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A Brief Life of St. Columban

“The missionary labours of the Irish were not confined to Great Britain, but extended far and wide through the west of Europe. In the sixth and seventh centuries, Irish monasteries were founded in Austrasia and Burgundy, Italy, Switzerland, Bavaria; they were established among Frisians, Saxons, Alemanni. And as centres of Latin education as well as Christianity, the names of Bobbio and St. Gall will occur to every one. Of these, the first directly and the second through a disciple were due to Columbanus. With him we enter the larger avenues of Irish missions to the heathen, the semi-heathen, and the lax, and upon the question of their efficacy in the preservation of Latin education throughout the rent and driven fragments of the western Roman Empire. The story of Columban’s life is illuminating and amusing.

“He was born in Leinster. While yet a boy he felt the conflict between fleshly lusts and that counter-ascetic passion which throughout the Christian world was drawing thousands into monasteries. Asceticism, with desire for knowledge, won the victory, and the youth entered the monastery of Bangor, in the extreme north-east of Ireland. There he passed years of labour, study, and self-mortification. At length the pilgrim mission-passion came upon him (coepit peregrinationem desiderare) and his importunity overcame the abbot’s reluctance to let him depart. Twelve disciples are said to have followed him across the water to the shores of Britain. There they hesitated in anxious doubt, till it was decided to cross to Gaul.

A Stern Figure in Europe

“This was about the year 590. Columban’s austere and commanding form, his fearlessness, his quick and fiery tongue, impressed the people among whom he came. Reports of his holiness spread; multitudes sought his blessing. He traversed the country, preaching and setting his own stern example, until he reached the land of the Burgundians, where Gontran, a grandson of Clovis, reigned. Well received by this ruler, Columban established himself in an old castle. His disciples grew in numbers, and after a while Gontran granted him an extensive Roman structure called Luxovium (Luxeuil) situated at the confines of the Burgundian and Austrasian kingdoms. Columban converts this into a monastery, and it soon included many noble Franks and Burgundians among its monks. For them he composed a monastic regula, stern and cruel in its penalties of many stripes imposed for trivial faults. ‘Whoever may wish to know his strenuousness (strenuitatem) will find it in his precepts,’ writes the monk Jonas, who had lived under him.

“The strenuousness of this masterful and overbearing man was displayed in his controversy with the Gallican clergy, upon whom he tried to impose the Easter day observed by the Celtic Church in the British Isles. In his letter to the Gallican synod, he points out their errors, and lectures them on their Christian duties, asking pardon at the end for his loquacity and presumption. Years afterwards, entering upon another controversy, he wrote an extraordinary letter to Pope Boniface IV. The superscription is Hibernian: ‘To the most beautiful head of all the churches of entire Europe, the most sweet pope, the most high president, the most reverent investigator: O marvellous! mirum dictu! nova res! rara avis!—that the lowest to the loftiest, the clown to the polite, the stammerer to the prince of eloquence, the stranger to the son of the house, the last to the first, that the Wood-pigeon (Palumbus) should dare to write to Father Boniface!’ Whereupon this Wood-pigeon writes a long letter in which belligerent expostulation alternates with self-debasement. He dubs himself ‘garrulus, presumptuosus, homunculus vilissimae qualitatis,’ who caps his impudence by writing unrequested. He implores pardon for his harsh and too biting speech, while he deplores—to him who sat thereon—the infamia of Peter’s seat, and shrills to the Pope to watch: ‘Vigilia itaque, quaeso, papa, vigila; et iterm dico: vigila’; and he marvels at the Pope’s lethal sleep.

Conflict with Brunhilde and Theuderic

“One who thus berated pope and clergy might be censorious of princes. Gontran died. After various dynastic troubles, the Burgundian land came under the rule nominally of young Theuderic, but actually of his imperious grandmother, the famous Brunhilde. In order that no queenwife’s power should supplant her own, she encouraged her grandson to content himself with mistresses. The youth stood in awe of the stern old figure ruling at Luxeuil, who more than once reproved him for not wedding a lawful queen. It happened one day when Columban was at Brunhilde’s residence that she brought out Theuderic’s various sons for him to bless. ‘Never shall sceptre be held by this brothel-brood,’ said he.

“Henceforth it was war between these two: Theuderic was the pivot of the storm; the one worked upon his fears, the other played upon his lusts. Brunhilde prevailed. She incited the king to insist that Luxeuil be made open to all, and with his retinue to push his way into the monastery. The saint withstood him fiercely, and prophesied his ruin. The king drew back; the saint followed, heaping reproaches upon him, till the young king said with some self-restraint: ‘You hope to win the crown of martyrdom through me. But I am not a lunatic, to commit such a crime. I have a better plan: since you won’t fall in with the ways of the world, you shall go back by the road you came.’

