ST. COLUMBA, (521-597)
from
A History of Preaching
by
F. R. Webber

St. Columba, or Columkille, founder of the Church of the Gaidheals, and of the community on the Isle of Hy, or Iona, was of royal lineage. His father was great-grandson of Niall, high-king of Ireland. He was born in 521 A.D. at Gartan in Donegal, and received a thorough education. Not only was he familiar with two languages in addition to his own, but he was a skilled copyist, and made with his own hand a number of copies of the Scriptures. He studied with St. Finbar, or Finnian, at Maghbile, and in due time was ordained deacon, then presbyter. He attended St. Mobhi's school near Dublin, but when the school was closed because of the plague, he returned to his own Clan Conaill. Mobhi, his teacher, died of the plague; Columba remained with his clan.

At the age of 24 Columba became chaplain to Prince Aedh, living at Derry for almost 17 years. He did not evangelize Ireland at this time, as certain historians declare, for at this stage of his life his interests had been diverted to political matters rather than religion. However, he never lost his interest in the Scriptures, and like Finbar, one of his early teachers, he loved beautiful manuscripts. Finbar was the proud owner of a very famous manuscript that included the Gospels and the Psalms. Columba asked to be allowed to make a copy of it, but for some reason Finbar hesitated. During Finbar's absence, Columba made a copy of it. When Finbar learned of this, he demanded that Columba surrender the copy, and when Columba refused, Finbar appealed to King Diarmait, who issued an order that has since become a proverb: Le gach bo a boineau, agus le gach leabhar a leabhran, that is, "as the calf goes with the cow, so must the copy go with the book."

This decision irritated Columba, but he surrendered the manuscript. Shortly afterward a fugitive fled to a church for sanctuary, but the king violated the rights of sanctuary, ordered the fugitive taken and executed. Columba's fiery temper was aroused, and he went among the people protesting against this outrage. His stormy eloquence caused an uprising, and the battle of Cul-Dreimhne (Cool-drevny) was fought with great loss of life. This led to Columba's excommunication. His friend St. Molaise interceded for him and the penalty was modified, but at Molaise's advice Columba went into voluntary exile, promising "never to see Ireland again."

With the inevitable twelve companions so typical of Celtic accounts, Columba made his way, in 563 A.D., to the Isle of Hy, now called Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, and just out of sight of Ireland. The island is but a mile wide by three and one-half miles in length. There they built a church and a guest house, and huts for themselves. This little cluster of wattled huts, with their thatched roofs, was the beginning of a great missionary training center. The story of its founding and of its later history is familiar to all, and most of the older historians go so far as to say that Iona was the fountain-head of all northern Christian missionary activity. Important as was St. Columba's work, yet the work of his community at Iona has been exaggerated. Columba was a Gaidheal, not a Pict, and in later days the Gaidheals sought to exalt themselves in the eyes of their rivals, the missionaries from Rome. They rewrote historical documents and made it appear that St. Ninian and the Pictish Church were insignificant. They described the Church of the Gaidheals in such a way as to make it appear that it was they who had Christianized Northern Europe. In later days, when Rome absorbed the work of the Celtic Church, her historians accepted the history as rewritten by the Gaidheals, and to it the legend-makers of Rome added embellishments of their own. In modern times Dr. Skene, the historian, followed this garbled history, describing Iona as the mother church of the North, and gave Columba credit for the work actually done by St. Ninian, St. Moluag, St. Donnan, St. Maolrubha and many others.

This absurd history was taken in utmost seriousness by the editors of standard encyclopaedias and authors of reputable Church histories. In the year 1885, Dr. Alexander MacBain read a memorable paper before the Gaelic Society of Inverness. He declared that Columba had "swallowed up into his own fame all the work of his predecessors, companions and contemporaries, and deprived generations of pioneers and missionaries of their just fame." This led other men to conduct historical research, striving to separate the truth from later distortions of fact, and to distinguish between true history and mere legend. Years of laborious study, by such men as Mr. Archibald B. Scott, Dr. W. Douglas Simpson, Dr. Alexander R. MacEwen and others, brought facts to light that have proved revolutionary. Dr. MacEwen died in 1916 when the work was in its early stages, but Scott, Simpson and others have carried it on, and a number of highly significant books have appeared in succession. Dr. MacEwen was a trained historian of great learning, Dr. Simpson a recognized authority on the ancient stone monuments that still exist in profusion in all lands where the Celtic tribes dwelt, while Mr. Scott's wide knowledge of the ancient Celtic tribes and their languages, proved of highest value.

It is unfair to St. Columba to lessen in the least the importance of his work, for his school at Iona trained many missionaries and sent them among the Dalriadic Scots who had come from Ireland to the borders of Pictland in what is now Scotland. It is equally unjust to St. Ninian and the Pictish Church to distort history and make it appear that Columba was the great Apostle to the North. Columba was a great missionary and a preacher of rare power, but he could not have preached to the Picts. Their language was so different from that of the Gaidheals that even Bede tells us that upon two occasions when Columba conversed with the Picts, he was compelled to use an interpreter. Hostility existed between the Picts and the Gaidheals. Not only was it tribal rivalry, but the Picts had their own Church, and they were a very clannish people. The Pictish Church antedated that of Columba by a century and a half, and they resented any effort of the Gaidheals to attempt missionary work in Pictland of Alba, or Scotland. Adamnan, the early historian, knows of no missions of the Gaidheals in northern Pictland. It is evident, as Dr. Simpson shows, that conditions forced Columba to work among his own countrymen, the Dalriadic Scots from Ireland, who had invaded the lower borders of northern Pictland. There was either open hostility, or else a complete absence of co-operation between the older Pictish Church and the later Church of the Gaidheals, founded by Columba.

Columba was a man of great influence among his own people. Ancient writers declare, perhaps with some exaggeration, that his voice was so powerful that his preaching could be heard for a mile. This sounds absurd, yet the fact must not be overlooked that within living memory there was such a man in Wales. Owen Thomas, (1812-1891), a famous preacher in his day, preached in the open air at Bangor to enormous congregations. His sermons could be heard distinctly on a clear evening by people who assembled in Angelsey, across the Menai Strait.

An exceptional preacher himself, St. Columba trained his most promising pupils to preach, imparting to them some of his own great zeal, and sending them out among the Dalriadic Scots, and later to people living in much more distant places. Adamnan wrote a life of Columba but 80 years after the great missionary's death. It was based upon an earlier biography written by Cumen the Fair. In the year 1845, a German scholar, Dr. Ferdinand Keller, discovered Dorbene's copy of this ancient biography of St. Columba, in a library at Schaffhausen, and it has been published. From all accounts Columba and his followers were preachers of simple evangelical truth. They had their copies at least of the Gospels and the Psalms, and one important part of the work at Iona was making exact and beautiful copies of these. Columba himself was a tireless copyist, and some of his ardent admirers declare that he made 800 manuscripts of the Gospels and the Psalms with his own hand. Columba laid stress upon music, and he prepared a hymnal for his followers. His biographers describe him as an unusually fine singer. His voice was of great power and compass, yet capable of much sweetness and restraint when he united with his companions in their morning and evening hymns of praise.

The death of Columba is familiar to every school boy. On the last day of his life he paused to stroke an old white horse that belonged to his community at Iona, remarking to a companion, "The old horse seems to realize that I shall not be here much longer, and in this realization it is wiser than most men." That night Columba went over to the church and it was there that the attack came that proved to be his last. After his death his followers found upon his writing table a copy of the Psalter which he was writing, and the last verse that he penned was: "They that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing."


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