St. Columba (521 – 597)
My Fear of the Sound of an Axe
Celtic monks left the forest standing at the sites of their monasteries rather than cut them. Adaman, Columba’s biographer, tells the story of how the Irish King Aedh gave a plot of land in Doire to Columba:
And he [Columba] had so great a love for Doire, and the cutting of the oak trees went so greatly against him, that he could not find a place for his church the time he was building it that would let the front of it be to the east…. And he left it upon those that came after him not to cut a tree that fell of itself or was blown down by the wind in that place to the end of nine days, and then to share it between the people of the townland, bad and good, a third of it to the great house, and tenth to be given to the poor. And he put a verse in a hymn after he was gone away to Scotland that shows there was nothing worse to him than the cutting of that oakwood: “Though there is fear in me of death and of hell, I will not hide it that I have more fear of the sound of an axe over in Doire.”
~ Commentary by Adamnan, as quoted in Lady Isabella Gregory, A Book of Saints and Wonders put down here by Lady Gregory according to the Old Writings and Memory of the People of Ireland, Irish University Press, Shannon, 1971, p. 17-18
Why I Love the Oakwood of Doire
It is the reason I love Doire, for its quietness for its purity; it is quite full of white angels from the one end to the other.
It is the reason I love Doire, for its quietness for its purity; quite full of white angels is every leaf of the oaks of Doire.
My Doire, my little oakwood, my dwellings and my white cell;
O living God in heaven, it is a pity for him who harms it.
~ Commentary by Adamnan, as quoted in Lady Isabella Gregory, A Book of Saints and Wonders put down here by Lady Gregory according to the Old Writings and Memory of the People of Ireland, Irish University Press, Shannon, 1971, p. 20.
A Feathered Stranger Guest, Tired and Weary
St. Columba showed great kindness for the birds. On one occasion, it befell, while the saint was living on Iona, that he called to a brother to go and sit by the shore and watch “for a stranger guest, a crane, wind tossed and driven far from her course in the high air: tired out and weary…. The crane will fall to the beach at thy feet and lie there, her strength nigh gone.”
Columba told the brother, “tenderly lift the bird and carry it to the steading near by; make her welcome there and cherish her with all care for three days and nights…,” and then release her.
Three days later as the saint had said, the brother, stood as he was bidden, and when he saw the crane, he did as Columba had instructed him.
And on his return that evening to the monastery, the Saint spoke to him, not as one questioning, but as one speaks of a thing past, “May God bless thee, my son, for the kind tending of this pilgrim guest: that shall make no long stay in her exile, but when three suns have set, [she] shall turn back to her own land.”
And the thing fell out even as the Saint had foretold. “For when her three day housing was ended, and as her host stood by, she rose from earth into high heaven, and after a while at gaze to spy out her aerial way, took her straight flight above the quiet sea, and so to Ireland through the tranquil weather.”
~Helen Waddell, ed. and trans., Beasts and Saints, Constable and Co., London, 1949, p. 44-45.
A poet, prophet and monk of royal Irish lineage, Columba went to Scotland to evangelize the pagan Picts. He was a student of Finnian of Clonard. His name means “dove of the Church.” Columba was born into a royal clan in Donegal, Ireland. He called Christ “his druid,” or teacher. Columcille, his Irish name, or Columba, as he is known in Latin Britain, founded numerous monasteries across the Irish land. All of these had oak groves, the favorite trees of the druids. He was a scholar and writer who found great joy in solitude. A sixth century poem describes him as a gentle sage “with faith in Christ,” and states that “being a priest was but one of his callings.” Adamnan, an early biographer, writes, “Angelic in appearance, elegant in address, holy in work, he would never spend the space of even one hour without study or prayer or writing.” He radiated a divine and celestial light, and is known for the booming power of his voice, and for his amazing authority over the winds and seas and all the natural world. He had such a deep love for the woods and for all of God’s creation that he made sure that his monastery was built without a tree being cut down. In one of his poems, he wrote that he was more afraid of the sound of an axe in Derrywood, a nearby forest, than he was of the voice of hell itself. He founded what is reputed to be the largest monastery in Christendom on the coastal island of Iona which became a great center of learning and from which monasticism spread throughout Northern Europe. The character of the monasticism which he built was marked by a commitment to community and keen appreciation for the natural world as the vesture of the Holy Spirit.
True Adoration in the World
I adore not the voice of the birds, nor sneezing, nor lots in this world: My druid is Christ, the son of God, Christ, the son of Mary, the Great Abbot, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
~ Song of Trust. Quoted in The National Churches: Volume 3, Church of Ireland, Thomas Olden, W. Gardner Darton, 1985, p. 51.
The Delights of the World
Delightful would it be to me
to be in Uchd Ailiun (an Irish headland over the sea)
On the pinnacle of a rock,
That I might often see the face of the ocean;
That I might see its heaving waves over the wide ocean,
When they chant music to their Father upon the world’s course;
That I might see its level of sparkling strand,
it would be no cause of sorrow;
That I might see the sea-monsters, the greatest of all wonders….
That contrition might come upon my heart upon looking at her;
That I might bewail my evils all,
though it were difficult to compute them;
That I might bless the Lord Who conserves all,
Heaven with its countless bright orders,
land, strand and flood;
That I might search the books all, that would be good for my soul;
At times kneeling to beloved Heaven;
At times psalm singing;
At times contemplating the King of Heaven, Holy the Chief;
At times at work without compulsion,
That would be delightful.
~ Song of Columba (Columcille Fecit). Quoted in Saint Columba of Iona: A Study of His Life, by Lucy Menzies, J.M. Dent & Sons, 1920, p. 131.