Columbanus (Columban), one of the greatest Irish missionary monks of the sixth and seventh centuries, was born in Leinster, probably of noble family. He received a good education: from his own works it is clear that he was familiar not only with the Bible, but with the Latin Fathers and pagan Latin authors such as Seneca, Horace, Virgil and Ovid. According to Jonas, his earliest biographer, his education was interrupted during his adolescence, when he was distracted by the attractions of the opposite sex, and in particular by the temptation presented by what Jonas described as certain lascivae puellae. Apparently on the advice of a woman hermit, who counselled him simply to turn his back on what he could not otherwise avoid, but totally against the wishes of his mother, he became a monk. He went first to learn from one of St Finnian's disciples, Sinell, who lived on Cluain Inis, and Island in Lough Erne, and from there to the great monastic foundation at Bangor, where his master was St Comgall. According to Jonas, he stayed here for "many years," possibly teaching in the monastic school, and it was probably not until about 590 that he set sail with twelve companions for Gaul. The deorad De – one who goes into voluntary exile for the love of God and to spread the gospel – was a familiar figure in the Celtic church at this time, and Columbanus was one of the most influential of them all.
The situation he found in Gaul was not encouraging. The repartition of the kingdom of the Franks after the death of Clotaire I in 561 had led to a period of internal conflict and general civil unrest. This, combined with a general laxity among the clergy, meant that religion was at a rather low ebb. The Irish monks, undaunted, began immediately to preach to the people and to encourage them by their example. Their reputation reached the king of Burgundy, Gontran (561–92), who gave Columbanus a plot of land with a disused Roman fort on it at Annegray in the Vosges. Here Columbanus founded his first monastery; when, because of the numbers who wished to join him, it became too small he built another at nearby Luxeuil, and eventually a third at Fontes (now Fontaine).
The essence of Columbanus' Rule was love of God and love of neighbour; for the rest he enjoined what he himself had ben taught in Ireland, and he observed the Irish date for Easter, despite the fact that the Roman practice had been in use in Gaul from the beginning of the fifth century. The Rule was accompanied by a Penitential, in which Columbanus prescribed penances for even the slightest of faults. It was in fact in the austerity, even harshness, of its discipline that Celtic monasticism differed most from Benedictine monasticism, which eventually superseded it.
More significantly, Celtic practice in general differed from the practice of the rest of the Frankish church. Columbanus and his monks had been peacefully pursuing their strenuous way of life for twelve years when they began to sense hostility from the Frankish bishops, who now doubt resented the independence of these newcomers. Columbanus was told to appear before a synod so that he could give an account of his Celtic practice. Seeing no reason to obey – he regarded the Frankish bishops as negligent and their clergy as lax – he refused to go. But because the bishops had focused their attack on the date of Easter, he wrote them a letter in which he described himself as "a poor stranger in these parts for the cause of Christ" and humbly begged them to leave him and his monks in peace. He also hinted that there might be more important things to worry about than the date of Easter. As the bishops were not to be fobbed off so easily, he wrote also to the pope – initially Gregory I (590–604) and then, later, Boniface IV (608–14). On both occasions he confirmed his loyalty to the See of Peter, explained Irish customs, and asked the pope to confirm them. The matter was left like this until a few years later, when the bishop of Lyons renewed the attack, Columbanus, who could be extremely blunt and outspoken, wrote again, this time to the Synod of Chalons–sur–Saône, appealing for tolerance and asking that his monks simply be allowed to live according to the tradition with which they were familiar.
Meanwhile, trouble was brewing on another front. The king of Burgundy, Theodoric II, had a certain respect for Columbanus and used to discuss things with him. But when Columbanus reproved him for keeping concubines instead of marrying and refused to bless his illegitimate children, Theodoric and his grandmother, Brunhild, the redoubtable widow of Clovis' son Sigebert, were seriously provoked – she not least because she realized that a lawful wife would be queen, and hence a threat to her own position. Columbanus made matters worse for himself by adhering to the Irish rather than the Frankish custom and refusing Brunhild entry to his monastery – as he indeed refused entry to any woman or layman. Brunhild stirred up trouble between Theodoric and Columbanus, with the result that in 610 the latter was ordered to leave the country with those of his original Irish companions who had survived.
