Amy Steedman – Saint Columba

[portrait of Saint Columba]The Princess Eithne lay asleep, dreaming of summer days and happy hours spent in flowery meadows. Outside the stormy wintry winds swept the snowdrifts high among the mountain passes, and the howls of hungry wolves mingled with the shriek of the wind. It was cold and bleak at the castle of Gartan among the wild hills of Donegal when winter held sway, and then the Princess would watch the swirling snowflakes and the grey mists that wrapped the hills in solemn majesty. But in the springtime it was a different world, and Eithne could see from her window the length and height of the valley, and count the little mountain lakes that shone like diamonds in their emerald setting, and she thought it was the fairest spot in all the world.

There were so many beautiful things in the life of the Princess, so much to make her happy with the Prince her husband, that there seemed scarcely room for more joy; and yet, as she lay dreaming, she knew that the greatest happiness of all was yet to come.

It seemed to her that, as she dreamed of those flowery meadows, an angel stood beside her and placed in her hands a wonderful robe, more beautiful than anything she had ever seen. It was sewn all over with dainty flowers—the mountain flowers that are fairer and finer than any others because they grow closer to heaven. It was as if a rainbow had fallen into a shower of flowers upon this wondrous mantle and set it thick with buds and blossoms, crimson, white, and blue.

For a space the angel waited while the Princess held the robe and gazed upon its beauty, then very gently it was taken from her and Eithne found her hands were empty.

“Why dost thou take away my beautiful robe so soon?” asked the Princess, stretching out her hands towards the angel and weeping bitterly.

“It is too dearly prized for thee to keep it,” was the answer. And as Eithne looked with longing eyes, she saw the angel spread out the robe, and its beautiful folds floated further and further until it covered all that land.

Then in her ears there sounded the comforting voice of the angel bidding her grieve no more, but prepare to receive the little son whom God was sending to her. And Eithne knew that the vision of the robe was sent as a lesson to teach her that her son would belong not only to her but to the world, where God had need of him.

Soon after this the little Prince was born, and, as his mother held him in her arms, her heart was filled with the same great joy as when she had clasped the angel’s robe. More than fifty years had passed since the good Saint Patrick had brought Christ’s light to Ireland, and now most of the people there were Christians. The father and mother of the little Prince took early care that the baby should be baptized, and in the little chapel of the clan O’Donnel they gave him two names—Crimthann, which means a wolf, and Colum, which means a dove.

Perhaps it was the chief, his father, thinking of his wild brave ancestors living free among those mountains, who gave his little son the name of the wolf, and surely it was the mother, thinking of the angel vision, who wished him to be called by the gentler name.

There was no doubt from the first which name suited the child the best. Strong and fearless, and showing in a hundred ways that he came of a kingly race, there was nothing of the wild wolf nature about Columba. It was always Colum, the dove, that gladdened his mother’s heart. Like a flower turning to the light, his heart seemed always to turn naturally to all that was beautiful and pure and good. He was eager to learn, and loved to listen to the stories of those soldiers of Christ who fought against the Evil One, and brought light and peace into the wild dark places of the earth. When he grew up, he too would become one of those soldiers, and meanwhile there was nothing he loved so much as to steal away into the little chapel to join in the service of the Master he meant to serve some day.

The people wondered as they watched the boy leave his games and turn with a happy eager face towards the church whenever the bell called the monks to prayer.

“He should be called Columkill, Colum of the Church,” they said: and so it was that the old name of “the dove of the Church” was first given to Columba.

At the monastery school the boy was quick to learn, and the monks told one another that he had the gift of genius. But the master, Saint Finnian, wondered even more at the goodness than the cleverness of his pupil. Watching him one day, he was heard to say that he saw an angel walking by the side of Columba, guiding and guarding him as he went. And, indeed, the boy’s face had ever the look of one who walked close to his guardian angel.

So Columba grew to be a man, and learned all the wisdom of the great monasteries, and then, strong and purposeful, he began his work for God, going throughout the land teaching, and founding monasteries and building churches.

But although he worked well and with all his heart, still his great desire had always been to carry God’s message of peace and goodwill to the heathen lands outside Ireland, and many a time did he gaze across the sea to the faint blue line of distant hills, thinking of those poor souls in Scotland who knew nothing of God’s love and mercy.

Still the years went by, and there always seemed more than enough work for him to do in his own land until, when he was more than forty years old, something happened which changed his life, and sent him forth to begin the new great work.

