Our Patron St. Columban...
St Columban was a native of Leinster; one of the four principal provinces of Ireland Columban was born about the middle of the sixth century. Most writers place the date of his birth at 543 A.D. Christianity was still quite new in Ireland, but the fervor and zeal of the early Irish converts helped the Church to grow. Many monasteries were built where monks lived, worked and prayed together. The monastic schools of that time brought great praise to Ireland as a country. They were filled with eminent sanctity and great learning. The monks who professed their faith in this way made Ireland into an Island of Saints, and the market place of sacred literature. The monasteries were great schools of sacred learning. In them there were many fervent persons, called by God, who led an unworldly life, devoted to contemplation, and penance.
The monks removed themselves from the distractions of secular business and even from ordinary conversation with the world so that they might freely converse with God and his heavenly spirits.
The best known of the monasteries was that of Bangor, in the county of Down. Saint Comgal founded the monastery at Bangor in the year 550. Under his direction a great number of fervent servants of God seemed to lead an angelic life while still alive on earth. They plowed the ground with their own hands, and performed other manual labor that did not interrupt their prayer and contemplation. They also applied themselves to sacred studies, in which Saint Comgal was himself an excellent master. Their rule was originally borrowed from Saint Basil, and other Orientals. Bangor is the place where Columban entered religious life.
When still a young boy Columban left home to study in the monastery. Later, he returned home to tell his parents that he wished to leave home forever to give his life to God. Columban’s mother refused to give permission to Columban to go into religious life, but Columban would not change his mind. It is said that Columban stepped over his mother who had thrown her body across the doorway to stop Columban’s leaving. Once he left their home, he never returned.
After Columban learned the first elements of the sciences under Saint Sinellus at Cluain-Inis, he entered the monastery at Bangor. While there he practiced penance and self discipline. These, combined with constant study, helped Columban to progress rapidly. While still very young, he composed a commentary on the Psalms, to be a help to his own devotion and that of others.
After a few years in the monastery, Columban was selected to be ordained a priest while the majority of his companions remained lay brothers. Still later, Columban was placed in charge of the Monastic School at Bangor.
To disengage himself more perfectly from the world and all earthly ties, he desired, like Abraham, to travel into some foreign country. He shared this dream with Abbot Comgal. At first Comgal refused permission to Columban.
After some time, Columban again requested permission from his superior, Abbot Comgal, to go abroad as a missionary. Comgal again did not agree to grant this request. Comgal did not wish to be deprived of such a learned, obedient and devout assistant.
Columban remained faithful to his work in the School. In spite of the repeated refusal of Comgal, Columban continued to try to convince Comgal that his calling to be a missionary was from God. Eventually, though, Comgal saw that Columban’s call was an inspiration of God. Comgal gave his consent and allowed Columban and twelve of his companions from the community to go abroad as missionaries to Europe. Very soon after permission was given Columban departed from Bangor with twelve other monks. He was only thirty years of age at the time.
Columban and his small band of monks passed into Britain. Soon after that they went on to Gaul (now France). Columban and his companions found the Church there in great distress. While the country was still nominally Catholic, due to wars and negligence on the part of the bishops, the practice of religion had virtually collapsed. Barbarians had come into this area and practically destroyed civilization, as it was known. All monasteries had been looted and burned. The precious knowledge, once preserved by the monks in their hand written books, was lost.
There was little, if any discipline among the clergy. Many of the bishops and cardinals turned a blind eye to their deeds. There were few places where penance was observed, or mortification practiced. Columban preached in all places he passed through. He preached not only with his words, but also with his life. Columban and his Companions were untiring, humble and patient. The sanctity of Columban’s life added great weight to his sermons.
Columban and his companions were given sites for their foundations in remote areas of southeastern France. Cottages were soon built around the monasteries, by peasants who were glad to work with the monks and share with them their life and faith. The historian, Montalambert, writes: “Everywhere, faith seemed to blossom like flowers in winter.”
