St. Columban of Ireland,
Abbot and Founder of Luxeuil Abbey in France,
Founder of Bobbio

21 November

Born in West Leinster, Ireland, 530-543; died November 23, 615.

The life of Saint Columban teaches the benefits of trusting obedience to God and those who are placed in authority over us. Whenever events turned seemingly bad, they led Columban to a new adventure, to doing even greater work for the Kingdom of God. When God closes one door, He always opens another--even closer to His inner sanctum--if we obediently follow where He leads us.

There are few extant manuscripts about the life of Columban, but the Abbot Jonas wrote his biography about 30 years after the saint's death. While the current view of Columbanus is one of a stern man who hurled anathemas and often flew into a rage (for example, felling a 50-year-old tree with a single blow), his biographer shows a gentle, devout, rigorous, yet soft-spoken man. If Columbanus blazed with the strength of God, he also shone with the love of Christ.

The good abbot Jonas tells us that Saint Columban was born of a noble Leinster family and received a classical education at Clonard, the great mother-school of Ireland, which Saint Finnian (f.d. December 12) had founded with a Gaelic blending of sanctity and scholarship.

Jonas reports that Columban was handsome of appearance with a fair complexion, and soon crossed swords with the devil in the form of "lascivae puellae," wanton girls. Somewhere about this time the king of Cualann sent his daughter to Saint Finnian at Clonard to read her Psalter in Latin.

Jonas writes of this time:

"Whilst he was turning these things over within him he came to the cell of a religious woman dedicated to God. After having greeted her with lowly voice, he made as bold as he could to seek her counsel with the forwardness of youth.

"When she saw him in the budding strength of youth, she said: 'I, going forward with all my strength, began the battle. For 12 years I have had no home. Since I sought this place of exile--Christ being my leader--I have never followed the world; having set my hand to the plough I have never looked back. Had I not been of the weaker sex I would have crossed the seas and sought an even more hidden place of pilgrimage.

"'You are aflame with the fires of youth, yet you dwell in the land of your birth. You lend your ear willy nilly to weak voices, your own weakness bending you. Yet you think you can freely avoid women. Do you remember Eve coaxing, Adam yielding, Samson weakened by Delilah, David lured from his old righteousness by Bethsheba's beauty, Solomon the Wise deceived by the love of women?

"'Go,' she said, 'go, child, and turn aside from the ruin into which so many have fallen. Leave the path that leads to the gates of hell.' Frightened by these words and--beyond what you would believe of an invincible youth--terror-stricken, he returns thanks to his chastener, and bidding farewell to his companions he sets out. His mother beseeches him not to leave her. . . . Casting herself on the ground she refuses him leave to go. But he crossing the threshold and his mother, implores her not to be broken with grief, saying that she shall see him no more in this life, but that whither soever lies the path of holiness, there will he go."

Columban did as he later wrote in his "On Mortification" regarding seeking and obeying counsel: "Nothing is sweeter than calm of conscience, nothing safer than purity of soul, which yet no one can bestow on himself because it is properly the gift of another."

For a time Columban withdrew from the battle living with another holy man, Sinnel, on Cluain Inis, one of the hundred islands of Lough Erne. The counsel of the holy woman did not mean that he should decline battle with his enemy, but that he should decline to do so on the enemy's own battle field. Like his Master, he accepted battle on the field chosen for him by the Spirit of God.

During his time on the island he became so well-versed in Sacred Scripture that he wrote a commentary on the Psalms.

On a nearby island Saint Comgall (f.d. May 11) was preparing for his life's work by living as an anchorite. He and Columban may have met while living as hermits, for once Comgall began the monastery at Bangor on the southern shores of Belfast Lough, we soon find Columbanus in a wattle-hut there--one of the first monks of Bangor.

After many years at Bangor the Holy Spirit prompted Columban to become a missionary. Still mistrustful of interpreting the movement of the Spirit within him, Columbanus sought Comgall's permission and was refused until Comgall recognised in Columban's obedience the mark of a divine call.

