Adamnán’s Life of Columba

Adamnan of IonaI have blogged about St. Columba here before; he was the first saint of the week and I revisited his life somewhat recently, and considered his relevance for early mediaeval demonology. Today, I am going to briefly consider not Columba but his Life, his Vita by Adamnán, the hagiography of an early ‘Celtic’ saint.

My post is inspired by a recently released article by Roy Gibson in the Journal of Roman Studies about, of all things, letter collections. What he has to say about ancient letter collections is very interesting, but is largely irrelevant to this saint’s life. What is relevant is his discussion of genre at one point when he is thinking about why ancient letter collections are not arranged in chronological order the way modern editors like to have them.

He has two genres that may have influenced them that are directly relevant to our reading of Adamnán’s Life of St Columba. One is ancient biography as practised by Suetonius, author of The Twelve Caesars. Suetonius does not give his reader a blow-by-blow, chronological account of his subjects’ lives. Rather, he groups the events in their lives according to themes, of categories of actions from the emperor’s life.

The other relevant genre is encomium, the ancient practice of writing documents in praise of a person. These are not properly chronological, either, but grouped according to category and theme.

This helps me make a bit more sense of Adamnán’s Life of St Columba. You see, when I first read this text, I found it a strange and troubling creature. Adamnán does not treat of his subject in chronological order. Indeed, I felt (feel?) it entirely impossible to get a proper biography of the saint from this Vita, a biography that begins with his birth, ends with his death, and gives the reader a series of events in the order they occurred.

Instead, Adamnán gives his reader collections of miracles of differing sorts, such as visions or healings or what-have-you. Since my main exposure to hagiography has been of the sort as is Athanasius’ Life of Antony or Cyril of Scythopolis various Lives of Palestinian monks, I found this way of telling a saint’s life odd and troubling, but I went along with it and read the various miracle stories with interest.

Now, however, I get it better. (All you need give me is an ancient precedent.) Early mediaeval Adamnán, who dies in 704, is writing within ancient traditions, not only of hagiography but of biography and encomium — indeed, one would argue that these are two of the most influential genres upon ancient hagiography. He is giving us reasons for Columba’s sanctity. He is showing us the various categories of miracle wrought by Columba. He is showing us the most important facets of this saint’s life. He is praising Columba and giving his reader cause to praise Columba, and thereby God himself, through this encomiastic piece of hagiography.

With this in mind, I’ve no doubt that more saints’ lives I shall inevitably come across will make more sense. The point is not a precise chronological account of the saint’s life. That is biography. The point is to demonstrate holiness and stir up the soul of the reader to worship Christ and live in sanctity as well. This can be effectively achieved with Adamnán’s style, I am certain.

Advertisements

St. Columba Revisited

Two years ago, I published the first Saint of the Week, St. Columba. At the time, I focused on St. Columba’s missionary excursions which were primarily centred upon Pictland north of the Grampians (hence his sighting of the Loch Ness Monster). I have extolled the great goodness of missionaries on this blog often and feel no need to do so at present.

St. Columba, however, besides being a missionary, monastic founder, and first-recorded sighter of the Loch Ness monster was also a wonderworker. In Adomnán’s Life of St. Columba, we read a whole host of tales about St. Columba’s miracles.

Indeed, Adomnán’s Life is unlike any other saint’s life I have yet encountered. It consists entirely of miracle stories divided up thematically into three books: prophecies, miracles of power, and visions of angels. Within these categories there is no attempt at being chronological — indeed, he begins the prophecies with a posthumous vision of St. Columba had by King Oswald before Heavenfield Battle.

Most hagiographies contain an abundance of miracle stories — or at least a few. They take their cue from our dear friend St. Antony as a literary inspiration. But they also set events out in some sort of chronological order — usually. So, for example, Cyril of Scythopolis’ Life of Savvas contains its share of miracle stories, but these are interspersed throughout a coherent narrative that tells us of Savvas’ monastic profession and monastic foundations.

This coherent narrative is of no concern for Adomnán. He’s here for the miracles, pure and simple.

The prophecies at times help people. Sometimes they are foretelling the future, but also they at times tell the truth about something happening elsewhere from wherever St. Columba happened to be at the time. They also come accompanied by the odd miracle of power or two. These are miracles of knowledge whereby God demonstrated His own omniscience, His abiding presence with St. Columba, and his concern for people who may otherwise have fared poorly.

The second category of miracles is more familiar, being miracles of power. Miracles of power are what we tend to think of when we hear “miracle”. In the course of Book II, St. Columba turns water into wine for the Eucharist, he purifies a well for drinking, scares the Loch Ness Monster, brings good winds to friends, heals the sick, resuscitates the dead, and more.

Book III contains the category of miracles I did not expect — visions of angels. These actually are relatively few, and are often visions other people had of Columba interacting with angels (vs. Shenoute hanging out with Jesus on a regular basis). This book also includes visions of light — visions of St. Columba shining with light from his face. While not unheard-of, this sort of phenomenon is not par-for-the-course hagiographic fare. It makes me think of Moses’ shining face at his descent from Mt. Sinai and St. Seraphim of Sarov who, himself, is reported to have had a shining face.

