By John Healy
[From The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol. VI, April 1885]
ST. COLUMBANUS was the great glory of the school of Bangor. He is one of the most striking figures of his age; his influence has been even felt down to our own times. The libraries which contain manuscripts written by his monks are ransacked for these literary treasures, and the greatest scholars of France and Germany study the Celtic glosses which the monks of Columbanus jotted down on the margins or between the leaves of their manuscripts. Hence we think it right to call special attention to the literary labours of Columbanus, because he is at once the highest representative of Celtic culture and Celtic monasticism.
We need not dwell at length on the facts of his life, striking and interesting as his marvellous career undoubtedly is. His life, published by Surius, was written by an Italian monk of Bobbio, called Jonas, at the request of his ecclesiastical superiors, and, though full enough in details regarding his life on the Continent, it is meagre as to facts of his youth in Ireland. It is, however, so far as it goes, authentic, for the informants of Jonas, were the members of his own community of Bobbio, who were companions of the saint, and eye-witnesses of what they relate.
Columbanus, or Columba, was the Latin name given to the saint, probably on account of the sweetness of his disposition. For although in the cause of God he was impetuous, and sometimes even headstrong, we are told that to his companions and associates he was ever gracious and quiet as the dove. We know for certain that he was a native of West Leinster, and born about the year 543,1 if not earlier, for he was at least 72 years at his death in 615. In his boyhood he gave himself up with great zeal and success to the study of grammar, and of the other liberal arts then taught in our Irish schools, including geometry, arithmetic, dialectics, astronomy, rhetoric, and music. He was a handsome youth, too, well-shaped and prepossessing in appearance, fair and blue-eyed like most of the nobles of the Scots. This was to him a source of great danger, for at least one young maiden strove to win the affections of the handsome scholar, and wean his heart from God. Old Jonas, the writer of the life, shudders at the thought of the danger to which Columbanus was exposed, and the devilish snares that were laid for his innocence. The youth himself was fully sensible of his danger, and sought the counsel of a holy virgin who lived in a hermitage hard by. At first he spoke with hesitation and humility, but afterwards with confidence and courage, which showed that he was a youth of high spirit, and therefore all the more in danger. "What need," replied the virgin, "to seek my counsel. I myself have fled the world, and for fifteen years have remained shut up in this cell. Remember the warning examples of David, Samson, and Solomon, who were led astray by the love of women. There is no security for you except in flight." The youth was greatly terrified by this solemn warning, and bidding farewell to his parents, resolved to leave home and retire for his soul's sake to some religious house where he would be secure. His mother, with tears, besought him to stay; she even threw herself on the threshold before him, but the boy, declaring that whoever loved his father or mother more than Christ, is unworthy of him, stepped aside, and left his home and his parents, whom he never saw again.
He went straight to Cluaninis, in Lough Erne, whose hundred islets in those days were the homes of holy men, who gave themselves up to prayer, penance, and sacred study. An old man named Sinell, was at that time famous for holiness and learning, and so Columbanus placed himself under his care, and made great progress both in profane learning, and especially in the study of the Sacred Scriptures.
At this time the fame of Bangor was great throughout the land: so Columbanus leaving his master Sinell of Lough Erne, came to Comgall, and prostrating himself before the Abbot begged to be admitted amongst his monks. The request was granted at once, and Columbanus, as we are expressly informed, spent many years in that great monastery by the sea, going through all the literary and religious exercises of the community with much fervour and exactness. This was the spring-time of his life, in which he sowed the seeds of that spiritual harvest, which France and Italy afterwards reaped in such abundance. His rule was the rule of Bangor. His learning was the learning of Bangor, His spirit was the spirit of Bangor.
