Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Great sinner, greater saint: Columba, the one who loved books

O Lord, grant us that love which can never die, which will enkindle our lamps but not extinguish them, so that they may shine in us and bring light to others. Most dear Savior, enkindle our lamps that they may shine forever in your temple. May we receive unquenchable light from yo so that our darkness will be illuminated and the darkness of the world will be made less. Amen. --- a prayer of St. Columba

Today the Church remembers Columba, bard, monk, missioner, and penitent, and just plain interesting character.

He was born in Ireland, at about the same time that the young Patrick was a slave there, to a noble family, direct descendants of the great Niall. He had a great love for all kinds of learning from childhood. The legendary version of his life attributes this to the toddler Columba having eaten a cake with the alphabet letters baked inside it. He studied the bardic arts, and then, after he became a Christian, apprenticed in the monastic life under two hermits who also became saints, both of them named Finian. Then, he took up the life of a wandering bard, monastic variety, going all over Ireland wherever there were souls to be saved and new books to be read, priorities not necessarily in that order.

Now word came to Columba that a new book had arrived at the hermitage of Finian (who may have been one of the two he apprenticed under --- but Finian was a extremely common name at that time). So he went to the place where Finian, and his new book, dwelled; publically preaching and praying and reading the new book during the day, and secretly copying the book at night, against the command of Finian, who was very attached to having an only copy. On the night Columba finished copying the last page of the book, he was discovered, and Finian claimed the copy for himself, since there was no permission to copy. After much arguing, the case was appealed to the High King of all Ireland, who ruled in favor of Finian in this very first copyright case --- "To every cow its calf, and to every book its child book."

Columba lost his temper entirely, and called down the wrath of the O'Neills (his ancestral clan) against the High King and his armies. There was a great battle, which was won by the O'Neill forces, but at the cost of a thousand dead. Every soul of whom was a millstone on the soul of Columba. One thousand souls killed, for the sake of a book and bruised pride. In penitence, he vowed to never look upon his beloved land again.

With a few companions, he sailed away; and kept sailing until they came to an island where, even at the top of the highest hill on the clearest day, there was no sight of Ireland --- Iona. There, he did penance, and he established a monastic community. From there, he sent missionaries to spread the Christian faith among the Picts and the Angles in the place now called Scotland.

And, he did once visit Ireland again, blindfolded. Many years after his exile, messengers came to him, informing him that the High King was attempting to outlaw the bardic arrts, upset at certain bards' misbehavior and also peeved at the bards' parodies of his exalted self. After much pleading, Columba agreed to be taken back to his land, to defend its stories and songs and the people who created and preserved them before the throne of the High King. Having successfully defended the bards, and having read the riot act to those individual bards who had triggered the trouble, never having looked upon the land he still loved, he returned to his exile, and lived in holiness and penitence to a revered old age.

For a book on this, go to your local public library, to the children's section, and borrow The Man Who Loved Books, by Jean Fritz. And remember that great sinners can be redeemed and restored, and become even greater saints.

1 comment:

Fr. Shawn O'Neal said...

Beware of the wrath of O'Neals/O'Neills/O'Neils.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Fr. Shawn O'Neal
Bryson City, NC