June 9, 2020

Saint Columba of Iona

By Rev. Alban Butler (1710-1773)

(Lives of the Saints)

St. Columba, commonly pronounced Colme, was one of the greatest patriarchs of the monastic Order in Ireland, and the apostle of the Picts. To distinguish him from other saints of the same name, he was surnamed Columkille, from the great number of monastic cells, called by the Irish Killes, of which he was the founder. He was of most noble extraction from Neil, and was born at Gartan, in the county of Tyrconnel, in 521. He learned from his childhood that there is nothing great, nothing worth our esteem or pursuit, which does not advance the divine love in our souls, to which he totally devoted himself with an entire disengagement of his heart from the world, and in perfect purity of mind and body. He learned the divine scriptures and the lessons of an ascetic life under the holy bishop St. Finian, in his great school of Cluain-iraird. Being advanced to the Order of priesthood in 546, he began to give admirable lessons of piety and sacred learning, and in a short time formed many disciples. He founded, about the year 550, the great monastery of Dair-Magh, now called Durrogh, which original name signifies Field of Oaks, and besides many smaller, those of Doire or Derry in Ulster, and of Sord or Swords, about six miles from Dublin. St. Columba composed a rule which, as Usher, Tanner, and Sir James Ware inform us, is still extant in the old Irish. This rule he settled in the hundred monasteries which he founded in Ireland and Scotland. It was chiefly borrowed from the ancient oriental monastic institutes, as the inquisitive Sir Roger Twisden observes, of all the old British and Irish monastic Orders.

King Dermot or Dermitius, being offended at the zeal of St. Columba in reproving public vices, the holy abbot left his native country, and passed into North-Britain, now called Scotland. He took along with him twelve disciples, and arrived there, according to Bede, in the year of Christ 565, the ninth of the reign of Bridius, the son of Meilochon, the most powerful king of the Picts; which nation the saint converted from idolatry to the faith of Christ by his preaching, virtues, and miracles. But this we are to understand only of the northern Picts and the Highlanders, separated from the others by Mount Grampus, the highest part of which is called Drum-Albin; for Bede tells us, in the same place that the southern Picts had received the faith long before by the preaching of St. Ninyas, the first bishop of Whitherne in Galloway; whose life see September 16th.

The Picts having embraced the faith, gave St. Columba the little island of Hy or Iona, called from him Y-colm-kille, twelve miles from the land, in which he built the great monastery which was for several ages the chief seminary of North-Britain, and continued long the burying place of the kings of Scotland, with the bodies of innumerable saints, which rested in that place. Out of this nursery St. Columba founded several other monasteries in Scotland. In the same school were educated the holy bishops Aidan, Finian, and Colman, who converted to the faith the English Northumbers. This great monastery several ages afterwards embraced the rule of St. Bennet.

St. Columba’s manner of living was always most austere. He lay on the bare floor with a stone for his pillow, and never interrupted his fast. Yet his devotion was neither morose nor severe. His countenance always appeared wonderfully cheerful, and bespoke to all that beheld him the constant interior serenity of his holy soul, and the unspeakable joy with which it overflowed from the presence of the Holy Ghost. Such was his fervour, that in whatever he did, he seemed to exceed the strength of man; and as much as in him lay he strove to suffer no moment of his precious time to pass without employing it for the honour of God, principally either in praying, reading, writing, or preaching. His incomparable mildness and charity towards all men, and on all occasions, won the hearts of all who conversed with him; and his virtues, miracles, and extraordinary gift of prophecy, commanded the veneration of all ranks of men. He was of such authority, that neither king nor people did anything without his consent. When King Aedhan or Aidanus succeeded to his cousin Conall in the throne of British Scotland in 574, he received the royal insignia from St. Columba. Four years before he died, St. Columba was favoured with a vision of angels which left him in many tears, because he learned from those heavenly messengers that God, moved by the prayers of the British and Scottish churches, would prolong his exile on earth yet four years. Having continued his labours in Scotland thirty-four years, he clearly and openly foretold his death, and on Saturday the 9th of June said to his disciple Diermit: “This day is called the Sabbath, that is, the day of rest, and such will it truly be to me; for it will put an end to my labours.” He was the first in the church at Matins at midnight; but knelt before the altar, received the viaticum, and having given his blessing to his spiritual children, sweetly slept in the Lord in the year 597, the seventy-seventh of his age. His body was buried in this island, but some ages after removed to Down in Ulster, and laid in one vault with the remains of St. Patrick and St. Brigit. The great monastery of Durrogh, in King’s County, afterwards embraced the rule of the Canons Regular, as did also the houses founded by St. Brendan, St. Comgal, etc. He was honoured both in Ireland and Scotland, among the principal patrons of those countries, and is commemorated in the Roman Martyrology on the 9th of June, but in some calendars on the 7th, which seems to have been the day of his death.