Columban was so humble that he often fought with his twelve companions for the lowest place. They were all of one mind, their modesty, sobriety, gentleness, patience, and charity made them admired by all who came to know them. If anyone was guilty of the least fault, they all joined in penance. Every thing was owned in common and there was never any contradiction or harsh words among them. In whatever place they lived, their example inspired piety in all the people.
Columban and some of his companions walked to Rheims. King Gunthram received them. Columban's reputation had already reached the court of this King of Burgundy. He asked Columban to stay and offered Columban whatever spot of ground he should choose for the building of a monastery. Columban went out to explore the mountainous region of the Vasges.
When they came upon the ruins of a Roman fort and, in the forest surrounding it, they found plentiful wild beasts; they decided to make their home in the village of Anegray. There, they repaired a ruined temple to the goddess Diana to serve as a Church. They rededicated the temple to Saint Martin of Jesus. They cleared a small part of the forest and used the timber to build their cells. This became the first of many monasteries built by Columban and his monks in Europe.
Because they had arrived very late in the autumn, they had nothing but herbs, roots and the bark of trees for food. Then, one day, unexpectedly, a stranger arrived at the gate of their enclosure. The man’s horse was heavily laden with fruits, vegetables and bread for the monks. Soon, more and more pilgrims came. They brought with them food and supplies for the monks
The number of monks increased daily. The house that Columban had built soon became too small to contain the great numbers that desired to live under the discipline of Columban’s life style. He therefore built a second monastery called Luxeuil, eight miles away from Anegray. This became the main house of his Columban and his monks and, eventually, the most famous of the monasteries built by Columban and his companions. Even after 1,400 years, the memory of Columban is still alive there today.
Columban built a third monastery, about three miles from Luxeuil, which, on account of the abundance of springs in that place was called “The Fountains” or “La Fontaine”. It is now no more than a priory dependent of Luxeuil, but it still exists until today. Columban spent about twenty years at Luxeuil. There that he wrote the Rule for his followers.
It was from Luxeuil that Columban guided the 220 monks of Luxeuil, Anegray and La Fontaine. In each place Columban appointed superiors, who were known to be pious. He resided himself in each by turns. During the many years he spent going among these monasteries, he composed sixteen discourses or instructions that he read to his monks. These are the most important of his writings but they are only a few out of the many others that he appears to have written. The short poems of St. Columban on moral and pious subjects show him to have been a good poet for the age in which he lived. But nothing was more admired than the Rule of Columban.
In his writings, we can see the deep understanding by Columban of spiritual things. Humility, disinterestedness, chastity, penance for the body and control of the will were the cornerstones of his spirituality. Silent contemplation and prudence were, for Columban, the best means to discern between good and evil. We can sense and admire his piety and humility. Speaking of his contempt for worldly things, Columban wrote: “O transitory life, how many you have deceived, seduced, and blinded! If I consider the shortness of life, your lies seem like nothing and your promises are little more than shadows. They, who set their hearts on you, do not really know you; only those who despise your pleasures really understand you. When you show yourself, you are again withdrawn as if you were no more than a ghost. What are you but a swift ride down a road, passing as a bird on the wing, uncertain as a cloud, trail as a vapor, vanishing as a shadow."
The Rule of Columban is filled with wisdom and spiritual instruction. Columban demanded obedience, poverty, humility, chastity, penance for the body and control of the will. Silent contemplation and prudence were, for Columban, the best means to discern between good and evil. According to his rule, the monks ate only in the evening, and only the simplest food, herbs, grain meal moistened in water, with a little bread. The amount of food was given according to the type of work the particular monk was doing. However, the monks only ate on the days that they were be able to perform all their duties. For Columban, every day was to be spent in fasting, prayer, reading, and, except on festivals, manual labor.
In prescribing readings for his monks, Columban mentions the number of psalms and verses to be recited at every hour. He received these rules from the monks in Ireland. He mentions the obligation of everyone to pray privately in his own chamber. Columban added further that “the essential parts are prayer of the heart, and the continual application of the mind to God.”
