"Fifteen hundred years ago, a young woman in north-west Ireland had a vision. An angel of God appeared before her and prophesied that the infant in her womb would grow into “a son of such flower that he shall be reckoned as one of the prophets. He is destined by God to lead innumerable souls to the heavenly kingdom.”
That Columba was a titan of the early Irish and British church is beyond argument. Medieval Scots hailed him as “spes Scotorum” – “hope of Scots”. The Irish were so in awe of him that they made him one of their three patron saints. Powerful English kings sought spiritual support from his immediate successors. Columba is remembered as a missionary, miracle-worker, king-maker and, above all, as the founder of an enormously influential monastery on Iona.
The religious community that he forged on this western Scottish isle helped make him one of the most powerful religious figures in sixth-century Scotland and Ireland. Yet today his reputation endures far beyond the confines of north-western Europe.
Over the past 15 centuries, Columba has been celebrated in poetry and prose, in manuscript art, sculpture and folkloric tales everywhere from Scandinavia to the United States. Churches throughout the Christian world claim him as their patron saint. When pilgrims descend upon Iona to pray and pay homage to his remarkable life and legacy, they do so from destinations across the globe".
History Today: Sarah Foot, Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History, Oxford Univ.
Saint Columba, the towering figure of Celtic Christianity (also known as Columcille - "Dove of the Church") was born Colum MacFhelin MacFergus about 521 in Donegal. He decided, aged 19, to enter the famous school of Saint Finnian at Moville, where he was ordained into the diaconate. Aged 25 he began founding monasteries in Derry and Kells, and over the years was said to have founded as many as 300 religious houses in Ireland.
King Diarmaid and the clan to which Columba belonged were locked in violent disagreement - it is thought to have been initiated by the saint himself, unfortunately. On advice, Saint Columba took upon himself voluntary exile from his country and a vow to win over as many souls to Christ as had perished through the disagreement, apparently some 3000!
In 563, he sailed away with 12 members of his clan, in a wicker coracle covered with leather, landing on Iona, island of the Inner Hebrides. The island was given to him by King Conall, his relative, and he immediately started on the foundations for his monastery.
This was to become the centre of Celtic mission, and an example of monastic devotion. He was concerned with building up both the monastery and its life, and of enabling it to be the instrument of mission in a heathen land. Saint Columba travelled across northern Scotland, in the highlands and outer island, building churches and monasteries.
Columba was a man of contradictions, writes Adomnán. A tall figure of powerful build and considerable presence, Columba was quick to anger, leading to his reputation in Irish legend as the bad-tempered saint. But he showed compassion to penitents, cared for his monks, and would relax his strict fast to entertain visitors to Iona. These contradictions in his character are conveyed by the contrast between his Latin name (“the dove”) and his Gaelic nickname, Crimthann (“the fox”).
Whether fox or dove, by the second half of the sixth century, Columba’s status as a pre-eminent holy man, scholar and monastic leader had made him a political and religious heavyweight – someone who could shape the destinies of rulers across Scotland and Ireland. In his relationship with kings, Columba appeared in Adomnán’s account like the biblical prophet Samuel in the way that he interceded with the Almighty: “Some kings were conquered in the terrifying crash of battle and others emerged victorious according to what Columba asked of God by the power of prayer. He remained a triumphant champion of kings in death as in life.”
Columba seems to have been an austere and, at times harsh man, who reputedly mellowed with age. Though noted for his asceticism - he slept on a stone pillow which later became his headstone - he was also known for his joyous love of life.
He suffered a long illness, and died on June 9th in 597. He collapsed part way through copying a psalter and died in the church in the company of his monks.
What is arguably the most impressive of all tributes, the “great gospel of Colum Cille” – better known as the Book of Kells – was created c800 AD, perhaps in Iona or Kells, possibly to mark the bicentenary of the saint’s death.
Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,
Be all else but naught to me, save that thou art. Be thou my best thought in the day and the night; Both waking and sleeping, thy presence my light.
High King of heaven, thou heaven's bright sun, O grant me its joys after victory is won; great Heart of my own heart, whatever befall, still be thou my vision, O Ruler of all.
Almighty God, who filled the heart of Columba with the joy of the Holy Spirit
and with deep love for those in his care: may we, your pilgrim people follow him, strong in faith, sustained by hope, and one in the love that binds us in you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Be the Lord a bright flame before you, Be the Lord a guiding star above you,
Be the Lord a smooth path below you,
Be the Lord a kindly shepherd behind you, Today, tonight and forever;
and the blessing of the Sacred Three,
Father, Son, and Spirit,
be upon you now and always. Amen.
Saint Columba, Apostle to Iona