We are searching data for your request:
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.
Saint Columbanus or “Columbán” (543-615 CE) was one of the greatest missionaries of the early Catholic Church who led the “Hiberno-Scottish mission” of conversion across much of what is now Western Europe in the late 6th and early 7th century CE. Although chiefly remembered as the founder of Bobbio Abbey in present-day Italy c. 612-614 CE, St. Columbanus also founded Luxeuil Abbey in present-day France. Columbanus was additionally a poet, writer, and scholar. He remains venerated in both the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church, and is the Patron Saint of Motorcyclists. His feast day is on November 23 in Ireland and November 24 for Benedictines.
Early Life & Origins
Much of what we know about the life of St. Columbanus comes from an account of his life written by Jonas of Bobbio (c. 599-659? CE) an Italian monk who lived in the decades immediately following Columbanus' death. Columbanus was a native of Leinster, Ireland, and he was first educated under Abbot Sinell of Cluaninis, whose monastery was on an island of the River Erne, in modern County Fermanagh. St. Columbanus later elected to study at the monastery of Bangor in County Down, in what is now Northern Ireland. At Bangor, Columbanus received a comprehensive education, including Greek and Latin, under the tutelage of St. Comgall (c. 510-602 CE) who was the Abbot of Bangor Monastery. Despite being a very handsome man, Columbanus was serious in temperament and was noted for his love of scholasticism, debate, and learning. He reportedly thrived under the strict discipline enforced by St. Comgall at the monastery of Bangor, and this colored his personal habits for the rest of his life.
Mission & Travels in Western Europe
Around c. 590 CE, St. Columbanus traveled from Ireland through Britain to Merovingian France with 12 companions. Arguably, the most famous of his 12 companions was Saint Gall, who subsequently founded the city and monastery of Saint Gallen in what is present-day Switzerland, but St. Columbanus the Younger, St. Attala (d. 622 CE), and St. Deicolus (c. 530-624 CE) also accompanied St. Columbanus on his mission to the Continent. After arriving at St. Malo in Brittany, St. Columbanus and his companions proceeded to Reims, which was the Merovingian capital. Columbanus and his companions later left Reims, stopping for extended periods of time in Luxeuil, Nantes, and Annegray near the Vosges Mountains. At Luxeuil, St. Columbanus founded Luxeuil Abbey, and elsewhere in Burgundy, he founded Annegray Abbey and Fontaines Abbey.
Under royal patronage, Columbanus & his companions attained & exerted great influence in ecclesiastical matters across Merovingian France.
St. Columbanus initially cultivated warm relations with the Merovingian royal family, and St. Guntram of Burgundy (c. 532-593 CE) was a steadfast friend. Under royal patronage, Columbanus and his companions attained and exerted great influence in ecclesiastical matters across Merovingian France. This tremendous influence coupled with St. Columbanus' exhortations about the moral laxity of the Merovingian court and Frankish bishops, caused the ire and resentment of many nobles and bishops alike. Tensions arose in 603 CE when St. Columbanus and his followers argued with Frankish bishops over the exact date of Easter. (St. Columbanus celebrated Easter according to Celtic rites and the Celtic Christian calendar.) St. Columbanus was banished from Merovingian France following a disagreement with Queen Brunhilda of Austrasia (c. 543-613 CE) around c. 610 CE on the topic of the degenerate morals of her children. A powerful and efficient ruler while regent for her son, grandson, and great-grandson, Brunhilda was quite interested in Church affairs too, which brought her into direct conflict with Columbanus, her in-laws, members of the Merovingian nobility, and several Catholic bishops. She feared Columbanus' influence in Austrasia would circumscribe her own influence in ecclesial matters, hence why Columbanus was exiled from Merovingian France.
Columbanus, Saint Gall, and the other companions traveled down the Rivers Moselle, Vosges, Rhine, Aar, and Limmat to Lake Zürich. Near the banks of Lake Zürich, Gall and Columbanus attempted to establish a mission for evangelization of the nearby Alemanni tribes and Romansh-speakers in what is present-day Tuggen, Switzerland, but they failed to win converts. Instead, their efforts incurred a wave of persecution and they subsequently had to move onward towards the safety of Bregenz. Columbanus separated from St. Gall at this time, continuing a journey of his own over the Alps to Italy.
Sign up for our free weekly email newsletter!
Bobbio Abbey in Italy became a renowned center Of learning in the Early Middle Ages.
Bobbio Abbey & Legacy
King Agilulf (r. 591-616 CE) and Queen Theodelinda (c. 570-628 CE) of Lombardy welcomed St. Columbanus and his much smaller party of monks to Italy in c. 611 CE. It is believed that St. Columbanus and his companions spent time in Milan between c. 612-613 CE, meeting various Lombard dignitaries and elites. Columbanus, however, once again found himself involved in ecclesiastical controversies - this time in the “Arian controversy” - but Agiluf was less bothered by their differences in religious viewpoints. (Theodelinda, herself, favored Nicene Christianity and the doctrines of Rome). Agiluf granted St. Columbanus a new monastery in 614 CE, which is located some 118 km (73 miles) to the south of Milan in the foothills of the Apennines along the River Trebbia at Bobbio.
St. Columbanus died in 615 CE, but his legacy endured at Luxeuil Abbey as well as Bobbio Abbey, the latter of which became a renowned center of learning in the Early Middle Ages. (Bobbio Abbey became so famous that it rivaled the monastic community at Monte Cassino in wealth and prestige.) St. Attala continued St. Columbanus' work at Bobbio, proselytizing and collecting religious texts for the abbey's library. In recent years, Pope Benedict XVI (r. 2005-2013 CE) expressed his opinion that St. Columbanus could be called "a European saint" due to his work across Western Europe. Benedict XVI noted that St. Columbanus used the expression totius Europae or "of all Europe" in Latin within a letter written to Pope Gregory the Great (r. 590-604 CE) in c. 600 CE. In his native Ireland, St. Columbanus is remembered chiefly as one of the first to express his Irish identity in writing. In a letter St. Columbanus wrote to Pope Boniface IV (r. 608–615 CE) in 613 CE, he employed the words “...we Irish.”
Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.
Saint Columban, Latin Columbanus, (born c. 543, Leinster [Ireland]—died Nov. 23, 615, Bobbio [Italy] feast day November 23), abbot and writer, one of the greatest missionaries of the Celtic church, who initiated a revival of spirituality on the European continent.
Educated in the monastery of Bangor, County Down, Columban left Ireland about 590 with 12 monks (including Saints Attala, Gall, and Columbanus the Younger) and established himself in the Vosges Mountains at Annegray, then in Gaul. For the disciples who came to follow his rule, Columban built the nearby monasteries of Luxovium and Fontaines.
Unpopular because of his attacks on degeneracy in the Burgundian court and among local clergy, he was indicted before a synod of French bishops (603) for keeping Easter according to the Celtic usage, whereupon he wrote Pope Gregory I for aid. A powerful conspiracy was organized against him at the court of King Theodoric II. Forcibly removed from his monastery at Luxovium (610), he went with Gall and other monks to Switzerland, where he preached to the Alemanni, a pagan Germanic people. Compelled to leave, he went to Italy and founded the monastery of Bobbio (c. 612–614).
Columbanus, St (c.543). Born in Leinster (Ireland), Columbanus entered religious life as a young man. Fired with missionary zeal, he left the monastery at Bangor c.590 with twelve companions. His request to settle in the wastelands of Burgundy granted, he established monastic centres at Annegray, Luxeuil, and Fontaines. He greatly influenced the spread of monasticism in Gaul, attracting many followers. But adhering to Celtic traditions such as the dating of Easter, he provoked Frankish bishops whose authority he would not recognize, and whilst accepting the primacy of the papal see, he refused to conform with Roman practices. Driven out of Burgundy in 610 by Queen Brunhilde for criticizing her grandson's immorality, Columbanus worked briefly near Bregenz before settling in Lombardy, founding his great monastic centre at Bobbio, where he died. His rule reveals an extremely severe discipline and detailed penal code.
Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.
JOHN CANNON "Columbanus, St ." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Jun. 2021 < https://www.encyclopedia.com > .
JOHN CANNON "Columbanus, St ." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved June 16, 2021 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/columbanus-st
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Columbanus, Saint, Abbot of Luxeuil and Bobbio, b. in West Leinster, Ireland, in 543 d. at Bobbio, Italy, November 21, 615. His life was written by Jonas, an Italian monk of the Columban community, at Bobbio, c. 643. This author lived during the abbacy of Attala, Columbanus’s immediate successor, and his informants had been companions of the saint. Mabillon in the second volume of his “Acta Sanctorum O.S.B.” gives the life in full, together with an appendix on the miracles of the saint, written by an anonymous member of the Bobbio community.
Columbanus, whose birth took place the year St. Benedict died, was from childhood well instructed. He was handsome and prepossessing in appearance, and this exposed him to the shameless temptations of several of his countrywomen. He also had to struggle with his own temptations. At last he betook himself to a religious woman, who advised him thus: “Twelve years ago I fled from the world, and shut myself up in this cell. Hast thou forgotten Samson, David and Solomon, all led astray by the love of women? There is no safety for thee, young man, except in flight.” He thereupon decided to act on this advice and retire from the world. He encountered opposition, especially from his mother, who strove to detain him by casting herself before him on the threshold of the door. But, conquering the feelings of nature, he passed over the prostrate form and left his home forever. His first master was Sinell, Abbot of Cluaninis in Lough Erne. Under his tuition he composed a commentary on the Psalms. He then betook himself to the celebrated monastery of Bangor on the coast of Down, which at that time had for its abbot St. Comgall. There he embraced the monastic state, and for many years led a life conspicuous for fervor, regularity, and learning. At about the age of forty he seemed to hear incessantly the voice of God bidding him preach the Gospel in foreign lands. At first his abbot declined to let him go, but at length he gave consent.