“So the king sent his retainers to seize the stubborn saint. They took him as a prisoner to Besançon. He escaped, and hurried back to Luxeuil. Again the king sent, this time a count with soldiers, to drive him from the land. They feared the sacrilege of laying hands on the old man. In the church, surrounded by his monks praying and singing psalms, he awaited them. ‘O man of God,’ cried the count, ‘we beseech thee to obey the royal command, and take thy way to the place from which thou camest.’ ‘Nay, I will rather please my Creator, by abiding here,’ returned the saint. The count retired, leaving a few rough soldiers to carry out the king’s will. These, still fearing to use violence, begged the saint to take pity on them, unjustly burdened with this evil task—to disobey their orders meant their death. The saint reiterates his determination to abide, till they fall on their knees, cling to his robe, and with groans implore his pardon for the crime they must execute.

Persistence in Mission

“From pity the saint yields at last, and a company of the king’s men make ready and escort him from the kingdom westward toward Brittany. Many miracles mark the journey. They reach the Loire, and embark on it. Proceeding down the river they come to Tours, where the saint asks to be allowed to land and worship at St. Martin’s shrine. The leader bids the rowers keep the middle of the stream and row on. But the boat resistlessly made its way to the landing-place. Columban passed the night at the shrine, and the next day was hospitably entertained by the bishop, who inquired why he was returning to his native land. ‘The dog Theuderic has driven me from my brethren,’ answered the saint. At last Nantes was reached near the mouth of the Loire, where the vessel was waiting to carry the exile back to Ireland. Columban wrote a letter to his monks, in which he poured forth his love to them with much advice as to their future conduct. The letter is filled with grief—suppressed lest it unman his beloved children. ‘While I write, the messenger comes to say that the ship is ready to bear me, unwilling, to my country. But there is no guard to prevent my escape, and these people even seem to wish it.’

“The letter ends, but not the story. Columban did not sail for Ireland. Jonas says that the vessel was miraculously impeded, and that then Columban was permitted to go whither he would. So the dauntless old man travelled back from the sea, and went to the Neustrian Court, the people along the way bringing him their children to bless. He did not rest in Neustria, for the desire was upon him to preach to the heathen. Making his way to the Rhine, he embarked near Mainz, ascended to the river, and at last established himself, with his disciples, upon the lake of Constance. There they preached to the heathen, and threw their idols into the lake. He had the thought to preach to the Wends, but this was not to be.

“The time soon came when all Austrasia fell into the hands of Brunhilde and Theuderic, and Columbanus decided to cross over into northern Italy, breaking out in anger at his disciple Gall, who was too sick to go with him. With other disciples he made the arduous journey, and reached the land of the Lombards. King Agilulf made him a gift of Bobbio, lying in a gorge of the Apennines near Genoa, and there he founded the monastery which was long to be a stronghold of letters. For himself, his career was well-nigh run; he retired to a solitary spot on the banks of the river Trebbia, where he passed away, being, apparently, some seventy years of age.

Love of Language and Learning

“It may seem surprising that this strenuous ascetic should occasionally have occupied a leisure hour writing Latin poems in imitation of the antique. There still exists such an effusion to a friend:

‘Accipe, quaeso,
Nunc bipedali
Condita versu
Munera parva.’

“The verses consist mainly of classic allusions and advice of an antique rather than a Christian flavour: the wise will cease to add coin to coin, and will despise wealth, but not the pastime of such verse as the

‘Inclyta Vates
Nomine Sappho’

was wont to make. ‘Now, dear Fedolius, quit learned numbers and accept our squibs—frivola nostra. I have dictated them oppressed with pain and old age: Vive, vale, laetus, tristisque memento senectae.’ The last is a pagan reminiscence, which the saint’s Christian soul may not have deeply felt. But the poem shows the saint’s classic training, which probably was exceptional.”

We might, I would suggest, fairly dispute a few qualifications and choices of description given by Henry Osborn Taylor in this, the recounting of St. Columban’s life, found in vol.1 of Taylor’s Medieval Mind—such as the suggestion that Columban’s Christian soul did not deeply feel the pagan reminiscence; though doubtless he did not feel it in a pagan manner.

Regardless, there is much we can learn from St. Columban’s life: his passion, fortitude, love of language, desire to preach and teach and to see truth triumph over fear and weakness. We hope that you will be inspired to promote the legacy of St. Columban through our Fellowship in his name!