Orthodox America


  Orthodoxy’s Western Heritage – St. Columba of Iona


Apostle of Scotland

    Iona is a tiny island of the Inner Hebrides, lying off the west coast of Scotland. Every year it is visited by thousands of pilgrims, many of whom are captivated by its unique atmosphere of peace and sanctity. Not a few return home with a green marble pebble in their pocket and the conviction that they have walked on holy ground. Indeed, small though it be in size--only 3 1/2 miles long and 13 miles wide, in centuries past Iona was a renown monastic center which had a surpassing influence on the Christianization of the British Isles. Home to many saints, its glory rested primarily on the superior merits of its founder, an Irish prince who became a monk and abbot, a counsellor of kings and converser with angels.

    Born at Gotten, in the wilds of Donegal in northern Ireland, Columba was 42 years old and already a man of national reputation as an ecclesiastical leader and a founder of monasteries when in 563 he sailed from his native land to begin his life work in Argyll ('land of Gael'), the area which his kinsmen, the Scots or Gaels, had begun to settle a generation or more before. The native inhabitants of the territory stretching east to the North Sea were the heathen Picts. To the south many had been converted a century earlier by the apostolic labors of St. Ninian. But a desolate mountain range separated them from their neighboring kinsmen to the north, and the latter were stirred up by their druid priests against the Christian religion cf the Scot immigrants, and were moving to force them back to Ireland when Columba arrived as a peacemaker.

    He was web suited for such a task, for according to his biographer Adamnan, writing only 60 years after Columba's repose, he was a man of uncommon talents which manifested themselves even in his youth.

 

Dove of the Church

    He received two names at baptism: Crimthann, meaning 'wolf', and Colum, Irish for 'dove.' The names proved to be well chosen for he became vicious towards sin and injustice, while at the same time, like a dove, he was a messenger of the Gospel of peace and was filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit Who is symbolically depicted as a dove, As a child he was so often in church that he was nicknamed Columcille, meaning 'dove of the church'. He is popularly known, however, by the Latin form of his name, Columba,

    Of royal blood on both his father's and his mother's side, Columba might well have become High King of Ireland like his ancestor who ruled when St. Patrick was brought there from Britain as a slave. But his parents gave him into God's service, placing him as a child to be fostered by the priest Cruithnechan who taught him the rare Skills of reading and writing. From a bard he learned the art of speaking well and gained a life-long love for Irish poetry. His own gift of poetic expression adorns several original compositions.

    By nature Columba was very industrious, and he advanced quickly in his studies. These he completed under two celebrated tutors, both called Fingan, at the monasteries of Moville and Clonard which were among the most advanced learning centers in all of Europe at that time. One of his mentors was trained by the disciples of St. Nihgan at Whithorn in Galloway, and the other by St. David of Wales and his coadjutor at Menevia. Columba thereby represented in his own person the two streams by which Ireland had been spiritually fertilized. 

     He was made a deacon by St. Fingan of Cionard, and ordained a priest at the age of 24 by Bishop Echtam, As a monk he began his life in the monastery at Glasnevin, but an epidemic forced the community to disband, and Columba returned home. Over the next fifteen years he traveled all over Ireland establishing churches and monasteries, Durrow (553) and Kells (554) being the most well-known.

     A man of commanding personality, esteemed by the fathers of the Irish Church, Columba seemed to have an assured future there in his native land. But he forsook it for one in which some few thousand of his kinsmen were holding on precariously to a tiny strip of land on its wave-washed western shores. Several reasons have been given for his decision.

    First, it was an act of reparation, if not indeed of expiation. Just a year before he left Ireland, Columba had been implicated in a bloody battle in which thousands of young men had lost their lives--a tragedy for which he may have bad prime responsibility. According to some sources Columba was angered by the king's demand that he hand over a copy he had surreptitiously made of a precious Gospel manuscript belonging to Finian of Moville. However, even after taking into consideration the Celts' warring tradition, it seems incongruous that a man of Columba' s stature should have stirred up his powerful family clan of Neill against the king over such a trifle. A more likely explanation is that he sought to avenge the death of his young kinsman, Prince Cuman, whom the king had slain while the youth was under Columba's protection. Whatever the origin of the conflict, it is said that Columba was filled with remorse and turned to his confessor or 'soul-friend' (anmcara), St. Molaise, who advised exile in the land of the heathen Picts, from which he was not to return to Ireland until he had won for Christ as many as had fallen on the blood-soaked field of Cooldrevny.