Columbanus set sail with twelve companions their names have thus come down to us: St. Attala, Columbanus the Younger, Cummain, Domgal, Eogain, Eunan, St. Gall, Gurgano, Libran, Lua, Sigisbert, and Waldoleno (Stokes, “Apennines”, p. 112). The little band passed over to Britain, landing probably on the Scottish coast. They remained but a short time in England, and then crossed over to France, where they arrived probably in 585. At once they began their apostolic mission. Wherever they went the people were struck by their modesty, patience, and humility. France at that period needed such a band of monks and preachers. Owing partly to the incursions of barbarians, and partly to the remissness of the clergy, vice and impiety were prevalent. Columbanus, by his holiness, zeal, and learning, was eminently fitted for the work that lay before him. He and his followers soon made their way to the court of Gontram, King of Burgundy. Jonas calls it the court of Sigisbert, King of Austrasia and Burgundy, but this is manifestly a blunder, for Sigisbert had been slain in 575. The fame of Columbanus had preceded him. Gontram gave him a gracious reception, inviting him to remain in his kingdom. The saint complied, and selected for his abode the half-ruined Roman fortress of Annegray in the solitudes of the Vosges Mountains. Here the abbot and his monks led the simplest of lives, their food oftentimes consisting of nothing but forest herbs, berries, and the bark of young trees. The fame of Columbanus’s sanctity drew crowds to his monastery. Many, both nobles and rustics, asked to be admitted into the community. Sick persons came to be cured through his prayers. But Columbanus loved solitude. Often he would withdraw to a cave seven miles distant, with a single companion, who acted as messenger between himself and his brethren. After a few years the ever-increasing number of his disciples obliged him to build another monastery. Columbanus accordingly obtained from King Gontram the Gallo-Roman castle named Luxeuil, some eight miles distant from Annegray. It was in a wild district, thickly covered with pine forests and brushwood. This foundation of the celebrated Abbey of Luxeuil took place in 590. But these two monasteries did not suffice for the numbers who came, and a third had to be erected at Fontaines. The superiors of these houses always remained subordinate to Columbanus. It is said that at this time he was able to institute a perpetual service of praise, known as Laus perennis, by which choir succeeded choir, both day and night (Montalembert, Monks of the West, II, 405). For these flourishing communities he wrote his rule, which embodies the customs of Bangor and other Celtic monasteries.
For well nigh twenty years Columbanus resided in France and during that time observed the unreformed paschal computation. But a dispute arose. The Frankish bishops were not too well disposed towards this stranger abbot, because of his ever-increasing influence and at last they showed their hostility. They objected to his Celtic Easter and his exclusion of men as well as women from the precincts of his monasteries. The councils of Gaul held in the first half of the sixth century had given to bishops absolute authority over religious communities, even going so far as to order the abbots to appear periodically before their respective bishops to receive reproof or advice, as might be considered necessary. These enactments, being contrary to the custom of the Celtic monasteries, were not readily accepted by Columbanus. In 602 the bishops assembled to judge him. He did not appear, lest, as he tells us, “he might contend in words”, but instead addressed a letter to the prelates in which he speaks with a strange mixture of freedom, reverence, and charity. In it he admonishes them to hold synods more frequently, and advises that they pay attention to matters equally important with that of the date of Easter. As to his paschal cycle he says: “I am not the author of this divergence. I came as a poor stranger into these parts for the cause of Christ, Our Savior. One thing alone I ask of you, holy Fathers, permit me to live in silence in these forests, near the bones of seventeen of my brethren now dead.” When the Frankish bishops still insisted that the abbot was wrong, then, in obedience to St. Patrick’s canon, he laid the question before Pope St. Gregory. He dispatched two letters to that pontiff, but they never reached him, “through Satan’s intervention”. The third letter is extant, but no trace of an answer appears in St. Gregory’s correspondence, owing probably to the fact that the pope died in 604, about the time it reached Rome. In this letter he defends the Celtic custom with considerable freedom, but the tone is affectionate. He prays “the holy Pope, his Father”, to direct towards him “the strong support of his authority, to transmit the verdict of his favor”. Moreover, he apologizes “for presuming to argue, as it were, with him who sits in the Chair of Peter, Apostle and Bearer of the Keys”. He directed another epistle to Pope Boniface IV, in which he prays that, if it be not contrary to the Faith, he confirm the tradition of his elders, so that by the papal decision (judicium) he and his monks may be enabled to follow the rites of their ancestors. Before Pope Boniface’s answer (which has been lost) was given, Columbanus was outside the jurisdiction of the Frankish bishops. As we hear no further accusations on the Easter question—not even in those brought against his successor, Eustasius of Luxeuil in 624—it would appear that after Columbanus had removed into Italy he gave up the Celtic Easter (cf. Acta SS. O.S.B., II, p. 7).
In addition to the Easter question Columbanus had to wage war against vice in the royal household. The young King Thierry, to whose kingdom Luxeuil belonged, was living a life of debauchery. He was completely in the hands of his grandmother, Queen Brunehault (Brunehild). On the death of King Gontram the succession passed to his nephew, Childebert II, son of Brunehault. At his death the latter left two sons, Theodebert II and Thierry II, both minors. Theodebert succeeded to Austrasia, Thierry to Burgundy, but Brunehault constituted herself their guardian, and held in her own power the government of the two kingdoms. As she advanced in years she sacrificed everything to the passion for sovereignty, hence she encouraged Thierry in the practice of concubinage in order that there might be no rival queen. Thierry, however, had a veneration for Columbanus, and often visited him. On these occasions the saint admonished and rebuked him, but in vain. Brunehault became enraged with Columbanus, and stirred up the bishops and nobles to find fault with his rules regarding monastic enclosure. Finally, Thierry and his party went to Luxeuil and ordered the abbot to conform to the usages of the country. Columbanus refused, whereupon he was taken prisoner to Besancon to await fur ther orders. Taking advantage of the absence of restraint he speedily returned to his monastery. On hearing this, Thierry and Brunehault sent soldiers to drive him back to Ireland. None but Irish monks were to accompany him. Accordingly, he was hurried to Nevers, made to embark on the Loire, and thus proceed to Nantes. At Tours he visited the tomb of St. Martin and sent a message to Thierry that within three years he and his children would perish. At Nantes, before the embarkation, he addressed a letter to his monks, full of affection. It is a memorial of the love and tenderness which existed in that otherwise austere and passionate soul. In it he desires all to obey Attala, whom he requests to abide with the community unless strife should arise on the Easter question. His letter concludes thus: “They come to tell me the ship is ready…. The end of my parchment compels me to finish my letter. Love is not orderly it is this which has made it confused. Farewell, dear hearts of mine pray for me that I may live in God.” As soon as they set sail, such a storm arose that the ship was driven ashore. The captain would have nothing more to do with these holy men they were thus free to go where they pleased. Columbanus made his way to the friendly King Clothaire at Soissons in Neustria, where he was gladly welcomed. Clothaire in vain pressed him to remain in his territory. Columbanus left Neustria in 611 for the court of King Theodebert of Austrasia. At Metz he received an honorable welcome, and then proceeding to Mainz, he embarked upon the Rhine in order to reach the Suevi and Alamanni, to whom he wished to preach the Gospel. Ascending the river and its tributaries, the Aar and the Limmat, he came to the Lake of Zurich. Tuggen was chosen as a center from which to evangelize, but the work was not successful. Instead of producing fruit, the zeal of Columbanus only excited persecution. In despair he resolved to pass on by way of Arbon to Bregenz on Lake Constance, where there were still some traces of Christianity. Here the saint found an oratory dedicated to St. Aurelia, into which the people had brought three brass images of their tutelary deities. He commanded St. Gall, who knew the language, to preach to the inhabitants, and many were converted. The images were destroyed, and Columbanus blessed the little church, placing the relics of St. Aurelia beneath the altar. A monastery was erected, and the brethren forthwith observed their regular life. After about a year, in consequence of another rising against the community, Columbanus resolved to cross the Alps into Italy. An additional reason for his departure was the fact that the arms of Thierry had prevailed against Theodebert, and thus the country on the banks of the Upper Rhine had become the property of his enemy.
On his arrival at Milan in 612, Columbanus met with a kindly welcome from King Agilulf and Queen Theodelinda. He immediately began to confute the Arians and wrote a treatise against their teaching, which has been lost. At the request of the king, he wrote a letter to Pope Boniface on the debated subject of “The Three Chapters“. These writings were considered to favor Nestorianism. Pope St. Gregory, however, tolerated in Lombardy those persons who defended them, among whom was King Agilulf. Columbanus would probably have taken no active part in this matter had not the king pressed him so to do. But on this occasion his zeal certainly outran his knowledge. The letter opens with an apology that a “foolish Scot” should be charged to write for a Lombard king. He acquaints the pope with the imputations brought against him, and he is particularly severe with the memory of Pope Vigilius. He entreats the pontiff to prove his orthodoxy and assemble a council. He says that his freedom of speech accords with the usage of his country. “Doubtless”, Montalembert remarks, “some of the expressions which he employs would be now regarded as disrespectful and justly rejected. But in those young and vigorous times, faith and austerity could be more indulgent” (II, 440). On the other hand, the letter expresses the most affectionate and impassioned devotion to the Holy See. The whole, however, may be judged from this fragment: “We Irish, though dwelling at the far ends of the earth, are all disciples of St. Peter and St. Paul … Neither heretic, nor Jew, nor schismatic has ever been among us but the Catholic Faith, just as it was first delivered to us by yourselves, the successors of the Apostles, is held by us unchanged … We are bound [devincti] to the Chair of Peter, and although Rome is great and renowned, through that Chair alone is she looked on as great and illustrious among us .. . On account of the two Apostles of Christ, you [the pope] are almost celestial, and Rome is the head of the whole world, and of the Churches”. If zeal for orthodoxy caused him to overstep the limits of discretion, his real attitude towards Rome is sufficiently clear. He declares the pope to be: “his Lord and Father in Christ”, “The Chosen Watchman”, “The Prelate most dear to all the Faithful“, “The most beautiful Head of all the Churches of the whole of Europe“, “Pastor of Pastors”, “The Highest”, “The First”, “The First Pastor, set higher than all mortals”, “Raised near unto all the Celestial Beings”, “Prince of the Leaders”, “His Father”, “His immediate Patron”, “The Steersman”, “The Pilot of the Spiritual Ship” (Allnatt, “Cathedra Petri”, 106).