Around 580-585 (about age 45), he left Ireland with a band of twelve monks and worked in Wales, where he collected more monks to go with them. Saint Gall (f.d. October 16), who evangelized the Swiss and founded a famous monastery, was one of his disciples who accompanied him. (One source says that they preached in England.)

Upon arriving in Gaul, the Irish monks preached to the people both in words and deeds of charity, penance, and devotion. Their reputation so impressed the Burgundian King Guntramnus (Gontran; a grandson of Clovis) that, about 590, he offered Columbanus ground for their first place of exile at Annegray in the mountains of the Vosges. It provided Columban the two things he desired most: quiet contemplation of God and work among souls. The dark mountain forests with their darker caves gave him constant isolation from the world which God's love was teaching him to fly. The simple, untaught pagans of these forests needed his teaching of the faith.

For some time the monks dwelt in a ruined castle-hamlet at Annegray in Haute-Saone, content to bivouac among the ruins. Columban had soon collected such a vast number of disciples that a new home had to be sought some miles distant at Luxeuil. There, built from the stones of a ruined Roman bath and temple, stands a monastery that has made Luxeuil famous not only in France but throughout the Church. Columban governed Luxeuil for 25 happy years.

Abbot Jonas records here that Columban and the community prayed for the wife of a man and she was instantly cured, though she had been ill for over a year. But he incidentally tells us how this man had brought a wagon of bread and vegetables most opportunely because the monastery was so poor that they could give a sick brother only roots and bark.

Walking through the woods one day carrying the Holy Scriptures, Columban debated with himself whether he would prefer to fall in with wild beasts or wicked men. He blessed himself many times as he pondered the question, going deeper and deeper into the forest. His question was answered by the appearance of twelve wolves coming toward him. Standing motionless as they surrounded him, he prayed, "O God, come unto my aid: O Lord, make haste to help me." They came nearer and nuzzled his clothes as he stood unshaken. Then they turned and went wandering again in the woods.

When he thought his question answered, he continued on his way. He had not gone far when he heard the voices of Swabian robbers who haunted the countryside. Again, his constancy was tested but they left him untouched.

Another time, diving further into the forest he saw to his ascetic delight a dark cave that he made his own by instantly taming the fierce bear to whom it belonged. (Another story says he killed the bear with his bare hands--a feat indeed!)

Yet Bishop Chamnoald, once Columban's disciple, says we should not marvel that bird and beast should obey the command of a man of God. Chamnoald tells that Columban would call to the wild creatures when he went into the woods to fast or pray, and that they would come to him at once. He would stroke them with his hand and caress them: and the wild things and the birds would leap and frisk about him for sheer joy as pups jump on their masters. The bishop said that he himself had seen this, and that even the squirrels would answer his call, climb into the hands and shoulder of Columban and run in and out of the folds of his cowl.

Throughout his life his chief concern was to discern the Will of God and do it. When the love he always enkindled by his gifts of soul and even of body was obvious even to himself, he fled to his bear cave to be alone with God. He seems afraid of attracting the love of others and distracting them from the love of God.

Once when he was praying in his cave, he received a divine revelation that many of his beloved monks were ill. At once he hastened home to Luxeuil. He bade the sick brethren rise and thrash the corn on the thrashing-floor. The obedient brethren, according to Jonas, were instantly cured; the disobedient stayed ill for the better part of a year and came near dying.

One day before dinner, the cellarer was drawing beer from the hogshead, when he was summoned elsewhere by Columban. In the hurry of the moment he forgot to put the cork in the tap. It is needless to say that on his return to the cellar the cellarer found not a drop spilled! Jonas writes of it, "O how great was the merit of him who commanded; and how great the obedience of him who did as he was bid."

The growth of Luxeuil led to the creation of a second monastery at Fountains (Fontaines). Soon his followers spread all over Europe, building monasteries in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy.

With this growth in numbers and influence came the inevitable opposition. Columban aroused hostility, especially from the Frankish bishops, by the Celtic usages he installed in his monasteries and for refusing to acknowledge the bishops' jurisdiction over them. He defended his practices in letters to Rome and refused to attend a Gallican synod at Chalons in 603 when summoned to explain his Celtic usages.