    The second reason was genuine missionary zeal. In crossing the narrow sea which separated Ireland from Britain, Columba was but following in the foot-steps of many saints of God who had gone before. St. Fillan, St. Kieran, St. Kessog, St. Brendan--these among others had crossed the Irish Sea to plant their preaching-crosses (and eventual churches) among the hills and glens of northern Britain, long before Columba bade his native land farewell.

    The third reason, mentioned above, was patriotic and political. Three years before, in 560, the Pictish king Brude had moved south with his troops to attack the Scots settlers in Dalriada, had slain their king Gabran and driven them back toward the sea, confining them to the Kintyre and Knapdale peninsulas of Argyll. Their plight, Columba saw only too clearly, was now desperate. Strengthened by the authority of his priestly and his princely rank, he went in hopes of subduing the Picts' hostility through preaching the Gospel. In fact, his success led ultimately to the union of the five separate realms into which northern Britain was then divided, into that Kingdom of Scotland which during the Middle Ages had so decisive an influence on the affairs of Western Europe.

    Setting sail with twelve kinsmen in a frail leather boat, a curaich, Columba crossed the sea to Kintyre where he met with his cousin Connail. The band of monks then proceeded north, and on May 12, 563, on the eve of Pentecost, they landed at Port-na-Curaich (the Bay of the Coracle) on an island which became known as I-Colum-kill, the 'island of Columba's church,' or, more popularly, Iona. Given the Celts' delight in linguistic puzzles, it is not surprising to learn that Iona means 'dove' in Hebrew. Thus, it was named after its first abbot and founder.

    The island was barren and the monks had to ferry branches and twigs from the neighboring island of Mull to build their beehive shaped mud-and-wattle cells. Columba rewarded the peasant from whose fields they gathered these materials, scarce even on Mull, with several bushels of barley which yielded a miraculously abundant crop in record time, The oak logs used in building the first church had to be brought from the mainland. In time the monks also built a refectory, a barn, stable, grainery and a mill. Peat was burned for fuel.

    Through St. Columba and his followers the art of writing came to Scotland. As in most monasteries of that time, an important occupation of the Iona monks was the transcribing of Scriptures for which there was great need among the new colonies of converts born of the Celts' missionary labors. St. Columba himself is said to have written or copied out some 300 books, including a volume containing hymns for the various services of the week. The Book of Durrow, an extant 6th century illumined Gospel, is said to be the work of St. Columba. Among his original works is the 'Altus Prosatus,' "a poetic history," writes Marion Lochhead, "of the Creation and man's Fall and Redemption. Each stanza begins with a letter of the alphabet, from the A of 'Altus'--High or Enthroned on High, to the Z or 'Zelus'--zealous for God."

 

Instructor of Monks

Columba's Rule, which governed life on Iona, was not identical with any other Eastern or Western cede. Liturgy was celebrated on Sundays, Feast days and on special saints' days as appointed by the abbot. On Iona St. Columba established that St. Brendan and St. Columbanus always be honored with a Liturgy on the days of their repose. Among other instructions regarding the order of services, the Rule enjoined that the monks were to display 'fervor in singing the office for the dead as if every dead person was a particular friend of theirs.'

Adamnan notes that the monks were encouraged to make frequent use of the sign of the Cross--over the pail before milking, over tools before using them, over a lantern...

As a true exponent of the Celtic tradition, Columba practiced a rigorous asceticism: his bed and pillow were of stone, and often he spent the night in prayer in some solitary corner of the island.

The monks fasted strictly, preserving the ancient tradition of abstinence until 3 o'clock on fast days. The fasting was relaxed at the abbot's discretion if a pilgrim arrived, for hospitality was seen as a missionary tool and, in spite of the austere life of the monks, visitors were encouraged and always received a warm welcome. (There is preserved

on Iona today a stone trough where pilgrims washed their feet.)

 

Monastic With a Mission

    One of Columba' s immediate concerns was to secure the goodwill of King Brude. Taking with him two interpreters, for Columba did not speak the language, he traveled northeast to the king's castle at Invernes s. King Brude, influenced by his foster-father and close advisor, the Arch Druid Broichan, gave Columba a courteous but cool reception. Upon meeting him, however, the King could not help being impressed with Columba's manliness, for, as Adamnan writes, he was tall of stature with a voice powerful enough to carry over half a mile. Once the Saint and his monks approached the castle to find the gate locked. St. Columba made the sign of the Cross over the gate and it swung open of its own accord. Braithan, sensing in Columba a rival, conjured up a great wind to frustrate Columba's setting sail. But the Saint, loudly entreating the aid of his Great Druid, Christ, sped straight into the contrary wind which shifted abruptly to help the boat on its course.

