Happy Birthday Saint Columba

An Excerpt from Supernatural by Keith Allan Shields – Purchase it here.

Today, is the 1500th anniversary of my favourite missionary/monk, Columba. Also known as Saint Columba and Columcille, he was a great hero of the Celtic Christian faith, an Irish Abbot, and missionary evangelist who trained at the Clonard monastic school and established the Durrow Abbey in Ireland before spending much of his life establishing churches, abbeys, and monasteries in Scotland. My wife and I were fortunate to visit the ruins of the Durrow Abbey in October of 2018.

Columba, who was born on December 7, 521, travelled to Kintyre Peninsula in Scotland in 563 with 12 companions (an intentional number) before settling at Iona and establishing a centre of literacy. He and his companions went on to found many more abbeys, chapels, monasteries, and churches all over Scotland. What is most fascinating about the work of Saint Columba is that, like Patrick, and according to his biographers, everywhere he went his work was accompanied by signs and wonders. Now of course, events that happened in the 6th century with accounts written years later are naturally hard to confirm and the writing style of authors who told the stories at that time were more concerned with confirming that the saint was a great leader than they were with historical accuracy. Still, if we look at how quickly the gospel spread among the ancient people that lived in Scotland at the time, it suggests that something unusual was happening. At the time, the people of Scotland consisted of the Picts, the Scots of Dál Riata, the Britons of Alt Clut, and the Anglian kingdom of Bernicia.[1] If we take the Picts as an example, we will readily see that these people were fierce and not easily swayed to a new way of life. Yet Columba and other Celtic missionaries evangelised these people and did so in a relatively short period of time.

The Pict people were so named due to their body paints which they wore into battle. In fact, they wore nothing else into battle. Their nakedness was a form of psychological warfare to intimidate their enemies. Furthermore, warriors who had decapitated an enemy in combat wore a torq (a stiff metal necklace) around their necks to indicate their warrior prowess to their enemies. As they went into battle, they screamed with great ferocity and contorted their faces to the extent that their enemies readily thought that they were demon possessed. These were the people to whom Columba went. He went without weapons or shields, to speak to them of the gospel of Jesus. Columba not only survived his interactions with these people, he and his companions were able to make a radical change in their culture in just a few years. What was behind this rapid transformation of culture?

One story, recounted in Adamnan’s Life of St. Columba, shows the boldness with which Columba entered into his mission and the confidence he had in God to protect him. Columba and his companions had come into a new region under the rule of the Pict king, Bridei (also sometimes written as Brude), who had a fortress at Fortriu. We are told that Bridei, full of pride and self-confidence, would not open the gates of his fortress to Columba’s group. Columba, seeing that the gate was not open to him, appealed to God to open it by making the sign of the cross on the door. Immediately the bolt was driven back with great force and the gate opened by itself. Columba and his companions entered the fortress and began to make their way to the king. King Bridei, hearing what had happened, was filled with fear and showed Columba great respect, allowing him to present the gospel in Bridei’s kingdom. What might this encounter have looked like if God had not intervened on behalf of Columba? How much does a simple miracle of this nature enhance the progress of the mission of God in this new territory for the gospel? If miracles like this were happening, it would certainly explain why these fierce warriors took notice of these strange missionaries in their midst.

Adamnan relates many more such supernatural events in the life of Columba. There are miracles in which people are rescued from storms and dangerous animals, poisoned water is made safe, and even an incident where a dead person is brought back to life. Stories such as these, although difficult to confirm, do make sense of the rapid spread of the gospel throughout Scotland. If there is some truth to the many miracles attributed to Saint Columba, then the gospel spread, at least in part, as a result of supernatural events.

Thomas Cahill, in his book How the Irish Saved Civilization, puts less emphasis upon the miraculous events in the life of Columcille but still sees the rapid spread of the Gospel in Scotland as the providence of God. He relates that while Columcille was in Iona, he:

“…began to dream of opening new monasteries. Among the rugged Scots and the scary Picts especially, Columcille’s reputation spread like wildfire. (There wasn’t after all, that much going on up that way.) He made one hundred fifty monks the cutoff number for the Iona community, and after they had exceeded that, twelve and one monks would set off to establish another foundation in a new setting. Fresh applicants kept arriving in droves. By the time of Columcille’s death in the last days of the sixth century, sixty monastic communities had been founded in his name along the jagged inlets and mountain heights of windswept Scotland.”[2]

Every one of these sixty monastic communities made it a point to study and copy the great written works of the church. “Wherever they went they brought their love of learning and their skills in bookmaking. In the bays and valleys of their exile, they reestablished literacy and breathed new life into the exhausted culture of Europe.”[3] As Rome and much of Europe burned or had been burned, and as the great libraries of the European world were destroyed by the Visgoths, Vandals, and other peoples, by God’s grace and by God’s supernatural, historical intervention, the Irish monks faithfully copied every parchment, manuscript, and letter they could find. In the great monastic community at Iona and in smaller communities like the Durrow Abbey, the monks worked to preserve the great documents of their faith and the intellectual parchments of learning. Ireland’s most famous manuscript, the beautiful Book of Kells is believed to have been stored at Durrow to protect it from destruction. In Cahill’s opinion, such protection actually saved civilization.

So today, we celebrate the life and work of Columba. We remember him fondly on this his 1500th birthday.[4]

[1] (Wikipedia 2018)

[2] Cahill. How The Irish Saved Civilization. 184, 185.

[3] Cahill, Thomas. How The Irish Saved Civilization. 196.

[4] This blog post is a retelling of a section of the book Supernatural, by Keith Allan Shields, Beacon Publishing Group, 2020. You can purchase the book here https://amzn.to/3lFWbk4

Dive in!

Join The Great Journey with KeithShields.ca subscribers, and see new posts as they happen.

We promise we’ll never spam.