Columbanus penned a now–famous letter to the monks left behind at Luxeuil-Montalembert said it contained "some of the finest and grandest words ever produced by the Christian genius" – and then embarked. But almost immediately the ship ran into a storm and was forced back to port. Avoiding Burgundy, the monks went to the court of the Austrasian king, Theodebert II, at Metz, where they were well received. But because of their vigorous methods and perhaps excessive zeal, they were not so well received by the people in the neighbourhood of Zurich and of Bregenz where they mainly preached. So when Austrasia and Burgundy went to war and Theodebert was defeated, Columbanus decided the time had come to move further afield.
Although he was about seventy years old by now, he made the journey across the Alps with his monks and went to Milan, where he was kindly received by Agilulf, the Arian king of the Lombards, whose wife, Theodelinda, and their three children were Catholics, although out of tune with the Holy See on the matter of the Three Chapters. These writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia and two others were condemned in 553 at the Council of Constantinople on the grounds that they favoured Nestorianism, but the bishops of Istria and some in Lombardy defended them with such passion that they were prepared to break off communion with the pope. Agilulf and his wife persuaded Columbanus to step in and write to Pope Boniface IV in defence of the Three Chapters. Unfortunately Columbanus knew next to nothing about either the documents or the circumstances in which they had been written. His letter makes clear his great devotion to the Holy See and his desire for unity in the faith, but it is not a particular useful contribution to the debate about the Three Chapters. To do him justice, Columbanus seems to be aware of this and asks, not without humour, "Quis poterit glabrum audire?" – "Who could listen to a greenhorn?"
Meanwhile, Agilulf had given Columbanus some land at Bobbio, in an Apennine valley between Genoa and Piacenza. Here Columbanus made the last of his monastic foundations. Despite his age, he even sometimes helped with the building work. By now all he wanted was to retire and prepare for death. So when Clotaire II of Neustria, under whom the Frankish kingdom had once again been reunited since the death of Theodoric in 613, invited him to return, Columbanus refused. He did, though, ask the king to look kindly on the monks of Luxeuil. Shortly after this, on 23 November 615, he died. He was buried in Bobbio.
As "a monastery of the Benedictine Congregation of St-Vanne," Luxeuil flourished until the French Revolution put an end to its long history. Bobbio, which housed one of the greatest libraries of the Middle Ages, declined from the fifteenth century onward and was finally suppressed by the French in 1803, but the dispersal of the library was already begun in the sixteenth century. In addition to the Rule and the Penitential, Columban's own writings consist mainly of letters and a handful of poems. The quality of the thought and style is consistently high and is epitomized in Epistola IV, to the monks at Luxeuil – an extraordinary mixture ("love does not keep order, hence my message is confused") of theology, spiritual advice and moving self–revelation, reminiscent of St Paul in his more personal moments.
"I wanted to write you a tearful letter, but for the reason that I know your heart, I have simply mentioned necessary duties, hard of themselves and difficult, and have used another style, preferring to check than to encourage tears. So my speech has been outwardly smooth, and grief is shut up within. See, the tears flow, but it is better to check the fountain; for it is no part of a brave soldier to lament in battle. ... Now as I write a messenger has reached me, saying that the ship is ready for me in which I shall be borne unwilling to my country; but if I escape, there is no guard to prevent it; for they seem to desire this, that I escape. If I am cast into the sea like Jonah, who is also called Columba in Hebrew, pray that someone may take the place of the whale to bring me back in safe concealment by a happy voyage, to restore your Jonah to the land he longs for."
From: Butler's Lives of the Saints, new full edition, November, rev. by Sarah Fawcett, publ. by Burns & Oates, 1997.
Anyone who would like to know more about our Patron Saint might look into The Eagle and the Dove – The Spirituality of the Celtic Saint Columbanus, by Katherine Lack, Triangle SPCK, 2000, £6.99 + shipping. Ask the Priest in Charge how to get this most valuable little book.