Stories of Saints and Martyrs - Jetta S. Wolff

St. Columbanus

Nov. 21; A.D. 615.

St. columbanus was born in Leinster in the year A.D. 543. He was brought up on one of the islands of Lough Erne. Like St. Columba he was fond of study, and in order to go on with his reading he went, when already grown up, to a college at Bangor, where he spent some years. Then he was seized with a great wish to preach the Gospel. He had heard of all that St. Columba was doing in Scotland. Surely, he thought, he, too, might do something to spread abroad the faith of CHRIST. So he chose out a little band of friends, twelve in all, and crossed the sea to France, there to teach and preach.

France at this time was in a very bad state. It was not then one entire kingdom, as it became later; the larger provinces were under separate rulers, who were often at war with one another, and its kings, queens, and princes almost all lived evil lives. There was little order or sense of duty in any of the petty courts, no one seemed to think of any other rule of life than that of his own will.

St. Columbanus and his friends went on their way through France, taking every chance of preaching to the people as they journeyed. At last they came to the kingdom of Burgundy. There was a king here named Gontran, who was a better man than most of the other Frankish princes of the day, and he seemed glad to see St. Columbanus. He welcomed him at his court, and wished to give him great riches, and to make him stay always near him. But the Christian missionary did not wish for riches or the life of a court. He accepted gladly the old Roman castle which the king gave him to live in, and he made it his first monastery. He lived here a life of stern self-denial; his fare was dry bread, herbs, and wild fruit. He would allow himself no bodily comforts, and he spent his days in hard work. Soon the people of the country came in crowds to hear him preach; and as he became known, the great nobles sent their children to him to be taught.

He was doing a great work in the land where he had come to bring the good news of JESUS, and he made himself beloved on every side. Even the birds of the woods and forests around his home loved him, and would come at his call, to let the good monk pet them, and to eat out of his hand. It is said that one day while he was walking in the forest a band of wolves rushed out upon him. St. Columbanus did not try to run away. He stood quite still, and repeated three times over the words, "GOD is our help." The wolves, says the story, began to tear at his cloak; but when they saw the man before them stand so calm and fearless, looking down upon them with steady, unmoved gaze, they all turned away without doing him the least harm.

By-and by a wicked queen turned against St. Columbanus, because he told her plainly of her sins. He was taken and thrown into prison. After a time he was able to make his escape from this prison, and he fled to a monastery he had founded. He did not try to hide there, but went on with his work, fearless of what might happen to him. Soon the queen's soldiers traced him. They came upon him as he was chanting the service in the chapel of his monastery. He was taken and put on board a ship bound for Ireland. The bad queen thought now she was surely free from her foe—for as such she looked upon the Christian saint, who had been brave enough to tell her of her sins, and to try to show her how she might live a better life. She did not know that he was in reality her truest friend. "Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful."

The ship in which the soldiers had sailed away with St. Columbanus had a very bad passage. She was tossed about on the sands at the mouth of the river Loire. An idea came into the captain's head that the Irish monks he had on board had brought him ill-luck; he thought it must be due to their presence that his ship did not sail well, so he landed St. Columbanus and his friends on the shores of France, and there left them. They were now free to go wherever they liked; only they dared not again venture near the lands of the bad queen or of her son, who was now king, for fear they should once more be taken prisoners. They went to the court of a king named Clotaire. Clotaire was not a good man, but he was too wise to be angry when St. Columbanus rebuked him for his wrong-doing. He even said he would try and mend his ways, and lead a better life, but he never did.

Then St. Columbanus thought he would like to go to the lands which lay on the other side of the Alps—on the other side of that great mountain range which, as you know, separates France from Italy and Switzerland.

So in the long narrow boats which were used in those days for sailing upon lakes and rivers, St. Columbanus and his friends worked their way up the Rhine till they came to Lake Constance. There they stopped and founded a monastery, which they named St. Gall, after one of the chief monks of the party. You have, perhaps, heard of the Canton or division of Switzerland called St. Gall—it was so named after this early monastery.

The little band of Christian missionaries met with no few trials here. The country was full of pagans. St. Columbanus broke their images and burnt their temples; for it was no true worship, even after a pagan fashion, which the people were used to carry on. The temples were often scenes of riot and wickedness, and the images they bowed down to were vile and monstrous. The Irish missionary had a strong, brave spirit, and he could never overlook real sin. In return he and his monks were often driven from place to place, and left to go hungry, for no one was willing to give them food. But they were very brave. They built for themselves huts of wood, planted gardens, caught wild fowl in the fields, and fish in the lake. St. Columbanus made the nets, and St. Gall was very good at catching the fish. So they managed to get along without help from others.

But as time went on the people around became too cruel. They stole the poor saint's cows, and slew his monks. Also it had come about that the very land where he was now settled had fallen under the rule of the son of the wicked French queen who was his great enemy. So he was forced to leave Switzerland. He took one faithful friend, and they travelled across the Alps down into the plains of Northern Italy. He went to the court of Agilulf, King of the Lombards.

Agilulf was a good man, and he received the Christian monk with great respect. He gave him some land, and an old church at Bobbio, in a valley between Genoa and Milan.

The saint was now getting very old. But in spite of his age, he set to work with his own hands to help his men to restore the church, and add a monastery. This still stands—the old church at Bobbio—at which the hands of the brave and aged St. Columbanus worked, and where he afterwards for a time preached and taught. It serves even now as a parish church.

For his last days the old man sought out a quieter, lonelier spot. On the shore, just across the bay, there was a cavern in the rocks. He made it into a little chapel where, too feeble at last to keep up his wonderful activity, the faithful old saint would pass many hours in prayer and quiet thought. When he felt that his end was at hand he would not quit his retreat, and here, on the 21st of November, A.D. 615 his spirit passed away—

"His prayers and struggles o'er, his task all praise and joy."