Columban left Ireland in 590 when he possibly was fifty years old and went to Gaul (part of modern-day France) via what is now Cornwall (in South-West England). In a short time he had three monastic establishments in the forests around Annegray, Fontaines and Luxeuil, indicating he rapidly attracted local talent. But he soon also attracted controversy. He had no local ecclesiastical permission for his foundations; his working among the people was an unspoken rebuke to the residential, city bound bishops of Gaul. Further, he and his monks had strange practices; apart from their dangerous attitude to bishops who were only members of the monastic community under the abbot’s authority, the Irish kept Easter at a different date than the Roman date; even worse they carried on a strange form of penance – private penance. Columban was called to task; in 603 he was invited to appear before a synod of the Gaul bishops. Columban felt there were more important things to do, so did not bother to go; instead he sent a stinger of a letter. He started off deferentially enough:
Columban now proceeds to take the bishops to task for their worldly laxity, their lack of industry and for trifling with his work. They have more than enough to concern themselves with, without interfering in his affairs, if only they would take their responsibilities seriously. He recommends his own life style to their reverences and urges them to become like little children.Columban wins no friends at the synod.
He soon runs afoul of the political establishment led by Brunhilda who ruled Burgundy. He refuses to bless the illegitimate grandchildren of the brutal Visigoth princess. Enemy number two. So the bishops unite with the princess and her son to exile Columban. A sea storm sinks their ship and they escape. Columban is now in his mid sixties and yet he journeys through southern Germany setting up more foundations. It seems he used the River Rhine as a thoroughfare and this occasioned his boat song with its two refrains, each repeated four times.
Heave, lads, and let the echoes ring.
for the first four verses; and –
Think, lads, of Christ and echo him.
for the second four verses.
Politics caused him again to move to Bobbio in northern Italy. Columban was now seventy, when he announced what was to be his last journey. It was not popularly received, either by his Germanic disciples or his remaining Irish companions. He parted ways with his favourite disciple, St. Gall, who stayed behind in what is now Switzerland. Little is known of the split or the reason; why Columban continued is clear – he felt called by God.
Columban has only three more years to live. Yet he takes up the pen again to write a letter which is both funny and also somewhat sarcastic, this time to Pope Boniface IV in 613. This is his longest extant letter, written as Tomás O Fiaich says “...with sincerity, vigour and boldness almost to the point of aggressiveness.” He chides the pope for not firmly enough putting an end to the Nestorian controversy; some contemporaries of Columban even hinted that the Pope himself was sympathetic to, if not a follower of, the Nestorian beliefs. In this letter Columban makes one of his more famous puns on the name of Boniface’s predecessor, Pope Vigilius. “Be vigilant then, I implore you, pope, be vigilant, and again I say, be vigilant; since perhaps he who was called Vigilant was not.” Columban had a penchant for puns – in an earlier letter to Gregory the Great, he has a crack at Gregory’s predecessor, Leo the Great, reminding Gregory of the scripture that “...a living dog is better than a dead lion.”
Columban was always loyal; in the letter to Boniface he says, “For all we Irish, inhabitants of the world's edge, are disciples of Saints Peter and Paul...we accept nothing outside the evangelical and apostolic teaching. None of us is a heretic...but the Catholic faith, as it was transmitted by you (the Popes), successors of the holy apostles, is maintained unbroken.” But this did not stop him criticizing Popes. This must be seen within the context of Irish attitude of Columban’s time to the Popes.
To the Irish, the pope, the bishop of Rome who was the successor to Saint Peter, was a kind of high King of the church, – like the High King of Ireland in Tara – but like the king a distant figure whose wishes were little known and less considered. Rome was the ultimate destination for the pilgrim – especially because there were books there that could be brought back to Ireland and copied. But if your motive was holiness –
You find at home, or seek in vain.
The Master that you seek in Rome,
Is little profit, endless pain;
To go to Rome
Columban is called the father of European civilization. For several hundred years Europe was a cultural desert; it was still recovering from the ravages of the fifth century invasions by the Huns, Ostrogoths and Vandals. If you can picture the horrors of the recent troubles in the Balkans, in Chechnya, and currently in Rwanda, Europe underwent something similar from about 300 A.D. The pax Romana (Roman peace) had broken down; the order of the Roman Empire no more, in fact, the Empire did not exist in western Europe across the Alps. There were mass movements of people, famine, local war lords continually fighting and plundering; people rarely knew security. All they knew was war, hunger, continual dislocation, fear, disease, early death.