Now you must know that Columba loved books and delighted in making copies of them, for in those days all books were written by hand. He was very skilful in this work of copying. He laid the colours on most carefully for the capital letters, and made the printing black and firm and even. Nothing gave him more pleasure than to have a new book to copy, and he was greatly pleased when one day he heard that his old master Saint Finnian had a wonderful copy of the gospels, and might allow him to see it.

“My father,” he said to the old abbot, “I would that I might see the fair copy of the gospels of which I have heard so much. Men say there is no other copy like it in Ireland.”

“Ay, my son,” answered the abbot proudly, “it is, as thou sayest, a very fair copy. But thou hast a careful hand and knowest the value of such a book, so I will trust the treasure to thee for a space.”

Overjoyed at the permission, Columba carried the book carefully home, and the more he looked at it, the more he longed to have one like it. At last he began secretly and swiftly to make a copy, and not until it was done did he return the precious book to Saint Finnian.

Before long, however, the matter came to the ears of the abbot, and he was very angry. He demanded at once that the copy should be given up, and bade Columba deliver it immediately.

“The copy is mine,” said Columba calmly, “but if thou thinkest it is thine, we will let the King decide.”

So the matter was taken to the King of Meath, and he decided that Columba must give up the book.

“It is written in the ancient law of our land,” said the King, “that to every cow belongs its calf, therefore it must be that to every book belongs its copy.”

There was a great outcry against this decision, and the clansmen of Columba went out to do battle with the men of Meath, and by the time Columba’s anger had cooled, many thousand men had been killed.

Bitterly repentant, Columba went to the old priest Molaise, and asked him what he should do to show his sorrow. Then Molaise bade him leave the land he so dearly loved, cross the sea to Scotland, and win for God from among the heathen as many souls as those whom his hasty quarrel had brought to death.

The long waves of the Atlantic rolled in and broke upon the beach, grey and cold in the light of early morning, when twelve sorrowful-looking men pushed off their frail boats from the Irish shore, and set sail for distant Scotland.

The boats were light, made only of wickerwork with skins stretched tightly over, and they rose gaily on the long waves which came sweeping in as if eager to overwhelm them. But there were heavy hearts in those light boats, and the men looked back with sad eyes at the dear green home they were leaving, seeing it but dimly through a mist of tears. They loved their home, but they loved their master Columba better, and so they were setting sail with him for the land of exile.

Through storm and tempest the frail boats held their way, and the hearts, if sad, were brave and hopeful too, for their faith was strong in God and in their leader.

The first landing-place was on the island of Colonsay, and there the little company waited on the shore while Columba climbed the hill, that he might view the land and see if it was a fit place to make their home.

With long strides he climbed up over rocks and heather until at last he reached the top, and then he stood quite still and looked around him. Yes, the island was just the kind of resting-place he was seeking, since he must no longer live in his own dear land. Lifting up his eyes then, he gazed longingly across the blue sea in the direction of home, and his heart leaped when he saw in the distance the faint blue hills of Erin. Then he sighed, and went slowly back to his waiting companions.

“We must push on,” he said. “If we stay here our hearts will be filled with a sore home-longing whenever we gaze across the sea. We must go further, where we cannot see the hills of home.”

So the boats were pushed off once more, and the men rowed on until they reached the little island of Hy or Iona. Not the faintest trace of the blue Irish hills could be seen from here, so it was decided that this was to be the place where they would make their new home.

The warm May sunshine was flooding the island as the boats were pulled high on the shore. Sunbeams sparkled on the deep blue waves, and the shining sand of the little bay was dazzling in its whiteness. The sea-birds, disturbed in their loneliness, swooped and screamed over the heads of the new-comers, but there was nobody else to dispute their possession.

Very soon the building of the new home was begun. Columba, tall and strong, with clever hands and clever brain, planned and worked himself, and directed the others. One by one the huts were finished and the little chapel built, and then the monastery was complete. The King of that part of the country, knowing Columba, gave him the island for his own, and so there was no fear that the monks would be disturbed. There were other sounds now besides the screaming of sea-birds to be heard on Iona. There was the chapel bell calling the brothers to prayer; there was the music of the morning and evening hymns, and the cheerful busy sounds of daily work.

Then when all was set in order—fields prepared for harvest, cows brought over to give milk, and everything arranged for the daily life—Columba set out to begin the great work he had planned.

Far in the north lived the pagan King Brude, in a country where no Christian foot had ever trod. He was a strong and powerful King, and he sat in his grey northern castle fearing no man, for there was no army strong enough to march against him, and no one dared to withstand his power.

