Many years ago I visited the wonderful Isle of Iona, which is off the the coast of Mull. It has been a centre of Christian worship since the St Columba arrived there in AD 563.
Today is the feast day of this Irish saint and it is 1,500 years since his birth. Columba’s monastery survived until the end of the 12th century, despite repeated Viking raids. Around 1200, the sons of Somerled – ‘King of the Isles’ – founded a Benedictine abbey here. Pilgrimages to St Columba’s Shrine continued to thrive, though monastic life on Iona ended with the Protestant Reformation of 1560. The Iona Community, formed in 1938, has revived the abbey’s long tradition of work, worship and teaching.
What we know about Columba or Colum Cille is a life that as written in seventh century by Adomnán, one of the later abbots of Iona (679–704). It was largely based on oral tradition at Iona and the ‘Liber de virtutibus S. Columbae’, written by a previous abbot, Cumméne Find.
The ‘Vita Columbae’ can be supplemented by Bede’s ‘Historia ecclesiastica’ which may be based on oral tradition communicated to Bede who had no direct knowledge of Colum Cille. Bede emphasises Colum Cille’s missionary activity and the spirituality of the Iona monastic tradition. From these and other sources, Colum Cille emerges as a distinct historical figure. Adomnán’s account of the death of Colum Cille on 6 June 597, at the age of about 76, is one of the most evocative parts of the Vita: ‘that night a bright light, like a comet, appeared in the sky’. He checked that sufficient stores for the remainder of the year were laid in store in the barn, blessed it and on his return to the monastery the community’s horse came up to him, placed his head in the saint’s lap and wept at his imminent departure.
Here is a prayer of St Columba
Be a bright flame before me, O God
a guiding star above me.
Be a smooth path below me,
a kindly shepherd behind me
today, tonight, and for ever.
Alone with none but you, my God
I journey on my way;
what need I fear when you are near,
O Lord of night and day?
More secure am I within your hand
than if a multitude did round me stand.