Christian History Home > Issue 60 > Iona's Tough Dove
Iona's Tough Dove
Though named for a gentle bird, the ascetic Columba wielded enormous influence with chieftans and kings—even after he died.
Scion of the most powerful family in the north of Ireland, founder of monasteries, and instigator of missions to the Picts and the English, Columba is undoubtedly the most important saint associated with Celtic churches.
Legends about him grew over the centuries, and many of the stories must be treated with caution. One of the more famous paints him as a sort of Christian sorcerer's apprentice, naughtily copying his master's precious psalter by the light of his own hand, and thereby sparking a major battle!
So too, hundreds of poems, some quite romantic in their descriptions of nature, others simple devotional verses, were attributed to the saint long after his death. Nevertheless, through the obscuring mists of his legends, it is possible to make out an outline of this key figure in the early Gaelic church. In fact, of all the Celtic saints, he is also the one about whom we know the most historically.
Fox and dove
Columba was born of royal stock around 521, in northwestern Ireland's Donegal. Although destined for the church by an early age, his noble birth gave him insight and influence in the political world.
Legend tells us that his original name was Crimthann ("fox") and that when he was trained as a priest he changed it to Columb, ("dove"), later known to all as Colum Cille: "dove of the church." It has become something of a tradition in modern times to view the saint through the twin lenses of these names: the astute fox on the make, and the peacemaking and peaceable dove.
He apparently took part in a battle in 561 between his near and more distant cousins; this led to his exile and even excommunication for a time. Yet his biographer and successor, Adomnán, saw it differently, glossing over his excommunication, and telling us only that: "In the second year following the battle of Cúl Drebene, when he was 41, Columba sailed away from Ireland to Britain, choosing to be a pilgrim for Christ."
Despite the skeletons in Columba's closet, his efforts in Scotland reveal a man who had learned much in his 41 years, enough to establish a string of monasteries in the Inner Hebridean islands off the west coast of Scotland. This monastic system anticipated later orders such as the Cistercians and Carthusians.
Iona, a small island off the larger Hebridean island of Mull, was the fertile center of this system. Remote to modern eyes, Iona was at the hub of early medieval sea lanes that brought pottery and perishable goods north from France and the Mediterranean. Still, Iona was intended as a true monastery, a place set apart for Columba and his brethren.
Other island monasteries, such as one on Tiree, housed lay-folk serving out penances for their sins. Another island housed older, more experienced monks living as holy anchorites.
Iona, however, trained priests and bishops, and Columba's reputation for scholarship was great when he died (though we have little of his own work). From Iona, priests and monks ranged far and wide, founding churches in Scotland and seeking "deserts in the ocean" (lonely, distant islands).
Columba's legends give us a flavor of both the fox and the dove. The Life of Columba, by Adomnán, is packed with stories about Columba conversing with angels, sending an angel to rescue a monk falling from a roof, and being whipped by an angel to convince him to ordain God's (rather than his own) choice for king of the Gaelic colony in Scotland.
He is seen rapt in contemplation, seeing "with a mind miraculously enlarged … the entire orbit of the whole earth and the sea and the sky around it." From these visions, he proclaims prophecies, sends monks to help distressed people, or prays to refresh his tired monks laboring in the fields.
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