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Good Words 1860
St Columba

It was this conversion of King Brude and his people that stamped Columba as the Apostle of the Northern Picts. But not to these only were his labours of charity and mercy confined. Continual notices of Adamnan, immemorial tradition, and many a moss-grown ruin on lonely islands bear witness to his voyagings to and fro, preachings, baptizings, foundings of monasteries and cells throughout all the Hebrides. We read of continual goings to and from the island of Himba, which some take for Canna, others for Oronsay, on which Columba founded a large monastery, and set over it his uncle Ernan. Elach-nave, or Holy Isle, lying northwest of Jura, had its monastery, over which Lug-neus ruled; and to this day the traveller can trace its bee-hive cells of slate, covered with sods—the grass-grown burial-ground, with immemorial graves and few rude headstones. On Tiree, too, the low, sandy, corn island that supplied Iona with grain, he founded several conventual seats—one a training college for priests, over which Baithen presided; another, a penitential station, to which we read that the saint sent a great criminal who came from Ireland, confessing his sins, there to spend seven years in repentance. On Inch Kenneth, lying between Ulva and Iona he placed a cell for his friend Kenneth—that Kenneth who, when Columba was at sea during a storm and like to perish in the Corryvrechan whirlpool, rose from his meal, crying out, "It is no time to eat when Columba is in peril," and ran to the church, with but one shoe on, to pray for his safety. We read, too, of our saint's being in Skye, and in danger of death by a wild boar, and of his preaching and baptizing there. And all the district of Trotternish round Loch Snizort still bears witness to his presence there, as well as the small, desolate islands of Troda and Eladda-Huna out in the Minch, by their all but obliterated chapels and cemeteries still bearing something of sanctity from the name they bear of Columbkill. Some think that Columba himself penetrated as far as the Orkneys, and established cells there; but however this may be, it is certain that a companion of his, St Cormack, did; and having been saved from death there by the Ork-neyan prince, returned to Iona, and entered the oratory while the monks were at prayer, to tell them of his wonderful delivery.

Three times this same Cormack sailed into these northern seas, and was once, for fourteen days together, out of sight of land, seeking for a desert in the ocean, of which, perhaps, he had heard some rumour. We know not whether he or any other reached Iceland, in Columba's lifetime, in their little coracles; but it seems almost certain that, not long after it, some of the Iona brotherhood did. For when the Norsemen first visited Iceland in the latter half of the ninth century, they found it deserted of its inhabitants, but they found substantial traces that Irish monks had been there before them. The poor monks were all gone; perished, probably of cold, but there were still their books, croziers, and bells—mute records of their self-devoted piety.

Taking the whole field of his labours—in Ireland, among the Northern Picts, the Argyll Scots, and over all the Hebrides—tradition attributes to him the foundation of one hundred monasteries and three hundred cells or churches; an exaggeration, perhaps, but a proof how deep was the impression made on men's minds by his boundless activity. It is quite clear that he and the twelve brethren who first emigrated with him were wholly inadequate for so wide a work. But the original monastery, with its twelve huts, seems gradually to have expanded itself, so as to receive many youths, attracted from Ireland and elsewhere by Columba's fame. These men were educated and trained as priests in the central monastery of Iona. In Tiree there was another training college for the same purpose; and from his monasteries in Ireland, over which he still presided, it is probable that Columba draughted large supplies of young and zealous men for missionary work. With these he peopled the numerous cells and smaller conventicles which he had planted everywhere throughout the Highlands and the Hebrides.

A few words are all that can here be given to the character of the Iona monasticism and the constitution of its monastery. The Church polity and the monastic institutions which St Patrick, in the fifth century, implanted in Ireland differed, in many respects, from the Roman rule. It is quite possible that St Patrick, during his travels in Gaul, may have come in contact with churchmen from the East at Marseilles, itself a Greek colony, which had continual intercourse with the Levant, and near which, at the beginning of the fifth century, Cassian established a convent, on the model that he had learnt from the ascetics of Bethlehem and the Nile. The Eastern institution, though rigidly ascetic, fostered more of the free and independent spirit of personal religion; the Roman had more of the Church spirit, and adhered more obstinately to outward statute and observance. This Eastern, as opposed to the Roman spirit, seems to have characterised all the views and institutions of St Patrick.

