June 9 – Columba of Iona

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Columba of Iona, Christian pioneer

In 563 Columba arrived at the south end of the tiny Scottish Island of Iona along with a dozen Irish monks. He climbed a nearby hill and looked back toward Ireland, but was unable to see it, so he chose to stay on Iona and establish his monastery. Not being able to see his native land meant that he would not be tempted to return. There is a lot of debate about why Columba came to Iona but the most plausible is that he came both out of a sense of mission and of penitence. Columba was a member of the Ui Neil family – the high kings of Ireland – and was a likely candidate for the role of High King, yet he chose the church. He studied under Finnian at Molville and established his own monasteries in the north. It is claimed that that Columba took and copied Finnian’s Bible, which may have been the latest version by Jerome, or may have been a book of the Psalms. However there was a dispute over ownership of the copy made by Columba and the ruling was ‘to every cow belongs its calf’- meaning that the copy belonged to Finnian. Columba refused to give it back. There are stories about how Columba was involved in a battle, either by his praying for the victory of his northern clan, or by physical participation. Whatever the truth of this Columba’s decision to become a pilgrim and exile from his country and go to the land of the picts, to evangelise that nation seems to be connected to this battle and the desire to do something that would redeem his actions.

Columba established a very significant mission on Iona, building close relationships with the King of Dalriada and beginning a systematic evangelical mission to the land of the Picts. It is reported by Adamnan – an Abbot of Columba’s Iona monastery who wrote an account of his life – that Columba took his coracle and sailed up the great glen to meet King Brude of the Picts and to convert him to the Christian faith, which he did in fact achieve. Columba is shown to be a man of great courage and determination; a visionary with a passion for God and a mystic, who wrote wonderful poetry and hymns.

Columba’s missionary purpose was grounded in a deep life of prayer. In the Benedictine Abbey built much later on that site a window in the South wall of the sanctuary depicts in stone a monkey and a cat. The cat speaks of contemplation, the monastic life of the monks, and the monkey tells of the energy and liveliness of the Celtic mission, that reached out to embrace the whole of Scotland with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The wonderfully illustrated Book of Kells originated from Iona giving expression both to Columba’s commitment to the Scriptures and to the importance he placed on Beauty as an expression of the Gospel. His life of prayer, his evangelical mission was also coupled with continued involvement in the political and ecclesiastical life of Ireland. He was a great statesman as well as a mystic who inspired in others an abiding faith in God.

Peter Gador-Whyte (alt)