The History Behind the Story: Columba

In America, we are remembering Pearl Harbor today.  A day of infamy.  In a note connected to the opposite end of World War II, my home in Washington State looked right over the bay leading to the shipyard where the USS Missouri, the ship on which the surrender treaty was signed that ended World War II, was parked.   (I couldn't quite see it from my deck.)  I was on the dock playing Auld Lang Syne with the Buz Whiteley Big Band when she was towed out, May 23, 1998, to begin the trip to her new home at Pearl Harbor.  It was an incredible moment, with all the sailors lining her decks in their dress whites.

In a blog that focuses on the times of Robert the Bruce, we can draw a smilarity between our Pearl Harbor and their Sack of Berwick.  I suspect the people of Berwick might not have been quite as taken by surprise.  I could be wrong, but my guess is they knew Longshanks well--not to mention they lived in a brutal time.  

Still, the sacking of Berwick--the slaughter of thousands of men, women, and children--was brutal even by medieval standards.  Legend says one English 'knight' (sorry, I don't think such a man deserves the term) hacked a woman to death even as she was in labor.  Readers of The Blue Bells Chronicles know that man as Simon Beaumont, Lord of Claverock.  In a moment of mercy, Longshanks is said to have called off the slaughter on seeing this.  I'm sure the woman in labor was eternally grateful.  (I say with not merely a note, but an entire symphony, of sarcasm.)

It is of course just one example that, unfortunately, the course of history doesn't seem to change much.  The Sacking of Berwick and Pearl Harbor, sadly, stand among many such incidents throughout history and across cultures.

On a positive note, December 7 is also the birth date of St. Columba, or St. Columbkille, if you happen to be Irish.  Or St. Colm Cille.  Because, in medieval times, one moniker was never enough.  It makes for confusing, but also interesting research.

In all seriousness, perhaps Colm (or Colum) Cille is most accurate, as colm means dove, and cille means of the church.  As we see in the opening--and closing--pages of Blue Bells of Scotland, names have meaning.

St. Columba is one of the saints most strongly associated with Scotland--an interesting twist as he was actually Irish.  (St. Patrick, most strongly associated with Ireland, in turn was born in Britain, possibly Cumbria.

St. Columba was born a prince, and sent out early to be fostered--as was the tradition of the time--by someone other than his family.  In his case, he was sent to the priest, Cruithnechan, who had baptized him.  After his education at Movilla--where he was already known to have performed miracles--he moved on to Leinster to study under an elderly bard named Gemman.  As a musician, of course, I specifically note that a deacon went for further training in music and poetry, before moving on to Clonard Abbey, which was, at the time, under the direction of St. Finnian.

Of course, it's not really that surprising that a priest would be trained in music.  Music has, after all, been part of the liturgy for centuries.  Even today, priests routinely sing parts of the Mass--and typically do it very well, which suggests some training in music.  Music, singing, and instruments are mentioned numerous times in the Bible, with the advice to praise God with singing, music, and dance.  This is a subject that will one day be covered thoroughly in The Theology of Music.

As I've previously given an overview of Columba's life, I'll finish today with giving a couple of his miracles.  In Westering Home, Amy learns from Helen O'Malley the story of the blessed knife, in which Columba absent-mindedly blessed a knife when asked.  Henceforth, it would not harm man or beast.  She also learns the story of Columba's interactions with Brude, King of the Picts:
At another time, when the saint made his first journey to King Brude, it happened that the king, elated by the pride of royalty...would not open his gates on the arrival of the blessed man.  When the man of God observed this, he approached the folding doors with his companions, and having first formed upon them the sign of the cross of our Lord, he then knocked at and laid his hand upon the gate, which instantly flew open of its own accord, the bolts having been driven back with great force.
 ~ Adamnan's Life of St. Columba

St. Adamnan's book, or rather, three books, are full of miracles. including turning water to wine, turning the winds, and raising a child from the dead.  As we spoke earlier of Columba studying with a bard, I'll mention two miracles associated with his voice, told in Chapter XXIX of Book 1.

The first story there tells us that his voice, though apparently no louder than anyone else's, to those around him while singing psalms, could still be heard up to 8 furlongs, or a thousand paces, away.  The second story says that his voice, on singing psalms outside King Brude's fortress, became like pealing thunder, amazing those inside.

loch ness monster, loch ness, mysterious creatures, urquhart, castles, scotland, saints
Chapter XXVIII may be the most fascinating to a modern reader.  It is here that Adomnan recounts Columba's encounter with an 'aquatic monster' on the shores of the Ness.  There, he sees the local residents burying a man who, they tell Columba, had been seized and bitten 'most severely by a monster that lived in the water.'

St. Columba proceeded to tell one of his men to swim across the river for the boat moored on the far bank, and return it.

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....

Columba made the 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 more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes, though it had just got so near to Lugne, as he swam, that there was not more than the length of a spear-shaft between the man and beast.
Yes, Columba is the first recorded encounter with the Loch Ness monster.

Throughout history, there are days that will live in infamy, days that will forever be associated with awful events.  These things should not be forgotten, for 'those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.'  To me, these two events of December 7--the attack on Pearl Harbor and the birth of a saint who did great good for mankind and worked miracles--is a reminder of one of themes of Shawn's life: we all make choices on how to use the days we are given.

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  1. Thank you for a very interesting post. The matter of music has always intrigued me. I was brought up in the English "chapel" culture which, of course, meant a great deal of hymn singing. Later, as I went through my own music experiences, I began to think about the place of music (especially singing) in our religions. I'm looking forward to "The Theology of Music".

    1. Thank you, Judith. In the research Chris and I have already done, it's clear the topic could actually cover multiple books. It's a fascinating and amazing subject.


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