The connexion with the East seems to be further indicated by three usages which differenced the Irish from the Roman monks, and which, after the age of Columba, became, in England and Scotland, the chief subjects of controversy between the two bodies.

1. The Irish had different mass-books or rituals from the Roman monks.

2. They had a different tonsure, the whole front half of the head, from ear to ear, instead of the Roman tonsure on the crown.

3. They kept Easter according to the Oriental, not the Roman time.

In the sixth century Columba and his contem-poraries seem to have carried still further the free spirit of their country's monasteries, so little adhering to form and usage, that every abbot seems to have moulded his monastery according to his own views of fitness. Nothing could be further from the stringency of Benedict and the Italian monastics than this free and pliant spirit which pervaded the Irish churchmen of Columba's day. And he was not the man to circumscribe his own freedom of action more than was absolutely required. In fact, born of kingly race, he reigned in Iona a spiritual king, alongside of his kinsmen, the temporal kings of Ireland and Argyll, but with a more powerful rule, and over a wider realm. For this Iona was happily placed; near enough those seats of government to derive strength from the proximity, far enough removed not to clash with their pretensions. A king he was in the best sense of the word; that is, a powerful, yet enlightened ruler of men—a true shepherd of the people. It is his highest praise, that, holding such absolute power, he used it so largely for wise and beneficent ends. Half-patriarchal, half-monastic was the kingship he held. Patriarchal, in that the tie of kinship was so strongly recognised, that Iona was a home for all the founder's kin—a rallying point for all the wide-scattered family. So strongly was this marked, that the abbotcy, though, of course, it could not be lineal, was continued, with only two exceptions, in Columba's kin through eleven successive abbots. How true to the Celtic character this admission of clanship even into a reli gious community! Perhaps it may have been fron this that all the brotherhood of monks were called the family of Iona, and that Columba so often speaks of them as his sons, his little children. But not the less, though patriarchal, was the system of Iona monastic. So monastic, that whereas St Patrick and his immediate followers did not avoid the society or services of women, Columba and the presbyter abbots who were his contemporaries, entirely repudiated them. No woman was allowed to approach Iona while he lived, or whilst his rule was maintained. Columba regarded his monks and himself as soldiers of Christ, and his office was to train himself and them, by rule and example, for this service. To him the monks rendered absolute obedience, but he required nothing of them which he did not in large measure exact from himself. If he laid down for them hours of prayer, at which they flocked to the oratory three times a day, three times a night; hours for reading, for writing, for labour in the fields—it was noted of himself that he allowed no time to pass when he was not engaged in either prayer, or reading, or writing, or in some useful work. If he required of his followers rigorous penance for their faults, and even made a penitent stranger, who came from Ireland, kneel down while he confessed his sins, and then sent him to spend some time in the penitential station at Tiree, he was not less rigorous on himself, sleeping only on a bare stone bed, with a stone for pillow, whence he would rise at the dead of night, and spend whole hours, besides the stated one, praying alone in the oratory. If the door was closed, he would pray outside, or retire to thickets or lonely places in the hills, there to pray, the winter night long, beneath the cold, starry sky.

He himself and his monks lived sparely; yet not sparely, compared with other ascetics. Two meals a-day, but on the fast-days, which were very frequent, only one; their food barley bread from their own field, milk, fish. No meat, except on Sundays or feast-days, or when guests appeared. Hospitality, which was a virtue in all ancient monasteries, in Hy was practised in truly national abundance. Again and again, in Adamnan's book, we read that Columba tells the monks that a stranger is shouting for a boat across the ferry that divides Iona from Mull, just as the Highlanders shout for the ferry-boat across those firths at this day. Straightway they put off in a boat, land him on the island, and lead him to the abbot, if he has not already come forth to meet the guest. Bringing him into the oratory, they give thanks for his safe arrival, and then, conducting him to his hut, give him water for his feet. Often the abbot himself personally attended his guests, loosing their shoes, and washing their feet, after the old Eastern fashion. If the day be one of the weekly fasts, the fast is at once, by the abbot's order, relaxed, and a better than their ordinary meal prepared. Indeed, the monastery seems never to have been empty of guests from Ireland, from the mainland, from Northumbria, and other distant parts.

