Scotland's St. Columba

A friend of mine once said she loved her Catholic faith because 'it has all the cool stuff.' She was talking about the many mystical and miraculous events throughout Catholic history and the lives of the Saints. St. Columba, 521-597, definitely falls into the category of mystical and miraculous. His life story contains at least a hundred miracles: walking on water, raising the dead, driving out serpents, controlling wind and storms, purifying springs, prophesying the future as well as 'seeing' current but distant events. In an event that could only take place in Scotland, he is credited with being the first recorded observer of the Loch Ness monster.

... when the blessed man was living for some days in the province of the Picts, he was obliged to cross the river Nesa (the Ness); and when he reached the bank of the river, he saw some of the inhabitants burying an unfortunate man, who, according to the account of those who were burying him, was a short time before seized, as he was swimming, and bitten most severely by a monster that lived in the water; his wretched body was, though too late, taken out with a hook, by those who came to his assistance in a boat. The blessed man, on hearing this, was so far from being dismayed, that he directed one of his companions to swim over and row across the coble that was moored at the farther bank.

And Lugne Mocumin hearing the command of the excellent man, obeyed without the least delay, taking off all his clothes, except his tunic, and leaping into the water. But the monster, which, so far from being satiated, was only roused for more prey, was lying at the bottom of the stream, and when it felt the water disturbed above by the man swimming, suddenly rushed out, and, giving an awful roar, darted after him, with its mouth wide open, as the man swam in the middle of the stream. Then the blessed man observing this, raised his holy hand, while all the rest, brethren as well as strangers, were stupefied with terror, and, invoking the name of God, formed the saving sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying, "Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed." Then at the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled... And even the barbarous heathens, who were present, were forced by the greatness of this miracle, which they themselves had seen, to magnify the God of the Christians.

Columba hailed from Ireland, a royal descendant of Niall of the Nine Hostages. After a basic education, he entered a monastic school under the tutorship of St. Finian, who had studied in Galloway with St. Ninian. Even as a student at Moville, he began performing miracles. One was turning water into wine for the Mass. He spent fifteen years in Ireland, setting up religious houses in Derry, Durrow, and Kells.

Writing of St. Columba in the Cathac

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In his early 40's, Columba made his move to Scotland. Some sources attribute this to King Dermot disliking Columba's zeal against public vices. More often, it is linked to a family feud that ended with the death of 3,000 men, and for which Columba felt some responsibility. Still other stories concern a judgment made against Columba for making a secret copy of St. Finian's psalter. And some versions state that the battle was, in fact, the result of the dispute over copying the book. The Cathac, or Book of the Battle, the book of Psalms copied by Columba in the 6th century, still exists today, after a long and interesting history, and is preserved by the Royal Irish Academy.

The earliest sources, those closest to Columba's own time, do not mention the book or battle as Columba's reason for leaving, but simply ascribe to him the desire to win souls for God, and this reason is accepted by some.  Whatever the reasons, Columba established himself and his followers on the island of Iona, founded a monastic rule that was followed until St. Benedict, and from Iona, set about converting, or in cases re-converting, Scotland.

Among his most famous encounters is that with the Pictish chief, Brude, who is thought to have lived where Urquhart Castle now stands, on the north shore of Loch Ness. Brude, having no desire to meet with Columba, or Saints Comgall or Canice who traveled with him, closed and locked the gates. Columba lifted his hand and made the sign of the cross, at which point the bolts holding the gates fell away. The three saints walked into the castle unhindered. Brude stood in awe of the miracle. He not only listened to the Saints, but was baptized by them. His people soon followed, and much of Caledonia was converted.

Columba lived austerely, sleeping on floors and using stones for pillows. At least one of those stones is today credited with miraculous powers. Despite his austerity, he was cheerful, joyful, mild-mannered, and charitable in his thoughts and dealings with others. Yet he also commanded great authority, such that even kings consulted with him before acting.

Columba lived into his 70's, spending his time traveling around Scotland, and occasionally back to Ireland. He primarily spent his last years, however, on Iona. In the summer of 597--or 592 according to the Annals of the Four Masters, the discrepancy in years possibly being due to the change in calendars--Columba was already regarded as a saint. He knew his death was approaching, and climbed the hill above the monastery to give it one last blessing. He returned to his cell to continue transcribing a psalter, and died there in the earliest hours of Sunday, June 9.

The full text of Adaman's Life of St. Columba can be read online, detailing Columba's life and many more miracles and prophecies.

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