URC Daily Devotion Friday 21st April 2023 St Colmcille
Friday 21 April 2023 St Colmcille
St Colmcille (in Irish meaning ‘Dove of the Church’) is a person of multiple names, many legends and – we might even say – different sanctities. Born in 521 in Gartan, County Donegal, to a wealthy family associated with the powerful O’Neills. Some say his given name at birth was “Crimthann”, meaning a “fox”. He is better known in Scotland, and beyond, as St Columba of Iona.
The meritorious Scottish life of Columba recounts wise leadership, humility, piety, diplomacy and missionary success. I wonder if perhaps we are inclined to project onto him the character, temperament and impulses of a later (Nineteenth Century) missionary age.
St Colmcille, in his earlier life and ongoing connections with his native place, is altogether more turbulent. A precocious teenager and accomplished musician, Colmcille became a monk and was ordained under St Mobhi at the renowned monastery of Glasnevin. It was not long until he began to found other monasteries around the country, and by the time he was 25, it was said that he had founded 27 communities throughout Ireland.
Colmcille had a love of books that caused him trouble, as a book called the Psalter of the O’Donnells, or the Battle Book of the O’Donnells, caught his eye. This was a beautiful book the O’Donnell clan would bring with them whenever they marched off to battle.
He went back to his old teacher’s Abbey in Movilla around 560CE, and began to secretly transcribe the Psalter while he stayed there. His host, the Abbot Finnian heard a copy was being made and decided to wait until it was finished, then told Colmcille that he couldn’t depart with it, but must hand it over! Colmcille refused, but the Abbot appealed to King Diarmuid. Shortly after, Colmcille gave refuge to a young man who had accidentally killed one of his rivals in a game of hurling, but King Diarmuid dragged the youth from Colmcille’s arms, and killed him on the spot!
Colmcille denounced this action, stoking up anger against the king, and soon after there was a fierce battle between the O’Neills and King Diarmuid in Cairbre Drom Cliabh, or Drumcliff, in County Sligo, where King Diarmuid’s army was massacred with the loss of only a single O’Neill. A synod was convened to discipline Colmcille but they reached no conclusion after Brendan of Birr spoke up in his support. The saint, realising that trouble was destined to follow him wherever he went and whatever he did in his native place resolved to choose exile, promising that he would never again see Ireland, nor his feet touch its earth.
This began Colmcille / Columba’s missionary career and his ministry from the base he would ultimately build at Iona. Of course, Colmcille did return to Ireland on at least one occasion, being sought by wise reputation to settle disputes. But it is said that on his visits home he travelled blindfolded and with sods of Iona earth strapped to his feet so that the vow he had promised would be fulfilled.
Picture The saint in his cell, reconstruction Source:
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
Bad boy plagiarist, fierce defender and diplomat, a hot-tempered keeper of rash promises. A man who recreated himself in a new place and in so doing became its apostle.
A missionary God-follower, as much impelled to go by problems in his past as called by sense of vocation. A serious person who kept his strange promise, and yet found ways around it, so they say.
Someone with two names and histories – importantly different in the place from which he came and the one to which he went. Two lives abutting and overlapping in a single life, with one integrity and multiple reputations. Two names at least, representing multiple rememberings.
It strikes me that Colmcille – in all his complexity and ethical compromise is so much more interesting and rewarding as a saint – than the more accomplished Columba, even though they are one and the same person.
Those of us who have left our home places willingly or unwillingly, may find humour and pathos in his story. Those of us whose lives seem to fall in sections, more allotted than chosen, likewise find resonance in the pattern of his legend. And also in his Columban discovery that exile to the edge of wildness would become a new centre, a new field of promise. I think of Colmcille/Columba as the Abraham of our north Atlantic isles. As we engage with our own stories in the light of his, can we find in them, and it, the promise of fruitfulness and hopefulness that causes us to go on.
Alone with none but thee, my God,
I journey on my way;
What need I fear when thou art near,
Oh king of night and day?
More safe am I within thy hand
Than if a host did round me stand.
Attributed to Saint Colmcille
The Rev’d Dr John McNeil Scott is Principal of the Scottish College and a member of Shawlands URC in Glasgow.