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Saint Columba

Category: Religious

Iona and the abbey

Saint Columba (Irish: Colm Cille, 'church dove'; 7 December 521 – 9 June 597) was an Irish abbot and missionary credited with spreading Christianity in present-day Scotland.

He founded the important abbey on Iona, which became a dominant religious and political institution in the region for centuries. He is the Patron Saint of Derry. He was highly regarded by both the Gaels of Dál Riata and the Picts, and is remembered today as a Christian saint and one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland.

Iona

Columba reportedly studied under some of Ireland's most prominent church figures and founded several monasteries in the country. Around 563 he and his twelve companions crossed to Dunaverty near Southend, Argyll in Kintyre before settling in Iona in Scotland, then part of the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata, where they founded a new abbey as a base for spreading Christianity among the northern Pictish kingdoms who were pagan. He remained active in Irish politics, though he spent most of the remainder of his life in Scotland. Three surviving early medieval Latin hymns may be attributed to him.

Eleanor C Merry – The Flaming Door

St. Columba lived his whole life in the heart of the conflict between Light and Darkness-not merely in the sense in which everyone can feel these opposites in his own soul, but also in the way in which he was drawn into the events of his time. He was placed both by inheritance and destiny in the very centre of the echo of those mighty spiritual voices that had uttered, in Hibernia, the secrets of the Earth-depths and many mysteries of the ancient art of healing; but also, his face was turned Eastwards to carry into Europe the Light of Christ.

St. Columba was born at Gartan in Ireland-that "waterfall land " as he called it-in the year 521 on the 7th of December. He was the son of a chieftain of the clan O'Donnell, and descended from Niall, King of Ireland.

 

A little while before his birth his mother had a vision of the Angel Gabriel, who brought to her a "mantle of marvellous beauty in which lovely colours of all flowers seemed as it were depicted", as his biographer Adamnan tells us; " and after a brief interval the Angel asks for it back, and took it from her hands, and raising and spreading it out sent it forth into the empty air. She however, saddened by its being taken away, thus speaks to that Man of venerable aspect:
 Why dost thou thus quickly take away from me this lovely mantle ? ' He immediately replies: ' For the reason that this mantle belongs to one of such grandeur and honourable station that thou canst keep it no longer by thee !'
"

And then Adamnan describes how this mantle increased in size till it seemed to cover all the plains and mountains; and the Angel said to her that she should bring forth a son "so illustrious that, like one of the Prophets of God, he will be numbered among them, and is predestined by God to be a leader of innumerable souls to the heavenly country."

 

Wherever in olden times such birth-legends are told, they are an intimation that the child to be born is destined to be an initiate. A seer could perceive that when an ordinary human being was born, his spirit corresponded to the capacity of the body to receive it; but in the case of one who was to be more than an " ordinary " human being, a radiance surrounded him which revealed that there was something greater, which, so to say, could not find room in that body. Such a birth would be regarded as a birth not only in the physical world but in the spiritual world too.

So in trying to describe something of the life of St. Columba it is not so much the external course of it, how he lived as a monk and missionary, that is important but rather what concerns the more concealed nature of his work as a Christian seer.

Iona

There are conflicting accounts with regard to the reason of Columba's leaving Ireland for Iona, which he did in the year 563, when he had reached the age of forty-two. It has been said that the primary cause of his departure was a quarrel, on more than one count, between him and his clan and the supporters of Diarmit, King of Ireland, resulting altogether in three great battles. Columba's friend and confessor St. Laisren, told him that as a penance for his share in these events he must leave Ireland, and in some other land save as many souls for Christ as had been slain in the battles.

 

But a legend tells that it was the Archangel Michael who really banished him from Ireland. The old Irish Life merely states that: "When he had sown faith and religion; when numerous multitudes had been baptised by him; when he had founded churches and establishments ….. then the determination that he had determined from the beginning of his life came into his mind-namely to go on a pilgrim age. He then meditated going across the sea to preach the word of God to the men of Alba and the Britons and Saxons. . . . He went in good spirits until he reached the place the name of which is to-day I-colm-kill."
That is, Iona.

No one who has voyaged on a quiet day of summer beside the blue mountains of Mull, his ship threading its placid way between the little islets of rosy feldspar - coming nearer and nearer to the holy Iona-will ever forget it.

 

The very name Iona rings in our ears with the sea-sound of many mysteries. Hu, it was also called, or Hii, or loua-the sacred vowels of the three " Rays of Light ". It is Jona-John-the name of those who die and are raised. And Iona, says Adamnan, is in Greek Peristera and in Latin Columba, the Dove. The sound of I-O-N-A sighs over the waters. The white wings of the "Dove of the Eternal " are in the clouds and foam.

It is told how Columba continued his voyage from island to island until he reached his destined home, from whose highest point there was no longer any sight of Ireland, the ancient Paradise. Steadfastly he turned his face away from that great centre of the old Mysteries and directed all his love and all his strength towards the East.  "Cul-re-Erin "-(my back turned to Ireland) -" shall be my mystical name ! " he cries.

Iona abbey from the sea

Beyond the shores of Ireland stretched two thousand miles of ocean. Only once, in 585, did he return to visit Ireland, to see some of the monasteries he had founded there. And in addition to these foundations, his missionary work spread over the Orkneys, the Shetlands, the Hebrides, and the Faroe Islands, even to Iceland, and far over the North and South of Britain.

We cannot think of Columba only as a saintly monk.  It is obvious from all that has been recorded of him that he had the qualities of a statesman. The management of his enormous diocese, the tact and wisdom which he displayed in his dealings with men and affairs are evidence of this. He was far-seeing and purposeful, strong and passionate, and at the same time loving, humble, and tender.

 

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