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Columba, Saint (Abbot of Iona)

Abbot of Iona, b. at Gartan, County Donegal, Ireland, December 7, 521; d. June 9, 597

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Columba, Saint, ABBOT OF IONA, b. at Gartan, County Donegal, Ireland, December 7, 521; d. June 9, 597. He belonged to the Clan O’Donnell, and was of royal descent. His father’s name was Fedhlimdh and that of his mother Eithne. On his father’s side he was great-great-grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages, an Irish king of the fourth century. His baptismal name was Colum, which signifies a dove, hence the latinized form Columba. It assumes another form in Columcille, the suffix meaning “of the Churches”. He was baptized at Tulach-Dubhglaise, now Temple-Douglas, by a priest named Cruithnechan, who afterwards became his tutor or foster-father. When sufficiently advanced in letters he entered the monastic school of Moville under St. Finnian, who had studied at St. Ninian’s “Magnum Monasterium” on the shores of Galloway. Columba at Moville embraced monastic life and received the diaconate. In the same place his sanctity first manifested it-self by miracles. By his prayers, tradition says, he converted water into wine for the Holy Sacrifice (Adam., II, i). Having completed his training at Moville, he travelled southwards into Leinster, where he became a pupil of an aged bard named Gemman. On leaving him, Columba entered the monastery of Clonard, governed at that time by Finnian, a man remarkable, like his namesake of Moville, for sanctity and learning. Here he imbibed the traditions of the Welsh Church, for Finnian had been trained in the schools of St. David. Here also he became one of those twelve Clonard disciples known in subsequent history as the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. About this same time he was promoted to the priesthood by Bishop Etchen of Clonfad. The story that St. Finnian wished Columba to be consecrated bishop, but through a mistake only priest’s orders were conferred, is regarded by competent authorities as the invention of a later age (Reeves, Adam., 226).

Another preceptor of Columba was St. Mobhi, whose monastery at Glasnevin was frequented by such famous men as St. Canice, St. Comgall, and St. Ciaran. A pestilence which devastated Ireland in 544 caused the dispersion of Mobhi’s disciples, and Columba returned to Ulster, the land of his kindred. The following years were marked by the foundation of several important monasteries, Derry, Durrow, and Kells. Derry and Durrow were always specially dear to Columba. While at Derry it is said that he planned a pilgrimage to Rome and Jerusalem, but did not proceed farther than Tours. Thence he brought a copy of the Gospels that had lain on the bosom of St. Martin for the space of 100 years. This relic was deposited in Derry (Skene, Celtic Scotland, II, 483). Columba left Ireland and passed over into Scotland in 563. The motives for this migration have been frequently discussed. Bede simply says: “Venit de Hibernia .. . praedicaturus verbum Dei” (H. E., III, iv); Adamnan: “pro Christo perigrinari volens enavigavit” (Praef., II). Later writers state that his departure was due to the fact that he had induced the clan Neill to rise and engage in battle against King Diarmait at Cooldrevny in 561. The reasons alleged for this action of Columba are: (1) The king’s violation of the right of sanctuary belonging to Columba’s person as a monk, on the occasion of the murder of Prince Curnan, the saint’s kinsman; (2) Diarmait’s adverse judgment concerning the copy Columba had secretly made of St. Finnian’s psalter. Columba is said to have supported by his prayers the men of the North who were fighting, while Finnian did the same for Diarmait’s men. The latter were defeated with a loss of three thousand.

Columba’s conscience smote him, and he had recourse to his confessor, St. Molaise, who imposed this severe penance: to leave Ireland and preach the Gospel so as to gain as many souls to Christ as lives lost at Cooldrevny, and never more to look upon his native land. Some writers hold that these are legends invented by the bards and romancers of a later age, because there is no mention of them by the earliest authorities (O’Hanlon, Lives of the Ir. Saints, VI, 353). Cardinal Moran accepts no other motive than that assigned by Adamnan, “a desire to carry the Gospel to a pagan nation and to win souls to God“. (Lives of Irish Saints in Great Britain, 67). Archbishop Healy, on the contrary, considers that the saint did incite to battle, and exclaims: “O felix culpa . which produced so much good both for Erin and Alba” (Schools and Scholars, 311).