Columba, too, was a good friend to the poor, and a large almsgiver. Bede remarks, that though his monks lived by the labour of their own hands, they gave away to the poor all they did not absolutely need. Often he blessed the grain and the cattle of the poor, and this they believed always increased their store. A great, but not a promiscuous almsgiver, sturdy beggars with wallets met no countenance from him.

A great physician, too, our saint was, if we may trust tradition; skilful in such therapeutics as were then in vogue. The sick flocked to the monastery of Iona from far and near; and his power to relieve them, like his power to counsel the perplexed, was so great, that it was reckoned to be miraculous. Sometimes his patients came and stayed at the monastery; at other times he is said to have prescribed for patients at a distance, and to have sent his medicines as far as Ireland.

Sometimes he received proffered presents for these services, but generally took no fee, regarding this skill chiefly as a means of getting at the patient's heart. His medical knowledge is said to have lived on amongst his monks, and perhaps from them to have passed to the famous race of doctors in Islay and Mull. This at least is certain, that about the oldest Celtic manuscripts found in the Hebrides are on medical subjects—some of them said to be as old as the twelfth century.

I cannot pass from these notices without adverting for a moment to the much-vexed question of Columba's clerical order.

It is well known that he was a presbyter, not a bishop—a peculiarity common to him with all the great Irish abbots of his age. Add to this the well-known declaration of Bede, that in his own day, the earlier part of the eighth century, to the presbyter abbot of Iona "all the province, even the bishops, contrary to the usual method, were subject, according to the example of their first teacher Columba."

It is wonderful how loud the ecclesiastical cackle has arisen round this short sentence; Presbyterians crowing most lustily to find, as they thought, Columba one of themselves; Episcopalians struggling hard to explain away its damaging testimony. It is a vain, not to say absurd, attempt to prove that Columba finds his modern counterpart in the moderator of a Scottish presbytery, or even of a general assembly. Presbyterians must give it up, unless they can reconcile presbytery with monkery, purity with priestly kingship, such as Columba held.

On the other hand, it is equally clear, that if we are to go by Adamnan's book, the bishop by no means held the place in Columba's arrangements which he holds in modern and most ancient episcopacies. For it is quite clear that, within the whole range of Columba's domain, the bishop, or even a dozen bishops, would be but very subordinate figures whenever he appeared. Probably in this as in other things, Columba did not adhere very closely to Church rules where he saw they could be set aside with advantage. But as one fact is worth many probabilities, I am bound to say that there is in Adamnan no evidence that Columba ever took on himself the office of ordaining priests—the peculiar office and test of a bishop. On the other hand, there is one recorded instance where a presbyter was to be ordained in Tiree, in which they summoned a bishop (accito episcopo) for the purpose.

One cannot expect to settle in these few remarks so old and obstinate a dispute. But thus much may be said, that Episcopalians and Presbyterians will have to bring forward some clearer evidence than any they have yet done, before they prove that Columba was quite conformable to either type. Certainly the Iona Episcopacy of that day would ill assort with any modern Episcopacy, either Anglican or Roman. And as for Presbytery, it may be safely asserted that the first taste Iona had of that form of Church polity was when the redoubtable Presbytery of Argyll in one day hurled its three hundred and sixty crosses into the sea—wicked monuments of idolatry that they were. But this is not the time to enter fully into the question of Columba's church polity. One remark only. The truth seems to be, that since Ireland had derived her earliest Christianity from Gaul, at a time before the Roman system had got matured or begun to claim for itself universal dominion, the naturally free Celtic spirit maintained this independence; Columba carried it out to the full, and owned no fealty to Rome; and when, in after-ages, his descendants confronted the fully Romanised clergy of Saxon England, there were found to be between them differences irreconcilable. But though this proves Columba to have been no son of Rome, it does not prove that he or any of his generation were free, as they could not have been free, from that taint of sacerdotalism which entered into the Church the very next age after the apostles; which pervaded it more and more each new generation; which Rome did not create, but found already existing, and which she only gathered up and organised more completely into one gigantic system.

