delightful anticipation, blessed angels were sent to apprise him that, in consideration of the prayers poured forth by the British and Scottish churches, it was decreed in heaven that he should yet remain four years more on earth. The tidings cost him many tears, but they were accompanied with perfect submission to the divine will, the blessed man at once renouncing his anxiety “to be then dissolved, and go to Christ,” since such was His good pleasure. With greater earnestness than ever, did he now labor to consummate his perfection, and attain more and greater sanctity. We have already spoken of his corporal austerity, but this was only one virtue, Columba was eminent in all. One thing particularly distinguished him, great cheerfulness of countenance and mildness of disposition; and this is no small matter, for nothing edifies us more than that those who profess to serve God, should be cordially sweet and amiable to men. Columba, too, was a great lover of labor; he knew not what it was to be unemployed, but continually occupied himself, when not engrossed by missionary duties, in “praying, reading, writing,” as the devout á Kempis says, and “in doing something for the common good.” And these were greater things than the gifts of prophecy and miracles which he possessed in an eminent degree.

At length the four years, which were to terminate the labors of the holy man, were drawing to their close. It was Saturday, the 8th of June, and with that calm serenity and imperturbable peace with which saints die, Columba, attended by Diermit, one of his monks, proceeded to examine if there was a sufficient supply of corn in the granary to supply his dear children with bread until the new harvest should he reaped. Having discovered that there was, he blessed the barn, and being quite satisfied that all his obligations to the brethren were now fulfilled, he revealed to Diermit, with an injunction of secrecy, that his hour was come, and that he should be called out of life before the next day had dawned. The monk thereupon besought him to impart his benediction to the monastery; he complied, standing on the summit of an adjoining eminence. He then returned to his poor cell, and continued transcribing a portion of the Holy Scripture until the bell summoned all to choir, when, closing the last page with the appropriate verse, “They who seek the Lord shall not want any good,” (Psalm 33) he said, “Let Bailhen (his successor in the abbacy) finish the rest,” and then proceeded to the church with the rest of the community. The devotions being ended, he returned to his cell, and there reclining on his rocky couch, delivered some instructions to Diermit to be communicated to the brethren. At midnight, the tolling of the bell summoned the monks again to prayer, and the holy abbot, the first to respond to the call, was already in the church and in earnest prayer, before any one had arrived. Diermit was the first who appeared, and he found the saint, his strength rapidly declining, quite absorbed in God as he lay before the altar. In an instant all the monks were assembled about him, and bitterly bewailed their loss. The holy man had still sufficent strength left to recognize them, and looking upon them, “his brow” irradiated by “heaven’s own smile,” he, with Diermit’s help, raised his right hand, and thus imparted to them his saintly benediction. Soon after, on Sunday morning, the 9th of June, he passed to a glorious immortality.

For three days, and as many nights, the obsequies of Saint Columba were unremittingly celebrated; and at the close of that time, his sacred remains were, with all religious solemnity, deposited in the tomb. His memory was for ages most dear to the northern nations, his monastery was selected for the sepulchres of the kings of Ireland, Scotland, and Norway; and the provincial bishops, though preserving in their episcopal functions the superiority of their rank, submitted in other points to the mandate of the abbot of Hy, as the legitimate successor of Saint Columba. Singular honor this, and unparalleled in church history; but far greater honor did the saint receive, and greater bliss does he now enjoy in the glorious kingdom of which holy David said, “Saturabor cum apparuit gloria tua” – “I shall be satisfied when thy glory appears.”

About This EBook

The text of this ebook is taken from the book The Life of Saint Columba, Abbot, and Apostle of the Northern Picts and Patron of the Monastic Order in Ireland, author not listed, edited by John Murphy, and produced as plain text by Michael Gray, Diocese of San Jose for Project Gutenberg.