His outspoken protest against the disorders of the Frankish court led in 610 to King Theoderic exiling Columban and all his monks who were not of French blood. The quarrel recorded by Abbot Jonas is verified by history. The young king of Burgundy, Theoderic (Thierry) II, had given shelter to his grandmother Queen Brunhilda when she was driven out of her homeland by the Austrasian nobles. Brunhilda was resentful that Columbanus denied her entrance into his monastery, contrary to the Frankish custom, although Columban banned all women and even lay men.

Thierry and Columban argued over sexual morality and, of course, the saint found no support from the local episcopacy, who were dependent upon the crown. Pope Saint Gregory's (f.d. September 3) letters to Queen Brunhilda and her grandson on the need of ending simony, especially from the episcopate, lead us to believe that the bishops of Burgundy and Austrasia were not the men to correct Merovingian morals. If things came to a breaking point between Luxeuil and Theoderic these prelates might be expected to find their consciences coincided with the king's.

Unmarried Theoderic was already the father of four children, whom Brunhilda in the midst of her court asked Columban to bless. The saint replied, "Bless them! Bless the fruit of adultery, the children of shame, the testimony of all the debaucheries of their father! In the name of the Lord who chastises sinners, I curse them!"

Now this was probably a little harsh, but could these barbarian peoples understand any other? The only argument that could convince these beasts of prey, these German invaders who 150 years earlier had installed themselves in the ruins of the Roman Empire, was fear. Fear of hell, fear of eternal torment, fear of the God of vengeance--there was no other way of holding in check the violence that was ready to break loose.

But a break with such a man as the widely revered Columban has to be done diplomatically. A favourable opening seemed to be in the question of the keeping of Easter. It was and still is a question so obscure that some writers have accused the British and Irish Churches of being "Quartodecimans," by keeping Easter as the Jews keep their Pasch (probably as they had originally been taught by Rome), on a day determined by the full moon, even if that day were not a Sunday.

A synod of Merovingian bishops was summoned by King Theoderic on the advice of Pope Gregory to reform several matters, but not the celebration of Easter. The synod's chief concern was to indict Luxeuil for its Easter observance, so Columban appealed in writing to the pope. He also wrote eloquently and politely to the synod, but to no avail. He and his brethren were exiled. Apparently, his letter to Saint Gregory never reached its destination.

That Columban bore no malice is evident when he had a vision of battle and Theoderic's violent death. He awoke in grief and was counselled to pray for the victor against Theoderic. But the old saint replied, "Your counsel is foolish and unholy. Nor is it the will of God, Who bade us pray for our enemies."

The monks were escorted by the military down the Loire through Orleans and Tours to the port of Nantes, where he wrote a famous letter to the Frankish monks left at Luxeuil. There they were put on a ship bound for Ireland. The ship, however, was driven up upon rocks where it was stranded. Thus, they never made it back to Ireland. Instead, they made their way through Paris and Meaux to the court of Theodebert II of Neustria (Austrasia), where they were offered refuge at Metz. From Metz the monks began to preach the Gospel among the pagan Alemanni around Bregenz on Lake Constanz amidst the ruins of the Roman town, where they stayed for three years and two of the monks were slain by hostile natives. In their wanderings, these Irish monks founded over 100 monasteries in France and Switzerland.

It is said that his preaching converted many, including Saint Ouen (f.d. August 24), who founded Jouarre, and Saint Fare (f.d. April 3), the daughter of a noble family who founded Faremoutiers. His influence was extensive.

Theoderic, after conquering the area of Bregenz and becoming king of Austrasia, again drove Columban, 70 or 80 years old, into exile with only one companion. But Columbanus found his reward of peace at the end of his life.

