Monday, November 4, 2013

St Columba of Iona - Seeking Answers to the Crisis: Otherworldly

‘Kirk assured them that as Sparta’s walls had been the breasts of her men, so it was at Piety Hill . . .’ (Dr Russell Kirk, The Sword of Imagination: Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995, p. 343).

God has granted to His world a great gift in St Columba of Iona (sometimes referred to as St Columcille).  This brief description of him relates only a fraction of his greatness:

One of the greatest Irish saints, St Columcille (which means ‘Dove of the Church’), was born of royal descent around 521 in Donegal, in the town now known as Glencolumcille (‘valley of Columcille’ in Gaelic). He later adopted the name of Columba. He lived first at Moville and then with the Leinster bard Gemman. Then he went to St Finian at the monastery in Clonard, where he was ordained. At the age of 25 he founded his own monastery of Daire Calgach on the site of the present-day Derry. Such was his love for God’s creation that he changed the original plan of his monastery so that no trees would have to be felled to build it. At Derry he devoted himself to a life of prayer, fasting, charity and growing food. He also travelled widely, preaching, teaching, healing and founding numerous churches.

According to Columcille’s biographer Adamnan, the saint simply decided to make a journey for Christ from Ireland into Britain. Thus it was that around the year 563 Columcille left Ireland with twelve disciples and settled on the Scottish island of Iona (Hebrew for ‘dove’), where he established his most famous monastery. Iona would be the spiritual centre of the Irish mission to Britain for generations to come. In fact, from the 6th until the 9th centuries Iona served as the pivotal point of the whole Irish Church. From Iona Columcille undertook missionary work among the Picts in Scotland, converting King Brude of the northern Picts and ordaining the Scottish king Aidan to the priesthood. As was the case in Ireland the Scottish Church was strongly monastic. The bishops were under the authority of Columcille, who was a priest and abbot. After his death the Scottish bishops still fell under the authority of the abbots of Iona.

The monastic settlement on Iona was characterized by communal possession of property, as well as humility and compassion. The latter extended towards animals as well, in agreement with the Irish love for the Creation. As was the case with thousands of Orthodox saints such as St Guthlac of Crowland, St Symeon the New Theologian or St Seraphim of Sarov, St Columcille was at times seen to be radiating a divine, immaterial light. While at prayer the saint was seen surrounded by a heavenly light, descending and filling the entire church building. At other times St Columcille was seen with angels hovering about him, or with a column of light rising from his head. In Orthodox Christian theology, phenomena like these are ascribed to the uncreated energies of God, in which the saints through their exceeding holiness are allowed to participate.

St Columcille also played a key role in the establishment of an independent Scottish kingdom, granted at the Irish assembly at Drumceat around 575. Until that time the Scottish king was under Irish suzerainty, since the south of Scotland was colonized by Irish settlers who founded the kingdom of Dalraida around 490. Columcille was a prolific writer of Gospel books and hymns, and also wrote the Cathach, the earliest Irish manuscript of note. Such was the saint’s versatility that he prevented a plan to expel the bards from Ireland and defended their traditional organisation. On Iona he passed into eternity on 9 June 597, afterwards to be celebrated as his feast day.

Source:  Vladimir de Beer, ‘Orthodox Ireland’, accessed 5 Nov. 2013 at

To this let us add a few other details from St Adomnàn’s Life of St Columba:

By virtue of his prayer, and in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, he healed several persons suffering under various diseases; and he alone, by the assistance of God, expelled from this our island, which now has the primacy, innumerable hosts of malignant spirits, whom he saw with his bodily eyes assailing himself, and beginning to bring deadly distempers on his monastic brotherhood. Partly by mortification, and partly by a bold resistance, he subdued, with the help of Christ, the furious rage of wild beasts. The surging waves, also, at times rolling mountains high in a great tempest, became quickly at his prayer quiet and smooth, and his ship, in which he then happened to be, reached the desired haven in a perfect calm.

