Today we remember St Columba, founder of Iona Monastery. He is a saint native to the British Isles, yet spent a lot of his life in exile abroad, although still within these islands. St Columba is a great saint, he has been called an apostle to Scotland. We are fortunate indeed to have a detailed account of him of him written by St Adamnan - a later abbot of Iona - from records of the monastery. There are of course other references to him, not least in St Bede’s History.
Iona is a small beautiful Island in Western Scotland. I have been there several times. It is also curious place, much visited (it is one of Scotland’s top attractions) and the base for an “ecumenical” Protestant group which provides a retreat centre for those who can afford it as well as doing various social work projects. A book shop is well stocked with things on so called Celtic Christianity and environmental issues. I am sorry if I sound critical but those things on Iona rather miss the point. I get very uneasy when people talk about “Celtic Christianity”. Protestants usually want to use it as an example of a sort of early Protestantism. There was a group of people living in the far west of Europe we can call Celts and so there was a Celtic Church, in the sense of the Church of those people. So, Celtic Christianity and its art properly understood was and is an expression of Orthodox Christianity in the north and west of Britain. It is to be celebrated. Celtic monks took Christian learning across much of Western Europe. Iona is also important in the history of Scotland and northern Britain. It was a great centre of learning and Christianity. Saints, including St Aidan, spent a lot of time there. This was the Christianity of the undivided Church. Iona is an Orthodox place of pilgrimage to this day.
St Columba was born into the Irish Royal family, the Ui Neill. (That makes him a distant relative of mine.) He became a monk and was a deacon in his early twenties then became a priest. He established monasteries in Ireland, including those at Derry, Durrow and Kells. He founded Iona in his forties. This arose partly from a wrong doing however. He secretly copied a psalter for his own use. The owner claimed the copy. Columba refused to give it up, and the question was put before the Overlord of Ireland. The case went against Columba. “To every cow her calf,” said the King, “and to every book its son-book”. Therefore the copy belongs to Finnian.” This led it seems to bad feeling. It accounts partly for the war that followed although the main cause was the killing of a man who had sought sanctuary with Columba.
In battle Columba’s group won, but Columba was accused of being morally responsible for the death three of thousand unprepared people. A synod censured him and would have followed it by excommunication but for the intervention of St. Brendan. Felling guilty and after advice from a holy man, he decided to make amends by exiling himself to win for Christ in another land as many souls as had perished in the battle. So he set off to what is now called Scotland. Let us note that Columba went with the guidance of a spiritual elder. He showed humility and repentance. Columba’s exile lead to the conversion of much of Scotland. It is important that he went, not alone but with others. Life in the Church is always a communal life and he gathered enough mo0nks to form a small community. Iona was given to him by the local king who was a relative.
Columba’s life is what we expect from a great saint in the Orthodox tradition. It is no surprise that, like St Athansios the Athonite, he had a cell some distance from the main monastery that he would retreat to. He also showed, like St Seraphim and others, the light of theosis, of deification. St Adamnan says in Chapter 19 of his Life: “At another time, when the saint was living in the Hinba island , the grace of the Holy Ghost was communicated to him … so for three whole days, and as many nights, without either eating or drinking, he allowed no one to approach him, and remained confined in a house which was filled with heavenly brightness. Yet out of that house, through the chinks of the doors and keyholes, rays of surpassing brilliancy were seen to issue during the night…...” There are other stories recorded of his knowing things through God’s grace in a way that echoes stories one hears about the modern elder Paisios. St. Columba went on many missionary journeys and travelled both back to Ireland and into Northern Scotland. Yet always he had a base on Iona and returned there. He converted Brude, king of the Picts, and in 574 the new king of the Scots Dal Riada came to Iona to receive consecration at Columba’s hands. This was, I suggest, another example of the sort of reputation for holiness we see in St Seraphim of Sarov, or perhaps St Aidan of Lindisfarne who was originally a monk in Iona. Columba himself lived very simply.
In today’s gospel we read how Christ used clay in his curing of the blind man. God uses the material world and everything to good if we allow Him to. In St Columba’s case we meet a learned man was prepared to travel away from his native land as a missionary. He had royal connections and this made the gift of an island for his monastery possible. It also meant that he had access to people. God can and does use every situations to the good if we seek to do his will. What we do and how we live out our lives does not depend on where we start but rather where we go and what we do as God leads us.
What more can we learn from St Columba?
Firstly we need to see him as an example of a life that includes repentance and growth in holiness - a reaching out to God which was rewarded by deification, theosis. Columba could have led a nice quiet life as an aristocrat or as a retiring scholar in a monastery with all the advantages of a well-connected nobleman. He followed a better path by choosing to obey God. He then served God as best he could and became ever holier. That path is open to each one of us.
Secondly God can use all situations to His purposes and glory. When we are prepared to allow God to act He can do much through us. We also need to thank God for Columba’s companions who made the monastic life possible for him in Scotland and supported the work. We all have our part to play in whatever capacity that might be.
Finally, St Columba’s life shows very clearly (as I hope I have shown with the parallels with others) that the saint in Orthodoxy is recognisably the same no matter where he or she lives and works. Orthodoxy is neither east nor west but both. It is woven into the very fabric of our history in Britain. Columba lived in a world of small kingdoms and tribes. He was not confined by that and was prepared to share the Gospel with others. He is a saint of the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. I am sure that like St Aidan he rejoices to see the Church reviving in these islands. We have British saints, Greek saints, saints from every land and culture, but nationality does not count in the Church. Many of have, like Columba left home and lived abroad, yet we are all at home here in the household of faith. The Church is one and a home for all. Let us then, like St. Columba live the life God wants us to lead.
St Columba, intercede with Christ our God that we may really follow your example and do what Christ wants us to do in all things. Amen.