Who then were these strangers who came so boldly up to the gates and demanded an entrance? They were not soldiers, for they carried no weapons; they wore only robes of coarse homespun, and their shaven heads were uncovered. Yet they bore themselves with a fearless air, and their leader spoke in a voice that seemed accustomed to command. Like a trumpet-call the words rang out, “Open the gates in the name of Christ.”

“The gates shall not be opened,” swore the King. “These men are workers of magic and of evil. Keep the gates barred.”

Then the leader, who was Columba, lifted his head still higher, and those who saw him wondered at the look that shone on his face, while the brothers, seeing that look, were cheered and encouraged as if they too could see the angel who stood near and guided him.

There was a breathless silence as the people waited to see what the strange man would do next, and they saw him slowly lift his hand on high and make the sign of the cross. At that sign, as if opened by unseen hands, the gates swung back, the guards fled to right and left, and the way was clear for Columba to enter. Not as an enemy or the worker of evil magic, as the King had feared, did the great man come, but rather as a dove bearing the olive-branch of God’s peace.

And as the gates of iron had opened to God’s servant, so the gates of the King’s heart were unlocked as he listened to the words of Columba’s message. The victory which no earthly force and weapons could win, was won by God’s unarmed messenger alone. The King and many of his people were baptized, and the banner of Christ floated over the heathen citadel.

But although the King had become a Christian, there were still many people who hated Columba and his religion. The Druids, priests of the heathen religion, were very angry, and tried in every way to harm this man who had brought a new religion into their country. They could not bear to see the people listening to his teaching, and when it was time for evensong and the brethren were singing their evening hymn of praise, these Druids strove to drown the sound by making hideous noises and raising a terrible din. Little did they know the strength of that voice against which they were striving. Loud and clear rose the hymn of Columba, swelling into a great burst of praise which throbbed through the air and could be heard a mile away. Each word sounded distinctly, and it drowned the evil sounds of those pagan priests, and rose up to heaven as clear and pure as the song of a lark.

Wherever Columba preached and taught he also built a little church, and left behind some of the brethren to go on with the work of spreading God’s light. So through all the land there was a chain of churches and the light grew ever brighter and brighter.

But it was always to Iona that Columba returned, and which he made his home. There he worked and prayed and gathered fresh strength to fight the good fight. There in his cell he made fair copies of the books he loved, and was ready to help any one who came to him for advice and counsel. He was so kindly and patient, this great saint, that he never lost his temper, even when the visitors came and interrupted his work with unnecessary questions, and in their eagerness to embrace him knocked over his ink-horn and spilt his ink.

There was much work to be done by the brothers of the monastery besides their life of prayer and praise. There was the corn to be sown, the harvest to be reaped, cows to be tended, and there was also a seal farm to be cared for on one of the islands close by, where young seals were reared.

“Cross now to the island of Mull,” said Columba one day, “and on the open ground near the sea search for the thief Ere, who secretly came last night from the island of Colonsay. During the day he is trying to hide himself among the sandhills under his boat covered with hay, in order that he may cross over to the little island where our young seals are reared, and there, filling his boat with those he has cruelly slain, may return to his own dwelling.”

In great haste the brothers set out, and very angry they were when they found this Ere skulking beneath his boat, just as Columba had said. They dragged him to their master with no gentle hands, and waited grimly for him to receive the punishment he deserved.

But the kindly eyes of the abbot only looked sorrowfully at the thief.

“Why dost thou transgress the divine command so often and steal the things of others?” he asked, “Whenever thou art in want come to us, and thou shalt receive whatever needful things thou askest.”

Then he ordered that he should be given food. The thief stood with downcast eyes, more truly punished than the brethren knew, and after that the young seals were left in peace.

Among the many travellers who came to Iona to see Columba and to be entertained at the monastery, there were sometimes kings and nobles of high degree, but their coming did not move the abbot as did the arrival of a single poor guest, for whom he would bid the brethren prepare a special welcome. In the midst of all his work he still had time to care for the weak and helpless of God’s creatures. Calling one of the brothers to his cell, he gave him his directions.

“At the dawn of the third day from this,” he said, “when sitting on the shore of the sea on the western side of the island, I would have thee keep careful watch. For a crane, a stranger from the northern part of Ireland, driven about by the winds through long flights, will come after the ninth hour of the day. It will be fatigued and very weary, and with its strength almost spent will light on the shore and lie down before thee. Treat it tenderly and carry it to a neighbouring house, and there, when it hath been kindly received, do thou house and feed it three days and three nights. Then when refreshed after the three days’ rest, it is unwilling to tarry longer with us, it will return with renewed strength to the pleasant part of Ireland from which it came. I earnestly commend it to thee, because it cometh from our own native place.”