It was thus that Columba settled himself and his twelve monks in Hy, converted the Northern Picts, spread his religion over the Northern Highlands and all the Hebrides, and organised and ruled his monastery. It now only remains that I should notice his dealings with his kinsmen—the Dalriad kings of Argyll. It is every way probable that the Abbot of Hy superintended all the churches among these Irish-Scots of Argyll; and there seem to be traces of a cell of his planting at Kilduin by Loch Awe, over which a monk, Cailten, was placed. Often, in his wanderings, he must have visited these kings in their earliest regal seat, Du Monadh, near Loch Crinan.

But his most authentic and important dealing with them was, when their king, Conal, died, and doubt arose who was to succeed. Columba did not in anywise push himself forward as an arbiter, but to him his kinsmen seem instinctively to have turned. He had no force to command their respect, had used no intrigue or petty craft to win influence. It was the instinctive recognition of one worthier, wiser, more righteous than themselves, which made them look to him for counsel, a recognition stronger often and more unerring among simple, half-barbarous men, than among the educated and highly civilised.

Columba at the time was staying in the island Himba. There, in a dream by night, he seemed to see an angel draw near to him, holding out a book of glass, containing Heaven's decrees about the succession of earthly kings. The saint took the book and read therein. But when the angel bade him arise and ordain Aidan king of the Argyll Scots, Columba refused to go, for he loved Aidan's brother Iogenan better. Thereupon the angel raised his hand and smote him on the side with a lash, whereof the mark remained blue even to the day of his death. Three nights successively this was repeated, till at last Columba arose and returned to Hy. There he found Aidan newly come to the island, and at once proceeded to make him king, as he had been commanded. He read over him words of inauguration, ordained and blessed him, and spake to him of his descendants to the fourth generation. Thenceforward Columba became attached to Aidan, and called him his ''soul's friend;" and Aidan returned his affection. From their connexion they gained reciprocal advantages— Aidan, religious sanction to his disputed title, the Abbot of Hy, for all time to come, ecclesiastical supremacy over all Argyll.

This Aidan was an able king, the first of his line who shewed real ability. He refused any longer to hold Argyll in fee from the king of Erin. Thence fell out a great strife between the men of Albyn and the men of Erin, to settle which a convention was summoned of all the Irish princes to Drumceatt. Thither Columba and King Aidan set out together in a small boat, and being overtaken by a storm in mid-ocean, they hardly made Loch Foyle. At Drumceatt, Columba stood forward as peace-maker between the two kings; and so powerful was his influence in that assembly, that he prevailed with them formally to recognise the Argyll Scots as an independent people, and Aidan as an independent king. At the same convention, when it was proposed to extirpate the whole Bardic order of Ireland, by their arrogance become unbearable, Columba, though as opposers of Christianity they were naturally his enemies, magnanimously pleaded their cause with the assembly, and prevailed so that they spared the Bards on condition of a limitation in their number, and their better conduct in time to come.

Then he visited his two Irish monasteries of Deny and Durrow, over which he still held supremacy. Wherever he went, the monks from cell and convent went forth to meet him, the people did him reverence.

Perhaps the chief thing that strikes us in all this, is the exhaustless energy of the man, the great and numberless enterprises he laid hand to, and the power with which he clenched them all. Yet all these, various as they were, bearing on the one great end to which he gave his life, the Christianising and civilising these wild Celtic races.. Evidently one of those unresting, unhasting men, who find time for all things,—time to convert Pictland, and plant the Church there—time to Christianise all the Hebrides, and to order both the religious and the civil affairs of Argyll—time to shape and organise his own Iona monastery, and to manage and provide for innumerable missionary outposts—time to keep up large intercourse with Ireland, and care of his own Irish monasteries—time to give sympathy and counsel to his monks one by one, to prescribe for the sick near and far off, to give alms to the poor and comfort to the perplexed; long hours, too, of laborious studying, much transcribing of the Scriptures and other books, poems and hymns of his own composing; long seasons of solitary prayer, midnight watching in the oratory, praying beneath the starry heavens—time, too, to receive guests who came from Ireland and other lands for converse or counsel, welcoming them with kindness, and entertaining them with becoming hospitality. If it were not for some instances of a like boundless activity in times nearer our own, we might have believed that these things were exaggerations of his biographers. But they are no figments. Adamnan nowhere dwells on them, but they drop out only as by the way.

