In the service at 2pm SLT today we remembered St Columba, who travelled from Ireland to found a monastery on Iona which still has a religious community on it over 1400 years later. Learn more about Columba in the sermon that follows.
The readings were Psalm 119:129-136, 2 Corinthians 1:18-22, Matthew 5:13-16. Cephus and Aelred gave the readings.
Today is the feast day of St Columba who was born of royal blood at Garton, in County Donegal, in north Ireland in 521. His name means dove. He acquired the name Columkille which means Colum of the cells or churches. The priest who baptised him at Temple Douglas became his foster father and tutor during his early years. As soon as he was old enough he went to St. Finnian’s training school at Moville. At the age of about twenty, already a deacon in the church, he moved to study with Gemman who was a bard, and so became a poet himself. He moved on again to Clonard, a famous monastic school run by another Finnian who later acquired the title of ‘tutor of Erin’s saints’. This school must have given him a very rich experience as there were up to 3000 students there from Scotland, Ireland, Wales and parts of Europe. It is here that Columba was ordained priest at the age of 25.
It seems that Columba was an impressive person. He is said to have been tall and of powerful build. His voice was loud and melodious, and carried so well that it could be heard from hilltop to hilltop. It seems he gathered disciples quickly and founded many monasteries over the next 15 years including Derry, Durrow and Kells.
I suppose, had things worked out as well as they looked set to do, he would have continued in this way, passing his days as a much loved abbot in his native land of Ireland. Unfortunately there seems to have been a dispute with King Dermot. Columba had a love of books and spent much of his time copying Psalters and Bibles for his monks. He managed to get sight of a copy of St Jerome’s Psalter which had been brought from Rome by Finnian. He secretly made a copy of it and that annoyed Finnian. The king ruled that Finnian should have the copy as well as the original. Later King Dermot’s men dragged away and killed Prince Curnan who was claiming sanctuary with Columba. War broke out between Columba’s clan and Dermot’s, which Columba won, but which led to thousands dying. It seems that Columba’s name meaning ‘dove’ did nothing to alter his fierce temper!
After the war a church synod condemned Columba and wanted to excommunicate him for what he had done. St Brendan intervened to prevent this. Columba decided that he would atone for his offence by going into exile and committing to win the same number of people to Christ as those who had died. In 563 Columba set sail in a leather covered coracle with twelve followers and landed on the island of Iona on the eve of Pentecost, 12th May. There he built a stone cross and carried on to build a monastery. The position of Iona was ideal for reaching both the northern Picts and the southern Scots. After two years on Iona he headed north towards the kingdom of King Brude. He passed by the River Ness and the story is told of how he drove a great monster from the river into Loch Ness where it could do no harm. As you know, people still camp on the banks of the loch in the hope of catching sight of the Loch Ness Monster.
When Columba and his colleagues Comgall and Kenneth reached the castle of King Brude, the gates were bolted against them. The king had given orders that they were not to be admitted. Columba is said to have made the sign of the cross which resulted in the bolts drawing themselves back and the gates opening. King Brude was so impressed by the power displayed by Columba that he listened to what he had to say and chose to be baptised, soon to be followed by his people.
Iona became a centre of culture and conversion with people from all over Europe visiting it to seek wisdom, prophecies and miracles from Columba. Both rich and poor travelled there. For centuries after Columba’s death, Iona was known as a centre for Christian learning. Columba travelled widely on missionary journeys but when in his cell on Iona, he lived a very simple life. He is said to have slept on bare rock and to have restricted his diet to barley or oat cakes and water. Once he was too old to travel he returned to copying out manuscripts as he had done as young man. He is said to have copied out 300 books in his lifetime.
Columba was visited by angels four years before he died, who told him that the prayers of the believers he had converted had moved God to allow him to stay on earth for four more years. He was open about when he would die and on the day before his death, having just written the words “They that love the Lord shall lack no good thing”, he stopped and said that his cousin and successor Baithin could finish it. He climbed the hill overlooking the monastery to bless it. He said to his disciple Diermit: “This day is called the Sabbath, that is, the day of rest, and such will it truly be to me, for it will put an end to my labours.” He was the first to arrive in the church at midnight between 8th and 9th June 597. He was found by the monks dying there. With the help of Diermit he raised his hand to bless the monks and died, aged 77.
A century or so later, Adamnan wrote Columba’s biography and describes him in this way: “He had the face of an angel; he was of excellent nature, polished in speech, holy in deed, great in council. He never let a single hour pass without engaging in prayer or reading or writing or some other occupation. He endured the hardships of fasting and vigils without intermission by day and night; the burden of a single one of his labours would have seemed beyond the powers of man. And, in the midst of all his toils, he appeared loving unto all, serene and holy, rejoicing in the joy of the Holy Spirit in his inmost heart.”
The Iona Community which Columba founded has been in existence for over 1400 years and still attracts pilgrims from all over the world. The place is so important that 48 Scottish kings are buried on the island.
I think the risk of looking at the lives of saints is that it makes us feel inadequate. We see Jesus’ instruction to be salt and light and tend to think that it’s ok for saints but not for us, as we just don’t have what it takes. When you look at Columba’s story, he wasn’t all sweetness and light really. Maybe he was saintly at the end of his life but he went to war and nearly got excommunicated as a result earlier. It may be of course that he felt justified in what he did. Maybe he would have done it again without a second thought. Nevertheless, many people died as the result of his choice, something that is unlikely to be the case for many of us. The good thing is that God continued to use him to reach people and to found the wonderful community on Iona. God also transformed Columba throughout his life, which is what he will do for us also.
It’s wise not to get too hung up on the word ‘saint’ and allow ourselves to be incapacitated by it. It doesn’t mean someone with a golden halo and a beatific smile. It just means a believer, like you and me. God can use us just as much as he used Columba.