The province of Lombardy, which he entered when he had crossed the Alps, was ruled by Agilulph, an Arian. His wife was the wise, noble, saintly Theodelinda to whom Saint Gregory dedicated his "Dialogues." The fame of Columban seems to have already reached the court. King Agilulph, who a few years before was besieging Rome and creating a desert of the Campagna, welcomed the exiled saint almost as a national asset.

Within the Apennines between Milan and Genoa, at a spot now famous under the name of Bobbio, there was a ruined basilica dedicated to Saint Peter. If, as is not unlikely, the ruins were the handiwork of these ruthless Arian Lombards, there was a quality of penance and restitution in Agilulph the Arian's gift of it to Columban.

One incident throws light on the undaunted worker. To restore the basilica the little group of monks cut and dragged timber from the neighbouring wood. Sometimes the great trees were felled where no timber-wain could go. The monks were forced to carry the great beams on their shoulders. Yet God seemed so manifestly to help these men to help themselves that heavy logs which, on the word of Jonas, 30 or 40 men could barely have carried over level ground, were carried over rocks on the shoulders of ancient Columban and two or three monks. With a touch of poetry Jonas adds that the abbot and his monks carried their load "with such unfaltering feet as if moving in play and with joy."

This abbey flourished for 12 centuries until Napoleon closed it in 1802. Its library was divided among various libraries in Europe.

Queen Theodelinda's prayer and plan for the conversion of her Arian husband and the Lombards received sudden reinforcement by the illustrious exile from Luxeuil. The anger of one queen, Brunhilda, was the opportunity for a greater good--God works all things to the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.

Although 10 years had elapsed since Agilulph had begun a friendship with Pope Saint Gregory the Great, which might soon have born fruit in the king's conversion, Saint Gregory's death had withdrawn the main clerical influence over the king's Arian mind. With the coming of Columban, Theodelinda saw the possibility of Gregory's influence being renewed.

But in Lombardy Columban met for the first time the subtle atmosphere of the two great Eastern heresies: the king and most of his subjects were Arians. The rest of his people, even the clergy, were Nestorians enmeshed in the famous controversy of the Three Chapters. Columban could find his peace-nurtured believing mind only bewildered by these Oriental disputations and phrase-weavings--historians wrong both him and the original sources of his history when they see descending the slopes of the Alps only a dogmatic sleuth-hound yearning for controversial blood. Faced with such heresies, Columban wrote a treatise and became involved in opposing the Three Chapters, which were condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople. The bishops of Istria and some of Lombardy defended these writings with such warmth as to break off communion with Rome.

But Queen Theodelinda saw that this undaunted lover of truth and peace was God-sent to bring peace to her king and people through the truth. Though his life was now measured only by months, he could not stint himself when Theodelinda requested help in bringing Arian and Nestorian Lombardy to the orthodox faith.

At Agilulph's request Saint Columban wrote a letter to the reigning Pope Boniface IV (f.d. May 8) regarding the need to summon a synod to bring dogmatic peace. In it he says: ". . . the schism of the people is a grief to [Agilulph] on account of the queen and her son and perhaps for his own sake too; seeing that he is believed to have said that if he knew the truth he would believe. . . . The king asks you, the queen asks you, all ask you, that all things may become one as soon as possible, so that as there is peace in the fatherland there may be peace in the "faith" and the whole flock of Christ may henceforth be one.

Columban wrote a defence of Rome and of the orthodox faith to an anonymous person, who was probably an Arian bishop of northern Italy: "Thereupon I made such reply as I could . . . for I believe that the Pillar of the Church is always unmoved in Rome."

Abbot Jonas assures us that, no doubt by the wish of King Agilulph and Queen Theodelinda, he took up his abode near Milan, that "by the weapon of the Scriptures" he might rend and destroy the deceits of the heretics, that is, of the Arian heresy, against whom he wrote a scholarly book.

He continued to preach to large crowds who were deeply moved at the sight of his long white hair and beard, and of his face which though deeply lined with age and fatigue still shone with the zeal for Christ and was able to move souls.

