Tuesday, 22 July 2014
IT was towards the end of May, when the late northern springtime was casting its veil of beauty over the rugged islands of the Hebrides, that Columbcille knew that the time of his departure was at hand. He bade his faithful attendant Diarmaid harness the oxen into the rude wooden cart of the monastery, and taking his seat in it set out for the fields that lay to the west of the island where all the monks were working. At the sight of the abbot in his humble chariot they left their work and crowded round him, and the old man addressed them tenderly with touching words of affection.
"A month ago," he said, "I had a great desire to depart from this earth, that I might keep the happy festival of Easter in heaven; but, unwilling to cast a gloom over your joy at that glad time, I was content to remain with you a little longer. But now the time of my earthly pilgrimage draws near its end." At these words the monks broke into bitter weeping, for the thought of losing their beloved father was more than they could bear, and Columba tried to comfort them. Then standing erect in the waggon he raised his hands and blessed the island, the monastery and all its inhabitants.
A few days later, leaning on Diarmaid's arm, he went to the barn and rejoiced to see the great heaps of corn laid up for the winter. "It is a comfort to me to know," he said, "that when I am no longer there my children will not go hungry. For this year at least there is plentiful provision."
"Why do you break our hearts, dear Father, in this sweet season of the year," said Diarmaid, "by speaking so often of your departure from us? God will surely suffer us to keep you with us yet awhile."
"I will tell you a secret, Diarmaid," replied the old man; "but first you must promise to keep it faithfully till I am dead."
And when Diarmaid had promised, kneeling at the abbot's feet, "To-morrow, Sunday, is the day of rest," he said, "but before the dawning of that day, I shall have entered into the rest which is eternal. To-night at midnight I shall depart from this world; it has been revealed to me by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself."
Then Diarmaid could no longer control his grief and wept aloud while the Saint did his best to comfort him, speaking words of hope and consolation. On their way home from the barn to the monastery Columba grew weary, and sat down to rest by the wayside, at a spot where there is now a great stone cross. As he sat there waiting until he should have strength to continue his journey, the old white horse that used to carry the milk pails from the farm to the monastery came up and laid its head upon the Saint's shoulder, looking at him as if he knew that it was for the last time, with eyes so full of dumb grief that they seemed to be shedding tears. Diarmaid would have driven him away, but Columba checked him.
"Let him be," he said; "he is wiser than you, Diarmaid, for he knows by instinct that I shall never pass by this way again. The old horse loves me, let him grieve for his friend."
Then the faithful animal nestled his head closer against the shoulder of the old man, who caressed him gently and gave him his blessing. "It is God," he said, "who has made known to this poor beast that he will see me no more." When continuing their journey they had reached the little hill that overlooked the monastery, Columba raised his hands in blessing over his beloved island home.
"This place will be famous in the days to come," he said, "and saints and kings will come from other lands to do it honour."
When he reached his cell he sat down to write the copy of the Psalter on which he was engaged, for the old man's hand had not lost its skill. He wrote until the church bell rang for the first vespers of the Sunday; then, having reached the verse in the thirty-third Psalm where it is written "They that seek the Lord shall not be deprived of any good," he laid down the pen.
"Let Baithen write the rest," he said.
Baithen was the cousin of Columba, and one of the monks who had come with him from Derry. He had been his pupil, and was scarcely less skilful with the pen than his master. Holy, charitable, and beloved by all, he was chosen to succeed Columbcille as abbot of Iona. When he took up the pen that the Saint had laid down to go on with the work of transcription, the words that came next were, "Come ye children, hearken unto me, and I will teach you the fear of the Lord," with which words he began his ministry as abbot.
When Vespers were over, Columba went back to his cell and sitting down upon his bed—the naked rock with a stone for a pillow that was still the only couch on which this monk of seventy-seven would rest his aged limbs—he bade Diarmaid listen while he gave him his last instructions for the brethren.
"My last words to you are these," said he. "Cherish true and unfeigned charity ever amongst yourselves, and God will never leave you in need, but will give you all that is necessary for your welfare in this world, and His glory in that which is to come."
After these words he was silent, and seemed to be lost in the contemplation of the glory of which he had spoken, and Diarmaid forbore to interrupt his prayer. When the bell rang for matins shortly before midnight, Columba arose, and went swiftly to the church. Diarmaid followed more slowly, and as he approached the door, the whole church seemed to him to be lit up with a strangely radiant light which vanished as he entered. "Where are you, Father?" he whispered, struck with a sudden fear, as he groped his way through the building. There was no answer. He made his way through the darkness as best he could to the altar.
There in his accustomed place of prayer was the holy abbot, but stretched apparently lifeless on the ground. Diarmaid raised him in his arms, and sitting down beside him laid the beloved head upon his shoulder. Presently the brethren came in with lights, and broke into bitter lamentation at the scene before them. Columba lay on the altar steps leaning on Diarmaid's breast, his eyes raised to heaven, and his face shining with a wondrous joy as if he already saw its gates opening before him. Diarmaid then raised his master's right hand, and for the last time the holy abbot blessed his little flock who knelt weeping round him, while his eyes spoke the words that his voice was too weak to utter. Then with one last upward look his head sank gently back on Diarmaid's shoulder and he gave up his pure soul to God. They could scarcely believe that he was dead, for his face was still so bright with joy that he looked like one who rested in a happy and peaceful sleep. The matins for that Sunday were sung with bursting hearts, for the strong clear voice that had always been foremost in the holy chant was silent for ever ….
During that night a vision came to a holy old man in one of the monasteries of Ireland. He saw the island of Iona all aflame with a glorious light and a multitude of angels descending from the skies. He heard them singing as they bore the blessed soul of Columbcille back with them into heaven, and the celestial melody filled his heart with joy.
At the same hour a boy named Ernene who was fishing by night in the River Finn in Donegal saw the whole sky suddenly break into light. In the east where Iona lay, there rose a great pillar of fire, so that for one moment the night was as bright as the noonday when the sun is shining. Then it vanished into the heavens and all was dark again.
It might have been expected that the little island would be crowded with men thronging from all directions to the funeral of Columbcille, but it was not so. While the Saint was yet alive one of the monks had said to him that Iona would be scarcely large enough to hold the numbers that would come to pay him the last honours.
"No, my son," replied Columba, "no one will be there but those of our own household;" and so it came to pass.
On the night of the Saint's death a violent storm arose, and continued until the burial was over; the sea was so wild that no boat could put out from the mainland or the surrounding islands. The simple rites were performed in the presence of the monks of Iona alone, to the sound of the wailing of the wind and the moaning of the sea. Was it the last revenge of the evil one, they asked themselves, on the Saint who had torn a nation from his grasp?
But Columbcille had passed
To where beyond these voices there is peace.