Born in Ireland in 521, into the royal Ui Neill (O’Neill) clan, Columba demonstrated scholarly and clerical ability early in life. Entering the monastic life, he was first received his training from Finnian of Moville and then from Finnian of Clonard. Even before his ordination to the presbyterate, he founded the monasteries of Derry (546) and Durrow (c. 556), and probably Kells.
Twelve years after his ordination, he and a dozen companions left Ireland for Iona, a small island off the coast of what is now the southwest of Scotland. According to legend, Columba’s tiny coracle had washed ashore on the island, and the Irish king of Dal Riada, a Gaelic kingdom in the western isles and Highlands, made a gift of the island to him. Columba remained in this northwestern part of the island of Britain for the rest of his life, returning to Ireland only for occasional, though important, visits.
On Iona Columba founded the celebrated monastery which became the center for the conversion of the Picts of northern Britain, who were still largely ignorant of the Gospel. He was kindly received on his missionary journeys among the Picts and the Irish of the Dal Riada and was allowed to preach, to convert, and to baptize. He converted Bruide, king of the Picts, and in 574 he consecrated Aidan, king of Dal Riada. He founded two churches in Inverness and made long journeys throughout the Highlands, as far as Aberdeen. From Iona, his disciples also went out to found other monasteries, which in turn became centers of missionary activity.
Our principal source for Columba’s history is the Life written by Adamnan, one of the most influential biographies of the early Middle Ages. Though disappointing as an historical document, this Life is a portrait of a charismatic personality and skillfully presents miracles, prophecies, and visions from the Iona tradition. From its pages Columba emerges as a tall, striking figure of powerful build and impressive demeanor, who combined the skills of scholar, poet, and overseer with a fearless commitment to God’s call. For thirty years, Columba evangelized, studied, wrote, and governed his monastery at Iona. He supervised his monks in their work in the fields and workrooms, in their daily prayers and the Lord’s Day Eucharist, and in their study and teaching. He imparted spiritual counsel to those who sought it, and he gave his counsel in solving the problems of neighboring rulers. Because he retained a sort of oversight of his monasteries in Ireland, he returned to there to attend synods of the Church, and thus established Iona as a link between Irish and Pictish Christians.
In the assembly of Druim-Cetta (c. 580), Columba, who was himself a bard, saved the bardic order from extinction and assured the presence of an educated laity in Irish Christian society. Three surviving Latin poems, including the Altus Prosator, may well be his. His skill as a scribe can be seen in the Cathach of Columba, a late sixth-century psalter which is the oldest surviving example of Irish majuscule writing. It was later enshrined in wood, and then in silver and bronze, sculptured with figures of the saints. The Cathach was venerated in churches, used at visitations, and carried into battle as a reminder of Columba’s authority and power.
Four years before his death Columba’s strength began to fail. He spent much time in transcribing books, and he died peacefully while working on a copy of the Psalter. Adamnan relates that he had put down his pen, rested for a few hours, and at Matins was found dead before the altar, a smile upon his face. He is recorded as having said, “This day is called in the sacred Scriptures a day of rest, and truly to me it will be such, for it is the last of my life and I shall enter into rest after the fatigues of my labors.”
Columba’s memory lived on in his monasteries and more widely in Ireland, Scotland, and Northumbria. His traditions were upheld by his followers for about a century, not least in the Synod of Whitby and in the Irish monasteries on the continent of Europe. His feast is attested in the Calender of Willibrord, a book written in that saint’s own hand in the late seventh or early eighth century.
prepared from Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980)
and The Oxford Dictionary of Saints
O God, by the preaching of your blessed servant Columba you caused the light of the Gospel to shine in Scotland: Grant, we pray, that, having his life and labors in remembrance, we may show our thankfulness to you by following the example of his zeal and patience; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The icon of Saint Columba of Iona is taken from Aidan Hart’s gallery of icons and is reproduced here with his generous permission.