Life of St. Columba

June 9, 2010

Today is the feast of St. Columba, founder of the famous monastery of Iona.  Some months back I read Adomnán of Iona’s life of Columba, with the intention of posting something about it today.  I nearly forgot, but here, in the nick of time, it is.

Life of St. Columba (c.700)
Adomnán of Iona (Penguin Classics, 1995; trans: R.Sharpe)
406 p.  First reading.

Columba was already over forty years old when he sailed from Ireland to found a new monastic community.  The remote site on which he settled, a small island off the west coast of Mull in the Scottish Hebrides, eventually became one of the most famous sites in Western Europe.  Iona was a major pilgrimage site during the medieval era, a burial-place of kings, and home to one of Europe’s great scriptoria.  Yet despite its history of glories and honours, there remains something fresh and humble about Iona that not even the cool Atlantic winds have been able to blow away.  I was aware of it when I visited the island several years ago, and I was delighted to meet it again here, rising from the pages of this account of Columba’s life.

Columba lived over thirty years on Iona before his death in 597.  By then his community of monks — or “island soldiers”, as Adomnán calls them — was well established.  It suffered setbacks over the years, the most severe due to attacks from marauding northerners. (In 806, for instance, nearly seventy monks were killed during one such raid.)  But it was animated by a healthful spirit and survived for a thousand years.  Adomnán, the author of this life, was Columba’s eighth successor as abbot of Iona, and I suspect that the monastery’s longevity owes something to his literary efforts.  These stories about St. Columba’s life circulated widely in the Middle Ages, and they make both him and the island very attractive indeed.

Those who have read other early Christian lives will have some idea of what to expect.  Adomnán was clearly aware of the conventions of the genre, and two prior examples exerted a particular influence: Evagrius Ponticus’ fourth-century Life of St. Antony of Egypt and Sulpicius Severus’ wonderful fifth-century Life of St. Martin of Tours.  We are treated to tales of miracles, prophetic visions, angelic apparitions, and many other unusual events.  Columba was evidently a man who saw more clearly through the dark glass than is typical.

There are over 120 different stories collected here, so I can do little more than gesture at a few.  In the very first miracle story Adomnán tells how, when Columba prayed, water was turned into wine for the celebration of Mass, a clear sign that the spirit of Christ animates the saint.  A connection to the Gospel is less easily discerned in many other stories, which resemble folk tales and legends more than moral or spiritual lessons.  They are always charming and frequently humorous, as in this short excerpt:

. . . St. Columba was sitting by the fire in the monastery when he saw Luigbe moccu Min not far away reading a book.
“Take care, my son,” he said, “take care.  For I think that the book you are studying is going to fall into a vessel full of water.”
Before long it happened.  The young man got up to do some chore in the monastery and forgot what the blessed man had said.  He casually tucked the book under his arm, but it slipped and fell unto a butt full of water.

In another story Columba exorcises a devil that had become trapped in a milk-pail and kept spilling the milk in its effort to escape. Several of the stories demonstrate Columba’s solicitude for animals and his expertise as a meteorologist. (The foreknowledge afforded by modern forecasting could not compete with Columba’s own.)  The final story, which relates the story of Columba’s death, is beautiful and affecting. I will perhaps post it here next year on this day.  In the meantime, let me close with Adomnán’s summation:

Every conscientious reader who has finished reading this three-part book should mark well how great and special is the merit of our reverend abbot; how great and special is his honour in God’s sight; how great and special were his experiences of angelic visits and heavenly light; how great was the grace of prophecy in him; how great and how frequent was the brilliant light of heaven which shone on him as he dwelt in mortal flesh and which, after his most gentle soul had left the tabernacle of his body, does not cease even today.  For the place where his bones rest is still visited by the light of heaven and by numbers of angels, as is known from those of the elect who have themselves seen this.

This too is no small favour conferred by God on the man of blessed memory, that one who dwelt in this little island on the edge of the ocean should have earned a reputation that is famous not only in our own Ireland and in Britain, the largest of ocean’s islands, but has also reached the three corners of Spain and Gaul and Italy beyond the Alps, and even Rome itself, the chief of all cities.  This great and special renown is known to have been bestowed on St. Columba along with other divine gifts by God himself, who loves them that love him and who raises to the heights of honour and glory them that magnify him with sweet praises, who is blessed for ever. Amen.

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