Besides his Rule, Columban also wrote what is called his “Penitential”. This book contained a list of the penances to be imposed upon monks for every fault, sin or breaking of the rules, no matter how small the failing might have been. One of the penances warned: “Anyone who talks back to their superior shall receive 50 lashes with a whip.” There was even a penance for any monk who, after finishing his task of work, did not ask for more!
Other penances were prescribed besides the lashes. These included extraordinary fasts, silence, separation from the table and humiliations. Saint Columban distinguishes two sorts of sins: mortal sins, which were to be confessed to the priest; and lesser sins, which might be confessed to the abbot, or others who were not priests.
There is another penitential of Saint Columban, which contains canonical punishments for all kinds of sins, and all sorts of persons. The rule of Saint Columban was highly esteemed, and was observed in many great monasteries. The monks of Saint Columban, in the beginning, lived on herbs and the bark of trees and were sometimes reduced to extreme necessity, and relieved by God in a miraculous manner.
It was the custom of Columban to pass some time before all great festivals in a closer solitude with his God. For this purpose he retired to a secret cavern some miles from his monastery where he spent his time in prayer, penance and fasting.
Twelve years after his arrival in France, Columban wrote to certain French bishops assembled in a council. He wrote to them concerning their duties toward the Church and the faithful. While pressing them on these issues, Columban also gave them lessons of humility and charitableness.
Columban also wrote letters of advice to those who held power in the area where he lived. The writings of Columban to the royalty concerning their life and lifestyle raised a storm against him that eventually drove him out of the kingdom of Burgundy.
Theodoric, King of Burgundy, had a great respect for St. Columban and he often visited him. Columban scolded him for living with mistresses instead of marrying a queen. The king promised to reform his manners according to the advice of Columban. Brunehault, the mother of Theodoric, fearing that a queen would ruin her power over her grandson, was angry with Columban. Her resentment was greatly increased because Columban refused to bless the king's four children that were the fruit of his illicit relations with the mistresses, saying: "They shall not inherit the kingdom if they are the fruit of debauchery." St. Columban also denied Brunehault entrance into his monastery when she came to visit him.
When Columban saw that the king did not keep his word about reforming his life, Columban wrote a severe letter threatening the King with excommunication. Brunehault took that opportunity to stir up the King against Columban. The result of this was that Columban was exiled to Besancon. Afterwards, the King ordered two noblemen to take Columban to Nantes. When they reached Nantes, the two noblemen were told to make sure that Columban was put on a ship going to Ireland. This happened after Columban had sacrificed himself in the desert of Vogue for more than twenty years.
While he was in Nantes Columban wrote a letter to his monks at Luxeuil. The letter, filled with discretion and charity, exhorted the monks to practice even greater patience and union with one another and prayer for him. Columban was put aboard a ship bound for Ireland. Soon after sailing, the ship was blown ashore by a storm. Unable to free the ship, the captain took it as a sign of God’s displeasure and set Columban free on the shore.
When Columban was freed from the ship that was supposed to take him into exile in Ireland, he went to Clotaire II, who then reigned in Neustria. Columban told that King that the whole French monarchy would come under his power in less than three years. The King invited Columban to stay in his kingdom and to found a monastery but Columban declined his offer. Columban and his companions went on to Paris and then to Metz, to the Kingdom of Theudebert.
The kingdom of Theudebert extended to both sides of the Rhine in what is present day Alsace-Loraine and West Germany. Theudebert offered to Columban his choice of any site within the kingdom for the founding of a monastery. Columban went down along the Rhine to Bregentz, on the shore of Lake Constantine. There he found a ruined chapel. Columban and his companions restored the chapel, built living quarters and remained there for two years
Columban went with some of his disciples to preach to the unbelievers near the lake of Zurich. They established a small dwelling in a quiet place there, near Zug. The inhabitants there were cruel toward Columban and his monks. They worshiped idols. Columban found them one day making ready a sacrifice. A large tub filled with beer had been placed in the midst of the people. Columban asked what they intended to do with it. It was to be offered to their god Wodan. Columban blew upon the vat and it burst into splinters. All the beer spilled out. The people were shocked. He told them that his strength came from the true God. He warned them to forget their superstitions and return to God. Many did so that day.
