Columba the Saint
In many ways Columba isn't really what I think of as a typical saint - he was a large, loud, active, energetic, impetuous man, he was a warrior, good at strategy, a politician, a great organiser and administrator - but he was also very close to the spiritual, he was a healer, he had a real love of nature and creation, he wrote poems and songs and loved books - and so he was a man of many different qualities and contradictions. He is forever associated with Iona - a tiny island off the west coast of Scotland - and is credited with bringing Christianity to Scotland - yet he lived in Ireland until his 40s. So what is his story?
He was born in what is now County Donegal in the north of Ireland in the sixth century (AD 521) into a wealthy royal family. It is said that Columba might even have become king but instead he entered a monastery when he was a young man. He was given the name Colum (meaning "the dove"). He became a priest at a monastery founded by St Finian, and after that he spent many years in his home region establishing literally hundreds of churches and monasteries.
So how did he come to Scotland? The story is that, during a visit to see St Finian, Columba secretly copied a beautifully inscribed book of Psalms that Finian had brought back from Rome, and thus devalued the original book. Columba refused to give back the copy and St Finian challenged him in court. The king delivered a verdict in favour of St Finian ("To every cow belongs her calf; to every book belongs its copy"). Columba however still refused to give back his copy of the book and a clan war broke out between the king's followers and Columba's supporters. Many people died in the fighting, and Columba was very ashamed. He decided to make restitution by bringing to Christ, as many people in another land as had lost their life in his own land in the war. He had chosen the way of "white martyrdom" - exiling himself from his homeland as a penance.
So, along with 12 monks, he sailed east and arrived at the island of Iona. The tradition of white martyrdom meant that he had to go far enough away in his exile so that he could no longer see his homeland and Iona was the first place they came across where they couldn't see Ireland, even from the highest point in Iona. He therefore settled in Iona and founded a monastery there. This was AD 563 and Columba was 42.
The monastery on Iona was fairly typical of the time in many ways - the monks lived in separate cells and spent many hours in worship and contemplation, and in producing beautiful copies of the Gospels, and they worked hard on the land to support themselves and in providing hospitality to visitors. Columba was quite strict with his monks and he hated injustice, but he also comes across as caring for his brothers. Iona became the largest Christian centre in the north of Britain, with thousands of monks. But it wasn't just about people coming to the island. This was combined with a huge amount of missionary work. Much of the highlands of Scotland were evangelised from Iona - Columba was a great sailor and he was able to sail to many of the Scottish islands as well as going far inland. He was good at politics and strategy and used his royal connections he was able to influence the life of a large part of Scotland. It is said for example that he raised from the dead a child of one of the Pictish kings in Inverness, who was then converted to Christianity and encouraged his subjects also to convert. (It's even written that Columba came across the Loch Ness Monster on his travels and that the monster obeyed him!)
There was another side to him too. Columba wrote many poems and songs as well as being a man of action, and he used to be heard singing as he travelled around. He performed miracles and healings (like the one I've mentioned), and he also made a number of prophesies, which were amazingly accurate. One of the best known prophesies was one he made when he knew he was about to die. In 597, at the age of 76, he climbed the hill overlooking the monastery in Iona, blessed the monks, and said
"In Iona of my heart, Iona of my love, Instead of monks' voices shall be lowing of cattle, But ere the world come to an end Iona shall be as it was"
Iona continued to be an important Christian centre after Columba's death, and there was a Benedictine monastery and convent founded there in the middle ages. However, the monasteries and convent on the island were closed by the Scottish reformers in the 1560s, they fell into ruin and the island returned to a grazing place in accordance with Columba's prophesy. The island wasn't greatly visited until the restoration of Iona Abbey, and the founding of the Iona Community in the 1930s by George Macleod which continues to grow and inspire Christians today from throughout the world. Again, just as Columba predicted.
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