When returning from the country of the Picts, where he had been for some days, he hoisted his sail when the breeze was against him to confound the Druids, and made as rapid a voyage as if the wind had been favourable. On other occasions, also, contrary winds were at his prayers changed into fair. In that same country, he took a white stone from the river, and blessed it for the working of certain cures, and that stone, contrary to nature, floated like an apple when placed in water. This divine miracle was wrought in the presence of King Brude and his household. In the same country, also, he performed a still greater miracle, by raising to life the dead child of an humble believer, and restoring him in life and vigour to his father and mother. At another time, while the blessed man was yet a young deacon in Hibernia, residing with the holy bishop Findbarr, the wine required for the sacred mysteries failed, and he changed by his prayer pure water into true wine. An immense blaze of heavenly light was on many and wholly distinct occasions seen by some of the brethren to surround him in the light of day, as well as in the darkness of the night. He was also favoured with the sweet and most delightful society of bright hosts of the holy angels. He often saw, by the revelation of the Holy Ghost, the souls of some just men carried by angels to the highest heavens. And the reprobates too he very frequently beheld carried to hell by demons. He very often foretold the future deserts, sometimes joyful, and sometimes sad, of many persons while they were still living in mortal flesh. In the dreadful crash of wars he obtained from God, by the virtue of prayer, that some kings should be conquered, and others come off victorious. And such a grace as this he enjoyed, not only while alive in this world, but even after his departure from the flesh, as God, from whom all the saints derive their honour, has made him still a victorious and most valiant champion in battle. I shall give one example of especial honour conferred by Almighty God on this honourable man, the event having occurred the day before the Saxon prince Oswald went forth to fight with Catlon (Ceadualla of Bede), a very valiant king of the Britons. For as this same King Oswald, after pitching his camp, in readiness for the battle, was sleeping one day on a pillow in his tent, he saw St. Columba in a vision, beaming with angelic brightness, and of figure so majestic that his head seemed to touch the clouds. The blessed man having announced his name to the king, stood in the midst of the camp, and covered it all with his brilliant garment, except at one small distant point; and at the same time he uttered those cheering words which the Lord spake to Jesua Ben Nun before the passage of the Jordan, after Moses' death, saying, " Be strong and of a good courage; behold, I shall be with thee," etc. Then St. Columba having said these words to the king in the vision, added, " March out this following night from your camp to battle, for on this occasion the Lord has granted to me that your foes shall be put to flight, that your enemy Catlon shall be delivered into your hands, and that after the battle you shall return in triumph, and have a happy reign." The king, awaking at these words, assembled his council and related the vision, at which they were all encouraged; and so the whole people promised that, after their return from the war, they would believe and be baptized, for up to that time all that Saxon land had been wrapt in the darkness of paganism and ignorance, with the exception of King Oswald and the twelve men who had been baptized with him during his exile among the Scots. What more need I say ? On the very next night, King Oswald, as he had been directed in the vision, went forth from his camp to battle, and had a much smaller army than the numerous hosts opposed to him, yet he obtained from the Lord, according to His promise, an easy and decisive victoryÑfor King Catlon was slain, and the conqueror, on his return after the battle, was ever after established by God as the Bretwalda of all Britain.

St Columba’s monastic island of Iona is the first recipient of his goodness, upon which he bestowed his blessing shortly before his repose; then his kindred of Ireland.  His love also extends especially to the peoples of northern Britain, among whom he worked as a missionary.

Because of this, we in the South also receive of his paternal love, being in no small measure the descendants of both his Irish brethren and of the Scottish to whom he also showed so much concern.

As with any saint, his significance is not limited to any mere locality, nor to any one race.  Rather, all peoples may find a swift helper in him.  But this does not negate his special connection with the Irish or the Scots or with us here in the South.

So to St Columba the South ought to turn for a great protector and deliverer.  As has been related above, through his intercessions kings prevailed in war over their enemies (among his other miracles of power).  Even outlaws who honored his name were delivered from calamity (see also Book I, Chapter I).  How much more, therefore, would the Lord help the South through His holy servant if we honor him from a pure heart?

Sparta had her earthly men for a protecting wall; let the South have as her fortification not earthly men merely but also a much more powerful defense: the Saints of Heaven. 

Yes, let us surround our beloved Southland - along the shorelines, high atop the mountains, deep within the forests, stretching across the prairies, in the blue grass and in the swamps - with defenders who have great boldness before Christ and who at various times have thrown down the armies of the mighty: The Most Holy Mother of God, St Columba, St Alfred the Great, St John of Beverly (, pgs. 224-5), St Demetrius of Thessalonica (, and other holy men and women.  Let us seek them out and implore them for their help.

An humble and contrite South, with the saints as protectors and intercessors, would not be easily overcome.  This is the otherworldly answer to the question of how we can escape the present tyranny: by relying upon Christ and his saints.

We cannot know when or if the Lord will grant the South her freedom here on earth, but we can prepare for that day, should it come, (and also for our eternity in the Heavenly South) by repenting of our sins, living a life of quiet obedience, and honoring those whom the Lord has honored, among whom is this very St Columba, a mighty soldier of Christ.

Hymn to St Columba of Iona:
‘By your God-inspired life / You embodied both the mission and the dispersion of the Church, / Most glorious Father Columba. / Using your repentance and voluntary exile, / Christ our God raised you up as a beacon of the True Faith, / An apostle to the heathen and an indicator of the Way of salvation. / Wherefore O holy one, cease not to intercede for us / That our souls may be saved.’

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