Later, Saint Gall, who accompanied the Columban from Ireland, prompted by zeal, set fire to the pagan temples. He threw all the offerings that he found there into the lake. To do this, he had to have the permission of the people. Some of the people, however, remained obstinate in their idolatry. They were enraged at this action, and planned to murder Gall. They also planned to beat up Columban and banish him from their country.
The holy men were told of these plans in advance. They went to Arbone, by the Lake of Constance. There a virtuous priest, named Villemar, received them and showed them a fruitful pleasant valley in the mountains. In that valley were the ruins of a little city called Brigantium (now called Bregentz). In this place Columban and his companions found a chapel dedicated in honor of Saint Aurelia. They repaired the chapel and then built a dwelling.
The people had already received some instruction in the faith. However, when the barbarians had come they had gone back to worshiping idols. Columban and his monks found three brass images in the chapel when they had arrived. These were said to be the “gods” of the country. Columban ordered Saint Gall, who understood the language of the country, to preach to the people. Gall did as Columban had asked. Afterwards, he broke the idols in pieces with stones and threw the metal into the lake. Columban blessed the church, sprinkled it with holy water, and, together with his disciples, went round it singing psalms. After having rededicated the chapel, he anointed the altar, deposited the relics of Saint Aurelia under it, and said Mass.
The people were pleased and nearly all of them returned to the worship of the true God. Saint Columban continued living and working at Bregentz for three years. The monastery grew but always remained a small monastery. Some of his disciples worked in the kitchen garden, others cultivated fruit trees, others were fishermen, and he himself made nets.
In the mean time, Theodoric and Theudebert began fighting with one another. Theudebert was defeated and was treacherously delivered up by his own men to Theodoric. His brother sent Theudebert to their grandmother Brunehault, who had sided with Theodoric. Brunehault forced Theudebert to receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders from a corrupt bishop. Then, she had Theudebert put to death. He died strong in his faith and faithful to Columban and his monks.
Now that Theodoric, the enemy of Columban, had become master of the country, Columban knew that he could no longer remain there with safety. Columban proposed to his followers that they cross the Alps into Italy in order to escape from Theodoric.
Some of the earliest companions of Columban, who were elderly by this time, chose to remain behind. Old friends that had sailed together from Ireland and lived together for so many years now parted company for the last time. Gall was hindered by a fever. He stayed behind, and afterwards built, not far from Bregentz, the monastery that bears his name. Columban and the other, younger monks crossed the Alps.
When Columban and his monks had crossed the Alps, they arrived in Milan. There, they met King Agiluff and Queen Theudelinda who welcomed him into their kingdom of Lombard. While in Milan, Columban first heard of Bobbio and its ruined Church of Saint Peter. The King offered him the site for a new monastery. Columban gladly accepted the King’s offer. The terrain suited Columban. It was wild, well watered, wooded and remote. Under the protection of the King, Columban erected the famous monastery of Bobbio.
As Always, the first task of Columban in Bobbio was to restore the Church so that he and his monks would have a suitable place for prayer and celebration of the Holy Mass.
The monks who recorded the acts of Columban and his monks wrote a moving account of seventy-year-old Columban out on the slopes of Mount Penice, helping his monks to cut and drag the timber for rebuilding the Church and for the construction of the new monastery. We can still read that account today.