Whenever people discuss hagiography, the admission that this stuff is not necessarily all true comes out. The Bollandists, since the seventeenth century, have been at the fore of the movement to extract the legends from saints’ lives and provide us with the genuine article.

The path of Bollandist may be futile.

The trouble is that, if we admit miracles, even a miracle that seems to be a literary topos could turn out being true. There is no way of being 100% certain which miracle stories are true, and which are false.

When we look at St. Columba, we have to accept the fact that all three varieties of miracle gathered by Adomnán are present in the biblical record, in the Old Testament historical and prophetic books and in the Gospels and Acts. We have to admit, as well, that they abound throughout hagiographical literature from the third through the sixteenth centuries. And we have to admit that they are part of the charismatic and Pentecostal worlds, especially as seen in Africa and South America.

So, if St. Columba is said to have been able to prophesy like St. Shenoute, or can raise the dead like the Prophet Elijah, or can calm a storm like our Lord Christ, or still the jaws of a fierce creature like Abba Bes, who are we to argue with Admonán?

Instead, let us think upon these miracles. What do they tell us?

Adomnán tells us that St. Columba turned water into wine for the Eucharist. This tells us two things: Christ’s followers can do deeds like unto his, and Holy Communion is an integral part of the Christian life.

St. Columba raised the dead. Well, in this instance, it was the child of a recent convert from paganism. This tells us that God looks after His own and is the King of All, holding the keys to life and death.

St. Columba prophesied the deaths of men, violent for the violent, peaceful for the peacemakers. This reminds us that he who lives by the sword dies by the sword, and that the kingdom of heaven belongs peacemakers (as well as the cheesemakers, I suppose).

St. Columba calmed storms. Christ is the Lord of Creation, and His power runs through the lives of His followers. We need not fear destruction as Columba’s fellow-passengers did — for, even if we perish from this earthly world, God will not allow his holy ones to taste destruction.

St. Columba closed the jaws of the Loch Ness Monster. Now, the Monster is a thing of great speculation, but a miracle concerning the closing of the jaws of a fierce beast was performed by Abba Bes in fourth-century Egypt once regarding a marauding hippopotamus, another time against a crocodile (Historia Monachorum in Aegypto 4.2). I have also seen a photograph of Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain with a sparrow perched on his finger. These miracles concerning animals are a reminder that Christ reverses the curse from the Garden, that humanity was made to be master over the animal kingdom.

These are the lessons we can learn from Adomnán’s Life of St. Columba, although we shall never be certain which miracles are true.

A collection of … hagiography?

I am the proud possessor of a small but growing collection of saints’ lives. My first was a remaindered copy of the Penguin Classic Early Christian Lives by Carolinne M. White, picked up for St. Antony but also containing the delightful lives of Paul of Thebes, Hilarion, and Malchus by Jerome, Martin of Tours by Sulpicius Severus, and Benedict by Gregory the Great. These are lives that helped establish the genre.

My interest in Desert monasticism drove my next hagiographical purchase, the Cistercian Studies translation of the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto called The Lives of the Desert Fathers. This is an interesting travelogue that visits a bunch of the fourth-century monks and tells their stories. It is as illuminating as it is entertaining.

My third was a grab at a used book shop of another Penguin Classic, Lives of the Saints by J. F. Webb, containing the Voyage of Brendan and the lives of Cuthbert and Wilfrid. I bought it because of the Voyage of Brendan but greatly enjoyed Bede’s prose Life of Cuthbert. I have yet to read Wilfrid, but this volume contains lives that show us the world of Early Mediaeval Britain and Ireland, the saints of the “Celtic” and Anglo-Saxon worlds. Worth a read. This is, I have learned, no longer published, but the material available has been expanded in the Penguin Classics volume The Age of Bede.

My most recent acquisitions take us back to the desert, one being Cyril of Scythopolis’ Lives of the Monks of Palestine, translated by R. M. Price for Cistercian. This is a collection of seven monastic biographies by Justinianic (sixth-century) Palestinian monk Cyril. It tells the stories of some of Palestinian monasticism’s founders, such as Sts. Euthymius and Sabas. These are lives of men approximately contemporaneous with Brendan and Benedict but living on the other side of the world in the desert. Very informative about the world of sixth-century monasticism.

At the same time as Cyril of Scythopolis, I got Cistercian’s translation of Besa’s Life of Shenoute, telling the life of one of the most important figures of Coptic monasticism, Shenoute, archimandrite of the White Monastery in the first half of the fifth century. I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s bound to be good.

I’m thinking of getting my own copy of Adomnán’s Life of St. Columba. We’ll see about that.

If I could, I would certainly add John of Ephesus’ Lives of the Eastern Saints, but the only English translation is that by E. W. Brooks in PO 17, 18, 19. Alas.

So many saints. Because of its chronological and geographical breadth, I’d recommend White’s Early Christian Lives if you wish to start reading hagiography yourself! The genre is introduced at the beginning of the volume, and each life contains a brief introduction to the subject. The translation is highly readable, which is always a blessing.