Such a life would soon wear out most men. It took thirty-four years of it to wear out Columba. On the very day when his thirty years in Iona were complete, his monks saw his face suddenly grow bright with joy, and then overcloud with sadness. They asked him the reason. He told them that he had long wished and prayed that when his thirty years' service was fulfilled, the yoke might be unloosed, and he summoned to the heavenly country. Today the thirty years were ended, and the angels had descended to take him; but they had been arrested by the prayer of the churches that he might be longer spared. Now he was to tarry four years longer on earth. This it was that turned his joy into sorrow. The meaning of this may be, that having been visited with sickness and brought near to death, he had been restored for a time, when he had rather have departed. His last four years seem to have been passed in comparative repose.

At length the time came when he could no more go out and come in, but must lie down with his fathers. In the month of May, a few days before the end, the old man, unable to walk, made them bear him in the waggon to the west of the island, where his monks were busy at their field work. He told them that he had been spared through the month of April, that his going might not darken their Easter joy. They were grieved, seeing they were so soon to lose him; but he comforted them with what kind words he could. Then, as he sat in the waggon, he turned his face to the east, and blessed the island and all the inhabitants thereof.

On the last day of that week, the Saturday, he went with his faithful servant Diormit to see the granary. After they had entered, he blessed the house, and the two heaps of grain that were stored therein. Then turning to Diormit, he said, ''I am thankful to see that my faithful monks will have sufficient provision for this year also, if I shall have to go away any whither." Diormit looked round and said, "Why are you always saddening us this year by talking of your going away?" Columba replied, ''I have something to tell thee, Diormit, if thou wilt promise faithfully to reveal it to none till after I depart." Diormit vowed solemnly on bended knees. Then Columba said, "This day, in the Sacred Scriptures, is called Sabbath, which means rest. And a Sabbath verily it is to me, the last day of this toilsome life, after which I shall cease from all my labours and enter into rest." Hearing this, Diormit began to weep bitterly, but Columba comforted him as he could. On their way home to the monastery, the old man, wearied, sat down to rest on a stone. And the old white horse, the one horse of the island, which used to carry the milk pails from the byre to the monastery, came up to them, and, laying his head in the saint's lap, began to moan and to make the best semblance of weeping that he could. Seeing this, Diormit began to drive the horse away. But the saint forbade him, and blessed the faithful creature, and passed on.

Then they ascended a small eminence, probably Croe-nan-Carnan, which overlooks the monastery. On the top he stood, and lifting up both his hands, blessed the conœbium himself had built, and spake of the honour it would have in future time, not only among people and kings of the Scots, but also from many foreign peoples and their kings.

After this, they came down from the hill, and the saint retiring to his own hut, or hospice, set himself to finish transcribing a Psalter which he had begun. He got as far as that verse of the 34th Psalm—"They that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing." "Here," says he, "I must stop at the bottom of the page. What follows, let Baithen write." "That," says Adamnan, "well might be the last verse Columba wrote, for he will not want any good thing for ever." And the next verse suited well Baithen his worthy successor. "Come, ye children, hearken unto me. I will teach you the fear of the Lord."

When he had done writing, he attended vespers, or even-song in the church. That over, returning to his hut, he reclined on his bed of stone, as of old, with a stone for his pillow. As he sat or lay therwith Diormit still attending, he delivered to him his last charges for all the brotherhood, entreating them to dwell together in mutual charity and peace; and "God the Comforter will bless you; and I, with Him abiding, will pray for you, that you may have what is needful for this life, as well as all eternal good."