When fully trained in knowledge and piety, Columbanus sought his Abbot Comgall, and begged leave to go, like so many of his countrymen, on a pilgrimage for Christ. It was the impulse of the Celtic mind from the beginning- it is so still-the Irish are a nation of Apostles. It is not a mere love of change or foreign travel, or tedium of home, the pilgrimage, or peregrinatio, was essentially undertaken to spread the Gospel of Christ. The holy Abbot Comgall gladly assented. He gave him his leave and his blessing, and Columbanus, taking with him twelve companions, prepared to cross the sea. Money they had none: they needed none. The only treasure they took with them was their books slung over their shoulders in leathern satchels, and so, with their staves in their hands, and courage in their hearts, they set out from their native country never to return. At first they went to England, and traversing that country, where it seems, too, they were joined by some associates, they found means to cross the channel and came to Gaul, about the year 575.
Gaul at that time was in a deplorable state. The country was nearly depopulated by a century of cruel wars; and although the Kings of the Franks were nominally Christians, and their people Catholics, yet partly from the disturbances of the times, and partly from the negligence of the prelates, vice and crime were everywhere triumphant. The apostolic man with his companions at once set about preaching the Gospel in these half-Christian towns and villages. Poor, half-naked, hungry, their lives were a sermon; but moreover, Columbanus was gifted with great eloquence, and a sweet persuasive manner that no one could resist. They were everywhere received as men of God, and the fame of their holiness and miracles even came to the court of Sigebert, King of Austrasia, of which Metz was the capital. He pressed them to stay in his dominions, but they would not. They went their way southward through a wild and desert country, preaching and teaching, healing and converting, until they came to the Court of Gontran, grandson of Clovis, at that time King of Burgundy-one of the three kingdoms into which the great monarchy of Clovis had come to be subdivided.
Gontran received the missionaries with a warm welcome, and at first established them at a place called Annegray, where there was an old Roman castle in the modern department of the Haute-Saone. The King offered them both food and money, but these things they declined, and such was their extreme poverty, that they were often forced to live for weeks together on the herbs of the field, on the berries, and even the bark of the trees. Columbanus used from time to time bury himself alone in the depths of the forest, heedless of hunger, which stared him in the face, and of the wild beasts that roamed around him, trusting altogether to the good providence of God. He became even the prince of the wild animals. The birds would pick the crumbs from his feet; the squirrels would hide themselves under his cowl; the hungry wolves harmed him not; he slept in the cave where a bear had its den. Once a week a boy would bring him a little bread or vegetables: he needed nothing else. He had no companion. The Bible transcribed, no doubt, at Bangor with his own hand, was his only study and his highest solace. Thus for weeks, and even months, he led a life, like John the Baptist, in the wilderness, wholly divine.
Meanwhile the number of disciples in the monastery at the old rained castle of Annegray daily increased, and it became necessary to seek a more suitable site for a larger community. Here too the Burgundian King Gontran proved himself the generous patron of Columbanus and his monks. There was at the foot of the Vosges mountains, where warm medicinal springs pour out a healing stream, an old Roman settlement called Leuxeil. But it was now a desert. The broken walls of the ancient villas were covered with shrubs and weeds. The woods had extended from the slopes of the mountain down to the valleys covering all the country round. There was no population, no tillage, no arable land; it was all a savage forest, filled with wolves, bears, foxes, and wild cats. Not a promising site for a monastic settlement, but such a place exactly as Columba and his companions desired. They wanted solitude, they loved labour, and they would have plenty of both. In a few years a marvellous change came over the scene. The woods were cleared, the lands were tilled, fields of waving corn rewarded the labour of the monks, and smiling vineyards gave them wine for the sick and for the holy Sacrifice. The noblest youths of the Franks begged to be admitted to the brotherhood, and gladly took their share in the daily round of prayer, penance, and ceaseless toil. They worked so long that they fell asleep from fatigue when walking home. They slept so little that it was a new penance to tear themselves from the mats on which they lay. But the blessing of God was upon them; they grew in numbers, and in holiness, and in happiness, not the happiness of men who love this world, but the happiness of those who truly serve God.