IONA.—Columba was in his forty-fourth year when he departed from Ireland. He and his twelve companions crossed the sea in a currach of wickerwork covered with hides. They landed at Iona on the eve of Pentecost, May 12, 563. The island, according to Irish authorities, was granted to the monastic colonists by King Conall of Dalriada, Columba’s kinsman. Bede attributes the gift to the Picts (Fowler, p. lxv). It was a convenient situation, being midway between his countrymen along the western coast and the Picts of Caledonia. He and his brethren proceeded at once to erect their humble dwellings, consisting of a church, refectory, and cells, constructed of wattles and rough planks. After spending some years among the Scots of Dalriada, Columba began the great work of his life, the conversion of the Northern Picts. Together with St. Comgall and St. Canice (Kenneth) he visited King Brude in his royal residence near Inverness. Admittance was refused to the missionaries, and the gates were closed and bolted; but before the sign of the cross the bolts flew back, the doors stood open, and the monks entered the castle. Awe-struck by so evident a miracle, the king listened to Columba with reverence and was baptized. The people soon followed the example set them, and thus was inaugurated a movement that extended itself to the whole of Caledonia. Opposition was not wanting, and it came chiefly from the Druids, who officially represented the paganism of the nation.

The thirty-two remaining years of Columba’s life were mainly spent in preaching the Christian Faith to the inhabitants of the glens and wooded straths of Northern Scotland. His steps can be followed not only through the Great Glen, but eastwards also, into Aberdeenshire. The “Book of Deer” (p. 91) tells us how he and Drostan came, as God had shown them, to Aberdour in Buchan, and how Bede, a Pict, who was high steward of Buchan, gave them the town in freedom forever. The preaching of the saint was confirmed by many miracles, and he provided for the instruction of his converts by the erection of numerous churches and monasteries. One of his journeys brought him to Glasgow, where he met St. Mungo, the apostle of Strathclyde. He frequently visited Ireland; in 575 he attended the synod of Drumceatt, in company with the Scottish King Aidan, whom shortly before he had inaugurated successor of Conall of Dalriada. When not engaged in missionary journeys, he always resided at Iona. Numerous strangers sought him there, and they received help for soul and body. From Iona he governed those numerous communities in Ireland and Caledonia, which regarded him as their father and founder. This accounts for the unique position occupied by the successors of Columba, who governed the entire province of the Northern Picts, although they had received priest’s orders only. It was considered unbecoming that any successor in the office of Abbot of Iona should possess a dignity higher than that of the founder. The bishops were regarded as being of a superior order, but subject nevertheless to the jurisdiction of the abbot. At Lindisfarne the monks reverted to the ordinary law and were subject to a bishop (Bede, H. E., IV, xxvii).

Columba is said never to have spent an hour with-out study, prayer, writing, or similar occupations. When at home he was frequently engaged in transcribing. On the eve of his death he was engaged in the work of transcription. It is stated that he wrote 300 books with his own hand, two of which, “The Book of Durrow” and the psalter called “The Cathach”, have been preserved to the present time. The psalter, enclosed in a shrine, was originally carried into battle by the O’Donnells as a pledge of victory. Several of his compositions in Latin and Irish have come down to us, the best known being the poem “Altus Prosator”, published in the “Liber Hymnorum”, and also in another form by the late Marquess of Bute. There is not sufficient evidence to prove that the rule attributed to him was really his work.

