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Columba Cross

Columba lived and so long ago that it's impossible to separate fact from fiction when reading accounts of his life. But perhaps such uncertainty is not so important.

What is important, is his legacy – the impression he made in the hearts and minds of his followers in the 6th century, and countless people in the 1,500 years since.

Saint Columba (521 – 597)

Columba Cross

Columba was of royal descent; a great-great-grandson of a 4th century Irish king. He entered the monastic school of Movilla under St. Finnian and later became an abbot. 

The name "Columba" is Latin for dove, which is symbolic of peace and love, a fitting name for a saint who was exceptionally holy, virtuous and benevolent – somebody as close as anyone could get to being Godly.

...or at least that's what we think of today.

But Columba lived about the time that the Church was entering a violent stage of its development; a stage the Church is only just leaving. 

In the 5th century, great Christians, such as St. Columba, easily became involved with violence.

In Columba's case, one notable example was his support of the Uí Néill clan to attack the king's men in the Battle of Cul Dreimhne (Cooldrevny) in 561. The reason for this spat is unclear, but may have been because:

  • The king had violated the right of Church sanctuary, resulting in the execution of Prince Curnan of Connact (Connaught), whom Columba had given refuge. Not only was violation of the sanctuary an affront to the Church, but one can also imagine the priest Columba would also be raging mad about the death of his friend and kinsman, Prince Curnan.
  • Another account began as an argument over the copyright of a psalter or Vulgate Gospel. It was copied by Columba at St. Finnian's scriptorium in Clonary Abbey and Columba claimed that because he had done the copying, the copy was his property. Finnian argued that since he owned the original, it was right that he owned any copy.

    We must understand that this was more than just a dispute over copyright, or even the interpretation of Jesus' command to spread the Gospel. Whoever owned such an important book, whether a copy or an original, also assumed a certain ecclesiastical and civil authority. So Finnial and Columba went to Diarmait mac Cerbaill, the first Christian High King of the island, to settle the matter.

    He ruled in favour of Finnian.

The battle was bloody and whatever started it, the result was defeat for the king's men, with the loss of 3,000 lives and an unknown number of wounded. The size of the total population of the whole island in the Dark Ages is unknown, but an educated guess is around 365,000 people; men, women and children. So a loss of 3,000 able-bodied men is a significant number.

Like many battles and wars, despite an ostensible surrender by the king's side, it is not clear who 'won'. Certainly the losers were the families of those who were killed or maimed. So in the year 563, with blood on his hands Columba exiled himself to Iona on the west coast of Scotland.

We say "with blood on his hands", but as far as we know Columba didn't personally pick up a scramasax and fight. According to some writers, his involvement was no more than praying to God for his clan to succeed, whilst Finnian did the same for the king's side.

It seems odd that Columba should feel guilt over his prayers being answered. More than that, it seems unbelievably arrogant, even by today's low standards, for someone to think that God would obey a plea and cause so much pain and death to people who had nothing to do with violating sanctuary or copyright. But such was, and still is today, the superstition that we can influence God to succeed with our selfish desires. Columba went to his confessor, St. Molaise, who imposed the penance of exile.

The well-known author and scholar Bede (672/673–735) gives no clear indication of the reason for the emigration, and simply wrote "Venit de Hibernia ... praedicaturus verbum Dei." (He came from Ireland. . . preach the word of God.) And preach he did. He built an abbey in Iona and made it his mission to convert the Northern Picts.

Long after his death the abbey became the seat from which Christianity spread over Pictland.

Fairy-tale cross

The pre-Christian decorative Celtic style of both Ireland and Scotland is reflected in the cross shown above.

A surprising amount of such artwork still exists in the area but precious few words were written, since the literacy rate was pretty low. Stories of people and events were passed verbally and there's no doubt that over time, fact and fiction blended. What really happened will never be known, but we do know that a story can always be made more interesting with a bit of imagination. Just think of the conspiracy theories today; such as the assassination of JFK, the 1969 moon landing, 9/11, etc.

One such story is that Columba travelled to Scotland with twelve others in a curraugh (a wicker coracle) waterproofed with hide, which sounds like something Edward Lear might have dreamt up.

Hmmm... Imagine if there'd been a typo his name and The Winds were given the passenger list as "Columbus", perhaps he might have been sent east to the Americas instead of northeast to Iona. Then we'd have the United States of Scotland.

Or perhaps not...

Why should the flimsiness of the craft be recorded, if not to show that Columba travelled modestly with few possessions? The wicker coracle tells us that what this man lacked in material things, he excelled in fortitude, enthusiasm, and spiritual conviction.

It also tells us that, since coracles are not easy to navigate over the seas, he put his trust in God to direct the winds to take Columba to where he was needed.

There is also the story from 565, when he went with St. Comgall and St. Canice to see the Pictish King Brude at his castle in Inverness. The king didn't brood for one second about refusing to see these door-knockers, and bolted the gates. But when Columba made the Sign of the Cross, the bolts miraculously slid back and the doors opened, just as we might see in a Harry Potter movie.

Not surprisingly, the king was impressed and allowed the missionaries to enter and speak with him. This led not only to the king's conversion, but the people of Caledonia also forsook Druidism and embraced Christianity.

Another story, which really does stretch credulity, is the account of Columba making the Sign of the Cross at a ferocious water beastie that had killed a local Pict. The monster was subdued enough to be hoisted out of the river by gallant Columba and tossed back into lake from which it had emerged; the lake being, of course, Loch Ness.

The story could be true, or what really might have happened was the Pict was fishing by the riverside, fell in and drowned, and Columba later went fishing there and caught a big trout.

But the Loch Ness Monster version is more interesting.

Patronage

We can always admire a hero saint like George and the Dragon, but in Columba's case he is admired most for his heroic and energetic missionary work, his founding of many Hebridean churches, and his authorship of several hymns and some 300 books. In particular he revitalised monasticism, which was necessary for conquering Scotland for Christ over the ensuing centuries.

St. Adomnán (c. 624-704) a subsequent abbot of Iona, took on the task of being Columba's hagiographer by recording his life, as did other biographers. They wrote not of a violent man, rather of a great God-fearing man who was tender and humble, generous and charitable towards friends and strangers alike, and loved by all.

St. Columba is now the patron saint of the cathedral of the Catholic Diocese of Argyll and Dunkeld, plus several Catholic schools and parishes throughout Scotland. Not only Catholic institutions but also some parishes of the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Church of Scotland are dedicated to Columba.

On the other side of the pond in Canada and the USA, Columba's name is attached to Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches.

Back in Ireland, he is the patron saint of the city of Derry. The Church of Ireland Cathedral in Derry is dedicated to him, as are some Irish schools. Even Aer Lingus has named an Airbus A330 after him. And if you plan to travel between the Americas to the British Isles, we recommend you take such a plane...

...not a wicker coracle.

Columba commonly known as Columcille, the suffix cille meaning "of the Churches"

The Church no longer accepts certain types of slavery as a social consequence of original sin. But it still sanctions violence; not only the extreme violence of "just wars", but also the no-less-evil psychological violence. That includes depersonalising or demeaning others, often backed by Church dogma, including sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.

Taking into account the great famine of 536, and possibly again in 542, plus the blefed plague in 543/4 AD

Columba became known as the Warrior's Saint. One of his many written works included a psalter The Cathach, which was carried into battle by the O'Donnells like a lucky charm.

This also proves that for door-knockers, the Sign of the Cross is a more effective tool than the Watchtower

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