Celts to the Creche: Day 25
St. Colman, 3rd Bishop of Lindisfarne
(c. 605 – February 18, 675 or August 8, 674)
On this 25th day of our Advent journey with the Celts to the Creche, we discover that our Irish traveling companion had a very popular name in his day. Some say that there are at least three hundred Celtic saints with a derivation of the name Colman, meaning “little dove.” It is said that one day a group of monks were working beside a stream when their leader shouted, “Colman, get into the water!” and twelve men jumped in. We learn about Colman of Lindisfarne mainly from the writings of The Venerable Bede (see Day 22) in his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (People).
This Colman was a native of the west of Ireland, likely born in Connacht. He received his education on the famous isle of Iona, off the western coast of Scotland. To travel across Ireland, then take a small boat or coracle to Iona on the untamed sea must have been quite an adventure for a young man in the early 7th century. Then later to be sent across the British Isle to the Scottish/English border to Lindisfarne would have been another feat of endurance. Colman must have been sure of his commissioning and calling. Following in the footsteps of the first two Bishops of Lindisfarne from Iona, Aidan and Finan, Colman became the third Bishop of Lindisfarne. While at Lindisfarne, he was at the Synod of Whitby in 664 that dramatically changed the Celtic ethos towards the Roman way of doing church. Colman also established a monastery on Inishbofin off the coast of Ireland and later the famous Mayo Abbey on the mainland of Ireland.
Synod of Whitby: Colman as Bishop of Lindisfarne was an active participant in the famous Synod of Whitby held at the large double monastery of St. Hilda(see Day 2) on the coast of Northumbria in 664 AD.
Colman represented the Celtic way of calculating Easter and the Celtic tonsure and Wilfrid represented the Roman calculation of Easter and the Roman crown of thorns tonsure. There was much discussion between these two over which was the correct way of being and doing church.
Very disappointed Colman resigned the Bishopric of Lindisfarne when King Oswiu of Northumbria at the conclusion of the Synod of Whitby decided that Northumbria would follow the Roman way. In the Life of Wilfrid, by Eddius Stephanus (Stephen of Ripon), there is alittle different twist to Bede’s recounting of the Synod. Eddius wrote that Colman was told that he must retire and leave his see if he could not accept the Roman tonsure and method of keeping Easter. Eddius even suggests that Colman had been the Metropolitan Bishop of York, so that the immediate consequence of the Synod of Whitby was Wilfrid’s election as Bishop of York in place of the departing Colman.
Leaving Lindisfarne: Before Colman departed Lindisfarne, he asked King Oswiu if he would allow Eata, the Bishop of Melrose to succeed him as Abbot. The king agreed and Eata, who had been brought up as one of the twelve English boys at Lindisfarne under Aidan (see day 1 of Celts to the Creche), returned with Cuthbert serving as his Prior. With his resignation as Bishop of Lindisfarne, Colman took not only thirty English monks, but also all the Irish monks of Lindisfarne with him back to Iona. Colman also transported some of the treasured relics of Lindisfarne including some of the bones of St. Aidan and perhaps a tiny piece of the true cross. These relics were brought to Iona and then must have been divided once again as they were also reported to be in Mayo Abbey until the Reformation in 1537 when the piece of the true cross vanished.
Founding of Churches in Scotland/Pictland: Later tradition states that between the years 665 and 667, St. Colman may have founded several churches in Scotland, but there are no existing seventh-century records of such activity by him. Yet, there are Pictish centers and churches possibly named for him including the St. Colmoc’s Church at Portmahomack, Scotland in the Moray Firth. Archaeological excavations between 1994 and 2007 led by Martin Carver revealed a mid 6th c. monastery that was burned in the 800’s possibly by Vikings. This excavation uncovered an important monastery with numerous high-quality sculptures incorporating Pictish, Irish, and Northumbrian influences and vellum making needed for manuscripts. According to Michelle Brown, former Director of the Medieval Manuscripts Division at the British Library and Anglo-Saxon book scholar, there is evidence of book production in this area of Scotland. Perhaps Colman settled here for a short while while evangelizing this area before trekking back to Iona.
Founding of Monastery on the Isle of Inishbofin: Colman stayed on Iona for awhile before he and his fellow Lindisfarne monks and perhaps others who joined him from Iona, sailed for Ireland and then trekked across the mainland of Ireland to the far western shores. This group settled at Inis Bó Finne, also known as Inishbofin (“Island of the White Heifer”), an island off the western coast of Galway, Ireland where he established a monastery there.
Monkish Mayhem Leads to Mayo Abbey: The Saxon monks were industrious, and during the Spring and Summer they tilled the land on Inishbofin and grew the corn necessary for the survival of the community. Meanwhile, the Irish monks went on an extended vacation to visit their relatives on the mainland of Ireland. When they returned to Inishbofin in Winter, these Irish monks ate up the fruits of the Saxons’ labors. This situation inevitably led to unpleasantness within the monastery, to say the least. (reminds us of the Little Red Hen story we heard as children). Disputes arose between the Saxon and Irish monks after a short time. Colman intervened and brought his ambitious Saxon monks onto the mainland of Ireland where he came upon a small tract of land which he bought from a nobleman, who made it a condition of sale that the monks who settled there would pray for him. Colman founded a monastery for them at “Magh Eó,” meaning the “Plain of Yew Trees” that later became known as “Mayo of the Saxons.” Mayo Abbey was about sixteen kilometres south-east of the present town of Castlebar.
Colman appointed Garailt (Gerald), as the first Abbot of the newly established Mayo monastery. It is thought that he likely came with Colman from Lindisfarne. Even though some think he was the son of Northumbrian royalty, his name seems more Irish than Saxon. The monastery flourished under Gerald and became known throughout Christian Europe as “Mayo of the Saxons.”
By the year 700 A.D. more than one hundred monks lived and taught at Mayo Abbey. It became a famous seat of learning which attracted many thousands of students from various parts of Britain, including many sons of the nobility.
Colman’s Resurrection Day: Colman’s last earthly days were spent on Inishbofin where The Annals of Ulster state that he served as the Bishop of Inishbofin. He experienced resurrection on that peaceful isle on August 8, 674 or February 18, 675.
Feast Day celebrated on August 8 or February 18
Thwarted plans: who has not experienced those before? Colman likely never dreamed that the Synod of Whitby would turn his world upside down. He seems to have been forced out his Metropolitan Bishopric of York and then he personally resigned his Bishopric of Lindisfarne. This began a not-planned-for peregrinatio back to Iona, via a likely sojourn among the “uncivilized” Picts and then onto a tiny island off the coast of Ireland to begin his new monastery. Then because of mayhem among his monks, it seemed prudent to start another new monastery back in mainland Ireland. Yet, Colman trusted God to be the captain of his coracles and the leader and guide of his journeys, helping him to make judicious decisions, to be fair, and to be a good leader and visionary. Yes, Colman’s plans were definitely thwarted by human beings and maybe even by his own temperament, but God the master-transformer turned them into good. Colman helped evangelize much more of the Celtic world than if he had comfortably stayed at York and Lindisfarne. St. Paul also had his plans on his various missionary tours thwarted and ended up in places he never dreamed or imagined. He wrote of this: “and I know that all things work together for the good for those who love God and are called according to God’s purposes.” Romans 8:28.
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