Thus it was that God converted both Agilulph and his people through Columban. For centuries Bobbio was the citadel of scientific defence which owed its existence to the man who united culture and sanctity in one mind and heart. When ruin overtook it centuries later, the gathered treasures of its library enriched the libraries that still enrich the scholarship of the world.

Columban's prophecy about the death of Theodoric, the rise of Clotaire, and the brutal murder of Brunhilda lead Clotaire to invite Columban back to France. He would not go back asked the king to look kindly on the monks of Luxeuil.

The Rule and the Penitential of Columban

The Church also has Saint Columban to thank for two contributions of great worth--his Rule and his Penitential.

His rule is not original but embodies the stern asceticism of his fellow-countrymen and especially his fellow monks at Bangor. In the end it was found that the less exacting Rule of Saint Benedict was more acceptable to the monks of the West. While the sterner rule everywhere yielded to the milder, every movement towards a reform of the Rule of Saint Benedict has been a movement towards the ideal of Saint Columban.

Even greater than his Rule is his penitential, containing the prescriptions of penances to be imposed upon the monks for every fault, however light. Of the penitential Oscar Watkins writes:

"The fact of outstanding importance with respect to the Penitential of Columban is that while it corresponds to no existing practice to be found anywhere in force from former times on the continent of Europe, it reproduces all the main features of the peculiar system which has been seen at work in the Celtic churches . . . As in the British and Irish systems, the penance and the reconciliation are alike private" (p. 615).

"It is not a little remarkable that by the end of the seventh century the Rule of Saint Columban, for whatsoever reason, practically disappears, and the Rule of Saint Benedict becomes supreme. But his Penitential system not only survived in the monasteries which were now being founded, but was destined in time, after the later English influence, to become the general penitential system of Western Europe" (Watkins), p. 124).

It is to the credit of sinful human nature that this Sacrament of Penance, which our Redeemer made not so much an obligation as a privilege, should yet be frequented almost as an obligation. Perhaps we are close to the motive of this humble practice in thinking of its connection, by way of cleansing, with the great Banquet of the Body and Blood. One of the chief glories of the fellow-countrymen of Columban will be that to him more than to any other individual in the Western Church this lowly practice seems due.

See "Irish Penitentials : And the Sacrament of Penance Today" by Hugh Connolly
ISBN: 1851821619

Columban's last literary testament is a letter to Pope Boniface IV, which would lead the reader to believe that he was an unwearied warrior for the faith, rather than bowed with ailment and age. He also wrote a charming poem in Adonic verse to his young friend Fedolius, which showed him to be less like Tertullian and more like Gregory Nazianzen (f.d. January 2) or Prudentius (f.d. April 6).

The only certain date in his life is that of his "dies natalis," though we don't know how he died. We do know that the exile finally made it home to his Father and was welcomed there. His body was laid to rest in the heart of the Apennines, where it remains.

His somewhat intemperate defence of the Celtic over the Roman liturgical customs and the austerity of his rule, make him a rather forbidding personality; but on the other hand, through the numerous abbeys, founded by himself and by his disciples, he exerted a determining and lasting influence on Western civilisation.
(Attwater, Benedictines, Daniel-Rops, Delaney, Encyclopedia, Fitzpatrick, Gougaud, Jonas, Kenney, MacManus, MacNabb, Metlake, Montague, Montalembert, Porter, Tommasini, Waddell, Walsh, Watkins).

Saint Columbanus is represented with a missioner's cross and a bear near him. Sometimes he carries an abbatial staff, a missioner's cross, and wears a sun on his chest; or he is shown in a bear's den with a fountain springing up at his prayers (Roeder).

Troparion of St Columban of Bobbio
Tone 8
Rome was shocked by the severity of thy Rule, O Father Columban,
but nothing daunted thou didst not waver in thy condemnation of spiritual and moral laxity.
Standing firmly in the tradition of the fathers of the Thebaid, thou art a tower of strength to us sinners,
wherefore O Saint, do thou entreat Christ our God that He will grant mercy to our souls.

Medieval Sourcebook:
The Life of St. Columban,
by the Monk Jonas, (7th Century)

Icon of Saint Columban:

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