But now a sore trial was nigh. God wished to purify his servants by suffering, and to extend to other lands the sphere of their usefulness. The first trial came from the secular clergy. Those Irish monks were men of virtue and austerity, but they were also in many respects very peculiar. They had a liturgy of their own somewhat different from that in use around them; they had a queer tonsure, like Simon Magus, it was said, in front from ear to ear, instead of the orthodox and customary crown. Worst of all, it sometimes happened that they celebrated Easter on Palm Sunday, so that they were singing their alleluias when all the churches of the Franks were in the mourning of Passion time. Remonstrance was useless; they adhered tenaciously to their country's usages; nothing could convince them that what St. Patrick and the saints of Ireland had handed down to them could by any possibility be wrong. They only wanted to be let alone. They did not desire to impose their usages on others. Why should others impose their usages on them? They had a right to be allowed to live in peace in their wilderness, for they injured no man, and they prayed for all. Thus it was that Columbanus reasoned, or rather remonstrated, with a synod of French bishops that objected to his practices. His letters to them and to Pope Gregory the Great on the subject of this Paschal question are still extant, and he cannot be justified in some of the expressions which he uses. He tells the bishops in effect in one place that they would be better employed in enforcing canonical discipline amongst their own clergy, than in discussing the Paschal question with him and his monks. Yet here and there he speaks not only with force and freedom, but also with true humility and genuine eloquence. He implores the prelates in the most solemn language to let him and his brethren live in peace and charity in the heart of their silent woods, beside the bones of their seventeen brothers who were dead. "Surely it is better for you," he says, "to comfort than to disturb us, poor old men, strangers, too, in your midst. Let us rather love one another in the charity of Christ, striving to fulfil his precepts, and thereby secure a place in the assembly of the just made perfect in heaven."
Language of this character, used, too, in justification of practices harmless in themselves, but not in accordance with the prevalent discipline of the Church at the time, was by no means well calculated to beget affection towards the strangers in the minds of the Frankish clergy. Other troubles, too, soon arose.
Gontran, the steady friend of Columbanus, died childless in 593, and was succeeded in Burgundy by his nephew Childebert II., already King of Austrasia, the son of the infamous Queen Brunehaut. He too died three years later, leaving his kingdoms to his young sons Theodebert, who got Austrasia, and Thierry, who took Burgundy. Brunehaut, their grandmother, the daughter of the Arian King of the Visi-Goths of Spain, was in her youth handsome, generous, and pious. But her heart was soured by the murder of her sister, the Queen of Neustria; she gave her whole soul to the demon of vengeance, and she wished for power to compass her vengeance. So she took the guardianship of the young princes into her own hands (596), and in order to secure her own power she encouraged the princes to indulge in every debauchery. This was especially the case after she was driven by the nobles from Austrasia and forced to take refuge in Burgundy, where she had the young Thierry at her own bad disposal. A lawful queen might dispossess the wicked Brunehaut from the place of influence which she held over the king, and so she encouraged him in the pursuit of unlawful love, in order to secure her own power. Leuxeil was in Burgundy, and King Thierry, pious after the fashion of the Merovignians, sometimes visited Columbanus and his monks. The latter was no respecter of persons, and on these occasions he rebuked the king with apostolic zeal and courage for keeping concubines at his palace instead of a lawful queen. The king took the rebuke patiently, and promised amendment; but Brunehaut was more dangerous to touch. On one occasion when Columbanus was at Bourcheresse she brought the four children of Thierry to be blessed by the saint. "What would you have me do?" he said. "To bless the king's children," answered Brunehaut. "They will never reign," he cried out, "they are the offspring of iniquity." The woman retired wrathful and humiliated, plotting revenge. All the neighbouring people, even the religious houses, were forbidden to hold any communication with Columbanus and his monks, or to yield them any succour. But Columbanus, so far from yielding, wrote a reproachful letter to the king, in which he even threatened excommunication if he persisted in his evil courses. Here no doubt was the height of insolence-a foreign monk to threaten to excommunicate a king of the Franks. It was intolerable. Yet when Columbanus came to the royal villa at Epoisses to remonstrate with the king, he was hospitably received. He however indignantly refused to accept the hospitality of the persecutor of his poor monks, and under his withering curse the vessels containing the repast were broken to pieces. On this occasion both Thierry and Brunehaut, in terror of their lives, asked pardon, which was readily granted. But the truce only lasted for a short time. Thierry relapsed again into his crimes, and again Columbanus threatened excommunication. This time both Thierry and the queen came to Leuxeil in person, but Columbanus strictly adhering to the Irish rule excluding women from the cloister, forbade them to cross the threshold of his monastery. The king persisted, and made his way to the refectory, "Know then," said the intrepid monk, "that as you have broken our rules we will have none of your gifts, and, moreover, God will destroy your kingdom and your race." "I won't make you a martyr," said Thierry ; "I am not such a fool: but since you and your monks will have nothing to do with us, you must leave this place and go home to your own country whence you came." This was about the year 610.
