September 10, 2019

Saint Finnian of Movilla (+ 589)

St. Finnian of Movilla (Feast Day - September 10)

Saint Finnian was one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. He apparently studied under Colman of Dromore and Mochaoi of Nendrum, and subsequently at Candida Casa (Whithorn), after which he proceeded to Rome to complete his studies. Legend has it that whilst at Candida Casa, he played a prank (nature unknown) on Princess Drustice, the daughter of a Pictish king, who was in the ladies' section of the monastery, and perhaps had he not been so well connected, his clerical career could have been in ruins. However after spending seven years in Rome, he was ordained a priest, and returned to Ireland with a copy of Saint Jerome's Vulgate. He returned to found a monastery of his own and, at a time when books were rare, this text brought honor and prestige to the establishment.

Finnian founded his new monastery (Movilla Abbey) in 540, at Maigh Bhile (Movilla) — the location of the plain of the ancient tree, a sacred place, venerated in pagan times, about a mile from the northern shore of Strangford Lough (the 15th Century ruins of Movilla Abbey can still be seen in Newtownards). He founded a famous school of Druim Fionn at about this time. Finnian also wrote a rule for his monks, as well as a penitential code.

Finnian was sponsored in building and maintaining his monastery by the king of the Dál Fiatach. It became a monastic community of great significance in Ulster and Ireland as a centre of Celtic Christian worship, learning, mission, and also commerce. Finnian's association with Movilla was memorialised in the Book of Armagh as "vir vitae venerabilis qui jacet in miraculis multis in sua civitate Maghbile" (A man of venerable life who reposes in many miracles in his city of Movilla). At the time of Finnian's death in 579, Movilla was already recognized as a great monastic foundation. The Abbey went through ups and downs over the centuries, but survived until the Dissolution of the Monasteries by the Reformers in 1542.

Finnian's most distinguished pupil at Movilla was Saint Columba. Tradition has it that Columba's surreptitious copying of a psalter led eventually to his exile on Iona. What remains of the copy is housed in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. The casket that contained it is now in the National Museum of Ireland. It is known as the Cathach of Saint Columba, Cathach, or Battler, and was customarily carried by the O'Donnells in battle. The inner case was made by Cathbar O'Donnell in 1084, but the outer is fourteenth century work.

Adomnan of Iona claimed that Columba served as a deacon under Finnian, whom Adomnan claimed to be a bishop. Adomnan, in his biography of Columba, recorded a story that claimed Columba performed the miracle of turning water into wine. Finnian was performing liturgy on one occasion, but they had run out of wine. Columba then proceeded to a well and drew water. He called on Christ's name and blessed the water he drew from the well, whereupon the water transformed into wine and he brought the wine to the liturgy. This was the first miracle that Columba did in his life, according to Adomnan.