Pagan meets Celtic Christianity meets Roman Christianity
The life of St. Colmcille and the prophecy of Iona.
“Alone with none but Thee, my God,
I journey on my way;
What need I fear when Thou art near,
Oh King of night and day?
More safe am I within Thy hand
Than if a host did round me stand.”
A poet and an artist who did illumination — perhaps some of those in the Book of Kells itself—Colmcille’s skill as a scribe can be seen in the Cathach of Columba (Columcille) at the Irish Academy. The oldest surviving example of Irish illumination, it was eventually enshrined in silver and bronze and venerated in churches.
In art, he is sometimes depicted with a basket of bread and an orb of the world in a ray of light. He might also be pictured with an old, white horse. He is venerated in Dunkeld, Ireland and also as the Apostle of Scotland. His feast day is June 9th, the day on which he died.
Of the man himself and his personality, it is said that he was “well-formed, with a powerful frame; his skin was white, his face broad and fair and radiant, lit up with large, grey, luminous eyes…” Saint Adamnan, his biographer wrote of him: “He had the face of an angel; he was of an excellent nature, polished in speech, holy in deed, great in counsel… loving unto all.”
Around the same time that St. Patrick was taken to Ireland as a slave, Saint Columcille, was born, Crimthain, on December 7th 521 AD in Gartan, Co. Donegal. His father being Fedhlimidh, and his mother Eithne were both of royal descent. A descendant of Niall of the Nine Hostages, Colmcille came from a race of kings who had ruled in Ireland for six centuries and was himself in close succession to the throne.
At an early age, he was given in fosterage to a priest. After studying at Moville under Saint Finnian and then at Clonard with another Saint Finnian, he surrendered his princely claims, became a monk at Glasnevin under Mobhi, and was ordained.
He spent the next 15 years preaching and teaching in Ireland. As was the custom in those days, he combined study and prayer with manual labour. By his own natural gifts as well as by the good fortune of his birth, he soon gained ascendancy as a monk of unusual distinction.
By the time he was 25, he founded Derry, and some years after Durrow, the greatest of his Irish Establishments. It is said by this time he had founded no less than 27 Irish monasteries, including Kells, Swords, Tory Island and Drumcliff.
Columcille was also a poet who had learned Irish history and poetry from a bard named Gemman. In addition, he loved fine books and manuscripts. One of the famous books associated with Columcille is the Psaltair, which was traditionally the Battle Book of the O’Donnells, his kinsmen, who carried it into battle. The Psaltair is the basis for one of the most famous legends of Saint Columcille.
It is said that on one occasion, so anxious was Columcille to have a copy of the Psalter that he shut himself up for a whole night in the church that contained it, transcribing it laboriously by hand. He was discovered by a monk who watched him through the keyhole and reported it to his superior, Finnian of Moville. The Scriptures were so scarce in those days that the abbot claimed the copy, refusing to allow it to leave the monastery. Columcille refused to surrender it, until he was obliged to do so, under protest, on the abbot’s appeal to the High King Diarmaid.
A very sad period in Columcille’s life followed. Because he had protected a refugee and denounced an injustice by King Diarmaid, war broke out between the clans of Ireland. Filled with remorse on account of those who had been slain in the battle of Cooldrevne and condemned by many of his own friends, he experienced a profound conversion and an irresistible call to preach to the heathen. So, even though he loved Ireland with all of his heart, Columcille made the profound decision to become an exile.
In 563, he and 12 companions crossed the Irish Sea in a curragh and landed on a deserted island now known as Iona. Iona, previously being a pre-Christian holy site soon became the heart of Celtic Christianity. It was here, on this tiny isle off the coast of Scotland, that Colmcille began his work. The existence of the Celtic mission on Iona was one of the strongest influences in the conversion of the Picts, Scots, and Northern English.
From Iona, numerous other settlements were founded, and Columcille himself penetrated the wildest glens of Scotland and the farthest Outer Hebrides. He established the Caledonian Church and it is said that he anointed King Aidan of Argyll upon the famous stone of Scone. The Pictish King Brude and his people were also converted by Columcille’s many miracles, including driving away a water “monster” from the River Ness with the Sign of the Cross.
