Saint of the Week: St. Columba

St Columba Yesterday was the feast day of St. Columba.  He was born December 7, 521, at Garten, County Donegal, Ireland.  He fell asleep in the faith of Christ on June 9, 597, on the isle of Iona, Scotland.

Things St. Columba is famous for:

a. Founding the monastery at Iona.

b. Seeing the Loch Ness Monster.

Coupled to his feast being this week is the fact that Iona is the picture on my calendar for the month of June, so I felt St. Columba was an appropriate choice.

My main source is Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book 3, Chapter 4.  Adamnan’s Life is undoubtedly fuller, but time is short, as I have a lot of reading to do.

We learn from Bede that in Ireland, St. Columba founded a monastery “known in the Irish language as Dearmach, the Field of Oaks.”  This would be modern Durrow.  In the year 565, he crossed over to Alba (Scotland), where he brought the light of the Gospel to the Picts living north of the Grampians.  Undoubtedly I had ancestors amongst these people, although most of my Pictish ancestors would have received the Gospel a century earlier from St. Ninian who preached to those living south of the Grampians.

565 was the ninth year of the reign of King Bride son of Meilochon.  By his preaching and example, Columba established the faith of Christ among the Pictish people.  They gave him the island of Iona on which he founded a monastery.    He  was abbot of the monastery there until his death in 597.  Iona became a great centre for Celtic monasticism as well as of pilgrimage.  Kings of Scotland are buried there.  The abbey is still there today, as the centre for The Iona Community as well as a place of spiritual pilgrimage for many.

During his missionary journeys, the following event of note happened to St. Columba.  From Vita Columbae by Adamnan, fifth abbot of Iona:

ON another occasion also, when the blessed man was living for some days in the province of the Picts, he was obliged to cross the river Nesa (the Ness); and when he reached the bank of the river, he saw some of the inhabitants burying an unfortunate man, who, according to the account of those who were burying him, was a short time before seized, as he was swimming, and bitten most severely by a monster that lived in the water; his wretched body was, though too late, taken out with a hook, by those who came to his assistance in a boat. The blessed man, on hearing this, was so far from being dismayed, that he directed one of his companions to swim over and row across the coble that was moored at the farther bank. And Lugne Mocumin hearing the command of the excellent man, obeyed without the least delay, taking off all his clothes, except his tunic, and leaping into the water. But the monster, which, so far from being satiated, was only roused for more prey, was lying at the bottom of the stream, and when it felt the water disturbed above by the man swimming, suddenly rushed out, and, giving an awful roar, darted after him, with its mouth wide open, as the man swam in the middle of the stream. Then the blessed man observing this, raised his holy hand, while all the rest, brethren as well as strangers, were stupefied with terror, and, invoking the name of God, formed the saving sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying, ‘Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed.’ Then at the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes, though it had just got so near to Lugne, as he swam, that there was not more than the length of a spear-staff between the man and the beast. Then the brethren seeing that the monster had gone back, and that their comrade Lugne returned to them in the boat safe and sound, were struck with admiration, and gave glory to God in the blessed man. And even the barbarous heathens, who were present, were forced by the greatness of this miracle, which they themselves had seen, to magnify the God of the Christians. (trans. William Reeves)

Two things to close, a poem and a prayer.  First, that which, before things went kaput over at Matthew’s Random Ramblings, was the Weekly Poem on September 13th.  This is a poem by St. Columba from Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery, reminds me of Anglo-Saxon poetry.  As with other poetry you’ll find out there, its name comes from the first words.  It is a Latin poem, although other poems in the collection are Gaelic.  The translation is by Thomas Owen Clancy and Gilbert Markus.

Adiutor Laborantium

O helper of workers,
ruler of all the good,
guard on the ramparts
and defender of the faithful,
who lift up the lowly
and crush the proud,
ruler of the faithful,
enemy of the impenitent,
judge of all judges,
who punish those who err,
pure life of the living,
light and Father of lights
shining with great light,
denying to none of the hopeful
your strength and help,
I beg that me, a little man
trembling and most wretched,
rowing through the infinite storm
of this age,
Christ may draw after Him to the lofty
most beautiful haven of life
… an unending
holy hymn forever.
From the envy of enemies you lead me
into the joy of paradise.
Through you, Christ Jesus,
who live and reign . . .

The prayer to close is the Collect for St. Columba, as found on the Daily Office Blog:

O God, by the preaching of your blessed servant Columba you caused the light of the Gospel to shine in Scotland: Grant, we pray, that, having his life and labors in remembrance, we may show our thankfulness to you by following the example of his zeal and patience; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Reading Has Its Benefits

The following is actually a prelude to something else I’m cogitating over.

In one of his Jeeves & Wooster novels (actually, if I remember aright, more than one) PG Wodehouse has Bertie say that Aunt Agatha “came down like the wolf on the fold.”  Now, that’s a clever enough turn of phrase that the reader who doesn’t know where it’s from will possibly chuckle anyway.  Said reader may even figure that it’s from a poem.

But the reader who knows Byron knows that it’s from “The Destruction of Sennacherib”, thus:

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay wither’d and strown.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he pass’d;
And the eyes of the sleepers wax’d deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there roll’d not the breath of his pride:
and the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow and the rust on his mail;
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

And the widows of Ashur are loud in the wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

This is a vivid poem, called forth by Wodehouse to do service in the army of humour.  Wodehouse’s allusion, of course, is merely to make the point about Aunt Agatha being like a wolf.  She is not to be considered the Assyrian army of which 185 000 will lie dead by the end of the poem.

Wait!  185 000, you say?  Well, Lord Byron tells me not of this.

And thus we go a further step back in our journey into intertextuality, allusion, and the benefits of reading a lot.

The Assyrian of the first line of the poem is Sennacherib.  If you grab my book The Cradle of Civilization, you will doubtless learn a lot about this Assyrian emperor.  However, Byron doesn’t get the material for his poem from cuneiform tablets in the ancient libraries of Mesopotamia.  His text is an entirely different one from the ancient Near East:

The Bible.

The entire saga of Sennacherib’s assault on Judah during the reign of Hezekiah can be found in 2 Kings 18:13-19:37 and Isaiah 36 and 37.  If you don’t feel up to reading 3 or 4 chapters of the Bible, the relevant portions are 2 Kings 19:35 (or all of chapter 19) and Isaiah 37:36-37 (or all of chapter 37).

Thematically, the passages and the poem are very much the same.  The might of Yahweh, God of Judah, destroying the might of Sennacherib, King of Assyria, in one fell swoop.  However, the might of Yahweh in the Biblical passages is demonstrated chiefly through prophetic discussions of who God is and what He shall do.  In Byron, it is found in the descriptions of the dead, who get only a verse in the Bible.

But if you didn’t know the Bible, Byron’s poem would hold less meaning.  And if you didn’t know Byron, PG Wodehouse’s allusion would be less amusing.  And if you don’t know PG Wodehouse, God help you.