Professor Ian Bradley suggests St Columba remains deeply relevant and inspirational 1500 years on from his birth.
Columba, who was born 1500 years ago (on 7 December 521 according to the sixteenth century Irish life) in Gartan, Donegal, has long been one of Scotland’s favourite saints. Indeed, going by the stories and poems which grew up around him and the number of medieval church dedications, he was far more popular than the man who trumped him to become the nation’s patron saint thanks to some nifty public relations work by the Picts of north-east Fife and the support of the ecclesiastical establishment.
Although he eventually lost out to Andrew after a long posthumous struggle, Columba has proved a remarkably enduring, adaptable, and ecumenical saint, admired by Roman Catholics and Presbyterians alike. Of all the figures from the so-called golden age of Celtic Christianity, he is the one about whom we know most, thanks to a wealth of writing about him beginning very soon after his death.
He emerges from these early sources not as a plaster saint but a real flesh and blood character with ambiguities and even apparent contradictions in his character, as suggested by his two Gaelic nicknames, Crimthann (the fox) and Colmcille (the dove of the church – which in its Latin form gives us the name Columba). He had an autocratic manner and was known in Irish tradition as the ‘short-tempered saint’. Yet he was also a man of prayer and had a gentle pastoral approach to those who came to him seeking spiritual counselling.
He had many qualities which resonate today. At a time when we are rediscovering the power of poetry in our worship and realising that we can embrace and approach the mystery of God through image and allusion, there is much to draw on from his many poems and prayers which display a wonderfully rich and vibrant spiritual imagery. As in his affirmation: ‘The flame of God’s love dwells in my heart like a jewel of gold in a silver dish’. We can also draw on the example and witness of his deep mystical experiences. One biographer portrays him as being filled with the gifts of the spirit, prophesying, performing miracles, experiencing visions of angels, and being bathed in heavenly light.
There are three aspects of Columba’s life and faith which speak particularly to us today 1500 years on from his birth: political engagement, penitence and pilgrimage.
Columba never lost the political interests and contacts which came from his high birth in one of the leading Irish clans. He put the force of the church behind the relatively new political institution of monarchy which he saw as bringing stability and the rule of law to Celtic society in place of the anarchy created by tribal warlords. He established close relations with several kings and saw his role as a leading churchman as that of speaking truth to power, championing the principles of peace and justice in a way that anticipated the actions of George MacLeod, who founded the modern Iona Community in the 1930s. Christians who continue to campaign for those principles and take an active role in lobbying and political engagement today are very much following Columba’s example.
But as well as being a politician, he was also a penitent. He had a deep sense of humility and of his own vulnerability, describing himself in one of his prayers as ‘a little man, trembling and most wretched, rowing through the infinite storm of this age’. Practising his own severe penitential disciplines, he dispensed the medicine of penance to the many people who came to see him for pastoral counselling. He calls us to penitence, to humility and to an acknowledgement of our own vulnerability.
It is perhaps as a pilgrim that Columba speaks most clearly to us today. According to Adamnan, he left Ireland on the journey that was eventually to take him eventually to Iona seeking simply ‘to be a pilgrim for Christ’. For him, as for his contemporaries, pilgrimage was not a matter of going to some holy place to gain a spiritual buzz, but rather of living out a perpetual exile from the comforts and distractions of home, following Jesus, the Son of Man who had nowhere to lay his head.
As interest in pilgrimage grows, not just in physical terms but in the way people increasingly describe their own faith as a journey, Columba has much to offer us in modelling the pilgrim life. In the words of one of the poems attributed to him:
Alone with none but thee, my God,
I journey on my way:
What need I fear when thou art near,
O King of night and day?
More safe am I within thy hand
Than if a host should round me stand.
Ian Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews. His new book Columba: Politician, Penitent and Pilgrim is published by Wild Goose Publications in a special 1500th anniversary edition and is available from bookshops and on-line at a cost of £10.