For the present, however, he was only made a prisoner, and conducted to Bensancon, where he was kept under surveillance, until one day, looking with longing to his beloved Leuxeil, and seeing no one at hand to prevent him, he descended the steep cliff which overhangs the river Doubs, and returned to his monastery. When the king heard of his return, he sent imperative orders to have him and all his companions from Ireland and Britain forcibly removed from the monastery, and conveyed home to their own country. The soldiers presented themselves at Leuxeil when the holy man was in the choir with his monks. They told him their orders, and begged him to come voluntarily with them-they were unwilling to resort to force. At first he refused; but lest the soldiers might be punished for not resorting to that violence which they were unwilling to make use of, he finally yielded. He called his Irish brethren around them: "Let us go," he said, "my brothers, in the name of God." It was hard to leave the scene of their labours, their sorrows, and their joys; hard to leave behind them the graves of the seventeen brethren with whom they had hoped to rest in peace. But go they must; the soldiers would not for a moment leave them. It was a brief and sad leave-taking. Wails of sorrow were heard everywhere for the loss of their beloved father; brother was torn from brother, friend from friend, never to meet again in this world. Thus it was that Columbanus and his Irish companions left that dear monastery of Leuxeil, and were conducted by the soldiers to Nevers. There, still guarded by the soldiers, they embarked in a boat that conveyed them down the Loire to its mouth, where they would find a ship to convey them back again to Ireland.
But it was not the will of Providence that Columbanus and his companions, when driven from Leuxeil, should return to Ireland: other work was before them to do. Accordingly, when they came to the mouth of the Loire, their baggage, such as it was, was put on board, and most of the monks embarked. But the sea rose mountains high, and the ship which Columbanus intended to rejoin when under weigh, was forced to return to port. A three days' calm succeeded, and the captain, fearing to provoke a new storm, caused the monks and their baggage to be put on shore, for he feared to take them with him. Thus left to themselves, Columbanus and his companions went to Soissons to Clotaire, King of Neustria, by whom he was received with every kindness and hospitality. The king cordially hated Brunehaut and her grandson-his mother, Fredegonda, had murdered Brunehaut's sister- and he was anxious to keep Columbanus in his own kingdom, but the latter would not stay. He pushed on, with his companions, to Metz, the capital of Austrasia, where Theodebert, the brother of Thierry, then reigned. Here he was joined by several of his old monks from Leuxeil, who preferred to follow their father in his wanderings, to remaining behind in the kingdom of his persecutor.
