Holy Man, Holy Place

Commemoration of Columba, Abbot and Missionary

Psalm 97:1-2,7-12

Isaiah 61:1-3

1 Corinthians 3:11-23

Luke 10:17-20

These, O my children, are the last words I address to you – that you be at peace, and have unfeigned charity amongst yourselves, and if you follow the example of the Holy Fathers, God the Comforter of the good will be your helper, and I abiding with him will intercede for you, and he will not only give sufficient to supply the wants of the present life, but will also bestow on you the good and external rewards which are laid up for those who keep his commandments. — last words attributed to St. Columba.

Ask just about anybody to name an Irish saint, you’d probably get close to 100% naming St. Patrick. There would be many who would also name St. Brigid, but only some would think of St. Columba. Oddly enough, Patrick was born in Britain, not Ireland, but he spent his missionary life in Ireland had has become their patron saint. Brigid was Irish and stayed there and is nearly as beloved as Patrick, but Columba was born in Ireland and, after working there and establishing two monasteries, ended up in Scotland where he converted the Picts and Scots, and founded one of the most famous monasteries of the period, Iona. Iona is still a great pilgrimage site, revered as one of the world’s “thin places” where heaven and earth are felt to be separated only by a thin veil rather than a concealing one, and where the nickname “Holy Isle” seems to be a common description as much as an identifying title.

His last words seem to be a summation of good advice not just for his monks but for those who read them centuries later. Instructions to live in peace and charity, follow the example of holy people, trust in God to guide and believe that their beloved Columba himself would intercede with God on their behalf was not only a statement of utter faith but a concern for their future wellbeing, a condensation of the gospel message and an instruction in living a holy life. It’s the kind of thing that strikes me as very sagacious advice even in these modern and much less monastic-minded times.

There must have been something about Columba that strangers and friends alike would recognize as a touch of the holy about him. I once met a man, a Russian Orthodox priest, who struck me as such. He spoke no English and I no Russian, yet I, blind to auras and that sort of thing, was almost dazzled by the sense of God in this man. It was as if I could see the hand of God resting on his head at every moment. Perhaps for the Irish, the Scots and the Picts, Columba had that same sort of impact.

There must be something, too, about the Holy Isle of Iona that people can sense a more immediate and tangible presence of God. Perhaps it was the prayers of Columba and his monks, followed by those of all the pilgrims who have visited since that time. Perhaps it is the remembrance of the creativity and dedication that produced such as sacred treasure as the Book of Kells. And maybe, just maybe, it’s because God has a more-than-usual fondness for the place.

Columba’s challenges to his monks probably weren’t easy to follow, but then, the monks were more accustomed to attuning themselves to many of them than we are today in the material world. Still, there is a roadmap there for us to follow: live in peace and charity, follow the examples of the holy who lived among us, trust God to be a comforter and helper, and follow the commandments.

It probably wouldn’t hurt either to remember that Columba promised to be an intercessor, a sort of ecclesiastical and celestial amicus curiae before God on our behalf. One can never have too many of those.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter

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