22 June 2009

'A Sage Across Seas'—St Columba of Iona

Today, 9 June on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Columba (Columcille) of Iona (c. 521-597), one of the greatest Saints of Ireland and an apostle to Scotland, who founded a sort of parallel to the Pachomian koinonia often known as the ‘Columban familia’. Thanks to God we have a lengthy account of St Columba (available online here) by another Saint of his central monastery at Iona who lived less than a century after the founder—St Adomnán. Called ‘one of the great works of the early medieval Irish church’ (Thomas Owen Clancy and Gilbert Márkus, Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery [Edinburgh: Edinburgh U, 1995], p. 28), Richard Sharpe points out that this Life ‘is made up almost entirely of miracle stories’, adding, ‘Many modern readers find such stories of miracles difficult to accept or believe (Introduction, Life of St Columba, by St Adomnán of Iona, trans. Richard Sharpe [London: Penguin, 1995], p. 3). But as Fr Seraphim (Rose) has written (‘A Prologue of the Orthodox Saints of the West’, Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers, by St Gregory of Tours, trans. Hieromonk Seraphim [Rose] and Paul Bartlett [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1988], p. 21):

Orthodox Christians by no means see in such ‘anecdotes’ the essence of a saint’s life and character; but of course we take delight in the miracles of our saints and do not weary of them, knowing that in these true stories we can already see the breaking into this world of the entirely different laws of the spiritual, heavenly world.

Fortunately, however, even those who, like F.R. Hoare, whom Fr Seraphim cites, regret the neglect of ‘spiritual portraiture’ in the hagiographical tradition (qtd. in Fr Seraphim, p. 21), will find something to appreciate in St Adomnán’s Life of St Columba. Besides other comments found throughout the work, he prefaces the wonderful miracle stories with the following:

Since boyhood he had devoted himself to training in the Christian life, and to the study of wisdom; with God’s help, he had kept his body chaste and his mind pure and shown himself, though placed on earth, fit for the life of heaven. He was an angel in demeanour, blameless in what he said, godly in what he did, brilliant in intellect and great in counsel. He spent thirty-four years as an island soldier, and could not let even an hour pass without giving himself to praying or reading or writing or some other task. Fasts and vigils he performed day and night with tireless labour and no rest, to such a degree that the burden of even one seemed beyond human endurance. At the same time he was loving to all people, and his face showed a holy gladness because his heart was full of the joy of the Holy Spirit. (pp. 105-6)

Brendan Lehane, in keeping with his usual cynicism, confesses himself dissatisfied with this account, however, for making St Columba seem too ‘perfect’ (Early Celtic Christianity [London: Constable, 1996], p. 113). Apparently to tip the scales a bit, he tells a story a little later in his chapter on St Columba that, apart from painting the Saint in a less ‘rosy’ light, ‘illuminated—perhaps mythically—the great love of books and scholarship’. He continues:

Columba went once to stay with St Finnian of Moville. Finnian possessed the only copy in Ireland of St Jerome’s Vulgate, the best Latin version of the Bible; and Columba, knowing that contemporary ethics were against him, retired to the library every evening to copy the book in secret. One evening he was surprised by his host, who claimed the copy as his own, and being refused took the case to the High King of Ireland, Diormid. There is nothing surprising about the heat generated by this issue. Books were still rare and of a value that surpassed their content, though that itself was venerated. Monks often travelled far into Gaul, even to Rome itself, to collect them . . . Books also had, as objects, some magical qualities . . .

So the case was heard. Diormid found in favour of Finnian—not surprising in the light of Columba’s furtiveness—and gave a picturesque verdict: ‘To every cow her calf, to every book its copy.’ (p. 118)

It is thanks to this story that St Columba is considered by some to be the patron Saint of hackers. Read the end of this post to see why he could also be a patron Saint of copyeditors.