Columbanus now resolved to preach the Gospel to the pagan populations on the right bank of the Rhine and its tributary streams. So embarking at Mayence, after many toils and dangers, they came as far as Lake Zurich, in Switzerland, and finally established themselves at Bregentz, on the Lake of Constance, where they fixed their headquarters. The tribes inhabiting these wild and beautiful regions-the Suevi and Alemanni-were idolaters, though nominal subjects of the Austrasian kingdom. Woden was their God, and they worshipped him with dark mysterious rites, under the shadow of sacred oaks, far in the depths of the forest. Discretion was not a gift of Columbanus, so he not only preached the Gospel amongst them, but, axe in hand, he had the courage to cut down their sacred trees; he burned their rude temples, and cast their fantastic idols into the lake. It was not wise; the people became enraged, and the missionaries were forced to fly. After struggling for three years to convert this savage people, Columbanus, perceiving that the work was not destined to be accomplished by him, crossed the snow-covered Alps by the pass of St. Gothard, though now more than seventy years of age,2 and after incredible toil, succeeded, with a few of his old companions, in making his way to the Court of the Lombard King Agilulph, whose Queen was Theodelinda, famous for beauty, for genius, and for virtue.
At this time the Lombards were Arians, and Agilulph himself was an Arian, although Queen Theodelinda was a devout Catholic. Mainly we may assume through her influence the Arian monarch received the broken down old man and his companions with the utmost kindness, and Columbanus had an ample field for the exercise of his missionary zeal amongst the rude half-Christian population. But first of all it was necessary to have a permanent home -and nowhere could he find rest except in solitude. Just at this time a certain Jucundus reminded the King that there was at a place called Bobbio a ruined church once dedicated to St. Peter; that the place round about was fertile and well watered with streams, abounding in every kind of fish. It was near the Trebbia, almost at the very spot where Hannibal first felt the rigours of that fierce winter in the snows of the Appenines, so graphically described by
Livy. The King gladly gave the place to Columbanus, and the energetic old man set about repairing the ruined church and building his monastery with all that unquenchable ardour that cleared the forests of Leuxeil, and crossed the snows of the Alps. His labours were regarded by his followers as miraculous. The fir trees, cut down in the valleys of the Appenines, which his monks were unable to carry down the steep and rugged ways, when the old man himself came and took a share of the burden were found to be no weight. So, speedily and joyfully, with the visible aid of heaven, they completed the task, and built in the valley of the Appenines a monastery, whose name will never be forgotten by saints or scholars. Whilst it was building, Clotaire, King of Neustria, now monarch of all the Franks according to the prediction of Columbanus, sent a solemn embassy to Bobbio, and invited him in most courteous language to return again to France to dwell with his companions where he pleased. He declined, however, the tempting offer of the king. France had cast him out; he had now found a home; he was too old to become a wanderer any more.
The holy old man lived but one year after he had founded Bobbio. His merits were full; the work of his life was complete; he had given his rule to the new house; he left behind him some of his old companions to complete his work, and now he was ready to die. To the great grief of the brotherhood, Columbanus passed away to his reward on the eleventh day before the Kalends of December, in the year 615, probably in the seventy-third year of his age. He was buried beneath the high altar, and long afterwards the holy remains were enclosed in a stone coffin, and are still preserved in the old monastic Church of Bobbio.
It is not too much to say that Ireland never sent a greater son than Columbanus to do the work of God in foreign lands. He brought forth much fruit and his fruit has remained. For centuries his influence was dominant in France and in Northern Italy, and even in our own days, his spirit speaketh from his urn. His deeds have been described by many eloquent tongues and pens, and his writings have been carefully studied to ascertain the secret of his extraordinary influence over his own and subsequent ages. His character was not indeed faultless, but he was consumed with a restless untiring zeal in the service of his Master, which was at once the secret of his power and the source of his mistakes. He was too ardent in character, and almost too zealous in the cause of God. In this respect he is not unlike St. Jerome, but we forget their faults in our admiration for their virtues and their labours. A man more holy, more chaste, more self-denying, a man with loftier aims and purer heart than Columbanus, was never born in the Island of Saints.
1 Dr. Moran thinks he was born as early as 530.
2 According to others, he was nearly ninety.