Saint Columba (or Colum Cille, “the dove of the Church”) was of noble birth, a member of the powerful Ui Néill clan, which traced its descent to Niall of the Nine Hostages, who died around the year 450. His parents were Fedelmid mac Ferguso and Eithne. Although it is difficult to determine the date of Saint Columba’s birth with any degree of certainty, it is believed that he was born in County Donegal on December 7, 521.
His parents may have been pagans, and named their son Crimthann. He was brought up by a foster-father, according to the custom of that time, a priest named Cruithnechan. We do not know what happened in Saint Columba’s life from the time he completed his studies until his departure from Ireland in 563. He may have been baptized with the name Colum, which later became Columba (dove). Some sources state that after being ordained as a priest, Saint Columba preached in Ireland, and established monasteries at Derry and Durrow. It is said that he also founded one hundred churches.
Adomnan says (I: 7) that the Saint left Ireland two years after the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne (561), supposedly for causing the deaths of so many men. Adomnan does not explain why the Saint blamed himself. However, in a different Life of Saint Columba it is stated that there was a dispute between Saints Columba and Finnian of Moville (September 10), concerning the ownership of a copy of Saint Jerome’s Latin Vulgate version of the Bible (some sources say it was a Psalter). The dispute involved the ownership of the copy. Saint Finnian claimed that the copy was his, since he owned the original manuscript. Saint Columba maintained that the copy was his, since he had copied the original. The High King Diarmait mac Cerbaill, who was a pagan, decided in favor of Finnian. He said, “To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy.”
The Saint is said to have been so angry that he stirred up his relatives of the Uí Néill clan to make war against the High King. The Battle of Cúl Dreimhne led to the loss of many Christian lives. In his remorse, Saint Columba decided that he must gain as many souls for Christ as had been slain on the battlefield.
Adomnan also mentions the Synod of Teltown in County Meath (III:3) which met in 562, one year after the battle, and one year before Saint Columba left Ireland. He declares that “Saint Columba was excommunicated for some trivial and quite excusable offenses by a Synod which, as eventually became known, had acted wrongly. The Saint himself came to the assembly that had been convoked against him.”
When Saint Brendan of Birr (November 29) saw Saint Columba approaching at a distance, after the Synod had excommunicated him in absentia, he ran out to meet him, kissing him with reverence. When the members of the Synod saw this they criticized him, saying, “Why did you get up to kiss a man who has been excommunicated?” Saint Brendan replied, “If you had seen what the Lord has deigned to reveal to me today, concerning this chosen one whom you refuse to honor, you would never have excommunicated him. For God does not excommunicate in accordance with your erroneous judgement, but instead, He glorifies him more and more.”
Then they became incensed and said that they should like to know just how God had glorified Saint Columba, whom they had excommunicated, as they asserted, with good reason. Saint Brendan replied, “I saw a very bright column of light going before the man of God, whom you despise, and holy angels as his companions traveling over the plain.” After hearing this, the Synod dropped the charges and honored Saint Columba with much reverence.
In 563, Saint Columba left Ireland, saying that he wished to be a pilgrim for Christ. Taking twelve companions with him, the Saint settled on the island of Iona, off the southwestern coast of Mull. He prayed that God would permit him to live there for thirty years more, and then call him to the heavenly Kingdom. It is not known whether the island was inhabited when they arrived, but there is archaeological evidence of prehistoric occupation.
After building cells and a chapel, the monks began a period of missionary activity, proclaiming the Gospel, making converts, and founding churches. They sailed to other islands, and even went inland in their labors to bring people to Christ. As a result, Iona became an important center of Christianity for northern England and Scotland. By 574, Abbot Columba had at least one dependency on the island of Hinba. There were others on the various islands, all under the authority of Iona. Saint Columba also maintained ties with his churches in Ireland and people in other places.
There is an account of Saint Columba anointing Aedan mac Gabrain in 574 to succeed King Conall as the King of Dalriada, just as King Saul and King David had been anointed by Samuel. Some regard this as the first time in European history that Christian ritual was used to consecrate a King. There is much debate on the significance of this event, although Saint Columba did have a special relationship with the ruling dynasty of Dalriada.
Adomnan has not written a Saint’s Life according to the traditional pattern. Rather than presenting a continuous narrative from birth to death, he describes Saint Columba’s prophetic revelations in Book I; his miracles of power in Book II; and his visions of angels in Book III.
In Book III:22, Adomnan relates how Saint Columba beheld the angels who had come to receive his soul in the thirtieth year after his arrival on Iona. Suddenly he raised his eyes to Heaven, and he was filled with great joy and gladness. Then, a moment later, his joy had turned to sorrow. Two monks stood outside his hut when this occurred, and they asked him about it. He told them to go in peace, and not to ask him to tell them the cause of his gladness, nor of his sorrow. They fell to the ground with profuse tears and begged him to reveal what he had been told.
Seeing their distress, the holy Elder said, “Because I love you, I do not wish to grieve you. First, you must promise not to betray to anyone, as long as I am alive, the mystery that you seek to know.”
After they had given their word, Saint Columba said that day was exactly thirty years since he had begun to live “in pilgrimage in Britain.” He had asked God to call him to Heaven at the end of thirty years. That is why he seemed so glad. He had seen the angels who had been sent to separate his soul from his body, but now they seemed to be delayed. They were waiting on a rock across the Sound from Iona. It was as if they wished to accomplish their task, but they were not permitted to come any closer. Soon they would return to Heaven. Even though he desired to go with them, the prayers of many churches had caused this change in plans. “Even though I do not wish it, I must remain in this flesh four years longer. This sorrowful delay is the cause of my great distress today.”