But it was necessary that, in Italy, Columbanus should have a settled abode, so the king gave him a tract of land called Bobbio, between Milan and Genoa, near the River Trebbia, situated in a defile of the Apennines. On his way thither he taught the Faith in the town of Mombrione, which is called San Colombano to this day. Padre della Torre considers that the saint made two journeys into Italy, and that these have been confounded by Jonas. On the first occasion he went to Rome and received from Pope Gregory many sacred relics (Stokes, Apennines, 132). This may possibly explain the traditional spot in St. Peter’s, where St. Gregory and St. Columba are supposed to have met (Moran, Irish SS. in Great Britain, 105). At Bobbio the saint repaired the half-ruined church of St. Peter, and erected his celebrated abbey, which for centuries was a stronghold of orthodoxy in Northern Italy. Thither came Clothaire’s messengers inviting the aged abbot to return, now that his enemies were dead. But he could not go. He sent a request that the king would always protect his dear monks at Luxeuil. He prepared for death by retiring to his cave on the mountainside overlooking the Trebbia, where, according to a tradition, he had dedicated an oratory to Our Lady (Montalembert, “Monks of the West”, II, 444). His body has been preserved in the abbey church at Bobbio, and many miracles are said to have been wrought there through his intercession. In 1482 the relics were placed in a new shrine and laid beneath the altar of the crypt, where they are still venerated. But the altar and shrine are once more to be restored, and for this end in 1907 an appeal was made by Cardinal Logue, and there is every prospect of the work being speedily accomplished. The sacristy at Bobbio possesses a portion of the skull of the saint, his knife, wooden cup, bell, and an ancient water vessel, formerly containing sacred relics and said to have been given him by St. Gregory. According to certain authorities, twelve teeth of the saint were taken from the tomb in the fifteenth century and kept in the treasury, but these have now disappeared (Stokes, Apennines, p. 183). St. Columbanus is named in the Roman Martyrology on November 21, but his feast is kept by the Benedictines and through-out Ireland on November 24. Among his principal miracles are: (I) procuring of food for a sick monk and curing the wife of his benefactor (2) escape from hurt when surrounded by wolves (3) obedience of a bear which evacuated a cave at his bidding (4) producing a spring of water near his cave (5) repletion of the Luxeuil granary when empty (6) multiplication of bread and beer for his community (7) curing of the sick monks, who rose from their beds at his request to reap the harvest (8) giving sight to a blind man at Orleans (9) destruction by his breath of a cauldron of beer prepared for a pagan festival (10) taming a bear, and yoking it to a plough.
Like other men, Columbanus was not faultless. In the cause of God he was impetuous and even headstrong, for by nature he was eager, passionate, and dauntless. These qualities were both the source of his power and the cause of mistakes. But his virtues were very remarkable. He shared with other saints a great love for God‘s creatures. As he walked in the woods, the birds would alight upon his shoulder that he might caress them, and the squirrels would run down from the trees and nestle in the folds of his cowl. The fascination of his saintly personality drew numerous communities around him. That he possessed real affection for others is abundantly manifest in his letter to his brethren. Archbishop Healy eulogizes him thus: “A man more holy, more chaste, more self-denying, a man with loftier aims and purer heart than Columbanus was never born in the Island of Saints” (Ireland‘s Ancient Schools, 378). Regarding his attitude towards the Holy See, although with Celtic warmth and flow of words he could defend mere custom, there is nothing in his strongest expressions which implies that, in matters of faith, he for a moment doubted Rome‘s supreme authority. His influence in Europe was due to the conversions he effected, and to the rule that he composed. What gave rise to his apostolate? Possibly the restless energy of the Celtic character, which, not finding sufficient scope in Ireland, directed itself in the cause of Christ to foreign lands. It may be that the example and success of St. Columba in Caledonia stimulated him to similar exertions. The example, however, of Columbanus in the sixth century stands out as the prototype of missionary enterprise towards the countries of Europe, so eagerly followed up from England and Ireland by such men as Killian, Virgilius, Donatus, Wilfrid, Willibrord, Swithbert, and Boniface. If Columbanus’s abbey in Italy became a citadel of faith and learning, Luxeuil in France became the nursery of saints and apostles. From its walls went forth men who carried his rule, together with the Gospel, into France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. There are said to have been sixty-three such apostles (Stokes, Forests of France, 254). These disciples of Columbanus are accredited with founding over one hundred different monasteries (ib., 74). The canton and town still bearing the name of St. Gall testify how well one disciple succeeded.
Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.
St. Columba, also called Colum, or Columcille, (born c. 521, Tyrconnell [now County Donegal, Ireland]—died June 8/9, 597, Iona [Inner Hebrides, Scotland] feast day June 9), abbot and missionary traditionally credited with the main role in the conversion of Scotland to Christianity.
Columba studied under Saints Finnian of Moville and Finnian of Clonard and was ordained priest about 551. He founded churches and the famous monasteries Daire Calgaich, in Derry, and Dair-magh, in Durrow.
Columba and his 12 disciples erected a church and a monastery on the island of Iona (c. 563) as their springboard for the conversion of Scotland. It was regarded as the mother house and its abbots as the chief ecclesiastical rulers even of the bishops. Columba gave formal benediction and inauguration to Aidan MacGabrain of Dunadd as king of Dalriada.
Columba accompanied Aidan to Ireland (575) and took a leading part in a council held at Druim Cetta, which determined the position of the ruler of Dalriada in relation to the king of Ireland. The last years of Columba’s life appear to have been spent mainly in Iona, where he was already revered as a saint. He and his associates and successors spread the gospel more than any other contemporary group of religious pioneers in Britain.
Three Latin hymns may be attributed to Columba with some degree of certainty. Excavations in 1958 and 1959 revealed Columba’s living cell and the outline of the original monastery.
Feast Day November 23
With St. Columbanus’ life, like many other saints’ lives including those of the Apostles, we see that closed doors, deportation, unplanned peregrinatio, and other unpleasant situations can be transformed into blessings beyond what we can dream or imagination by the Spirit.
Columbanus thought of life as a highway, saying:
“our whole life is like the journey of a single day. Our first duty is to love nothing here but let us place our affections above, our desires above, our wisdom above, and above all let us seek our home for the fatherland is where our Father is.”
The Celtic Saints were known as peregrinatio, meaning they were pilgrims or travelers for Christ. Let us join St. Columbanus and the other Celtic saints as we pilgrimage together to the Crèche of Christ where we are also born anew.
Fresco of St. Columbanus at Brugnato Cathedral, Italy. from wikipedia
Bitel, Lisa. Isle of the Saints: Monastic Settlement and Christian Community in Early Ireland. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994.
Bobbio Missal at the World Digital Library.
Brown, Michelle P. How Christianity Came to Britain and Ireland. Oxford, UK: Lion Hudson, 2006.
Chorpenning, Hal. Peregrinus: Annegray, Columbanus’s First Monastery. September 25, 2017. A sabbatical pilgrimage to the places of Columbanus.
D’Arcy, Mary Ryan. The Saints of Ireland. St. Paul, MN: The Irish American Cultural Institute, 1974.
Dillon, Miles and Nora Chadwick. The Celtic Realms. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2006.
Duckett, Eleanor. The Wandering Saints of the Early Middle Ages. London: The Catholic Book Club, 1959.
Dunn, Marilyn. Belief and Religion in Barbarian Europe c.350-700. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Earle, Mary C. and Sylvia Maddox. Holy Companions: Spiritual Practices from the Celtic Saints. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2004.
Fox, Yaniv. Power and Religion in Merovingian Gaul: Columban Monasticism and the Frankish Elites. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Hen, Yitzhak and Rob Meens, eds. The Bobbio Missal: Liturgy and Religious Culture in Merovingian Gaul. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Herren, Michael W. and Shirley Ann Brown. Christ in Celtic Christianity. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2012.
Jonas of Bobbio. Life of Columban. From Fordham University. (note: Book I is about Columbanus and Book II is about his disciples).
Jones, Andrew. Every Pilgrim’s Guide to Celtic Britain and Ireland. Ligouri, Missouri: Ligouri Publications, 2002.
Jones, Kathleen. Who are the Celtic Saints? Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2002.
Lack, Katherine. The Eagle and the Dove: The Spirituality of the Celtic Saint Columbanus. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, Triangle Press, 2000.
Lapidge, Michael, ed. Columbanus: Studies on the Latin Writings. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK. The Boydell Press, 1997.
Letters of Columbanus.(from CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts)
Marron, Emmett. “The Communities of St Columbanus: Irish Monasteries on the Continent?” Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature, vol. 118C, 2018, pp. 95–122. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3318/priac.2018.118.06. September, 2018. Accessed 2 Nov. 2020. (available at researchgate.net)
St Columbanus, the patron saint of Europe
There is nothing new under the sun. As the continent of Europe undergoes political and social changes, including protests, changing political landscapes and deeply divided public discourse, we can remind ourselves that these are new expressions of an age-old story. And there is wisdom in reflecting on those who have experienced the disunity and angst of a Europe in turmoil before.
The (admittedly unofficial, but nonetheless widely recognised) Patron Saint of Europe, St Columbanus, has many things to teach us from the fractured Europe of 1400 years ago. Much is known about Columbanus as he left behind a large body of letters, sermons, sets of monastic rules and poems as well as having a hagiographic biography written about him shortly after his death. His life and legacy played an important role in the rebuilding of Europe after the second world war through the work of Robert Schuman and also in the peace process of Northern Ireland. He was named the ‘Father of Europe’ by Pope Benedict XVI. As Europe is undergoing a period of unrest and fracturing, there are still lessons to be learnt from the life of Columbanus.
Irish Christianity and ‘peregrinus’
St Columbanus began life in rural Leinster, a province on the east coast of Ireland, as the son of a wealthy family in the year 540AD. The crumbling Roman Empire was causing seismic shifts across Europe, full of violence and bitter unrest. Unromanised Ireland was facing its own revolution as the message of Christianity had reached its shores and spread rapidly through missionaries like Palladius and Patrick. Irish Celtic Christianity, in the absence of towns or cities, formed itself into monastic communities with a strong emphasis on learning and scholarship. Women and men flocked there to learn the Scriptures, Latin and the classical authors and to study and transcribe manuscripts saved from barbarian raids on the continent. Influenced by the Egyptian Desert Fathers, these Irish communities sought to live lives of self-sacrifice. One of the greatest sacrifices was peregrinus- a self-imposed exile from one’s home country and a lifelong pilgrimage to elsewhere. On peregrinus, Irish monks could share what they had learnt in their studies, and translate it into tangible ways to bless others.
