Saturday, 15 June 2013

The Story of Blessed Columba and the Horse

We continue the series of posts for the Octave of the Feast of Saint Colum Cille with a poetic retelling by Katharine Tynan of another story concerning the saint and animals. This one alludes to the tradition that the Columban monastic family were so devoted to their founder that their prayers detained Saint Colum Cille on earth, even though he was more than ready to leave for the glories of heaven. One creature who did understand how the saint felt, however, was an old pack horse which had served the monastery faithfully for many years. The animal places his head on the chest of the saint and weeps, its distress finally bringing the monks of Iona to the realisation that they must let their beloved founder go.


COLUMBA was kept back
Four years from his reward,
The brethren's prayers, alack,
Prevailing with the Lord.
"O children, let me go!"
'Twas oft and oft he prayed,
Yet still with prayer aglow
They held him from the dead.

They held him back with might,
Kissing his habit's hem,
His soul's wings set for flight,
Were prisoned long by them.
His soul was sick for death;
Yea, anguished long and dumb
To take the lonely path
Should lead the exile home.

At last one Autumn day
When woods were red and gold,
And the sea moaned alway
For summers dead and cold,
Columba, weary foot,
Went out and saw the sheaves,
And flames of yellow fruit
Trembling among the leaves.

He saw the sheep and swine,
The oxen and the ass,
The drying swathes in line
Of rich and honeyed grass:
Opened the granary door,
And saw the brethren had
Of fruit and grain great store
To last through winter sad.

Upon a brother's arm
The great Columba leant;
Bowed was that stately form,
The holy head down-bent.
Yet peace was in his eyes,
Happy and satisfied:
He blessed the granaries,
The beasts and pastures wide.

As slowly home they came,
There limped along the road,
The old horse tired and lame
That long had borne his load.
The horse that night and morn
Drew home the abbey milk,
Drew home the load of corn,
And swathes of grass like silk.

With a low whinnying neigh,
He ran full wild and fast
And hid his forehead grey
Against Columba's breast,
And wept against his neck,
Till any heart of stone
Were very like to ache,
Hearing the creature moan.

"O little horse, so kind"
The dear Columba said;
"How hast thou well divined
I should so soon be dead?
Thou wouldst not keep me, thou,
From glory and from grace
And from Queen Mary's brow,
And from the Lord God's face!”

But while the horse sobbed on,
Columba stroked his mane;
O, any heart of stone
Had ached to see that pain.
And still as home they went,
The horse came following yet;
His head deject and bent,
His eyes still strained and wet.

The brethren they ran out:
Columba, speaking then,
His tender arm about
His patient friend's grey mane.
"O kinder is the beast
That grieves, but lets me go,
Than ye who keep from rest
An old man, sad and slow!

"Far kinder is the horse:
He knows how pastures dim,
With many a water-course,
Beckon so sweet to him.
He too is tired and old,
And knows how sweetly call
The harps and hymns of gold
To me this evenfall.

"Long have they called to me,
My soul is hungered
The dear Lord God to see,
With glories round His head.
Sweet is the thought of rest,
While all the ages roll,
In that eternal Breast:
Yea, lovely to my soul!"

They cried then with one voice:
"No more we will retard,
Go, elect soul, rejoice,
Receive thy great reward!
And yet forget not there
The little ones who go
Like some sad wayfarer
When heaven lets out the snow!"

They led the horse away
Unto his manger brown.
Three days the sorrel-gray
Let the big tears fall down.
Three days the horse did mourn;
The fourth day dawn came faint:
Iona woke forlorn,
But heaven received its saint.

Katherine Tynan, The Story of Blessed Columba and the Horse in W. J. Paul, ed. Modern Irish Poets, (Belfast, 1894), 155-158.

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