1 Corinthians 3:13-14
Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward.
We remember today a monk named Columba, born in Ireland in year 521. Columba founded several monasteries including the renowned monastery at Kells. Columba was a complicated man, and the combination of his religious zeal, his love for learning, and his anger made for his breaking and his making.
When his former abbot, Finnian, returned from Rome with a rare copy of the psalter translated by St. Jerome, Columba was keen to reproduce it, making a copy in his own hand. When Abbot Finnian learned of the copy, he claimed that the copy by rights should also belong to him. Columba protested. Finnian appealed to King Diarmaid. The king ruled in Abbot Finnian’s favor: “To every cow her calf,” said the king, “and to every book its son-book.” Columba was enraged, an anger that only increased because of king’s public disrespect for the sanctuary of Columba’s monastery. This prompted a battle between the clans belonging to the king and to those belonging to Columba, a bloody eruption resulting in more than 3,000 deaths. The church blamed Columba, and he accepted responsibility. He said in his shame, “Men lie dead through the pride of a man of peace,” and he resolved to not rest until, as he said, he “won for God as many souls who have fallen in this battle.”
Contrite and courageous, Columba left Ireland at age 41 with a band of 12 monks in an open boat called a coracle, a kind of wicker basket covered with a leather canopy. They had no specific destination in mind, only to settle where God’s wind and waves sent them. They ended up off the western coast of Scotland on the island of Iona. There on Iona, Columba had a passion for constructing the monastery and then training the monks to be missionaries. They met with great success. Columba and his fellow monks converted both princes and paupers to Christianity, building up the church on the surrounding islands of the Scottish Hebrides, and then on the mainland. Iona became a staging point for the expansion of Christianity throughout the British Isles and western Europe.
In the last four years of his life, when his health failed, Columba returned to his earlier practice, what had gotten him into so much trouble: copying sacred texts. But now he transcribed the books of the Gospels, not for himself but to be taken out and used well, which they were. Over time, Columba’s anger and his austerity had mellowed with age, which is how he is remembered in the hagiography. Columba died a converted man. An abbot who succeeded Columba wrote of him in his later life, “He was like an angel in demeanor, blameless in what he said, godly in what he did, brilliant in intellect and great in counsel. He spent thirty-four years as an island soldier, and could not let even an hour pass without giving himself to praying or reading or writing or some other task.”
Life had been a real crucible for Columba, burning away a lot of the dross in his own soul. This image of “fire” is prominent in Celtic spirituality, the fire of God’s love. To this fire Columba had been subjected during his 39 years sailing to and from Iona. In his late life, Columba prayed, “Give me, I pray you, Lord, in the name of Jesus Christ, your Son and my God, love that does not fail so that my lantern burning within me and giving light to others, may be always lighted and never extinguished.”i Many generations later, for ten years beginning in the late 1800s, our own community lived, worked, and prayed on Iona, just next to the great Abbey. Iona is beautiful and ragged and, in much of the year, with cold, gray weather, very much inviting a fire for both the hearth and the heart. Back in Oxford, where our Society of Saint John the Evangelist began, our founder, Richard Meux Benson, and a number of our early members are buried in a churchyard.ii Father Benson’s grave is marked by a tall granite Celtic cross remembering Columba and the inspiration of these early monk-missionaries from Iona in spirituality of our own community.
Distinctive about Columba’s theology and the Celtic spirituality that has abounded in the ensuring centuries is an iconic understanding of life. Iconic, from the noun, icon, which is an image offering a window through which to see and serve God. Life is iconic. That is to say, everything created shows the imprint of the Creator. Everything in the created order – plants, animals, the fish of the sea, mountain tops and valleys below, every sight, every sound, every smell, things great and small, and especially fellow human beings, created in the very image of God. All of God’s creation is revelatory of the majesty and magnificence of God: not to be missed, not to be misused, but reverenced. The whole of life, to be reverenced. Life is iconic.
This is to treat life – the whole of life – with a posture of both reverence and of revelation. Reverence, presuming that the whole created order shows the handiwork of God. Reverence the whole of the created order, especially people, especially those who are least in your own eyes. Be gentle, be kind, be a good trustee of life. Reverence the whole of the created order, all of it being iconic. And secondly, presume that God’s revelation is happening all along the way, not just in “sacred” moments but in every moment, every day. Practice attentiveness. Columba said, “God is everywhere in his immensity, and everywhere close at hand.”iii Blessed Columba, who died on Iona on this day, June 9, in the year 597.
God be with thee in every pass,
Jesus be with thee on every hill,
Spirit be with thee on every stream,
Headland and ridge and lawn;
Each sea and land, each moor and meadow
Each lying down, each rising up,
In the trough of the waves, on the crest of the billows,
Each step of the journey thou goest.iv
i From an instruction by Saint Columba.
i1 These gravesites are in the churchyard of Ss Mary & John, Oxford.
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