Though born in Ireland, St. Columba (521-597) is mostly remembered for sowing the seeds of God’s word in Scotland.
His early years were spent in monasteries, learning the life of prayer and study under the tutelage of St. Finnian — one of the fathers of Irish monasticism. In fact, St. Columba is included in a list of 11 other students of St. Finnian, who are collectively referred to as the “Twelve Apostles of Ireland.” Additionally, St. Columba went on to apprentice under another of those 12, St. Mobhi.
St. Columba’s work as a priest and abbot were aided and enhanced by the characteristic of a great, imposing personality. A man of large stature, St. Columba was known to have a booming voice that could be heard distinctly, even a mile away.
An interesting dispute arose between St. Columba and his mentor St. Finnian, even causing a war that resulted in over 3,000 deaths. The issue was over a copyright, involving a copy of St. Jerome’s translation of the psalter. St. Columba had produced a copy of it at St. Finnian’s monastery, but they both laid claim to it as their property. St. Columba regarded the copy to be his since he produced it. And St. Finnian believed it was his since he owned the original.
Recourse was made to the king, who sided with St. Finnian. But St. Columba rejected the decision, and he enlisted the help of a clan to rebel against the king around 561. The Battle of Cúl Dreimhne is notable for its status as one of history’s first conflicts over a copyright.
Other subsequent disagreements with the king made it difficult for St. Columba to continue in his native land. Later in life, internal Church politics brought sanctions levied upon him, which seem to have been proven false when St. Brendan saw a vision of angels surrounding St. Columba. But it is not uncommon for saints to have difficulties with authorities, either ecclesial or civil.
Within a few years, St. Columba left Ireland for Scotland, setting out with 12 companions in a wicker canoe. Although the reason is not entirely certain, it is likely there was an invitation for St. Columba from another kingdom in western Scotland. In some ways, he was not leaving his native people, since the Gaels had been in that region for a couple centuries.
Landing first in a place where his native isle could still be seen, legend has it that St. Columba directed his party to go farther, eventually settling in Iona, on land given to him by the local king.
In Scotland, St. Columba’s establishment of a monastery at Iona brought a renaissance of monasticism in the country. Additionally, the erection of churches and schools were an essential part of his mission.
The monastery he founded grew in reputation as a school for missionaries. And his reputation for holiness and prophesy made him a neutral party to help negotiate between clans and other factions. His influence is seen in a variety of political decisions.
There are legends that St. Columba was also a miracle worker, one of which involved him banishing to the River Ness a giant water beast that killed a man and threatened the life of one of the saint’s followers. Many believe this could be related to the myth of the Loch Ness monster.
St. Columba’s abbey also has been regarded as a center for literacy in the region. He himself was a poet and hymnographer, and he transcribed several hundred texts.
He died, predicting the date of his own death, in the sanctuary of his abbey’s church in 597.
His feast day is June 9.
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of Simply Catholic. Follow him on Twitter at @HeinleinMichael.