In the chapel of the head house of the Columban missionary Society in Navan, Co Meath there is a little statue of their patron. A rather plain statue, unlike the lovely wooden sculpture in Knock and far removed from the striking image on him in Luxeuil, in France where he built a monastery. A little bird perches on his left shoulder, a dove perhaps, hinting at his name, Colum Ban, white dove. But any man less dove-like would be hard to find. The centre of controversy in his own time, Columban, or Columbanus as he is often called, was far more an eagle than a dove.
Of course the most likely meaning is that the bird represents the Holy Spirit, inspiring this very austere and learned monk. And as if to confirm this he holds a book in his hand, undoubtedly the Sacred Scriptures. On the cover is written, in gold on blue, what may have been his motto and is in fact the motto of the Columban Sisters today: ‘Christi simus non nostri’. Let us be Christ’s and not our own.
November 23rd was his feastday. Columban was born in the province of Leinster, in about the year 543 and died in Bobbio in the north of Italy in 615. This year, 2015, we will be commemorating the one thousand four hundredth anniversary of this remarkable man. Centuries after his death this great missionary is remembered not only here but even more so in Europe where he preached the gospel and founded monasteries in France, Austria, Switzerland and Italy.
When her lovely teenager told her he must be off, must leave home to study, Columban’s mother was distraught. She should have been prepared. After all when he was a babe in her womb she had a vivid dream of a dazzling sun rising in her bosom to fill the world with its light. Jonas, his earliest biographer, gives us a picture of Columban’s weeping mother throwing herself across the doorstep in a futile attempt to coerce her son to stay. But he resolutely stepped over her. It may be that the shrewd Jonas was showing that Columban, like John the Baptist, was a man with a mission and that all ties, even the tender ties of family, had to be broken.
In any case he went north to study in the monastic school in Cleenish island in Co Fermanagh before moving on to the great monastery in Bangor on Belfast Lough. There he became a monk and later was ordained a priest. Columban was a brilliant student and despite – or maybe because of – the severity of the monastic Rule, he honed his talents. As well as the scriptures, he studied literature and grammar, wrote exquisite Latin and composed poems. He has been called Ireland’s first man of letters, and, in the fullest sense of the word, Ireland’s first European. Pope Benedict xvi called him a father of Christian Europe.
His Abbott, Congall, did not want him to leave the monastery in Bangor but, in 591, Columban, with twelve companions, including his friend, Gaul, set off into the unknown. “It was my wish,” he wrote later, “to visit the pagan peoples and to have the gospel preached to them by us.” So, like Abraham, he set out without a map, without a plan, with no back-up but with unshakable trust in God.
The little band crossed the sea in a small boat and eventually settled in the beautiful Vosges mountains where they built the famous monasteries of Annegray, Luxeuil and Fontaine. The local Franks were drawn by the austere life of the Irish monks who lived by the strict Rule of Bangor, marked by hours of prayer and fasting. Columban drew up his own Rule, equally severe, but it seemed to attract rather than deter many young men to join his flourishing community. His vision inspired the founding of many monasteries in Europe.
A significant contribution he and his monks made was the introduction of the Irish system of private confession. Although the penances seem harsh to us, they were lenient in comparison to the severe punishments that they replaced. They opened people to the mercy of God, to his forgiveness. Columban’s invitation to, “Let Christ paint his image in you,” was heard by those who hungered for this compassion. Through him many were healed and found peace in their lives.
One could hardly be steeped in the psalms as Columban and his monks were, without experiencing over and again with radical amazement the beauty of creation. To paraphrase Ps 8, “When I look at the heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and the stars that you have made… the beasts, birds of the air…fish of the sea – how great you are!”
Columban, mystic, monk and missionary was attuned to these harmonies. “If you wish to know the Creator, understand creation,” he said in one of his sermons. His reverence and love of creation were the outpouring of a heart deeply rooted in Christ, “through whom,” as we read in St John’s gospel, “all things were made.” He spent long periods in fasting and contemplation in secluded places near his monasteries. Here a gentler side of this strong, vigorous man was seen as he roamed the woods and the little animals and birds of the forests played at his feet. One story tells of him asking a bear to leave his cave as he needed it to be his hermitage. And, of course, the wild beast meekly obeyed!
“Let us turn to him,” he urged, “since the Triune God is present in each one of us.” Touching into the gentleness and the beauty of the Creator in these times of silence made Columban one of the greatest missionaries of his time.
Columban was a man who always kept his eye on the ball. “Here is the truth of the gospel,” he wrote, “Christ’s true disciples follow him with a cross.” It was this profound faith in the cross of Christ that strengthened him in the many conflicts and controversies in which he got embroiled.
His deep respect for the Papacy did not prevent him from disputing the question of the date of Easter where the Celtic and Roman practice differed. Nor was he slow in urging the Pope to be vigilant and take action against the Arian heresy of his time. His confrontation with the local bishops, whom he castigated for the laxity of clergy and laity, along with his fearless denunciation of the king and his court alienated many of his listeners. Columban preached the gospel without compromise, urging people to examine their lives and be converted. For some, it was just too much.
After over 20 years of strenuous missionary work in Burgundy a broken-hearted Columban and his Irish monks were expelled from Luxeuil. They were taken to Nantes but a storm prevented their sailing to Ireland. The monks made their escape up the Rhine to Bergenz on Lake Constance and then this elderly but dynamic missionary walked over the Alps to Milan before finally reaching Bobbio where he made his last foundation. He died in 615; his body lies in the crypt of the monastery.
He said, “Since we are merely travellers and pilgrims in this world, let’s think about the end of the road, because at the end of the road is our home.”