Celts to the Crèche: Day 4
St. Columba of Iona
7 December 521 – 9 June 597
On the 4th day our journey with the Celts to the Crèche, we meet the much-loved and admired St. Columba, (Colum Cille meaning “dove of the church”) who was an Irish monk, abbot, scholar, and missionary who spread the gospel of Jesus Christ in Scotland, England, and throughout western Europe from the monastery he established on the little island of Iona off the western coast of Scotland. Many of the famous Celtic monks and missionaries were educated and trained on Iona like St. Aidan of Lindisfarne.
His life was recorded by Adomnan, a later abbot of Iona who wrote the Life of St. Columba a century after Columba died. Much of Adomnan’s work was based upon an earlier biography recorded by the seventh abbot of Iona, Cummene “the White.” Columba evangelized the local Druids by declaring to them, “Christ is my Druid.”
You may desire to continue reading more about Columba or go on to the Meditation towards the end of this page.
Early Life: Columba grew up in Garten in County Donegal in Ulster. He was a descendant of one of the most powerful royal dynasties of Ireland, the Ui Neill clan of northern Ireland that descended from the famous Niall of the Nine Hostages. His mother was descended from a king of Leinster. He studied under the famous monastic teachers, Finnian of Moville and Finnian of Clonard. Columba was ordained as a deacon at Moville Abbey and was ordained as a priest when he was about thirty years old.
While in Ireland, Columba established several churches and probably at least twenty monasteries including Derry on the banks of Lough Foyle and Durrow in County Offaly. Some believe that he also established the Abbey of Kells in County Meath on a former Irish hill fort. There are heritage trails of St. Columba’s journeys and monasteries that he established.
How Columba Came to Iona: Legend says that after copying a book of Psalms from his former teacher, St. Finnian of Moville Abbey, without permission, that Finnian demanded the copy, but Columba refused to hand it over. Their dispute was taken to the High King Diarmuid, who ruled “to each cow its calf and to every book its copy” convicting Columba of plagiarism and giving legal copyright to Finnian. Columba persuaded his kinsmen to go to battle over this ruling and King Diarmuid was defeated. Columba was blamed for the hundreds of men that were killed at this battle. For penance, it was decided by a synod that Columba must convert an equal number of pagans. So Columba and twelve companions chose to embrace peregrinatio, exile as his penance. This is considered by some to be the the first recorded instance of the use of “copyright.”
Columba had already established several monasteries in Ireland, but in 563, he sailed with 12 companions to Iona in Scotland, with no oars trusting the Spirit to take him to wherever the Lord wanted him to serve. That little boat landed on the Isle of Iona on the day of Pentecost, where Columba began creating one of the greatest centers of faith and evangelism in Christian history. It is said that he chose Iona, near the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland because when he stood on the highest hill on Iona, he could not see Ireland from that place.
Columba’s Life Work: Columba was a scholar, poet, evangelist, and visionary. It is thought that Columba was an important leader in evangelizing the Picts in Scotland. There are eve three surviving early medieval poems which may be attributed to him. He spent much of the last years of his life copying manuscripts by hand in the scriptorium at Iona. It has been said that he personally copied 300 manuscripts. This influence passed on down through the years on Iona, as some Anglo-Saxon manuscript scholars believe that the magnificent Book of Kells was handwritten and gorgeously illuminated about 800AD at the scriptorium at Iona.
In July of 2017, it was announced that archaeologists had completed radiocarbon testing on wood fragments that had been retrieved by archaeologists in 1957 from what was thought was Columba’s cell on Tòrr an Aba (Mound of the Abbot). The radiocarbon tests came back with the era of Columba, 540-650 AD. This is a very exciting discovery for those who love Iona and Columba.
Columba’s Place of Resurrection: Columba lived on Iona for 36 years and died on June 9, 598 while copying Psalm 44. A favorite story relates that the aged Columba was out walking one afternoon and he grew weary. As he sat down by the roadside to rest, his white horse who carried milk for the monastery came to him and laid his head upon the saint’s breast and tears flowed from the horse’s eyes as he gave farewell to the master he knew was dying.
Columba was buried on Iona and later his relics were divided and some came to rest in the same coffin with St. Patrick and St. Bridget at Downpatrick in Ireland.
Iona’s Influence: Columba’s establishment of the abbey on Iona off the western coast of Scotland in the Inner Hebrides became the “Cradle of Western European Christianity.” This scholarly, yet deeply spiritual abbey sent out hundreds of monk evangelists who shared the gospel and set up monasteries all over England and western Europe.
Today, pilgrims come from all over the world to this “Thin Place,” where the veil between earth and heaven seems gossamer, very thin. The Iona Community, an ecumenical inclusive community based on peace and justice founded by Rev. George McLeod in the late 1930’s continues to draw people of all ages and from all over the world to stay, work, and worship on Iona.
I was blessed to stay on Iona at the Bishop’s House for almost two weeks in September 2009 to take a course on St. Columba. This was offered through the University of Wales, Lampeter taught by Celtic scholar, Dr. Jonathan Wooding and Iona expert Mairi MacArthur, who grew up on Iona across from the Abbey.
It was a dream come true to be on this sacred island and to worship in the ancient abbey, to walk on the same places the great saints have trod, to sit on the isolated beaches and listen to the waves crash, to peruse the incredible museum, and to contemplate at the foot of the huge Celtic crosses throughout Iona. It was quite a pilgrimage to get here by myself the first time and with my husband on the second trip to Iona in October of 2014…plane, tube, train, bus, and ferry, but it was worth it beyond my dreams or imaginations. A few years later, it was a joy to share this historical and sacred place with my spouse.
Yes, Iona is a magical, mystical place, where the veil between the heaven and earth is indeed gossamer.
Feast Day of Columba
Feast Day June 9
St. Columba’s life is a wonderful example that even when we mess up big time in life, that the Spirit of our living God can remold us and remake us. We can find our place of resurrection, not only on the other side of the veil, but also in the here and now. Let us join St. Columba on the pilgrimage with the Celts to the Creche, where the possibility of fresh new starts awaits.
Prayer: As Columba evangelized the Celtic people by describing Jesus Christ as his Druid, we too are able to pray, “Christ my Druid, I open my heart to you”. As I journey to the manger in Bethlehem, may You be born again anew in my life. Shine your healing light upon those broken, messed up places in my life. Re-mold and remake me. Thank you for second chances. May the dove of peace fill my life.
may kindly Columba guide you
to be an island in the sea,
a hill on a shore,
a star in the night,
a staff for the weak.”
Amen and amen.
-Gaelic oral tradition
Hymn: Change my heart, O God, make it ever true. You are the potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me, this is what I pray.
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