Learning was almost non-existent. Books and libraries destroyed or disappeared. In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great established a kind of library at Rome but it was a poor one, and Gregory had a dim view of the pagan classics, of which the Irish monks were highly enamored. By the end of the sixth century Isidore of Seville was building a real library in that city. The only other continental library now known to us at that period was in Calabria, but what happened to it is not known. Mobs even tried to burn down Gregory’s library during a period of famine. Gregory of Tours commented on the sad state of sixth century literacy: “In these times when the practice of letters declines, no, rather perishes in the cities of Gaul, there had been found no scholar trained in ordered composition to present in prose or verse a picture of the things which have befallen.” Here is where Ireland stepped in to become Europe’s publisher. But Ireland, in its literary haven, was disconnected from Europe.
The initial step in re-connection was taken by St. Columcille of Derry; by sailing off into exile he set the model of ultimate sacrifice – leaving Ireland. His example was soon followed by others, most notably Columban, who ended up in Europe. Columban had no intention of evangelizing Europe or re-introducing literacy to Europe, but in fact he did both. His sole purpose was personal sacrifice – to wander for Christ (peregrinari pro Christo). But he and his twelve companions brought with them their beloved books. The monks traveled with their books tied to their waists as signs of triumph, just as Irish heroes had once tied their enemies heads to their waists. Columban himself was well educated even before he became a monk and his writings, we are told, are notable for their playful imitation of such classical writers as Sappho, Virgil, Ovid, Juvenal, Martial – racy stuff. But with the monasteries founded in Columban’s name during his life-time and after his death, which some experts number at between 60 to 100 in what are now four different countries, with their libraries, scriptoria (a room, especially in a monastery, set apart for the writing or copying of manuscripts) and monastic schools, the infrastructure was laid for re-introducing literacy and education into Europe. This is directly attributable to Columban and his monks and so the Irish monks saved European civilization.
I have given a selective reading of Columban’s life to illustrate the many things I find important about Columban for myself but I’ll just mention two :
(1) Columban – risks all for Christ...No planning; no destination. No management by objectives. Even led finally by a dream to Italy. Like Abraham...an old man led from security into an unknown country and he won’t know where till he gets there...in human terms stupid; but God leads and tells him. Fr. John Blowick and Fr. Edward Galvin – promising careers junked in favor of a madcap idea; to go to China to convert the Chinese. Done for love of Christ, of God. I need to rediscover the risk dimension. Our modern world is a world over-planned/psychologized/managed; all the fruits of the Enlightenment – have their place but they are limited. They present a world where all things can be ultimately solved; they even remove the mystery dimension, that is, God. They are about control. I come from a western way of looking at life which is about control and dominance and for me is reinforced by personal temperament. Yet Spirituality involves surrender; we are taught to apply this to the spiritual life and many of us do, but not frequently enough, I think, to ministry; I think we should. I talk about my ministry, my projects; no, they are God’s. If I insist on my ministry, then perhaps it is not God's. God is in control not us; Columban shows this. It frees us to take risks. Columban says in an instruction to his monks – Love has nothing to do with order. Order is about control; love is about surrender to Christ – as the second reading from the Mass of St. Columban says “let Christ paint his image in us.”
(2) Columban’s love/passion for books led to the saving of Western Culture. He never intended this; just a side effect of his personal interests. We must always have a passion for what interests us; we never know the side effects of doing what we love. Columban wanted to share his love of words and it led to the revival of literacy and education in Europe. We never know what our own interests or hobbies might achieve or what use they will be. In his twelfth sermon “On Compunction” in a passage one historian of mysticism claims is a classic of mysticism, and if found in the writings of Bernard, or Teresa of Avila would be endlessly praised, Columban prays that Christ set his heart afire with love. We should pray for that same passion and in this way we reflect our second reading and become images of God.
Monday, 25 November, 1996
Mass for St. Columban’s Celebration
A Homily given by John Brannigan
To the holy lords and fathers - or, better, brothers - in Christ, the bishops, priests and remaining orders of holy church, I, Columba the sinner, send greetings in Christ: I give thanks to my God that for my sake so many holy men have gathered together to treat of the truth of faith and good works, and, as befits such, to judge of the matters under dispute with a just judgment, through senses sharpened to the discernment of good and evil. Would that you did so more often.