Columbanus joined one of these early monastic communities in Bangor, Co. Down and became well versed in the literature of the day. At age 40, in the year 580AD, he embarked on peregrinus, leaving his native shores, and travelled to the dangerous continent. He encountered a Europe embroiled in clashes of tribal allegiances, poor leadership in both the Church and state, and instability that meant education and learning had all but ceased in many parts. Through careful negotiation with local Kings, Columbanus and his fellow monks engaged in setting up monasteries, first in Luxeuil, France and then Bobbio, Italy, creating vibrant communities for learning and worship that attracted children of local elites. Key to his successful journey and the setting up of these institutions was Columbanus’s ability to compromise well. He was able to engage with new cultures and languages and embrace multiple identities which crossed both race and nationality in a divided and restless landscape. He refused to engage in tribal allegiances or hold tightly to unhelpful barriers which prevented people from learning about the Scriptures. Instead, he remained true to his calling to spread the Christian message back into a Europe which had rejected it.
Speaking truth to power
However, Columbanus’s relationship with authority frequently made him enemies. The local bishops surrounding the monastery in Luxeuil became increasingly irritated by his refusal to acknowledge their authority above that of the abbots, and by Columbanus’s critique of the privileged life bishops led. There was also tension with the local King, Theuderic, when Columbanus criticised his decision to keep concubines and refused to bless his children. When the King didn’t change his ways, Columbanus threatened to excommunicate him, and consequently was expelled from the country, though managed to instead continue his pilgrimage further into Europe. Coming as a foreigner and a monk, he had no political, economic or military power, rather he had only his education and religious life as a means of speaking truth to power. Columbanus believed good leadership was crucial for society. Many of his letters hold to account the power structures in the Church and the state. He called for those in positions of power to be principled, building relationship with those they led with trust and hope and themselves being prepared to make sacrifices. In his letters he articulates a vision for unity among people which transcends politics, which is still relevant for the pluralist and secular Europe of today.
Columbanus passed away in Bobbio whilst on retreat in 625AD and he remains buried in Bobbio Abbey. The life and legacy of this Irish monk on pilgrimage remains important in the life of Europe today. In particular we should acknowledge the importance of good leadership in challenging times and his faithful adherence to sharing the Christian message with a Europe which was far from the knowledge of the Scriptures. There are many lessons to learn from the legacy of Columbanus which can help us to reframe our witness in Europe today.
Katherine Martin is a participant on Jubilee Centre’s SAGE Graduate Programme. She graduated from Trinity College, Dublin with a BA in Geography and Philosophy.
Saint Columbanus - History
Columbanus was Ireland’s first European. When he was already fifty years of age, he set out with a group of twelve monks and reached Brittany. He travelled on to the Vosges Mountains in the east and founded three monasteries. Later, though he was expecting to be sent back to Ireland, he was able to go on to Switzerland where one of his companions Gaul separated from him. With other companions, Columbanus moved on to found a monastery at Bobbio in North Italy. Part I of this book give an account of his life largely based on a Life of Columbanus written by a monk of Bobbio called Jonas who joined the community of Bobbio just five years after it was founded. Part II gives extracts from his writings – the Rules he composed for his community, his penitential, letters, sermons and poems. Part III collects memories from the places he lived and worked, records places wher his cult memory lives on, and the influence he has had on movements in the tentieth century such as the world-wide Society of St Columban of missionary priests and sisters.
Tomás Ó Fiaich (1923-90) was a professor of Irish History in NUI Maynooth before he became Cardinal Archbishop of Armagh and published many works on Irish history and literature. This book, first published in 1974, is revised and re-issued with a new Introduction by Dr Damian Bracken of the School of History at University College, Cork.
PART 1: LIFE
I. The man behind the pen
II. An island monk
III. White Burgundy — and red
IV. Controversies and Expulsion
V. Wanderer for Christ
VI. Repose at last
VII. The stamp of greatness
PART 2: WRITINGS
I. Monastic Rules and Penitential
PART 3: REMEMBRANCE
I. Where Columban laboured
II. Widespread cult throughout Europe
III. Worldwide expansion
160 pp. Veritas Publications. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie
St Columbanus is a man of firsts in Irish history. The first Irish writer to leave a literary corpus, he is the first Irishman in the surviving literature to describe himself as Irish and to give an account of Irish identity.
Born in Leinster, he rose to prominence as master in the great monastery of Bangor on the shores of Belfast Lough until, secure and middle-aged, he left Ireland forever circa 591 in the company of a handful of followers and journeyed to continental Europe. There, with royal backing, he established a succession of monasteries: Annegray, Fontaine, and Luxeuil in the Vosges mountains [Haute Saone -between Dijon and Strasbourg], and Bobbio near Genoa. In time, Luxeuil and Bobbio grew to become major spiritual and cultural centres and produced some of the leading figures of continental Christianity. Guided by the Rules he wrote for monks, the monasteries became models for later foundations and, with their alumni, perpetuated Columbanus’s monastic ideals long after his death in 615.
Columbanus’s forceful personality is revealed in his writings – his Rules, sermons, and especially his letters to popes and to his followers – with their characteristic combination of profound spirituality and forthright adherence to principle. The letter he wrote to his followers as he waited to be sent back to Ireland following a conflict with the family of King Theuderich has an emotional charge that resonates down the centuries: ‘So my speech has been outwardly made smooth, and grief is shut up within. See, the tears flow, but it is better to check the fountain for it is no part of a brave soldier to lament in battle.’ On the other hand, he was direct and unambiguous in his call to action when those in authority failed to use their power to give good leadership. From the supreme pastor of the Church he expected the supreme example of principled leadership. When it was lacking, it was his duty to confront the delinquent. To Pope Boniface IV, who reigned in the aftermath of the disastrous pontificate of Pope Vigilius, his demand for action was conveyed with characteristic and highly effective wordplay: ‘Be vigilant, I beg you Pope, be vigilant, and again I say, be vigilant since perhaps Vigilius was not very vigilant.’ Considering his achievements and the example of sanctity that is his legacy, it is not surprising that Jonas of Bobbio’s Life of St Columbanus should have appeared less than a generation after the saint’s death. This is another first: Columbanus is the first Irishman to be the subject of a biography.
Many scholars have discerned a truculence, if not arrogance, in Columbanus’s works. For them, he is a brash and abrasive old Irishman. However, in many cases his direct manner of speaking has obscured for a modern readership the subtlety of his theology and the spiritual depth of his arguments which are founded on biblical learning and the writings of the Church Fathers. He adapted that learning to find solutions to the problems that he and his Church faced. The causes of poor leadership – especially spiritual – that he diagnoses in his letters and sermons are as relevant now as when he wrote almost one-and-a-half millennia ago. Leadership, for Columbanus, is a matter of service to others, not a quest to fulfil personal ambition. Problems start when that order is reversed, that is, when leaders fail to act selflessly in exercising their power to guide those over whom they have been given authority, but instead see power as an opportunity for personal or institutional advancement and enrichment. The pastor who sets the material or reputational standing of his institution above the spiritual well-being of his flock is courting disaster. The worldly cleric cannot warn or reprimand the wayward, especially if the offender is powerful, for he is vulnerable to any threat to his wealth and reputation, or to the wealth and reputation of his Church. It is precisely for this reason that Columbanus believes that monks make the best spiritual guides. Detached from the world, they are unassailable. They cannot be pressured by threatening their wealth or family they have none. They are immune even to threats to their lives for, writes Columbanus in his letter to the Gaulish, or French, bishops, they follow the good shepherd (John 10) who laid down his life for his sheep. Columbanus’s analogy is pointed for the implication is that bishops are too concerned with material things and, therefore, their leadership is defective. As an example of their failure to cut their ties to the world, Columbanus mentions at the end of his letter to Pope Gregory the Great that he has heard their confessions and knows that, even after they entered the clerical state, they continue to sleep with their wives.
Shrines, towns and landmarks across Europe bear Columbanus’s name and testify to the widespread diffusion of devotion to the saint. Indeed, he wrote with an awareness not just of an Irish identity, but in some sense as a European. In Columbanus’s letter to Pope Boniface, Benedict XVI recently noted that ‘we find for the first time the expression totius Europae (‘of all Europe’) with reference to the presence of the Church in the Continent’. Columbanus ends his letter to the Gaulish clerics on this theme of the unity of the European Church reminding his readers that in the Church, national allegiance and racial identity have been superseded (but not replaced) by a spiritual identity, ‘for we are all joint members of one body, whether Franks or Britons or Irish or whatever our races be’. This is more than a rhetorical flourish. Columbanus appeals here to the ancient image of the Church as a body. In a body, the individual members are bound together, their coordinated actions guided by concern for the good of the whole. In the body of the Church, the virtue that binds the members is caritas, ‘charity’. Members must not act out of self-interest, but be mindful of the needs of others. The divisions that convulsed the Church in Columbanus’s day, therefore, were seen as a grave threat. They indicated that the bonds of charity, the very foundation of the Christian community, had been ruptured. Christians had departed from the unity and charity of the Church of the apostolic age, that is, the Church as founded by Christ. Columbanus writes that loyalty to its past was essential if the Church was to regain its unity, and be fit to proclaim its message. On the other hand, to forget the past is the ultimate betrayal, it is an act of self-betrayal, a denial of one’s origins and the loss of identity.
Columbanus’s impact had a long afterlife, and was responsible ultimately for Ireland’s reputation as the land of saints and scholars. He wrote of Ireland’s location in ‘the Western regions of the earth’s farther strand’ and used dramatic imagery to portray the coming of Christianity to his homeland. Christianity, like the sun, rose in the East. Just as the sun’s journey across the sky is completed when it reaches Ireland, the last footfall in the West, so too the conversion of the Irish marked the point at which the Church fulfilled its mission to spread salvation to all peoples. In the middle of the ninth century, the biographer of St Gall, Columbanus’s follower, acknowledges the debt of his people to Ireland ‘whence the splendour of such light came to us’. The light of Christianity had shone westwards to Ireland, but now this light shines in the opposite direction, for the Irish led by Columbanus are the evangelisers, and those in eastern parts receive the light of salvation from the West. In that sense, this later tradition is a reflection of Columbanus’s belief that the conversion of his homeland on the edge of the world led to the spiritual and cultural enrichment of the West.
