Saint Columcille of Iona

by | Feb 9, 2017 | Book of Saints Project, Celtic Saints

Patrick’s work of spreading the Good News to the Irish people was indeed remarkable, and if anyone picked up where Patrick left off it was a monk named Columcille. Born in 521 A.D. into one of Ireland’s most prominent clans, Columcille or Crimthann (his name by birth) was the prince who stood to become the clan’s next king, possibly even Ireland’s next high king. Yet he chose a life of following Christ. A man of much vigor, Columcille founded over 40 monasteries across Ireland, in true Patrick fashion.

But his noble birth left him with two weaknesses: he was a man of great pride and a lover of fine things, especially richly decorated books. One such book caught his eye in particular, it was the Psalter belonging to his mentor and teacher, Bishop Finnian. Columcille decided he simply must have his own copy and so he would sneak into the church late at night and sit copying the beautiful manuscript. But eventually he was found out and brought before the king who ruled in this, the world’s first copyright case, “To every cow her calf, to every book her copy.” In his humiliation, Columcille returned the copy to Finian.

Collumcille’s pride would not let the matter rest however. Sometime later when the king’s forces killed one of Columcille’s followers, Columcille insists God must be avenged. Taking up arms against the king, this warrior monk and his followers kill an astonishing 3000 of the king’s men while only one man was lost on Columcille’s side.

The church however did not look kindly upon monks who take up arms, Columcille was both excommunicated and exiled from Ireland. As penance, he was instructed that he must convert 3000 souls wherever he lands to make up for the deaths of the soldiers. Fully excepting his punishment, Columcille and twelve of his followers climb into a boat on Ireland’s eastern shore and set sail to who knows where. Their only requirement was to be far enough away not to see any of Ireland. That place was the tiny island of Iona off the Western coast of Scotland.

On Iona Columcille and his monks build a monastery that in short order grows popular due to the renown of its abbot. Columcille limits the size of Iona’s monastery to 150 individuals and decides its time to go out into Scotland and establish new monastic communities. In a little over 30 years’ time, Columcille has set up a record 60 communities.

Of course, there are some incredible stories about his abilities and his evangelistic work among the pagans of Scotland. He is said to have possessed healing powers and second sight (the Celtic term for prophetic ability – a gift that still has prominence today among the people of Ireland and the British Isles). If a king refused Columcille, bolts would fly and gates fell open on his command.

Many are said to have converted to the faith the day Columcille was traveling near Loch Ness. A great uproar was happening on the shore after the monster of the lake had just harmed someone. The legendary beast (of whom this is the first account) quickly retreats when Columcille raises his hand. Naturally, the man is restored to health by the abbot’s healing touch.

Collumcille was a man of deep and intimate faith and was said to be ministered to by angels when he would withdraw in prayer to the high hill on Iona. Monk’s claimed to see the angels descending to and ascending from the hill as he prayed. He even predicted his own death: he gave his goodbyes throughout the day and after writing out Psalm 34 in his quarters, he walks to the church before evening prayers where he drifts into eternal sleep in front of the altar. The monks find him lying there with a peaceful smile on his face.

Collumcille is also known by the Roman name, Columba.

A reading of Psalm 34 in light of Columcille’s story yields the vision of a person whose strength and courage can be found in God alone:

Psalm 34

1 I will extol the Lord at all times;
his praise will always be on my lips.

2 I will glory in the Lord;
let the afflicted hear and rejoice.

3 Glorify the Lord with me;
let us exalt his name together.

4 I sought the Lord, and he answered me;
he delivered me from all my fears.

5 Those who look to him are radiant;
their faces are never covered with shame.

6 This poor man called, and the Lord heard him;
he saved him out of all his troubles.

7 The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him,
and he delivers them.

8 Taste and see that the Lord is good;
blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.

9 Fear the Lord, you his holy people,
for those who fear him lack nothing.

10 The lions may grow weak and hungry,
but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.

11 Come, my children, listen to me;
I will teach you the fear of the Lord.

12 Whoever of you loves life
and desires to see many good days,

13 keep your tongue from evil
and your lips from telling lies.

14 Turn from evil and do good;
seek peace and pursue it.

15 The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and his ears are attentive to their cry;

16 but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil,
to blot out their name from the earth.

17 The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them;
he delivers them from all their troubles.

18 The Lord is close to the brokenhearted
and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

19 The righteous person may have many troubles,
but the Lord delivers him from them all;

20 he protects all his bones,
not one of them will be broken.

21 Evil will slay the wicked;
the foes of the righteous will be condemned.

22 The Lord will rescue his servants;
no one who takes refuge in him will be condemned.

Michelle L Hofer

Hi, I'm Michelle…

A visual artist searching for stories and images of faith, hope and encouragement throughout the history of the Christian faith tradition. This Book of Saints Project is my ongoing work of sharing what I find through art and word.

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