St. Columbanus

From An Illustrated History of Ireland by Margaret Anne Cusack

« start... Chapter XI. ...continued

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Irish missionary zeal was inaugurated in the person of St. Columba, although its extension to continental Europe was commenced by another, who, from similarity of name, has been frequently confounded with the national apostle.

St. Columbanus was born about the year 539. The care of his education was confided to the venerable Senile, who was eminent for his sanctity and knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. It was probably through his influence that the young man resolved to devote himself to the monastic life. For this purpose he placed himself under the direction of St. Comgall, who then governed the great Monastery of Bangor (Banchorr).

It was not until he entered his fiftieth year that he decided on quitting his native land, so that there can be no reason to doubt that his high intellectual attainments were acquired and perfected in Ireland.

With the blessing of his superior, and the companionship of twelve faithful monks, he set forth on his arduous mission; and arduous truly it proved to be. The half-barbarous Franks, then ruled by Thierry or Theodoric, lived more a pagan than a Christian life, and could ill brook the stern lessons of morality which they heard from, and saw practised by, their new teacher. The saint did not spare the demoralized court, and the Queen-Dowager Brunehalt became his bitterest foe. He had already established two monasteries: one at Luxovium, or Luxeuil, in a forest at the foot of the Vosges; the other, on account of its numerous springs, was called Ad-fontanas (Fontaines). Here the strict discipline of the Irish monks was rigidly observed, and the coarsest fare the only refection permitted to the religious.

For a time they were allowed to continue their daily routine of prayer and penance without molestation; but the relentless Brunehalt, who, from the basest motives, had encouraged the young king in every vice, could no longer brave either the silent preaching of the cloister or the bold denunciations of the saint. As Columbanus found that his distant remonstrances had no effect on the misguided monarch, for whose eternal welfare he felt the deep interest of true sanctity, he determined to try a personal interview. For a brief space his admonitions were heard with respect, and even the haughty queen seemed less bent on her career of impiety and deceit; but the apparent conversion passed away as a summer breeze, and once more the saint denounced and threatened in vain.

Strict enclosure had been established in the monasteries professing the Columbanian rule;[2] and this afforded a pretext for the royal vengeance. Theodoric attempted to violate the sanctuary in person; but though he was surrounded by soldiers, he had to encounter one whose powers were of another and more invincible character. The saint remained in the sanctuary, and when the king approached addressed him sternly:

"If thou, sire," he exclaimed, "art come hither to violate the discipline already established, or to destroy the dwellings of the servants of God, know that in heaven there is a just and avenging power; thy kingdom shall be taken from thee, and both thou and thy royal race shall be cut off and destroyed on the earth."

The undaunted bearing of Columbanus, and, perhaps, some lingering light of conscience, not yet altogether extinguished, had its effect upon the angry monarch. He withdrew; but he left to others the task he dared not attempt in person. The saint was compelled by armed men to leave his monastery, and only his Irish and British subjects were permitted to bear him company. They departed in deep grief, not for the cruel treatment they suffered, but for their brethren from whom they were thus rudely torn. As the monks who were left behind clung weeping to their father, he consoled them with these memorable words: "God will be to you a Father, and reward you with mansions where the workers of sacrilege can never enter."

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[2] Rule.—"The light which St. Columbanus disseminated, by his knowledge and doctrine, wherever he presented himself, caused a contemporary writer to compare him to the sun in his course from east to west; and he continued after his death to shine forth in numerous disciples whom he had trained in learning and piety."—Benedictine Hist. Litt. de la France.