Early in the 1960’s, Benjamin Britten composed a hymn to celebrate the 1,400th anniversary of St. Columba’s voyage to Iona in Scotland. But how is it that Columba born in Ireland in 521 A.D., and also a descendant of the great Irish King Niall, ended up in Scotland? As a youth showing much brilliance, Columba or Colmcille attended the monastic school at Clonard Abbey in Ireland. Taught by the famous scholar Saint Finnian, he later became part of the group known as the Twelve Apostles.
Columba became a deacon, then a monk, and at twenty-five, a priest. A vigorous and imposing man, he traveled all over Ireland the next fifteen years, with only a brief return home to the north when a plague struck central Ireland in 554. During this time, Columba spent his time teaching, preaching, and founding churches and monasteries wherever he went, seemingly reaching the pinnacle of his religious life.
Suddenly, Columba’s life took a turn. Secretly he had borrowed Finnian’s recently acquired copy of St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate and did his own translation into Gaelic. The problem arose when Finnian demanded the return of his book, but Columba steadfastly refused. Strong feelings on both sides resulted in the “Battle of the Book” occurring in 561 and the cause of much bloodshed. Feeling guilty for indirectly causing the death of many, Columba, believing in expiation for his sins, left Ireland with twelve followers.
Traveling in a wicker boat covered with leather, Columba and his men landed on Iona, a tiny Scottish island. There he built his first Celtic church, established a monastic community, and converted most of pagan Scotland and northern England. Iona became so famous that its influence spread throughout mainland Europe. It is there that Columba died in peace in June of 597. What is striking is how Columba acknowledged his wrong-doing, moved ahead and let God weave together the many strands of his life creating a tapestry more intricate than he could have imagined.