This is the second time in less than twelve months that I have been asked to offer a homily before such an illustrious congregation. In these last few days, as my nervousness around this was increasing, I thought – if St Columban could stand before kings, bishops and popes, surely I can do it before Columban Sisters, Fathers, co-workers AND the parish priest of Myshall. But don’t worry I am not going to follow Columban’s example and rebuke you for your lack of watchfulness or spiritual leadership.
It is also a relief that you are all so familiar with the life and times of our patron that I do not need to go into detail about the history of his great deeds or make sure that you can distinguish between our St Columban (or Columbanus) and St Columba (or Columkille).
According to Cardinal Tomas O’Fiach, St. Columban ‘came to be known as Ireland’s first European poet, scholar, Abbot, preacher and co-founder of western monasticism’, not to mention ‘the associate of kings and correspondent of popes.’ As we all know, he was the founder of great monasteries in Europe in such places as Luxeuil, Annegray and Bobbio and he continues to be greatly revered on the Continent. We are in the midst of so many celebrations and activities such as today’s to mark the 1400th anniversary of his death that surely by the end of this year, he will also be well known in Ireland and in our mission countries where Columban Sisters, Fathers and lay missionaries are also celebrating him.
For we Columbans, our patron may be closest to us as a missionary, a pilgrim for Christ, since each one of us here today has heard that call and responded to it in different ways and in different eras. I am sure we have all smiled at or been horrified by the story of how Columban, as a youth stepped over his mother as she tried to prevent him leaving home. In today’s first reading, we heard of the reunion of Joseph and his elderly father and the joy that such an occasion caused. As missionaries, all of us know the experience of leaving home and family and the pain and sacrifice involved for those we leave behind. Our families most likely could not understand us and I am sure we were faced with many whys. But like Columban, we can resonate with the words of St Paul, “If we seemed out of our senses, it was for God. And this is because the love of Christ overwhelms us.
In the drama, recently performed in Bangor, Columbanus is heard to say, “Some monks there were who heard a call, then left the settled place to follow forest paths or the great shifting highway of the seas. So many never saw their native land again. Peregrinatio or pilgrimage – it is the name we gave for our compulsive wandering-off, when – touched by God – we went to find the people of the dark and bring them light.” This has been our experience too and the experience of so many Columbans down through the years. We may have set out to ‘find the people of the dark and bring them light’ but we soon discovered that they, in turn, filled the darkness in our lives with a bright light.
In this picture, we see Columban on the move, full of the restless energy and spirit of the missionary. Here he is, staff clasped firmly, his cloak flowing behind him and his arm stretched out in longing for what lies ahead. Each time I look at this image of Columban, I am reminded of Balaam in the Book of Numbers of which it was proclaimed,
‘The oracle of Balaam son of Beor,
the oracle of the man with far-seeing eyes,
the oracle of one who hears the word of God,
of one who knows the knowledge of the Most High.
He sees what Shaddai makes him see,
receives the divine answer, and his eyes are opened.’
For me, this is Columban of the far-seeing eyes, the man who yearned for something or Someone, always beyond, the committed believer who was totally convinced of the urgency to preach the Gospel message and who was so convincing, others wanted to join him. Can we see ourselves in this?
It was Columban’s early monastic training which enabled him to sustain and nurture this energy – through the constant round of prayer, manual labour, study and mortification, and through following the practice of some of the monks to withdraw from time to time from community life and go ‘into the desert’ to some nearby cave or forest.
Jonas, who wrote the famous ‘Life of St Columban’, tells us, “At one time he was living alone in that hollow rock, separated from the society of others and, as was his custom, dwelling in hidden places or more remotely in the wilderness.” Katherine Lack, author of ‘The Eagle and the Dove’, remarks, “At home he would have found an island. Here, he went up into the hills.”
As we look around us at the natural beauty here in Myshall, at the foot of Mount Leinster, where we believe Columban was born, we can understand how, when land in Bobbio was given to him, Cardinal Tomas O’Fiach said that this was “the sort of terrain after which the Irishman seemed to hanker – wild, well-watered, wooded and remote and where he was surely pleased to be moving once more from the affairs of kings and bishops to the solitude which he loved.”
And what of us? It has been said that the missionary is born in contemplation. Through such times alone with God, we listen to the word of God in scripture and nature and develop those far seeing eyes so that we can see what Shaddai makes us see, receive the divine answer and allow our eyes to be opened. Then, and only then, can we trust the words as proclaimed in the Gospel of Matthew today, “Do not worry about how to speak or what to say; what you are to say will be given to you when the time comes; because it is not you who will be speaking; the Spirit of your Father will be speaking in you.”
Where in our lives is the cave to which we can regularly and constantly return so that God can respond to St Columban’s and our heartfelt request – “I beseech you most loving Saviour, show yourself to us who seek you, so that knowing you we may love you as warmly in return – may love you alone, desire you alone, contemplate you alone day and night and keep you always in our thoughts.”
Then, strengthened by such times of solitude, we can each day respond to God’s call however it comes to us and grow more and more deeply into the motto which St Columban and all of us strive to live, “Let us be Christ’s and not our own.”
Sr. Ann Gray