In gathering selections from the works and Jonas’s Life of Columbanus together in the original 1974 publication, Cardinal Tomas Ó Fiaich performed an important service by making that literature accessible to a wide readership, informing them of their own cultural and historical roots. This timely and unchanged reprinting of Tomas Ó Fiaich’s anthology brings the words of Columbanus to a new generation.
The essays in M. Lapidge (ed.), Columbanus: Studies on the Latin writings (Woodbridge, 1997) are the most recent and authoritative assessments of the works attributed to St Columbanus. For an account of his career, see T. M. Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland (Cambridge, 2000), 344-90. For a treatment of his ideals of spiritual authority, see D. Bracken, ‘Authority and duty: Columbanus and the primacy of Rome’, Peritia 16 (2002), 168-213.
Dr Damian Bracken
School of History, University College Cork
15 February 2012
I. THE MAN BEHIND THE PEN
Who could listen to a greenhorn? Who would not say at once:
Who is this bumptious babbler that dares to write such things unbidden?
St Columban 5th Letter
Jonas of Susa entered the monastery of Bobbio in 618. It was a young monastery, founded only about five years earlier. Its founder, Columban, had died three years before Jonas’s arrival, and was already becoming a legendary figure in the conversation of those who had known him. An ideal situation, one would think, for Jonas, the man destined to write Columban’s life.
Jonas was born in the town of Susa, a pleasant place in the Piedmontese Alps, only seven or eight miles from the present French frontier. Even today, after nearly two thousand years, its Roman remains are well preserved. In Susa itself and later in Bobbio, Jonas studied Livy and Virgil in surroundings which must have brought them easily to life again. He read some of the pioneer efforts of Latin hagiography — the life of St Martin of Tours by Sulpicius Severus, of St Hilary of Poitiers by Fortunatus, of St Ambrose by Paulinus of Milan. It was probably these which first gave him the idea of trying to set down in similar form the life of Bobbio’s founder, Columban — that and the young writer’s consciousness that he and Columban were in a sense namesakes. For Jonas was the Hebrew of the Latin columba, the dove.
Columban’s successor as Abbot of Bobbio, Attala, who made Jonas his minister or secretary, was able to give him much first-hand information. So also were many of the other monks who had followed Columban from Luxeuil or joined him in Bobbio in his declining years. There was Bertulf, the third abbot of Bobbio, a native of Gaul, who had earlier been a monk in Luxeuil. Jonas accompanied him as his secretary to Rome in 628 to consult with Pope Honorius concerning the problems facing Bobbio. Next he was off to Luxeuil where Abbot Eustasius, one of Columban’s favourite disciples, whom the Irishman was very happy to see as his successor there before his own death, was still happily reigning. Before or after his visit to Luxeuil Jonas had made the long journey across the Alps almost to the shore of Lake Constance where Gall, in his hermit’s cell at the spot which still bears his name, recalled his years with Columban until the day when the two Irishmen disagreed.
By the end of the 630s Jonas was back in Bobbio. He had travelled much, met those best qualified to talk of Columban, seen the spread of monasticism throughout Gaul by men trained in Luxeuil. He was the obvious man to write Columban’s story. Abbot Bertulf and the community urged him to write it but another task called him away for three years. We do not know its precise nature but it brought him first of all to the modern Belgium where Amand, the Bishop of that region, used him in the work of evangelisation. From Belgium he came into northeastern France where by a lucky break he met three members of the one noble family who looked back to Columban as their father in God. Chagnoald was Bishop of Laon and had earlier been one of Columban’s community in Luxeuil. Faro was now Bishop of Meaux, where his family had welcomed Columban after his expulsion from Luxeuil. Their sister Fara, dedicated to God by Columban in childhood, was now Abbess of Evoriacum, one day to be known as Faremoutiers in her honour and to become famous as a school for the daughters of kings and princes. Here Jonas began to put in order all the reminiscences of Columban that had been gathered over the years. It may have been 640 or 641 or even 642. There were new abbots in Luxeuil and Bobbio since he had last visited them and it was to these that Jonas addressed the carefully constructed preface of his work:
To the Fathers Waldebert and Bobolenus, most distinguished masters, highly honoured in holy rule, strong in virtues of religion, Jonas a sinner: I remember that three years ago when I was staying in Bobbio during my wandering in the country of the Apennines I promised at the request of the brethren and on the order of Abbot Bertulf to write an account of the life and work of our beloved father Columban, particularly as so many of those who had lived with him and seen his work were still alive …
He apologises for his lack of eloquence and clumsiness of expression and draws a series of ironical comparisons between his own poor efforts and the eloquence of scholars:
They, drenched with the dews of eloquence, have adorned the green fields with flowers for us the parched earth will scarcely produce a shrubbery. They are rich in the balsam of Engaddi and the perfumes of Arabia for us butter from Ireland provides poor fare … They seek the very exotic fruits of the palm tree for us, as the poet of Italy (Virgil) has put it, the mild fruit of the humble chestnut …
It was all a literary device, for Jonas had no need to be so apologetic about his shortcomings. He was a man of his age and of his environment, and like all hagiographers of those centuries he wished to edify his readers. The miraculous powers of his hero were emphasised his shortcomings were glossed over or omitted. But within this framework he put his material into a consecutive narrative, mentioning people and places with a frequency which contrasts with Patrick’s single Silva Focluti.
For all its faults, the life of Columban by Jonas lies behind everything that has been written about Columban by all the scholars ever since.
All we Irish, inhabitants of the world’s edge, are disciples of Saint Peter and Paul
St Columban, 5th Letter
The middle of the sixth century was the period when the young men of Ireland were frantically enthusiastic about becoming monks. Just as they flocked in droves to the continental centres of learning in the ninth century, to the new religious orders in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, to the Spanish and French armies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to the Irish Volunteers in 1913/14, the desire to take the monastic habit and ultimately to found a new monastic house was the ambition of a multitude around 550. For youths of spirit and dedication it was the noblest call to be heard in the Ireland of that era, combining practical Christianity, heroism, self-discipline, initiative and sacrifice to give a new sense of purpose to their lives.
Enda’s foundation on the Aran Islands, drawing some of its inspiration from Scotland, was the first motherhouse for these young men on Irish soil and it sent out Finnian to Moville, Eugene to Ardstraw, Tighearnach to Clones. Another Finnian, this time of Clonard, who borrowed some of his ideas from the Welsh monastic founders and reformers, became ‘teacher of the saints of Ireland’ and sent out the next great group of pioneers who have been given the picturesque title of ‘the twelve apostles of Ireland’ – Columba to Derry (546), Durrow (556), and Iona (563), Ciarán to Clonmacnois (about 550), Brendan to Clonfert (554 or 559), Molaise to Devenish, Cainneach to Aghaboe, Mobhi to Glasnevin, Colman to Terryglass, Sinell to Cleenish. A third group of sixth-century foundations owed little or nothing to Clonard – Bangor, founded by Comgall (d.603), Moville on Strangford Lough founded by Finnian (d.579), Glendalough founded by Kevin (d.618), Tuam by Jarlath, Cork by Bairre. And a fourth group was founded primarily by and for women – Kildare by Brigid and Killeavy by Moninne before the end of the fifth century, Killeady in Co. Limerick by Ita, and Clonbroney in Co. Longford by Samhthann, in the sixth century.
Young men must have compared the rugged grandeur of Clonenagh with the emotional appeal of Clonmacnois. For the sixth-century Irish monastic founders also had their own contrasting styles – Columba the gentle scribe, Ciarán the craftsman, Brendan the boatman, Fintan the extremist in matters of mortification, Molua the companion of the animals and birds.
When the youthful Columban decided on further studies about 560 with a view to entering the monastic life, he opted for the monastery of Cleenish on Lough Erne. It had been founded only a few years before by Sinell, who had done his apprenticeship with Finnian at Clonard. But then nearly every monastery in Ireland around 560 had to be a young monastery. The Clonard tradition, passed on no doubt to Cleenish, placed great emphasis on study and intellectual formation. Jonas probably heard of this emphasis later, for he records that Sinell was ‘famous for his holiness and for his learning in sacred things’.
Why had Columban to go so far from home to find a monastery to his liking? It has been conjectured that he was born about 543 on the borders of the modern counties of Carlow and Wexford. Jonas heard how the child’s mother had dreamt before he was born that a brilliant sun arose from her breast and illuminated the whole world. In his youth he must have sat at the feet of a learned teacher, for Jonas records that he studied grammar, rhetoric, geometry and the Sacred Scriptures, all of which formed part of the curriculum of the Irish monastic schools.
As he grew to manhood he was good-looking and girls were attracted to him. His formae elegantia, as Jonas calls it, appealed particularly to one young woman who tried to ensnare him. Columban fought the temptation with the gospel as his shield and sought the advice of an anchoress who lived in a nearby cell. Jonas purports to reproduce the answer she gave him, but reading between the lines we get the impression that the biographer is here using a literary device – much as a later Gaelic writer might take off on an alliterative run in such a dramatic situation:
Fifteen years ago I abandoned my father’s house to fight against temptation and sin. Christ is my leader. Since then the grace of God has kept me from turning back and if I were not a weak woman I would have crossed the seas in search of a wider battlefield. But you, burning with the fire of youth, stay at home. Whether you like it or not, you will find yourself in your weakness listening to the tempter’s voice. Do you think you can go freely in the company of women? Don’t you recall that Adam fell through the blandishments of Eve, that Samson was seduced by Delilah, that David fell through the beauty of Bethshabee, that the most wise Soloman was deceived through love of woman. Away with you, young man, go away from the destruction which has ruined so many, turn from the road that leads to the gates of Hell …
Columban returned home for the last time, frightened but determined. He must break with the family circle for ever and dedicate himself completely to preparation for the life of self-sacrifice that lay ahead. He told his mother he was leaving home. She pleaded with him, burst into tears and threw herself across the threshold to block his exit. He asked her not to grieve, and then in the first of several decisions, which to our way of thinking seem so hard and unrelenting, decisions which often appear cruel and hurtful to his friends, he stepped across her prostrate body and set off for the north, knowing they would never meet again. Jonas puts into his mouth at this moment the hard words of St Jerome:
The enemy holds the sword over me to strike me down so what should I care for a mother’s tears … The true piety here is to be cruel.
