Friday, June 8, 2012

St Columba, Abbot

Today's saint is Columba, born Colum MacFhelin MacFergus, in Ireland in 521 A.D., the great-great-grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages (an Irish king), on his father's side. His mother was also descended from a king of Leinster and was related to the royalty of Scottish Dalriada (Argyle). Columba, who could have become a king in Ireland, instead, chose to preach the Gospel and teach the Faith of Christ. He entered the monastic life at a young age, and almost immediately set forth on missionary travels. 

Even before ordination in 551, he had founded monasteries at Derry and Durrow, and is said to have founded as many as 300 churches and monasteries during his lifetime. 

Columba loved literature, and it is said that around 560 he became involved in a dispute with his mentor, Abbot Finnian, over a manuscript of the Psalter Columba copied at the scriptorium, which he intended to keep. Abbot Finnian disputed Columba's right to keep the copy. The dispute eventually led to the Battle of Cul Dreimnhe in 561, during which many men — perhaps 3000 - were killed. 

As penance for these deaths, Columba suggested that he work as a missionary in Scotland to help convert as many people to Christ as had been killed in the battle. He exiled himself from Ireland, and in 563, with a dozen companions, set out for northern Britain, where the 5th century Picts had lost territory to the previous Irish kings, and were in need of evangelisation as in the religion of the Picts—Druids prevailed (as they did in the rest of Britain and Celtic Gaul). 

Columba was kindly received by Conal, king of British Scots, and allowed to preach, convert, and baptize. He was also given possession of the isle of Iona, where, according to legend, his tiny boat had washed ashore. (The island was known by the simple name "I" changed by Bede into "Hy" and Latinized by the monks into "Iova" or "Iona.") Here Columba founded the monastery which became a school for missionaries and the center for the conversion of the Picts, as well as the only center of literacy and education in the region, at that time. St Bede says, "The monastery of Iona, like those previously founded by Columba in Ireland, was not a retreat for solitaries whose chief object was to work out their own salvation; it was a great school of Christian education, and was specially designed to prepare and send forth a body of clergy trained to the task of preaching the Gospel among the heathen." 

From Iona his disciples went out to found other monasteries to the west in Ireland, and to the east the famous Lindisfarne monastery in Northumbria, among others. 

As a close advisor to the Gaelic king Conal of Dalriada, Columba served as a diplomat to neighbouring kingdoms in Ireland and Pictland. 

Accompanied by his disciples, Columba made long journeys through the Highlands of Scotland, as far as Inverness and Aberdeen, spreading the light of faith in God and instructing the people in the truths of the Gospel. For thirty years, he evangelized, studied, wrote, and governed his monastery at Iona. He supervised his monks in their work in the fields and workrooms, in their daily worship and Sunday Eucharist, and their study and teaching. 

There are many stories of miracles performed through Columba during his work with the Picts. Columba could see that if King Brude, one of the known leaders of the ancient Picts, was converted,, the whole nation might be won for Christ. So he visited the pagan king of Fortriu, at his base in Inverness, where it is said that the king had the gates locked against Columba. But that when he arrived at the king's castle, Columba made the sign of the cross and the gates opened of their own accord. King Brude was so impressed that he opened his home - and soul - to Columba, becoming a devoted Christian. 

Among his many accomplishments, Columba was a good sailor. He loved life. As well as being a man of action, Columba was also a poet, whose Latin and Gaelic poems reveal great sensitivity to the beauty of his surroundings. He is also credited with transcribing 300 books personally. At the height of the Iona monastery, it produced The Book of Kells, a masterwork of Irish Celtic symbols, art and literature. The community Columba founded at Iona became the center for an early renaissance where books, art, music and culture were preserved in throughout the Dark Ages. 

To keep a succession of the teachers of Christianity, Columba established a monastery in every district of the Pictish territories, and from these monasteries for hundreds of years men of Gospel authenticity emerged who watered and tended the good seed planted by Columba. 

Columba had great influence among the neighboring princes, and they often asked for his advice. They submitted to him their quarrels, which he was frequently able to settle. 

Columba died peacefully in 597, while working on a copy of the Psalter. He had put down his pen, rested a few hours, and at Matins was found dead before the Altar, a smile on his face. He is quoted by his biographer Adamnan as having said, "This day is called in the sacred Scriptures a day of rest, and truly to me it will be such, for it is the last of my life and I shall enter into rest after the fatigues of my labours." 

For many years after his death, Columba's influence was felt in the Celtic lands and abroad. His mission at Iona led to the conversion of Scotland and the north of England; his influence also contributed to the intensity of faith in Ireland.


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