In the spring of 597 he knew that his end was approaching. On Saturday, June 8, he ascended the hill overlooking his monastery and blessed for the last time the home so dear to him. That afternoon he was present at Vespers, and later, when the bell summoned the community to the midnight service, he forestalled the others and entered the church without assistance. But he sank before the altar, and in that place breathed forth his soul to God, surrounded by his disciples. This happened a little after midnight between the 8th and 9th of June, 597. He was in the seventy-seventh year of his age. The monks buried him within the monastic enclosure. After the lapse of a century or more his bones were disinterred and placed within a suitable shrine. But as Northmen and Danes more than once invaded the island, the relics of St. Columba were carried for purposes of safety into Ireland and deposited in the church of Downpatrick. Since the twelfth century history is silent regarding them. His books and garments were held in veneration at Iona, they were exposed and carried in procession, and were the means of working miracles (Adam., II, xlv). His feast is kept in Scotland and Ireland on the 9th of June. In the Scottish Province of St. Andrews and Edinburgh there is a Mass and Office, proper to the festival, which ranks as a double of the second class with an octave. He is patron of two Scottish dioceses, Argyle and the Isles and Dunkeld. According to tradition St. Columba was tall and of dignified mien. Adamnan says: “He was angelic in appearance, graceful in speech, holy in work” (Praef., II). His voice was strong, sweet, and sonorous, capable at times of being heard at a great distance. He inherited the ardent temperament and strong passions of his race. It has been sometimes said that he was of an angry and vindictive spirit, not only because of his supposed part in the battle of Cooldrevny, but also because of instances related by Adamnan (II, xxiii sq.). But the deeds that roused his indignation were wrongs done to others, and the retribution that overtook the perpetrators was rather predicted than actually invoked. Whatever faults were inherent in his nature he over-came, and he stands before the world conspicuous for humility and charity not only towards his brethren, but towards strangers also. He was generous and warm-hearted, tender and kind even to dumb creatures. He was ever ready to sympathize with the joys and sorrows of others. His fasts and vigils were carried to a great extent. The stone pillow on which he slept is said to be still preserved in Iona. His chastity of body and purity of mind are extolled by all his biographers. Notwithstanding his wonderful austerities, Adamnan assures us he was beloved by all, “for a holy joyousness that ever beamed from his countenance revealed the gladness with which the Holy Spirit filled his soul”. (Praef., II.)

INFLUENCE, AND ATTITUDE TOWARDS ROME.—He was not only a great missionary saint who won a whole kingdom to Christ, but he was a statesman, a scholar, a poet, and the founder of numerous churches and monasteries. His name is dear to Scotsmen and Irishmen alike. And because of his great and noble work even non-Catholics hold his memory in veneration. For the purposes of controversy it has been maintained by some that St. Columba ignored papal supremacy, because he entered upon his mission without the pope’s authorization. Adamnan is silent on the subject; but his work is neither exhaustive as to Columba’s life, nor does it pretend to catalogue the implicit and explicit belief of his patron. Indeed, in those days a mandate from the pope was not deemed essential for the work which St. Columba undertook. This may be gathered from the words of St. Gregory the Great, relative to the neglect of the British clergy towards the pagan Saxons (Haddam and Stubbs, III, 10). Columba was a son of the Irish Church, which taught from the days of St. Patrick that matters of greater moment should be referred to the Holy See for settlement. St. Columbanus, Columba’s fellow-countryman and fellow-churchman, asked for papal judgment (judicium) on the Easter question; so did the bishops and abbots of Ireland. There is not the slightest evidence to prove that St. Columba differed on this point from his fellow-countrymen. Moreover, the Stowe Missal, which, according to the best authority, represents the Mass of the Celtic Church during the early part of the seventh century, contains in its Canon prayers for the pope more emphatic than even those of the Roman Liturgy. To the further objection as to the supposed absence of the cultus of Our Lady, it may be pointed out that the same Stowe Missal contains before its Canon the invocation “Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis”, which epitomizes all Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin. As to the Easter difficulty, Bede thus sums up the reasons for the discrepancy: “He [Columba] left successors distinguished for great charity, Divine love, and strict attention to the rules of discipline; following indeed uncertain cycles in the computation of the great festival of Easter, because, far away as they were out of the world, no one had supplied them with the synodal decrees relating to the Paschal observance” (H. E., III, iv). As far as can be ascertained, no proper symbolical representation of St. Columba exists. The few attempts that have been made are for the most part mistaken. A suitable pictorial representation would exhibit him clothed in the habit and cowl usually worn by the Basilian or Benedictine monks, with Celtic tonsure and crosier. His identity could be best determined by showing him standing near the shell-strewn shore, with currach hard by, and the Celtic cross and ruins of Iona in the background.


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