Even though he was far away in Scotland, Columcille appears to have retained control over his monasteries in Ireland. In 580, he returned to his native land to take part in the assembly of Druim-Cetta in Ulster, where he mediated about the obligations of the Irish in Scotland to those in Ireland. It was decided that they should furnish a fleet, but not an army, for the Irish high-king. During the same assembly, Columcille, who was a bard himself, intervened to effectively swing the nation away from its declared intention of suppressing the Bardic Order. Columcille persuaded them that the whole future of Gaelic culture demanded that the scholarship of the bards be preserved. His prestige was such that his views prevailed and assured the presence of educated laity in Irish Christian society.
Columcille’s temperament changed dramatically during his life. Although his name means “dove”, in his early years, he had a quick temper and was extremely stern with his monks; gradually, he softened and later in life, he was as gentle toward them as he had always been with children and animals. Columcille, who referred to Christ as “my Druid”, had great qualities, but ultimately, his chief virtue lay in the love and sympathy that flowed from his eager and radiant spirit.
On June 8, 597, Columcille was copying out the psalms once again. At the verse, “They that love the Lord shall lack no good thing,” he stopped, and said that his cousin, Saint Baithin must do the rest. Columcille died the next day at the foot of the altar. He was first buried at Iona, but 200 years later the Danes destroyed the monastery. His relics were taken to Dunkeld in 849. Alas, our story does not end here, for Colmcille’s great legacy proved to be influential beyond his death.
The year Columcille died was the same year in which Saint Gregory the Great sent Saint Augustine of Canterbury to further the Roman mission in converting England. The Celtic and Roman missions, which had been separate for about 200 years previous, were now once again at odds with each other. An increasing uniformity of religious practice had developed throughout the Roman empire as consolidated by the power and primacy of the Bishop of Rome. The theological stance of Augustine of Hippo which emphasised human depravity came into greater prominence leading to celibacy laws and widening of the separation between man and woman in the church. This was in stark contrast to the Celtic mission, which, on the other hand emphasised the goodness of creation, allowed marriage of clergy, was not as distinct between religious and lay-folk and granted positions of leadership to women within the church.
The Celtic mission followed the tradition of St. John and his vision of God as the Life of the world, animating all things. The concept of listening for the heartbeat of God within all things, the whole of creation was a defining feature of this Celtic Christian spirituality which differed remarkably from the authority and “faithful action” of St. Peter.
This conflict between the missions grew and grew until the Synod of Whitby in 664, where in which the King, Oswy, chose the Roman tradition of St. Peter over the Celtic tradition leading to the rejection and later decline of the Celtic mission. Perhaps it is this spiritual chasm between the “listening for the heartbeat of God” and “taking faithful action” that we are attempting to reintegrate today?
The Celtic mission continued to recede over the coming years except for one last stronghold which held onto many of the Celtic teachings: Iona. It wasn’t until 200 years later in 860AD that the last independent Abbott of the monastery built by Colmcille some 300 years earlier died.
And it is here, at the sacred Isle of Iona, once the Capital seat of the Druidic tradition, later of the Caeli Dei, the first Druids to convert to the Christian faith, and the final resistance place of the Celtic Christian mission that we end our tale. Just as Colmcille prophesised the coming again of Christ once again from a very red-haired woman, of which there are five widows of the same name, I share with you now with the prophecy of Iona;
“Christ shall come again upon Iona, now as the Bride of Christ, now as the daughter of God, now as the Divine Spirit embodied through mortal birth, the coming of a new Presence and Power; a dream that may be upon Iona, so that the little Gaelic island may become as the little Syrian Bethlehem… the Shepherdess shall call us home.”
And in closing I leave you with this quote of Iona;
“The island set apart, this motherland of many dreams, still yields its secret, but it is only as men seek that they truly find. To reach the heart of Iona is to find something eternal…..”
And that my friends is the closing of the Life of Saint Colmcille and the Prophecy of Iona….
It reminded me of a piece of poetry from Fiona McCloud, the Celtic Twilight poet. William Sharpe brought him through who was a great lover of Iona, the western Hebrides in general and their traditions. There’s a quote from a poetic part of Iona, that refers to Brigid: My secret name is fire; My inmost soul is radiant air; My cloak is the verdant mysterious Earth; The sacred waters are My star-dressed womb; I am the Shepherdess, whistling to call you home; the Promise made that will be kept; And the day has its feet to it that will see Me coming into the hearts of men and women like a flame upon dry grass, like a flame of wind in a great wood…Someone was talking about the beautiful connection of nature. I thought there was something moving and beautiful about that that refers to bringing forward the feminine aspects of godhood.