Stories of Saints and Martyrs - Jetta S. Wolff

St. Columba

June 9; A.D. 597

St. Columba was an Irishman—Irish by birth, descent, and education. His native place was Gartan, a wild part of Donegal, where the great clan to which he belonged still exists. His family was of high rank, closely related to one of the Irish royal families of those days. You will not forget his name when I tell you that it means a dove. It is a Latin name, and from it has come the French word for a dove, columbe.

Christianity had already been taken to Ireland; there had been Roman Priests, teachers, and scholars in the island for two or three hundred years before St. Columba's birth, so it is not strange to find many of the educated Irish bearing Roman names.

Columba was a man of great learning. From boyhood he had loved work, and at the large college or school for monks at Clonard where he was brought up, he studied under great men, and worked very hard. Very hard he worked all his life long—first as a young student, then as a Priest, and later as a Bishop. St. Columba was always busy. Studying, teaching, preaching, or writing, his was an activity that never flagged.

He was one of the greatest scribes or writers of the day. Printing had not yet been invented, many of the "books" of those early times, and indeed of much later ones, were rolls of parchment, a very strong kind of paper made from the skins of sheep and goats. Upon this men copied out by hand the holy Gospels, the books of prayer, the writings of the Fathers, besides works of history, medicine, science, and whatever else they had of literature in those days.

This copying was one of the chief occupations of every monastery, and not only time but a great deal of care was given to such work, especially to all the sacred writings. They were copied out in beautiful coloured letters, and were done so well that even to this day the colours remain bright and unfaded. You may see many of these old "books "in our great libraries, and among the belongings of our old cathedrals and churches.

One day a friend lent St. Columba a fine manuscript of the Psalms, which he cared for so much that he thought he would make a copy for himself just like it. But when the friend saw this copy made by St. Columba, he said that as it was written from his book it must belong to him. This seemed to St. Columba very unjust, and he refused to give up what he had written out. Then the friend was very angry, and had the matter tried before the king of the county. It seems very strange to us, but the king said St. Columba was in the wrong, and that the copy he had written belonged by right to the owner of the manuscript he had made it from.

It was now Columba's turn to be angry. He called all his friends to him, and there was a great fight between the counties of Ulster, where lived Columba, and Meath, the land of the king who had judged against him. The party of Columba won, and many of the Meathmen were slain.

But to be thus the cause of a great fight was a terrible sin in a man who was a Priest of GOD, and when it was over Columba himself was the first to see how wrong he had been, and to submit to punishment. He was ordered to leave his own land, his home, and all that he loved, and to go to the country of the Picts—Pictland, as Scotland was then termed—there to spend his life in trying to turn the people to Christianity.

So he sailed away with twelve monks, and landed first at a small island. He set himself to explore the land, and climbed to the top of one of the hills. From this point he saw, far, far away, the cliffs of his own country. Tears must have filled his eyes at that sight, for he had been ordered never to look on Ireland again. And as he gazed now he thought, "No; it cannot be right for me to stay here, where I may look any day upon my beloved land. I must sail farther."

He took to his boat again, and went on till he came to Iona, from which no trace of Erin could be seen.

Here he worked with vigour for many years. He first set himself to learn the language of the Picts. He had with him two Priests who were Picts by birth, and with them he studied till he was quite able to speak and teach the people in their own tongue. There was a prince reigning in the country named Brude; he was very strong and powerful. Columba thought how great a thing it would be for the land and the people, if the king could be won to CHRIST. It was a bold act for the poor stranger Christian Priest to go to the palace of the great prince, but Columba did not hesitate. He went to Brude, and soon both the king and many of the great lords of his court received the Sacrament of Baptism.

The Druids tried hard to upset his work; many were the trials and troubles he was called on to endure, but he struggled on valiantly through them all, and in the end he gained great power in the land. Everywhere he founded monasteries and churches.

Then after many years he went back to his beloved Ireland, but not for his own pleasure. A decree had been sent out by the Parliament of the country—in those days only an assembly of great chiefs—that the bards must be banished from the land. These bards were minstrels or poets who went about from one great castle to another, singing and reciting their poems. The country was in a disturbed state. Instead of one king over the whole land, there were a number of petty rulers in the different parts of the island, and it was feared the bards, by singing first in honour of one, then of another of these wild chiefs, helped to stir up strife and discontent among their people. But when St. Columba heard of this decree it seemed to him to be very unjust, and he at once went before the assembly of chiefs and so well urged the cause of the poor minstrels that the law against them was put aside, and they were allowed to remain in their land. The bards were very grateful to the saint, and the chief among them, the poet laureate of the island, wrote a poem in his honour.

He stayed some time in Ireland, but when he felt old age upon him he went back to Iona, there to pass his last days. After four years the end came. It was Saturday morning. The old saint rose as usual, and went out into the fields to see the monks at their labour, and to bless them in their work. Then he visited the barn, where was stored the grain and hay. All was in order, there was provender enough to last till the next harvest time. He turned homewards. When about half way he met the old horse which for years past had day by day carried the milk from the dairy to the monastery. The animal came up and laid his head on the master's shoulder, as if to take leave. There was a sad look in the eyes of the aged beast, as if he knew the parting was at hand.

The monks who were with him would have driven away the animal, but St. Columba forbade them. "The horse loves me," he said, "leave him alone, leave him with me; let the poor beast weep for my departure; the Creator has revealed to this poor beast what is hidden from man," and he spread out his hands and blessed the dumb animal.

He went on home, and, entering his cell, sat down to work at a copy of the psalms. When he came to Psalm xxxiv. II, he laid aside his pen. "I must stop here," he said, "Bathene will finish the rest."

He then sent a last message to his disciples and followers, begging them to live always in peace and charity. This was the 9th of June, 597.

When the midnight bell rang for the Matins of Sunday, St. Columba rose from His couch, and ran to church before the other monks. Hastily the attendants followed him. They found him lying before the altar. He opened his eyes, and turned them upon his brethren, with a look of serene and holy joy. He raised his right hand to bless; then he passed away, his face calm and sweet like one who in his sleep had seen a vision of heaven.