The brother did as Columba bade him, and when the crane arrived, weary and spent, he carried it in his arms to a safe shelter and tended it until the third day, when it was once more strong and well. Then the happy bird prepared for its homeward flight, and rising ever higher and higher in the air, searched out its way and flew straight for home, strengthened and refreshed by its visit to the saint, just as many a human heart, fainting and sore, won healing from that same kindly heart.

As time went on, Columba returned once or twice to Ireland; but he never stayed there long, for his heart was in his work and the “Island Soldier” was ever in the forefront of the battle.

It was once, when he was visiting the monastery of Saint Ceran in Ireland, that a great crowd came out to meet him, and the monks were obliged to shelter him under a wooden frame to prevent the people from pressing too closely upon him. There were all kinds of people in the crowd, rich and poor alike, all eager to reach the saint and receive his blessing, and among them was a poor boy belonging to the monastery. Now this boy, living as he did amongst the good brothers, ought to have learnt to be clean and neat, obedient and diligent, but that was exactly what he was not. His face and hands were grimy and dirty; his clothes were torn and untidy; he scarcely ever did what he was told to do; and he never did any work that he could possibly help doing. You would not have thought that any good was hidden away under all that naughtiness, any more than you would think that a pearl could be hidden in an ugly oyster shell. But yet the pearl was there.

This boy, whose name was Ernene, pressed through the crowd that day with half-idle curiosity to see the saint, but when he caught a glimpse of that kind beautiful old face, a wild longing filled his heart. Beneath all his naughtiness there had always been a longing after good and beautiful things, and he had dreamed dreams of doing brave and noble deeds and following some great leader. Here then was the leader he had dreamed of, and the sight of his face woke up all the old desires after goodness and a noble life. But it was all so difficult. He was only a poor boy, with no strength to fight against the snares of the Wicked One, no hope of coming out victor in the fight. Surely though, if he could but get near enough to the saint to touch his robe, some of the wonderful strength the saint possessed might be given to him.

Slowly, then, he crept behind the moving figure, ever nearer and nearer, until at last one grimy little hand was stretched out, and caught for a moment the hem of Columba’s robe. It was a swift movement, but the saint was quicker still, and with a sudden swing of his arm he turned and caught the boy by the back of his neck and swung him round in front.

There was an instant halt, and angry voices rose from those around. “Let him go, let him go,” they cried. “Why touch that unhappy naughty lad?” But no one dared to thrust the child away while Columba’s hand still held him close. “Suffer it, brethren,” said Columba gently; “suffer it to be so now.”

Then he looked down at the poor little quaking form, shaken with terror and confusion. “My son,” he said suddenly, “open thy mouth and put out thy tongue.”

The boy obeyed instantly. The saint might mean to punish him in some dreadful way, but he was ready to do whatever that voice commanded.

But Columba had seen the shining pearl lying deep down in that little black heart, and he knew of that longing to do noble deeds. Very kindly he smiled into the frightened eyes of the child, and raised his hand, not to strike but to bless. Then he turned to the monks who stood wondering round.

“Though this lad now appears to you vile and worthless,” he said, “let no one on that account despise him; for from this hour he shall not only not displease you, but shall greatly delight you. From day to day he shall gradually advance in good conduct, and great shall be his progress in your company. Moreover, to his tongue shall be given of God sound and learned eloquence.”

There was no more carelessness, no more disobedience, no more idleness for Ernene after this. Day by day, everything evil and ugly that hid the pearl of good desire was gradually cleared away, and the boy grew to be one of the best and greatest of those who served God in the monastery. There was many a fight before the Evil One was beaten, but the tongue blessed by Columba learned to speak only the words that were true and kindly and pure, and like the helm of a ship, although it was but a little thing, yet it held command over the whole body.

There is no room to tell of all the wonders and brave deeds and kindly acts of Saint Columba. It seemed as if there was nothing that he could not do, for he always believed that God would answer his prayers. When his servant Diomit was dying, Columba knelt by his bedside and prayed for his life, and the life was given back. When the brethren were out one day on a stormy sea in one of the frail hide-covered boats, it was again Columba’s prayers that saved them. He had worked with all his might baling out the water, while the waves dashed over the side of the boat and threatened every moment to sink it.

“Pray to God for us,” cried the brethren. “That is our only hope.”