Before the winter of 614 set in, the new monastery at Bobbio had already taken shape in the foothills of the Apennines. The monastery was situated in a desert amidst the Appenine Mountains, near the river Trebia. Columban also built a small chapel in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He lived in a cave near that chapel, in strict fasting and solitude all during Lent, and at several other seasons of the year. During these times, Columban visited his monastery only on Sundays and festivals. It was there that Columban spent the last years of his life.
In France, King Theodoric died some months after the murder of his brother Theudebert. He was succeeded by his son Sigebert, an infant. His great-grandmother, Brunehault ran the government. King Clotaire made war upon Brunehault, took Sigebert, and two of his brothers, prisoners, and put Brunehault to a cruel death. Thus he became the only King of the Franks in the same manner as his grandfather Clotaire had been before him. Seeing the prophecy of Saint Columban so fully accomplished, he sent Eustasius, whom Columban had left as abbot of Luxeuil, to invite Columban back into France. Columban told Eustasius that, at that time, he could not abandon the monastery in Bobbio, Italy. Columban wrote to the King earnestly exhorting him to reform his present course of life. Clotaire, for his sake, powerfully protected his monastery of Luxeuil, enriched it with considerable revenues, and enlarged its limits.
Until today, Luxeuil is still in a flourishing condition. Many Columban Missionaries of our day have made a pilgrimage to this and other monasteries founded by Columban.
While building the monastery at Bobbio, Columban discovered that he was living among many people who had fallen into heresy. The Abbot Jonas, in his account of the life of Saint Columban, informs us, that Columban worked tirelessly to refute this heresy. Using all of the knowledge and skills that had carried him through life, Columban confuted the Arians among the Lombards with great success, particularly at Milan. As a part of his mission to do away with this heresy Columban composed a very learned work against the heresy. It is very unfortunate that this work was long since lost and has not been recovered until today.
Columban lived to see the monastery at Bobbio completed. However, he was able to govern his new monastery for only about a year. The cold climate of the mountainous region, combined with many hours of prayer and constant penance began to take their toll on the life of Columban. When it became known that Columban was seriously ill, his monks carried him from his retreat to a room in the monastery where they cared for him. In the early hours of Sunday, November 23, 615, Columban died. The monk, who was to become a great missionary, had reached the end of his road, the end of his missionary journey. Columban was buried near the altar of his former cloister. In his poem on Fedolius, which he seems to have written a short time before his death, he says he had then arrived at his eighteenth Olympiad (a period of four years). Thus, Columban himself claimed that, at that time, he was at least seventy-two years old.
Pope Pius XI expressed the immense importance of the mission of Saint Columban to Europe. He noted widespread significance of Columban for the Church as a whole when he wrote: “The more light that is shed by scholars on the period known as the Middle Ages, the clearer it becomes that it was thanks to the initiative and labors of Columban that the rebirth of Christian Values and the return of civilization over a great part of Gaul, Germany and Italy took place.” This praise for the simple monk, who was called by God to be a missionary, sums up the efforts and the life of this great Saint whose life and works are seldom spoken about. But that is as Columban would want it, for he always wanted the lowest place in every thing. His humility was the hallmark of his life. It was from that virtue that he drew his strength to carry on in the face of difficulties, exile, threats to his life from Kings and worshipers of false gods.
As members of the Columban Missionary Family of Priests, Sisters and Lay Missionaries, we try to carry on the tradition of bringing Faith, Hope and Love to Godís poor throughout the world. One of the expressions of our struggle to bring these gifts to Godís people has been the establishment of schools in most of the parishes founded by Columban Missionaries. This is especially true in the Philippines where Columban Missionaries have worked for nearly 75 years.
However, in spite of our efforts to maintain low tuition costs and high standards of education, many young people are not able to go to school either because of the cost of tuition or because they do not have a place to stay that is near enough to the school.
If you would like to receive a small booklet on the life of Saint Columban please contact Father Don Kill - firstname.lastname@example.org. He will send it to you free of charge.
A fuller life of Saint Columban can be ordered from:
Columban Fathers PO Box 10 St. Columbans, NE 68056