But taking, as Fr Seraphim says, ‘delight in the miracles of our saints’, I shall give just two of these stories of the ‘breaking into this world’ of the strange laws of the ‘spiritual, heavenly world’. First, and surely regular Logismoi readers knew that I would excerpt this one, there is the story of St Columba and the ‘Loch Ness Monster’, although to be fair the incident takes place in the River, and not the Loch itself. In his note on this passage, Sharpe mentions that this is the oldest report of ‘Nessie’, noting that believers point to it to show that a creature of this kind has lived in the loch for ‘over a thousand years’, but that unbelievers call it only ‘a typical early medieval water-beast story’, as though it is less credible because there are so many other stories of water-beasts (Sharpe, p. 330, n. 272). At any rate, here it is in full:

[II 27] How a water beast was driven off by the power of the blessed man’s prayer

Once, on another occasion, when the blessed man stayed for some days in the land of the Picts, he had to cross the River Ness. When he reached its bank, he saw some of the local people burying a poor fellow. They said they had seen a water beast snatch him and maul him savagely as he was swimming not long before. Although some of the men had put out in a little boat to rescue him, they were too late, but, reaching out with hooks, they had hauled in his wretched corpse. The blessed man, having been told all this, astonished them by sending one of his companions to swim across the river and sail back to him in a dinghy that was on the further bank. At the command of the holy and praiseworthy man, Luigne moccu Min obeyed without hesitation. He took off his clothes except for a tunic and dived into the water. But the beast was lying low on the riverbed, its appetite not so much sated as whetted for prey. It could sense that the water above was stirred by the swimmer, and suddenly swam up to the surface, rushing open-mouthed with a great roar towards the man as he was swimming midstream. All the bystanders, both the heathen and the brethren, froze in terror, but the blessed man looking on raised his holy hand and made the sign of the cross in the air, and invoking the name of God, he commanded the fierce beast, saying:

‘Go no further. Do not touch the man. Go back at once.’

At the sound of the saint’s voice, the beast fled in terror so fast one might have thought it was pulled back with ropes. But it had got so close to Luigne swimming that there was no more than the length of a pole between man and beast. The brethren were amazed to see that the beast had gone and that their fellow-soldier Luigne returned to them untouched and safe in the dinghy, and they glorified God in the blessed man. Even the heathen natives who were present at the time were so moved by the greatness of the miracle they had witnessed that they too magnified the God of the Christians. (pp. 175-6)

The other story I wanted to post is of a more ‘mystical’ nature. There are several stories in St Adomnán’s account that specifically describe St Columba’s experiences of the uncreated light. This one is my favourite. It reminds me a great deal of a story I read somewhere about Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain, but the source of which I can’t recall:

[III 18] How the Holy Spirit descended to visit St Columba in the same island, and remained over him for three days and nights

On another occasion when St Columba was living in Hinba, the grace of the Holy Spirit was poured upon him in incomparable abundance and miraculously remained over him for three days. During that time he remained day and night locked in his house, which was filled with heavenly light. No one was allowed to go near him, and he neither ate nor drank. But from the house rays of brilliant light could be seen at night, escaping through the chinks of the doors and through the keyholes. He was also heard singing spiritual chants of a kind never heard before. And, as he afterwards admitted to a few people, he was able to see openly revealed many secrets that had been hidden since the world began, while all that was most dark and difficult in the sacred Scriptures lay open, plain, and clearer than light in the sight of his most pure heart.