Under Sinell in Cleenish Columban laid the foundations of his future learning. His commentary on the Psalms and some of his poetry were written while he was still a young man – some of them may have been composed while in Cleenish but they seem to fit most easily into his long years in Bangor. We do not know how long Columban remained in Cleenish, but Jonas tells us that as soon as he decided to become a monk he entered the monastery of Bangor.
Comgall, the founder of Bangor, was one of the great monastic fathers of sixth-century Ireland. He had served his own apprenticeship under Fintan of Clonenagh in Laois, the father of the most austere tradition within Irish monasticism.
As the glossator of the Martyrology of Oengus put it:
níro tomhail re ré riamh,
acht arán eorna foeda
is uisce creda triad.
consumed nothing during his life-time
except bread of withered barley
and muddy water from the clay.
It was Fintan’s stern discipline, tempered by the personal stamp of Comgall himself, that had become the Rule of Bangor.
We must not imagine Bangor – or indeed any of the great Irish monasteries of the sixth century, for Bangor was one of the greatest – like an earlier version of one of the great medieval monasteries on the Continent. It was much closer in appearance to the primitive monastic settlements of the Nile valley than to a later Monte Cassino or Clairvaux, a collection of round wooden huts built around a small church and surrounded by an embankment. When the Latin word monasterium was borrowed into Irish, it first gave the form muintir which was applied not to the monastic buildings but to the people who dwelt in them. In short, for the Irish the monastery was the community, not the buildings. In physical layout probably the closest approximation on Irish soil today to an early Irish monastery is Butlin’s holiday-camp in Mosney, with its rows of small wooden chalets for sleeping in, grouped around a few larger communal buildings like the chapel and the dining hall.
From Adamnan’s Life of Columba, written at the end of the seventh century by an author who explicitly mentions that he had talked with men who had become monks in the previous century, we can reconstruct an authentic picture of a sixth-century Irish monastery in great detail. The monks lived in small cells constructed of wood or wattles – Columban’s own Rule later was to refer to a monk’s cellae suae cobabitator, thus implying that two or more might share the same cell. Side by side with the living quarters of the monks within the enclosure were the communal buildings, i.e. church, refectory and guesthouse. Originally these were built of wood also. St Bernard described the later oratory of Bangor as made ‘of smoothed planks closely and strongly fastened together’.
At the head of the monastic community stood the abbot, in some monasteries always chosen from the same family group. He was assisted by a kind of private secretary called the minister – in Bangor a certain Crimhthann acted as a minister for Comgall. A group of the senior monks – the seniores – were associated with the abbot in the direction of the community and the training of novices and from their ranks all offices of authority in the monastery were normally filled. The oeconomus was an important official who looked after the material resources of the monastery other monastic office-holders, mentioned by Adamnan or Jonas, include the scriba, the guest master, and the cook or cellarer.
The daily fare of Comgall’s monks was bread, vegetables and water milk and milk products were permitted later when the founder’s ultra-severe regime, inherited from Fintan of Clonenagh, was relaxed. As in other Irish monasteries the inmates wore sandals and a long white tunic covered by a coarse woollen outer garment and hood. Their daily life was a constant round of prayer, manual labour, study and mortification. They assembled in the church often each day for the recitation of the canonical hours, the night office being the most prolonged. They engaged in all the usual agricultural pursuits from the sowing to the threshing of the grain, and made the monastery self-sufficient not only in food but in drink, clothing, buildings and all kinds of implements and utensils. If Columban’s own learning can be taken as an indication of the studies pursued in Bangor, the monks there attained a high standard of Latin learning and a smattering of Greek, read the pagan classical authors and were deeply versed in the scriptures. No doubt those monks who showed sufficient talent spent much time copying manuscripts but the earliest Bangor manuscript now preserved – the Antiphonary – dates from a century after Columban’s departure. Fasting, silence, curtailment of sleep, repeated genuflections, prayer for prolonged periods with arms outstretched and corporal punishment inflicted on the palm with a leather strap were normal forms of mortification or could be imposed for breaches of Rule. It was a severe Rule, one of the hardest in any Irish monastery, yet for the seventh-century Bangor scribe it was:
The good Rule of Bangor,
Diligent, holy and strict,
Wonderful, just and sublime …
In this ascetic yet happy milieu Columban spent many years of his young manhood. He was chosen by the seniores to be raised to the priesthood and become one of the few ordained monks among a majority of lay religious. Although Jonas does not mention the fact, there is some evidence that he was placed in charge of Bangor’s monastic school and it is mentioned in the Lives of Gall and Deicola. When such an important figure in the monastic community first talked to Comgall of his desire to go abroad, he was rebuked by the abbot. But Columban finally convinced his superior that the call came from on high and Comgall gave his consent. Furthermore he allowed twelve of the brethren to accompany Columban on the great adventure. From references to some of the group by names in Jonas and in Columban’s own letters, we obtain the names of most of them – Gall, the most famous after his master, Domoal, who acted as Columban’s minister, Comininus, Eunocus, Equonanus and Columban óg (who died in Luxeuil), Libranus and Aedh, the member of the party in episcopal orders. Deicola and Lua were probably also in the original group and if it included Leobard and Caldwald they must have been the only two Anglo-Saxons among the twelve. The sea bore no terrors for such men – it was just outside the monastic enclosure at Bangor – and fortified by the blessing of Comgall they rowed courageously into the unknown. From this on, it was for Columban to take decisions on his own.
Below are excerpts from Columbanus’s Monastic Rules and Penitential and examples of two of his Letters.
MONASTIC RULES AND PENITENTIAL
Two Rules are attributed to St Columban: the Regula Monachorum or Rule of the Monks and the Regula Coenobialis or Community Rule. Each Rule is found in a number of manuscripts which go back to the ninth or tenth century. The Regula Coenobialis was later expanded to include material from Columban’s successors in Luxeuil the Regula Monachorum was subsequently shortened by the omission of material which was no longer relevant. It follows therefore that the whole of the latter, but only a portion of the former, comes from the pen of Columban.
The Penitential of St Columban is one of the most valuable documents in existence for a study of the doctrine of penance in the Irish Church. It made a system of private penance available to the laity as well as to the monks, and, as it was the earliest penitential in the Irish tradition to be employed on the continent, it had a significant influence on the development there of the new theology of the Sacrament of Penance.
All three documents are written in a somewhat arid Latinity, in sharp contrast to the rhetorical and imaginative style of Columban’s other writings.
The Rule of the Monks
St Columban’s Rule for his monks is a broad treatise on the basic virtues of obedience, poverty, chastity, mortification, silence, etc. in the monastery, rather than a list of detailed regulations concerning daily life. Laporte has suggested that the early chapters are a summary of a work composed in Bangor by Comgall. The Rule is strict in its demands but its tone is balanced and tolerant throughout. With the exception of one long chapter laying down regulations for the recitation of the Divine Office and some prescriptions regarding food and drink, the Rule is exclusively concerned with the interior dispositions of the soul. In this, Columban’s Rule differed enormously from the detailed regulations laid down in the Rule of St Benedict.
A sample of the Regula Monachorum is the chapter which deals with the meals of the monks:
The food of the monks should be poor and confined to the evening let it be such as to avoid gorging, and their drink such as to avoid drunkenness, so that it may sustain them but do them no harm: vegetables, beans, flour mixed with water, along with a small loaf of bread, lest the stomach be strained and the mind stifled. For those who seek eternal rewards should only take account of a thing’s usefulness and use. Use of life must be kept under control, just as work must be kept under control. This is true discretion, so that the possibility of spiritual progress may be maintained with an abstinence that scourges the flesh. For if abstinence goes too far, it will be a vice, not a virtue. A virtue tolerates and embraces many material things. Therefore we must fast daily, just as we must feed daily. While we must eat daily, we must regale the body rather poorly and sparingly. The reason we must eat daily is because we must advance daily, pray daily, toil daily, and read daily.
The Community Rule
Like the Rule of the Monks, the Regula Coenobialis was drawn up for one of Columban’s monastic communities, possibly a different one from that which received the previous Rule. Walker takes chapters I to IX of this Rule to contain the nucleus which goes back to Columban himself he would regard the later chapters of the shorter recension and the extra interpolations of the longer recension as having been added by Columban’s successors in Luxeuil. These show some relaxation of the stricter prescriptions found in the earlier part.
This Rule provides a more detailed commentary on the daily life of an early Irish monk than any other source. Yet even here a lack of systematisation is obvious, and the Regula Coenobialis would seem to have grown out of a collection of practical decisions given in the case of the breaches of discipline rather than being a conscious effort to draw up systematic regulations to order the whole life of the monastery.
As a sample of the Regula Coenobialis, chapters III—V, which deal with the omission of prayers, disrespect for sacred things and abuses of speech, are included here:
The monk who does not prostrate himself to ask a prayer when leaving the house, and after receiving a blessing does not bless himself, and go to the cross — it is prescribed to correct him with twelve blows.
Likewise the one who shall forget the prayer before work or after work — with twelve blows.
He who on his return home does not prostrate himself within the house to ask a prayer, is to be corrected with twelve blows. But the brother who confesses all these things and more, even as much as to deserve a grace penance, gets off with half penance, that is, a medium penance and so on with these matters. Mitigate them thus for the moment.
The monk who through coughing goes wrong in the chant at the beginning of a psalm – it is laid down to correct him with six blows. Likewise the one who bites the cup of salvation with his teeth – with six blows.
The one who does not follow the order for the sacrifice – with six blows.
The one who smiles at the synaxis, that is, at the office of prayers – with six blows if he bursts out laughing aloud – with a grave penance unless it happens excusably.
The one who receives the blessed bread with unclean hands – with twelve blows.
He who forgets to make the oblation until he goes to Mass – with a hundred blows.
The monk who tells idle tales to another, if he censures himself at once – with a mere pardon, but if he does not censure himself – with an imposition in silence or fifty blows.
He who defends himself truthfully, when questioned about something, and does not at once beg pardon and say `It’s my fault, I’m sorry’ – with fifty blows.
He who in all honesty sets counsel against counsel – with fifty blows.
He who strikes the altar – with fifty blows.
He who shouts loud talk without restraint, unless there is need – with an imposition of silence or fifty blows. He who makes an excuse in order to get pardon must do a like penance.