The saint then kept silence till the bell sounded at twelve o'clock for the midnight vigil. Bising up quickly, he was the first to enter the church, and fell down on his knees in prayer beside the altar. Diormit hastened after him, but on entering the church, he found all dark, for the brethren had had not yet arrived with their lanterns. Groping his way, he found the saint lying before the altar, raised him a little, and placed his head on his knees. During this the monks came thronging in with their lanterns, and, seeing their father dying, began to wail aloud. As they entered, the holy man opened his eyes and looked round on them with strange hilarity and joy in his countenance, as though he saw the angels come to meet him. Diormit then raised his right hand, and he, as well as he could, moved it to wave the blessing he could no longer speak. And when he had done this, he fell asleep. A while he lay there, his whole face suffused with brightness, while the church resounded with the wailing of the brotherhood. So passed Columba, in his own small church in Hy, early on Sunday morning, the 9th of June a.d. 597.

When the matin service was done, the monks bore his body from the church back to his own hut, singing psalmody all the way. Three days and three nights they waked him there, and then, his body wrapt in clean linen, they laid him with due veneration in the tomb.

And so concludes Adamnan:—"Our patron ceased from his labours, and went to join the eternal triumph—the companion of fathers, prophets, and apostles, a virgin sold made clean from stain—one more added to the white-robed multitude, who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, and now follow Him whithersoever He goeth."

These facts and incidents may have given, I hope, some impression of Columba's work and character. If they have not, I could scarcely expect to do so by any more formal portraiture.

That youth of royal race, high bearing, and noble lineaments, of tall, athletic, and commanding frame, of a countenance so ruddy and hilarious, that, even when worn with long toil and fasting, "he looked like one who lived in luxury "—large store of natural genius—quite herculean energy—by nature irascible and explosive, yet unselfish withal, placable, affectionate, full of tenderness for those about him, and most compassionate to the weak—he was born to win the hearts and the reverence of men, and to mould them as he would.

Such a character comes only once a century to any time or country. As far as we know, no equal to Columba was born in these islands during the whole sixth or several succeeding centuries. Perhaps no other such appeared till Alfred, England's king. In the natural course of things, Columba would have been a great warrior, or a most potent king; but Heaven had predestined him for something better. A large portion of his Celtic race were still living in a wholly inhuman state—bloodshed, rapine, and clan feuds—unreclaimed from the old night of barbarism ; their chiefs, kinglets, and Druids not lessening, only aggravating the evil.

Columba saw the evil case of his people—felt it as his own—his heart yearned towards them. For on him from his early years had fallen the divine fire, which entering in, transfigured his great natural endowments into far more than their natural eflectiveness. He early learned that hardest of all lessons,—to have done with self; and this made his strength to be

"As the strength of ten,
Because his heart was pure."

So, forgetting comfort and power and renown, he sought only to do for his race the utmost good that could be done during his threescore years and ten. He went forth in the power of faith—into that chaos bringing order—into that heathendom bringing the purest light of Christian truth then attainable—into that dark ignorance bringing knowledge—into that lazy, blood-thirsty life bringing the first seeds of peaceful industry—into that foul impurity bringing pure manners, domestic happiness; in short, out of anarchic disorder and utter savagery, moulding harmony and order and civilisation by the transforming power of Christian faith.

He chose the highest end a man could choose in that day—perhaps in any day; and for thirty long years he wrestled against the opposing forces with all his herculean energy, till he overcame them and victoriously achieved his end. His work he left to others, whom he himself had formed, to propagate it for centuries after he was gone. "Well may the Celtic people remember Columba with grateful devotion—a devotion that seems folly to those who do not know his history. They are the better to this hour, because he lived. In fact, as far as we know, no benefactor at all comparable to him has ever since risen up among them. And not to the Gael only, but to all Scots, even those who care least for the Celts, he is worthy of honourable remembrance. For the work he did in the Highlands overflowed all the Lowlands with its benign effects and spread through the kingdom of Northumbria, and far south into England. In truth, no countryman of ours was worthy to be placed beside him till William Wallace and Robert Bruce appeared.

If Scotland had ever possessed for herself a Pantheon, a Valhalla, or Temple of her good and brave, the three earliest niches would deserve to have been filled by Kinian, Kentigern, and, high above both, Columba.

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