St Columba regretted that his foster-son Baithéne was not there. If he had been present for those three days, he could have recorded from the saint’s lips a great number of mysteries, both of ages past and future, unknown to other men, together with some interpretations of the sacred books. However, Baithéne was held up by adverse winds in Eigg, and could not be present until those three days and three nights of unique and glorious visitation had come to an end. (pp. 219-20)

But perhaps even more moving than the stories of St Adomnán’s great Life, we have the poetry of Iona. In fact, there is one poem which, according to Clancy and Márkus, most scholars accept as the work of St Columba himself—Altus prosator, ‘The High Creator’ (I quoted some brief lines from it here). It is a full-length alphabet prayer of twenty-three stanzas (each beginning with another letter) and a ‘Responsio’, the first being seven lines, the other twenty-two being six, and the Responsio three. I will not reproduce all or even much of it here, but I will give three stanzas that I find interesting:

G (Grassatis)

Our first two parents having been assailed and led astray,
the devil falls a second time, together with his retinue,
by the horror of whose faces and the sound of whose flying
frail men might be dismayed, stricken with fear,
unable to gaze with their bodily eyes on those
who are now bound in bundles in the bonds of their prisons. (p. 47)

Q (Quis ad condictum)

Who has climbed Sinai, the appointed mountain of the Lord?
Who has heard the immeasurable thunders sounding?
Who has heard the clamour of the mighty war-trumpet echoing?
Who has also seen the lightning flashing all around?
Who has seen the flashed and thunderbolts and crashing rocks,
except Moses, the judge of the people of Israel?

U (Vagatur ex climactere)

Orion wanders from his turning point at the hinge of heaven—
the Pleiades being left behind, most splendid of the stars—
across the boundaries of the sea, of its unknown eastern rim.
Vesper, wheeling in its fixed circuits, returns by its former paths,
rising after two years in the evening.
These things employed as types are understood figuratively. (p. 51)

Second, there is a poem attributed to a Dallán Forgaill and apparently written in the years immediately following St Columba’s repose called Amra Choluimb Chille, or ‘Elegy of Columba’. Here is a single stanza (V):

He ran the course which runs past hatred to right action.
The teacher who wove the word.
By his wisdom he made glosses clear.
He fixed the Psalms,
he made known the books of Law,
those books Cassian loved.
He won battles with gluttony.
The books of Solomon, he followed them.
Seasons and calculations he set in motion.
He separated the elements according to the figures among the books of the Law.
He read mysteries and distributed the Scriptures among the schools,
and he put together the harmony concerning the course of the moon,
the course which it ran with the rayed sun,
and the course of the sea.
He could number the stars of heaven, the one who could tell all the rest
which we have heard from Colum Cille. (pp. 107, 109)

Finally, there are also two beautiful Gaelic poems about St Columba by a Beccán mac Luigdech. Of the first, Fo réir Choluimb, 25 heptasyllabic quatrains rhyming a-b-a-b and employing alliteration, I shall again give only three stanzas:

Bound to Columb, while I speak,
may the bright one guard me in the seven heavens;
when I go to the road of fear,
I’m not lordless: I have strength.

It was not on cushioned beds
he bent to his complex prayers:
he crucified—not for crimes—
his body on the grey waves. (p. 137)

. . .

He fought wise battles with the flesh,
indeed, he read pure learning.
He stitched, he hoisted sail tops,
a sage across seas, his prize a kingdom. (p. 139)

The second poem, Tiugraind Beccáin, or ‘The Last Verses of Beccán’, will unfortunately have to wait for another post. But rest assured, I shall post the entire thing!

As for Orthodox services, there is an Akolouthia (unattributed) here, and an Akathist in French by Logismoi reader and online acquaintance Claude Lopez-Ginisty here.


+Metropolitan SAVAS of Pittsburgh said...

Again, thanks. The image of the brilliant light "shining through the chinks of the doors and through the keyholes" will stay with me. I for one had never heard this story, and wish it were better known. I'll happily do my part to pass it on!

What can you tell us about the Gaelic poem from which you quote at the end? Surely it's of recent vintage, no?

Aaron Taylor said...

Guess again! Clancy and Márkus write, 'The date of the poems [i.e., this one and the one I'm going to post later], judging from their language, would appear to be the seventh century, which matches the time when their suggested author, Beccán, must have lived: he belongs to the second generation after Columba, of whom he was a distant relative' (pp. 129-30). The language, in translation of course, struck me too as rather 'modern'!