Then the holy Abbot predicted that at the end of four years, he would die suddenly, and without pain, when the angels would come for him again, and he would depart to the Lord. That is precisely what happened.
In April of 597, on the radiant Feast of Christ’s Resurrection, Saint Columba was longing to depart from this life in order to be with Him. God would have granted his wish right then, but he did not want to turn the paschal joy of his disciples into sorrow, and so his death was delayed for the sake of the monks.
In May, as the brethren were working on the western side of Iona, Saint Columba was taken there in a cart, for he was then an old man of seventy-five. He began to speak to them of his approaching death, so that they would be prepared. When he told them how his death had been merely postponed in April, they became very sorrowful. The Saint tried to console them as much as he could. Then he looked toward the east and blessed the island, and those who dwelt there. A few days later, during the Sunday liturgy, Saint Columba looked up and his face became suffused with joy and exultation. Only he could see the angel hovering over them inside the church. Then the angel passed right through the roof of the church, leaving no trace of his passing.
When the monks noticed the Elder looking upward they asked him why he seemed so happy. He told them that an angel had been sent to recover a loan, and had been watching and blessing them during the service.
None of the monks understood what sort of loan the angel had been sent to recover, but Saint Columba was referring to his soul, which the angel would take sometime between the following Saturday evening and Sunday morning.
At the end of the week, on Saturday, Saint Columba and his servant Diarmait went to bless the nearest barn. The venerable Elder said that he was glad to know that the monks would have enough bread to last for a year, in case he had to “go away somewhere.” Diarmait was saddened by his words and said, “Father, this year you have made us sad too often by speaking frequently about your passing.”
Saint Columba said that he would speak more plainly about his departure if Diarmait promised not to tell anyone until after he had reposed. When Diarmait had given his word, the Saint explained that the Sabbath is a day of rest, and on this Saturday he would go the way of his fathers. “I shall go to the Lord when He calls me, in the middle of this night. The Lord Himself has revealed this to me.”
At these words, Diarmait began to weep. Then they started back to the monastery, but Saint Columba had to stop and rest when they reached the halfway point. Later, a cross was set up on that spot and set in a millstone. Then a white horse, which used to carry pails of milk to the monastery, came and placed its head on the Saint’s bosom. Tears fell from its eyes, and the horse mourned like a person. Diarmait would have driven the horse away, but the Elder stopped him saying, “Leave him alone! Let him who loves us pour out the tears of bitterest mourning here at my breast. Behold, though you have a man’s rational soul, you would not know of my departure if I hadn’t told you just now. According to His will, the Creator has revealed to this brute and unreasoning animal that his master is going away.” Then he blessed the horse as it turned away.
When he returned to the monastery, Saint Columba went to his hut to copy some Psalms. He copied as far as Psalm 33/34:10: “The rich have become poor and hungry; but those who seek the Lord diligently shall not want any good thing.” Then he said, “Here at the end of the page I must stop. Let Baithene write what follows.”
When he finished writing, Saint Columba went to church for Vespers, and then he returned to his lodging and rested on his bed. Instead of a bed of straw, he always slept upon bare rock, with a stone for his pillow. Then he gave his last instructions to Diarmait, commanding the brethren to love one another, and to follow the example of the Holy Fathers. He continued, “God, Who strengthens the good, will help you, and I, dwelling with Him, shall intercede for you.”
When the bell rang for the Midnight Office, Saint Columba hastened to the church before the others, and then he knelt before the altar in prayer. Diarmait, following at a distance, saw the church filled with angelic light around the Saint. As he reached the door, the light vanished, although some of the brethren had seen it as well. Diarmait entered the church and called out in a tearful voice, “Father, where are you?”
The lamps carried by the brethren had not yet been brought into the church. Feeling his way in the dark, Diarmait found the Elder lying before the altar. Raising him a little, he sat by his side and cradled his head on his bosom. The other monks related that before Saint Cuthbert’s soul had left his body, he opened his eyes and looked about with joy and gladness upon his face, for he saw angels coming to meet him. Diarmait held up the Saint’s right hand to bless the monks. The venerable Father, as much as he could, also moved his hand to bless the brethren, though he was unable to speak. Then at once his soul departed.
Two men had separate visions of the Saint’s soul being carried to Heaven by angels. Lugaid mac Tailchain, “a just man and a sage,” told a man named Fergnae of his vision. Although Lugaid had never been to Iona, he saw it, in the Spirit, bathed in a bright light. He beheld the radiance of countless angels who had been sent to carry the Saint’s soul to Heaven, accompanied by the sweetest songs of the angelic hosts.
Another soldier of Christ, Ernene moccu Fir Roide had a vision at the same hour. When he was an old man, he related it to Adomnan, who was then a young man. Ernene and some other men were fishing in the River Finn, when suddenly, the entire sky lit up. Looking toward the east, they saw a fiery pillar rising upwards and lighting the area like the summer sun at Noon. When the pillar passed out of sight, the darkness returned once more.
After Saint Columba’s blessed repose, the Matins hymns were chanted, and his body was carried from the church to his lodging. For three days and nights, the funeral rites were performed in a manner befitting one of his honor and rank. His holy relics were wrapped in linen and placed in the grave with due reverence, from which he shall rise in bright, and everlasting light.
The following miracle is mentioned in Book I:1. In the year 634, at Heavenfield in Northumbria, on the eve of a battle, Saint Columba appeared to Saint Oswald (August 5), revealing his name to the King. He promised to help Saint Oswald, ordering him to march on his enemy Cadwallon that night. He said that the enemy would be pu to flight, and that Cadwallon would be delivered into King Oswald’s hands. Abbot Failbe, Adomnan’s predecessor, told him of this vision, swearing that he had the story from the lips of Saint Oswald himself.