He who replies to a brother on his pointing something out ‘It’s not as you say,’ except for seniors speaking frankly to juniors – with an imposition of silence or fifty blows.
The only exception to this permitted is that he may answer a brother of equal standing if he remembers something nearer the truth than what the latter says.
The Irish Penitentials contain lists of the various ways in which people are liable to commit sin, together with the penance considered appropriate for each. The earliest Irish one which has survived is the Penitential of Vinnian, who is to be identified with either Finnian of Clonard (d.549) or Finnian of Moville (d.579).
The Penitential of Columban shows considerable dependence on that of Vinnian. Contrary to the opinion of some other scholars, Dom Jean Laporte has demonstrated that it is a single document which however falls into three parts, one for monks, one for the secular clergy and one for the laity. Apart from a few paragraphs added later, there is no reason to question Columban’s authorship of the document as a whole. It probably dates from his early period on the Continent in Annegray or Luxeuil.
The penances imposed by the Irish Penitentials as a whole seem severe to our modern outlook and Columban’s Penitential is no exception. The following excerpts, taken from the section dealing with the laity, will indicate the length and severity of penances to be imposed for sins of theft, perjury, wounding and drunkenness. Yet compared with the more vindictive penalties of public and perpetual excommunications enforced in earlier centuries, they offered to the penitent the hope of reconciliation and re-admission to the sacraments after the period of penance was over:
If any layman commits theft, that is, steals an ox or a horse or a sheep or any beast of his neighbour’s, if he has done it once or twice, he must first restore to his neighbour the loss which he has caused, and let him do penance for a hundred and twenty days on bread and water. But if he has made a practice of stealing often, and is unable to make a restitution, let him do penance for a year and a hundred and twenty days, and let him further promise not to do it again. He may go to Communion at Easter of the second year, that is, after two years, on condition that, out of his own labour, he first gives alms to the poor and a feast to the priest who adjudged his penance. Thus is the guilt of his bad habit to be removed.
If any layman commits perjury, if he does it through greed, he is to sell all his goods and give to the poor, and dedicate himself wholly to the Lord. Let him abandon the world and be tonsured and let him serve God till death in a monastery. But if he does it, not through greed, but for fear of death, he must do penance for three years on bread and water in exile and unarmed. For two more let him abstain from wine and meats then let him offer a life for himself, that is, let him free a slave or maidservant from the yoke of bondage, and give alms frequently for two years. During this period he may quite lawfully use all foods except meat. Let him go to Communion after the seventh year.
If any of the laity sheds blood in a squabble, or wounds or maims his neighbour, he is to be forced to make good the damage he has done. If he has not the wherewith to pay, let him first carry in his neighbour’s work, as long as the latter is sick, and send for the doctor. After the man’s recovery, let him do penance for forty days on bread and water.
If any layman becomes drunk, or eats or drinks to the point of vomiting, let him do penance for a week on bread and water.
Six letters of Columban have survived a number of others, of whose former existence we are certain, have now perished. A seventh letter, sometimes attributed to him because it concerns the Easter controversy, can scarcely be his and has been relegated by Walker to an appendix. The sixth letter below is in a different style from the others and its MS tradition also differs from theirs. It contains no formal address and is more in the nature of an exhortation, which is the title given to it in some of the sources.
The six letters may be listed as follows in the order in which they were written:
1. To Pope Gregory the Great, written probably in 600.
2. To the French Bishops meeting in Chalon, 603.
3. To a newly elected Pope, either Pope Sabinian in 604 or, less probably, Pope Boniface III in 607.
4. To his monks in Luxeuil and neighbourhood, written in Nantes in 610 as he awaited expulsion from France.
5. To Pope Boniface IV, written in Milan in 613.
6. To a young disciple – addressee and date unknown. (It may have been written in 610 to either Domoal or Chagnoald, both of whom acted as his minister). The Easter controversy figures largely in Letters 1, 2 and 3 and is mentioned in passing in Letter 4. Columban’s epistolary style is marked by a complex word-order, frequent use of alliteration, proverbs and puns, and the appearance of some rare words derived from Greek. The letters are all long, with one exception, and even at times long-winded they have a preaching tone about them which makes them akin to his sermons. In their Latinity however they are carefully composed by an author who could be trenchant and persuasive in turn without departing from the niceties of style which good rhetoric demanded. Only some excerpts from each letter are given here.
Letter to Pope Gregory the Great, 600 AD
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ.
I wish, Holy Father (do not think it excessive of me), to ask about Easter, in accordance with that verse of Scripture: ‘Ask your father and he will show you, your elders and they will tell you.’ When an unworthy man like me writes to an illustrious one like yourself, my insignificance makes applicable to me the striking remark which a certain philosopher is said to have once made on seeing a painted harlot: ‘I do not admire the art, but I admire the cheek.’ Nevertheless I take the liberty of writing to you, strengthened by the assurance of your evangelical humility and I append the cause of my grief. For one has no reason to boast of writing when necessity demands it, even if the writing is to one’s superiors.
I have read your book containing the pastoral rule, brief in style, comprehensive in doctrine, crammed with sacred things. I acknowledge that the work is sweeter than honey to one in need. In my thirst therefore I beg you for Christ’s sake to present me with your tracts on Ezekiel, which I heard you composed with remarkable skill. I have read six books of Jerome on him but he did not expound even half. But, if you please, send me something from your lectures delivered in the city. I mean the last things expounded in the book. Send as well the Song of Songs from that passage in which it says: ‘I will go to the Mountain of myrrh and to the hill of incense’ as far as the end. Treat it, I pray, either with others’ comments or with your own in brief. In order to expound all the obscurity of Zechariah, reveal his secrets, so that in these matters the blindness of the West may give you thanks. Everyone knows my demands are pressing, my inquiries wide. But your resources are also great, for you know well that from a small stock less should be lent, and ‘from a large one more’.
Let charity move you to reply. Don’t let the sharpness of this letter keep you from explaining things, since anger explodes into error, and it is my heart’s desire to pay you due honour. My part was the challenge, to question, to beg let yours be not to deny what you have freely received, to bend your talent to the seeker, and to give the bread of doctrine according to Christ’s command. Peace to you and yours. Please pardon my rashness, Holy Father, for having written so boldly. I beseech you to pray for me, a most wretched sinner, even once in your holy prayers to our common Lord.
Letter to the French Bishops, 603 AD
Great harm has been done and is being done to the peace of the Church by different usages and diverse traditions. But if, as I have said, we first hasten by the exercise of true humility to cure the poisons of pride and envy and vainglory, through the teaching of our Saviour who says for our example: ‘Learn of me for I am meek and humble of heart,’ etc., then when we have been made perfect, with no further blemish and with hatred rooted out, let us all, as the disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ, love one another with our whole hearts. If there are diverse traditions as is the case regarding Easter … let us see which is the more true tradition – yours, or that of your (Irish) brothers in the West. For, as I have noted in the book giving my answer, which I have now sent you, though it was written three years ago, all the churches of the entire West consider that the resurrection should not take place before the passion, that is, Easter before the Equinox. They do not wait beyond the twentieth of the moon, lest they should perform a sacrament of the New Testament without the authority of the Old. But this I leave to another time. Besides, I have informed the Holy Father in three books of their opinions about Easter, and in a short pamphlet I have further taken the liberty of writing the same to your holy brother Arigius.
One thing therefore I request of you, holy men: with peace and charity bear with my ignorance and, as some call it, my arrogant insolence in writing. Necessity, not pride, is the cause of it, as my own worthlessness proves. I am not the author of this variance and it is for Christ the Saviour, our common Lord and God, that I have come to these lands as a pilgrim. I beseech you therefore by our common Lord, and beg of you by him who will judge the living and the dead, if you deserve to be recognised by him who will say to many: ‘Amen, I say to you that I never knew you,’ to allow me with your peace and charity to remain in silence in these woods and to live beside the bones of our seventeen dead brethren, just as up till now we have been allowed to live twelve years among you. This will allow us, as we have done up to the present, to pray for you as we ought. Let Gaul, I pray, contain us together, whom the kingdom of heaven shall contain, if our merits are good. We have one kingdom promised and one hope for our calling in Christ. We shall reign together with him, if we first suffer with him here so that with him we may be glorified.
I know that to many this long-windedness of mine will seem overdone. But I decided it was better to let you know what we are discussing and thinking here among ourselves. For our rules are the commandments of the Lord and the apostles. In them our confidence is placed. They are our weapons, shield and sword. These are our defence. They brought us from our native land. We strive after them here, too, though lukewarmly. We pray and hope to continue until death in them as we have seen our predecessors do. But, holy fathers, see what you are doing to poor veterans and aged pilgrims. In my opinion it will be better for you to support them than disturb them.
For the rest, fathers, pray for us as we also do for you, wretched though we be, and don’t look on us as aliens from you. For we are all fellow members of one body, whether Franks or Britons or Irish or whatever our race. Thus let all our races rejoice in knowledge of the faith and in recognising the Son of God. Let us all hasten to approach to perfect manhood, to the measure of the age of fullness of Jesus Christ. In him let us love one another, praise one another, correct one another, encourage one another, pray for one another, so that with him and one another we may reign and triumph. Pardon me, I pray, for being long-winded and presumptuous. I am labouring beyond my strength, most patient and holy fathers and brethren.
There was a large turn-out on Monday the 19 th August for a special lecture in Myshall exploring ‘Saint Columbanus and the Making of Europe‘, The lecture was organised by Carlow County Museum in partnership with Myshall Muintir na Tíre and the Myshall Community Centre as part of National Heritage Week, and delivered by Dr Alexander O’ Hara, Department of Medieval History, University of St Andrews.
The lecture explored the life and times of St. Columbanus (who was born and raised in Myshall, Carlow), and how his mission took him from there to the north of Ireland to Bangor, Co. Down. From Bangor, Columbanus set off on his great missionary journey to the continent where he founded many monasteries including Luxeuil in France and Bobbio in Italy. Many of Columbanus’ writings survive and they consistently inspire and encourage.
A packed room in Myshall Community Center for the lecture
The lecture looked at the surprising influence of these writings on one such man – Robert Schuman, French Foreign Minister and a founding father of the European Union. Following the devastation of World War II, a group of statesmen and scholars from across Europe, including Robert Schuman met in Luxeuil-les-Bains to commemorate the 14th centenary of the birth of St. Columbanus, and to discuss plans for the future of Europe. The founding of the modern European Union can be traced to this gathering.