Then Columba stood up, drenched and blinded by the spray, and he stretched his hands out to heaven and prayed to the Master who once, in a little fishing-boat with His disciples, had met just such a storm as this. And as he prayed, in an instant the answer came. Winds and waves, as of old, knew when to obey the voice of command, and “there was a great calm.”

Like his Master, too, Columba loved to seek some lonely quiet place where he could spend the time in prayer, and the place he loved best was the little hill behind the convent. The brothers sometimes wondered why he stayed there so long, and once it happened that one of them, filled with curiosity, climbed up secretly to see what their abbot was doing. But the sight that he saw there put his prying eyes to shame, for it was a vision of angels that met his gaze. There, around the praying form of Columba, God’s white-robed messengers hovered, waiting to carry his prayers up to the throne of God. So it is that the place is called the “Angels’ Hill” to this day.

The years passed by and Columba, growing old and frail, knew that his work was nearly done and the end drawing nigh. He had half hoped that at Eastertide God would call him home, but knowing that the Easter joy of the others would then be turned into sadness, he waited patiently for God’s good time.

The month of June had come. The island looked its fairest, decked in tender greens and embroidered with late spring flowers. The sea was at its bluest under the cloudless sky, and everything spoke of life and joy. But the hearts of the brethren in the monastery were heavy and sad. Each day they saw their beloved abbot growing more and more feeble, and they too knew the end was near. His steps now were slow and painful, and it was with difficulty that he made his way to the granary to bless the corn, as was his wont. As he went he leaned upon the shoulder of his faithful servant Diomit, but even then he could go but slowly; and coming back he sat down to rest at the wayside, for he was very weary. The white horse belonging to the monastery came by as he sat there, and seeing its master, stopped and looked with wise, sorrowful eyes at the tired figure resting by the roadside. All animals loved Columba, and many a kind word and handful of corn had this horse received from the master’s hand as it daily carried the milk pails to the monastery.

But to-day, in some curious way, the white horse saw the shadow of death which was already beginning to steal up over the waning life of the saint, and it came nearer and nearer until it nuzzled its head in Columba’s bosom, giving little whinnying cries of distress while the tears filled its eyes. Diomit would have driven the creature off, but Columba would not allow that.

“Suffer him, since he loves me,” he said, “to pour out his grief into my bosom. Thou, though thou art a man, could in no way have known of my departure if I had not told thee, but to this animal the Creator in His own way has revealed that his master is about to leave him.”

Then, slowly rising, Columba lifted his hand and blessed the horse as it stood there with sorrowful hanging head.

Before returning home, the saint, weary as he was, climbed once more the little hill he loved, and there, looking down upon the monastery, he blessed it in words that have been carried down through all the years.

“To this place,” he said, “small and mean though it be, not only the Kings of the Scots with their peoples, but also rulers of strange and foreign nations and their subjects, shall bring great honour in no common measure, and by the saints of other churches shall no slight reverence be shown.”

So the last blessing was given, and the work almost finished. Only a few verses of the Psalms remained to be copied, and these Columba sat writing when he returned to his hut.

“They that seek the Lord shall want no manner of thing that is good.”

Slowly and carefully the words were written, and the work was finished.

“Here I shall stop,” he said, and the pen was laid aside for ever.

The summer twilight lingered on long after the crimson banners of the sinking sun had faded into grey. Then one by one the stars came out, and a deep silence brooded over the monastery. Suddenly, as midnight struck, the chapel bell rang out clear and sharp, and in an instant there was a stir among the little huts as the brothers prepared to answer the call to prayer. Swiftly then a tall grey figure came running towards the chapel and entered the door. Diomit, hurrying after, paused and looked up at the windows in amazement. The whole chapel was filled with a blaze of light, and the glory was reflected in every window. What could it mean?

Hastening on he reached the door, but when he entered the light had faded and all within was thick darkness.

“My father, my father, where art thou?” cried Diomit, as he groped his way in with trembling outstretched hands. Then, as his eyes grew more accustomed to the darkness, he dimly saw a figure lying silent and still before the altar. In a moment he was kneeling by Columba’s side and raising him in his arms, while the rest of the brothers, bearing lights, came hurrying in.

There was a wild outburst of sobs and cries of grief as the brethren gathered round, but all sounds were hushed when they looked at the face of their dying master. It was no earthly joy that shone there, but a glory of shining happiness reflected from the angel faces which only his eyes could see. Diomit, praying for a last blessing, raised the master’s hand, and as the sign was given, Columba’s soul went home to God.

Kneeling round, the brothers sang the usual midnight service, their voices choked with sobs; and in their midst lay the quiet figure, the vision of angels still reflected upon the calm happy face.