Wednesday, August 2, 2017

St Columba (521-597 AD)

Iona Monastery
Photograph from Flickr
Archaeologists have uncovered conclusive evidence that a wooden hut traditionally associated with St Columba at his ancient monastery on the island of Iona dates to his lifetime in the late sixth century. Samples of hazel charcoal unearthed during an excavation of a wattle and timber structure on Iona 60 years ago have been radiocarbon dated to the period Columba lived in the Iona monastery. The structure is believed to be the monk's "cell" where he prayed and studied in isolation. The results show the hut dated back to between 540 and 650 and Columba died in 597.
In the Life of St Columba, written 100 years after his death by his successor Adomnán, he was described as often writing in his cell on a rocky hillock, called Torr an Aba or "the mound of the abbot". It is believed that the Cathach, a manuscript of psalms reputed to be Columba's own writing, would have been created in his cell.
St Columba at Bridei's Fort
Painting by Joseph Ratcliffe Skelton

Much of what we know about St. Columba is due to Adomnán, the ninth Abbot of Iona, and his book, the Vita Colum Cille (Life of Columba). Saint Columba (521 - 597) was an Irish abbot and missionary who is credited with spreading Christianity in what is today Scotland. He founded the important abbey on the island of Iona.
As soon as he was old enough, Columba was taken from the care of his priest-guardian at Tulach-Dugblaise, or Temple Douglas, to St. Finnian's (c 495-c 589) training school at Moville. Later, he attended the famous monastic school of Clonard, headed by another Finnian (470-549), who in later times was known as the "tutor of Erin's saints".
Columba loved books, and spared no effort to obtain or make copies of Psalters, Bibles, and other valuable manuscripts for his monks. His former master, Finnian, had brought back from Rome the first copy of St. Jerome's Psalter to reach Ireland. Finnian guarded this precious volume jealously, but Columba got permission to look at it, and secretly made a copy for his own use.
When Finnian was told of this, he laid claim to the copy. Columba refused to give it up, and the question of ownership was put before King Diarmaid, Overlord of Ireland. His decision in this early "copyright" case went against Columba. "To every cow her calf," reasoned the King, "and to every book its son-book. Therefore, the copy you made, O Colum Cille, belongs to Finnian."
Columba had another grievance against the King. Prince Curnan of Connaught, who had fatally injured a rival in a hurling match and had taken refuge with Columba, was dragged from his protector's arms, and slain by Diarmaid's men. It is said that the war which soon broke out between Columba's clan and the clans loyal to Diarmaid was instigated by Columba. At the Battle of Cul Dreimhne his cause was victorious, but Columba was accused of being morally responsible for driving three thousand unprepared souls into eternity.
Columba's own conscience was troubled, and on the advice of an aged hermit, Molaise, he resolved to atone for his offense by exiling himself and trying to win for Christ in another land as many souls as had perished in the terrible Battle of Cul Dreimhne, near modern day Drumcliff, Co Sligo.
Torr an Abba
                 Site of St Columba's Cell
In 563 AD Columba left Ireland and settled with the Gaels of Dál Riata, where he was granted the Island of Iona to found his monastery. Columba was a useful asset to the Gaelic warrior kings. His monastery provided education for their sons, he was a close advisor to the king, and he served as a diplomat to the king’s neighbours in Pictland and Ireland.

His monastery on Iona became world famous. Together with SS Canice and Comgall, he spread the gospel to the Picts. Iona’s fame as a missionary centre and outstanding place of learning ultimately spread throughout Europe, turning it into a place of pilgrimage for several centuries to come.
Adomnán lists Saint Columba's prophetic revelations, which are attributed to the saint's ability to view the present and the future at the same time. Most of the chapters begin with Saint Columba telling his fellow monks that a person will soon arrive on the island or an event will occur. Columba is said to have displayed some strange behaviours, including banishing women and cows from the island, claiming that “where there is a cow there is a woman, and where there is a woman there is mischief”.
It is said that Columba was prevented from completing the building of the original chapel until a living person had been buried in the foundations. His friend Oran volunteered for the job and was duly buried. Columba later requested that Oran’s face to be uncovered so he could bid a final farewell to his friend. Oran’s face was uncovered and he was found to be still alive but uttering such blasphemous descriptions of Heaven and Hell that Columba ordered that he be covered up immediately!
Another story relates how on one of his journeys, St Columba come across several Picts who were burying the body of a man who had been killed by an aquatic monster which lived in the River Nesa. This story has been interpreted as the first written reference to the Loch Ness Monster. It goes on to say that Columba then saved another man from the monster by ordering the beast to retreat, which it did.
Book of Kells c 800
The monks of Iona produced countless elaborate carvings, manuscripts and Celtic crosses but, perhaps, their greatest work was the beautiful Book of Kells, which dates from c 800 AD, currently on display in Trinity College, Dublin. Shortly after this the Vikings raided Iona and many of the monks were slaughtered and their work destroyed. Within 50 years, they had extinguished the light of this great monastic settlement. Columba’s relics were removed in 849 AD and divided between Alba (Scotland) and Ireland. 
Columba died on Iona in 597, but his monastery’s influence continued to grow, leading to the foundation of new monasteries in Ireland and as far away as Lindisfarne in Northumbria. His feast day is on 9th June.
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