The evening explored how an Irish immigrant from the edge of Europe was one of the first to voice the concept of a united Europe and the wider impact of the Myshall-born saint on European history.
A wonderful evening was had, with a lively Q&A at the end discussing the life of Columbanus and European politics today – a timely issue, particularly with Brexit, looming so near! Many thanks to all those who attended.
Dr Alexander O’Hara is Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Mediaeval History, University of St Andrews. He is the author of Jonas of Bobbio and the Legacy of Columbanus: Sanctity and Community in the Seventh Century and editor of Columbanus and the Peoples of Post-Roman Europe, both published by Oxford University Press in 2018. Heritage Week is coordinated and managed by the Heritage Council. This event has been shortlisted for a Heritage Council’s Heritage Week 2019 Award.
St. Columbanus by Frank Duff
Frank Duff was arguably the most important figure in Irish Catholicism in the 20th Century. His foundation of the Legion of Mary and his writings were incredibly influential and still have relevance to today. In this essay, he reflects on the life of St. Columbanus.
I am not suffering from an excess of enthusiasm when I speak in strong terms concerning St. Columbanus. Therefore I present to you the valuation made of him by that mighty man, Pius XI. Before he was Pope he had done much research work in the Ambrosian Library in Milan. It was there that he came into contact with the records of St. Columbanus. He became interested and went into the subject. Later he spoke as follows: "St. Columbanus is to be reckoned among those most distinguished and exceptional men whom Divine Providence is wont to raise up in the most difficult periods of human history to restore causes almost lost. This illustrious son of Ireland walked within no narrow confines. As scholarship throws an increasing light on the obscurity of the Middle Ages, the more clearly is it manifest that the renaissance of all Christian science and culture in many parts of France, Germany and Italy is due to the labours and zeal of Columbanus - a demonstration to the glory of the whole Church and more particularly of Catholic Ireland."
Few stronger statements have emanated from a responsible quarter. Above all men, Pius XI was no utterer of exaggerated phrases. "Raised up to restore a cause almost lost"! Observe that it is to Christianity itselfthat those words were applied. But they were justified. A study of the Saint proves his immensity. It is not too much to say that he did for Germany, France, Switzerland and Italy much what Patrick did for Ireland Columbanus was a son of Patrick. It was mainly from Ireland that issued the Christian deluge in those centuries after St. Patrick.
Ireland was then the special force in evangelisation. But as such it went into decline when the days of our own great troubles came upon us. Then our place in the scheme of providence as the tidal wave of Christianity was taken by a succession of other nations. For a long time France has held that primacy. But of late we have tended to take over again. It is not usual for a nation to enjoy a second Spring like that. Nations have their day and a second day does not usually dawn for them.
THE EUROPE COLUMBANUS FACED
Undoubtedly that pre-eminence of France sprang out of the labours of Columbanus, for France was the chief scene of them.
He was the fountainhead of all the things that France has done for the world. Moreover, he faced an infinitely worse position in France than St. Patrick had faced in Ireland. France was almost a savage wilderness at the time. The German tribes had poured down over the southern parts of Europe and had crushed the great Roman Empire into the dust. But they had not been able to establish any united kingdom or rule of law in place of the Empire. Many kings and chieftains were warring among each other, killing and destroying, but leaving the devastation unrepaired. Europe was a gigantic forest at that time. Historians trying to present it to our modem imagination, say that to find something to compare it to, we would have to go to the immense American forest of 150 years ago.
Such was Europe. Those forests were full of wild beasts including some monstrous ones which are now extinct. Agriculture had been abandoned, because who would sow land when he did not know whether he would be alive himself in a month's time! How people contrived to exist in such circumstances defies imagination. Brigandage was universal. Ignorance, paganism and savagery were the order of the day. The world was a human zoo.
Into that chaos came Columbanus and his monks to teach the people religion, virtue, order, agriculture, arts and idealism. Such was his success in that programme that it could be said that at the cost of his labours one-third of Europe was restored to civilisation, cultivation and Christianity. Truly a fantastic achievement!
In the doing of that work he laid the foundation of a vast amount of legend. Much of it must be true. There is credited to him the working of miracles on a large scale, including the paralleling of a number of Our Lord's own miracles, such as the miraculous draft of fishes and the feeding of a great number of people on a few loaves and a little beer. The latter item is quaint pointing to a new system of living.
This glorious epic was part of the theme of the celebrated Count Montalembert. It was he who by his industry laid the foundation of our modern knowledge of the subject in his monumental work., "The Monks of the West." It is of interest to read that this noble personality at the age of twenty came to Ireland to meet Dan O'Connell for the purpose of offering himself as an aid in the struggle for emancipation. He was disappointed because on arrival he found that emancipation had just been passed. Deprived of that part of his ambition, he returned to France and set about his historical researches. Guided by Montalembert and other writers, let us look closely at the Saint and his origins.
St. Columbanus was born in western Leinster at a place which history does not condescend to name for us. The date was about 543. He is described as a miracle of eloquence, handsome, well-shaped, fair, blue-eyed and charming in all the relations of life. For a youth of his station at that time, there was a well-laid-out order of procedure. The Brehon Laws prescribed that he was to be taught archery, swimming, the use of the spear and the sword, and horsemanship. We may be sure that he was proficient in all these, because the youth of Ireland at that time were growing up in the lore of the ancient Fenians. The prowess of these semi or totally mystical figures was the thought of every young person, inciting them on to excel in every accomplishment. However, with this particular youth things did not follow the normal course. He was hard hit by something which devastated many others like him in those days, namely by religion.
Being so stirred, he determined to leave home and throw himself ardently into the discipline of mind and soul which would lead him on to the doing of something big for God. A sorrowful feature of his departure was the hurt it did to his mother's heart. She would appear to have been a most charming type of person. Her sorrow at losing the boy who was so dear to her was such that she could not overcome it. When he was about to go, it is recorded that she laid down on the threshold so that he had to step over her body. We may be certain that his agony was no less than hers.
He went off to Cleenish in Lough Erne which at that time was a celebrated resorting place of the holy men of Ireland. It is said that the hundred islands of that Lough were covered by the homes of these solitaries. He studied there under Sinnell for five years. Then he was sent by that master to the Monastery at Bangor which was at the height of its fame. The Abbot at the time was that illustrious figure, Saint Comgall.
Columbanus breathed in the rule and the learning and the spirit of Bangor. Among the characterful population of that place he stood out. He became the head of the school of Bangor and the Spiritual Director of the Monastery. There the alIurement of Peregrinatio pro Christo laid its grip upon him. That idea is worth studying because it is something peculiar to our own race. It is not found in the same form among any other body of people. It was not merely a name for evangelisation, the going out in search of souls. Its primary note would appear to have been self-renunciation, and the core of that sacrifice was the leaving of home. When we read the annals of those ancient figures we are struck by the fact that this leaving of Ireland seems to have represented the greatest possible sacrifice that they could make.
Then came as a secondary note the seeking of penance. In other words the labours, the hardships, the dangers that presented themselves to those travellers were things that they esteemed. They were not accounted as evils to be tolerated 139 MARY SHALL REIGN for a great end. No, they were things which were sought for in themselves. Then, of course, as an inevitable ingredient, there entered in a passionate love of souls which were to be sought out wherever they might be in order to give them the good tidings. Such was this extraordinary composite thing, the Peregrinatio pro Christo of our forefathers.
Columbanus got permission from Comgall to set out. Accompanied by twelve others, as was the ancient idea, he set off to shape history. They carried with them nothing but the satchels containing their books and the staves which they bore in their hands. There is a great deal of diversity of view about his age at that time. Some authorities put it as thirty-two and others at over fifty. I would be inclined to think that the age of thirty-two is too young, having regard to the amount he had got in up to that time - five years in Cleenish, then the long apprenticeship to his holy trade which was served in Bangor and then the fulfilling of his responsible posts there. I think we must go much higher than this youthful age of thirty-two. Vivid pictures are given to us of such travelling groups as his: "We are Irish" was their introduction of themselves, "living at the very ends of the earth. We are men who receive naught but the doctrine of the Apostles and the Evangelists." With that slogan on their lips, those incredible men set off, first for England and then for the Continent. Columbanus was destined not again to set foot on his native soil.
He crossed over to Gaul somewhere between 580 and 590. There he found faith in existence hanging on, but only hanging on, possessed of no virtue or discipline. First they went to King Sigebert of Metz who appreciated Columbanus and tried to induce him to remain. But the saint thought that the conditions were too easy. He wanted something harder, so he could not be held back. He headed south into that utter wilderness which I have previously depicted. They reached Burgundy. The King of Burgundy at that time was Gontran who received him well and gave him a site for a monastery at Annagray.
There Columbanus and his companions lived a solitary existence among the woods and the wild animals, a little after the style of St. John the Baptist himself. It is told of him that he had a strange power over the wild animals. The squirrel became a sort of emblem of him Gust as the stork was of his almost name-sake, St. Columcille) because squirrels used to come down from the branches and perch on him. One story is that having come across an admirable cavern in which he wanted to live, he found a bear in residence. He stood before the entrance and addressed the animal as St. Francis of Assisi would have done. He explained that he required the accommodation for himself and he asked the bear to go away quietly and stay away and the bear did so obediently.
The excitement caused by this heroic form of life was considerable, so that many were attracted to him. Shortly he was able to establish his second monastery at Luxeuil not far away then another at Fontaine. It is pathetic to read that those three monasteries flourished until the French Revolution in which crisis they perished.
The severity of the life which was practised in those houses was extreme, but it caught the imagination. The French youth thronged in, including many nobles. Thefoundation prospered exceedingly and became famous far and wide.
It was a light in darkness. It is said that Luxeuil had 600 monks and that every day some monks issued forth from it on evangelising missions and to found other monasteries, their places being immediately filled by the incoming ones. Luxeuil became the seed of all the French monasteries afterwards established. So great was the growth effected during the life of Columbanus himself that we learn that at one time there were one thousand Abbots obedient to him. The Saint impressed himself on all his sons in an indelible way. What he was, every one of them sought to be and succeeded nobly. No one who was brought in touch with him ever forgot him.