Tuesday 9 June 2020

Apostle of Scotland and Patron of Ireland

Today is the feast of Saint Colum Cille and to mark the occasion I reprint below a newspaper article from 1905.  The author, who signs himself only as 'J.B.', presents a picture of Saint Colum Cille as an all-conquering heroic figure who is not just a great saint but also a great patriot. Indeed the land of Ireland, from which he now lives in exile, is so holy that the very breezes which blow there were like 'Zephyrs of Paradise' to him. The article is thus very typical of the romantic, nationalist view of Ireland and its saints found at this time. It packs in many of the tropes from Columban hagiography and ends with a prayer from the liturgy. May I wish everyone the blessings of our tertiary patron's feast!

Saint Columbkille.

Saint Columba Abbot, Prince, Priest, Apostle of Scotland, and Patron of Ireland, was born at Gartan, in the County Donegal, in the year 521, and died at Iona in the year 595. "He was," says Alban Butler, "one of the greatest Patriarchs of the Monastic Order in Ireland, and the Apostle of the Picts". He was surnamed Columbkille from the great number of Monastic Cells of which he was the founder. "Columba," said St. Fintan, "is not to be compared with philosophers and learned men, but with Patriarchs, Prophets, and Apostles. The Holy Ghost reigns in him; He has been chosen by God for the good of all. He is a sage among sages, a king among kings, an anchorite with anchorites, a monk of monks."

He was forty-three years old before he left Ireland for Iona, and in the meantime, according to Usher, he founded a hundred Monasteries. According to O'Donnell he founded as many as three hundred. "Venerated at home for his sanctity and wondrous miracles," writes Cardinal Moran, "he is ranked with St. Patrick and St. Bridget amongst the chief patrons of Ireland, whilst abroad the grateful piety of those whom he evangelised has awarded him the aureola of Chief Apostle of Caledonia. It is true that many years before the Mission of Columba others had preached the faith in Dalriada and the southern districts of Alba, but in consequence of continual wars and predatory incursions piety had again grown cold, and the light of truth was well nigh spent. He it was that revived there the spirit of piety, and renewed the fervor of Christian life. The Northern Picts, however, had never yet received the Gospel; but now that sanguinary and untameable race, which Imperial Rome could not subdue, was conquered by the Irish missionary. Before St. Columba elided his glorious career the whole nation was gathered into tho one true fold. Their glens and forests, their almost inaccessible mountains, and their distant islands were studded with Christian Churches and Monasteries, and resounded with the praise of the Most High. Pict and Scot hailed him with the utmost enthusiasm, regarding him as an angel in human form. His shining virtues won the admiration of all, for he rejoiced with them that rejoiced and wept with them that wept. He was a great Saint and a great Patriot, entering deeply and warmly into everything that affected the weal of Clan Nial or the honor of Erin. The very breezes that blow on the fair hills of holy Ireland were, to him like the Zephyrs of Paradise, and all his life he retained for Ireland the passionate tenderness of an exile. "Death," he said, "In faultless Ireland is better than life without end in Albyn." "Young traveller,'" he exclaims to a monk revisiting Ireland, "take my heart with thee and my blessing. Carry my blessing across the sea. If death should come upon me suddenly it will be because of my great love of the Gael." The birds that winged their flight across he took up tenderly, caressed, and fed until they were able to return to sweet Ireland, where they were born.

A great consolation was vouchsafed to him in a vision, and he foretold that long years after his death his remains should be conveyed across the sea and deposited in the same tomb with Saints Patrick and Bridget. "They shall bury me first in Iona, but by the will of the living God it is in Down that I shall rest in my grave with Patrick and Bridget, the spotless." Three bodies in one grave, and so it happened. From an old Latin poem we learn that in Down "Three Saints one grave do fill, Patrick, Bridget, and Columkille." Deeply as he loved his native land Columba was satisfied with his cell of exile, his stone pillar, his meagre food, his almost superhuman labor and austerities.

When he left Ireland and settled in Iona he was then in the prime of life. Twelve companions, amongst them two first cousins and an uncle, accompanied him in his voyage. For 30 years after he was the legislator and the Captain of Christianity In those Northern regions. The King of the Picts received baptism at his hands. The kings of the Scottish Colony, his kinsmen, received the Crown from him on their accession, to the Throne. The islet of Iona was presented to him by one of these Princes. Here he and his companions built with their own hands their parent house, and from this Hebridean Rock in after times was shaped the temporal and spiritual destinies of many tribes and kingdoms. Formed by his teaching and example there went out from it Apostles to Iceland, to the Orkneys, to Northumbria, to Man, and to South Britain. A hundred Monasteries in Ireland looked to him as their Patriarch. His rule of monastic life was sought for by chiefs, bards, and converted druids. Clients seeking direction from his wisdom or protection  through his power were constantly arrlving or departing from his sacred isle. He had the gift of seeing men's souls— how they stood before God. On one occasion he foretold to his brethren the immediate arrival of a Pictish Chief, who was very aged, who had preserved intact the laws of nature, and who was now coming to receive the grace of faith and baptism, after which would follow a happy death. Soon the skiff arrived, the chief came ashore, and all else happened as foretold.

Like all great saints he was severe to himself and indulgent to others. His activity was incessant. Not a single hour of the day did he leave unoccupied without engaging either in prayer or in reading, or in writing, or in some other work. His fastings and watchings also were unwearied.  From his boyhood (according to his cousin, St. Adamnan) he had been brought up under Christian training in the study of wisdom, and by the grace of God he so preserved his body and the purity of his soul that though dwelling on earth he appeared to live like the Saints in heaven. He was angelic in appearance, graceful in speech, holy in work, with talents of the highest order, and consummate prudence. Ho was beloved by all for a holy joyousness ever beaming on his countenance revealed the joy and gladness with which the Holy Spirit filled his inmost soul.

 The Commentator of the Feilire of Aengus describes his appearance as that of a man well-formed, with a powerful frame. His skin was white, his face was broad and fair and radiant, lit up with large grey luminous eyes. His large and well-shaped head was crowned, except where he wore his frontal tonsure, with close and curling hair. His voice was clear and resonant so that he could be heard at the distance of fifteen hundred paces, yet sweet with more than the sweetness of the bards. His father, Feidlam, was descended from one of the eight sons of the great Niall of the Nine Hostages, who was Supreme Monarch of Ireland from the year 379 to 406, and his mother, Ethnea, belonged to the Royal family of Leinster. An old life of the Saint states that he was offered the Throne of Leinster and refused to accept it.

Before his death St. Columkille paid one visit to his beloved Ireland and made a comparatively long stay. At length he returned to Iona, where far into the evening of life he waited for his summons to the beatific vision. Death found him at the ripe age of almost eighty years stylus in hand tolling cheerfully over the vellum page. It was the last night of the week when the presentiment of his end came strongly upon him. "This day," he said to his disciple and successor Dermid, "Is called the day of rest, and such it will be for me, for it will finish my labors." Laying down the manuscript he added, "Let Baithen finish the rest."Just after Matins on the Sunday morning he peacefully passed away in the midst of his brethren. His feast is kept on tho 9th of June, and on Tuesday last the Church addressed to him the following prayer in which She wished her children to join :— "Let the intercession of the Blessed Abbot Columba, we beseech Thee, Oh Lord, commend us to Thee, that what by our own merits we are unworthy to receive we may obtain by his patronage, through Christ our Lord. Amen." J. B.

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