    If Columba was unable to convert King Brude, he did manage to obtain his permission to carryon missionary work among the Picts. In the years that followed he established more than 100 churches there in Alba, as Scotland was then called. Columba was most successful among the Western Isles, where today there exist the ruins of many churches dedicated to him. To the northeast, farther removed from Iona, it was more difficult to make inroads among the heathen. But in later years Columba's followers reaped the fruit of the seeds he had sown with his preaching.

    In allaying the animosity of the Picts, Columba gained favor with his Scots kinsmen, and when the king of Dalriada died, Columba exerted his authority to secure the succession of Aidan (not St. Aidan) whom he rightly discerned to be more capable of ruling than the assumed heir. Taking this Aidan to Iona, Columba consecrated him as king, the first Christian coronation in Britain's history.

    In his biography of St. Columba, Adamnan tells of the life of the early Iona monk s--their hardships, their labors in cultivating those parts of the island which would produce a crop, their hospitality and their missionary travels. But above all he testifies to Columba's holiness: he was granted gifts of healing, of prophecy; he turned water into wine; water blessed by him had curative powers; on several occasions a stream of uncreated light was seen to shine down upon  him as he celebrated the Eucharist. The greatest wonder, how ever, was his burning charity to all.

 

Converser With Angels 

      One could hardly begin to enumerate all that the Saint accomplished for the glory of God during his earthly pilgrimage. He was 77 years old when it drew to an end. One day in June, as he served the Holy Mysteries, he saw an angel who told him of his imminent departure. On the following Saturday he went with his servant Diarmid to bless the winnowed corn in the barn. This Sabbath, he told Diarmid, would be his Sabbath of eternal rest, for that night, as the Lord's Day was coming, he would be with the Lord. Indeed, as the weary Abbot-father stopped along the path to rest, the old white horse of the community came to him and laid its head on his breast, weeping at the parting that it, too, foresaw. Then, climbing the hill above the monastery, the Saint looked down upon the island and blessed it, prophesying that, small though it were, it would forever be held in honor by kings and people, by Scots and by those of other churches far beyond the sea.

     Back in his cell, he resumed his work of copying the Psalter, stopping at the verse of the 34th Psalm: "Fear the Lord, all you His saints; for there is no want tot hem that fear Him." At midnight he rose from his bed and went in haste to the church, straight up to the altar. The brethren arrived to see their father lying on the ground before the holy table and the whole place filled with a heavenly light. Diarmid knelt to take the beloved head on his breast, and lifted the fatherly hand to bless his children. The monks wept, but Columba's look was of ineffable joy; those present could only believe that he saw angels coming to take him home. "And having given them his holy benediction in this way, he immediately breathed his last"--on the very dawn of the Lord's Day. It was the 9th of June, 597.

     Iona continued to flourish as a missionary and monastic center for more than a century after the repose of its founder. It was to Iona that King Oswald of Northumbria sent for missionaries tc preach the Gospel to his people, and it was monks from Iona, led by St. Aidan, who established a sister community on the east coast island of Lindesfarne. Even after the Council of Whitby in 664, at which the authority of Rome gained ascendancy, Iona remained a stronghold of the Celtic tradition. But it was eclipsed in the 9th century when Viking raiders attacked the island, killing the abbot and several monks, and forcing the survivors to seek refuge in Ireland. A Benedictine monastery, established on the island in the 13th century, was despoiled during the Reformation, and Iona was once again abandoned to the elements. Lovers of godliness, however, take hope in the ancient prophecy attributed to St. Columba: 

In Iona of my heart, Iona of my love,
Instead of monks' voices shall be lowing of cows;
But ere the world shall come to an end, Iona shall be as it was.

(by Rev. Gavin Fargus, Argyll; with incorporated materials from The Liturgy and Ritual of the Celtic Church by F.E. Warren, 1881)


Switch to: 

Subscribe (and order back issues) to Orthodox America
Order Books from Orthodox America

If you note problems with this site, please contact the Webmaster
© 1998-2006 by Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society