Monday, 14 July 2014
The Life Of Saint Columba Apostle Of Scotland CHAPTER III DERRY AND DURROW By F.A. Forbes
THE terrible outbreak of plague that carried off young Ciaran in the flower of his age found Columba at Glasnevin. St. Mobhi bade his disciples disperse to their homes, and Columbcille went northwards to Tir-Connell. When he reached the stream of Moyola he prayed earnestly that God might stay the plague on the southern bank of the river, and spare the country of his people. His prayer was heard, and the terrible scourge forbore to cross the water.
Columba was now twenty-five years of age, and his friends and kinsmen earnestly desired that he should found a church and monastery in their own country. His cousin the Prince of Ailech even offered him a piece of land on the northern coast, but Columba was deaf to their entreaties. His master, St. Mobhi, had given him no permission to found; and without it, so great was his reverence for the holy old man, he would take no steps in the matter. But Mobhi had fallen a victim to the pestilence and was sick unto death. One of his last acts was to send messengers in search of his beloved disciple, to take him his blessing and his girdle in token that the time had come for him to found his monastery.
The spot that Ailech had offered to Columba was altogether after his own heart and was now most gratefully accepted. The so-called "island" of Derry or Daire, surrounded as it was on two sides by the Foyle water and on the third by a marsh, consisted of a gently rising green hill, crowned on the summit with a beautiful wood of oaks. So dear was the oak grove of Derry to Columbcille, that rather than cut down one of its trees, he preferred to build his church in the space that remained between them.
The cells of the monks were placed at the foot of the hill by the water's edge, and it was not long before the young men of Tir-Connell came flocking to Daire to give themselves to the service of God under the rule of their young kinsman.
It was in this beloved church of Derry that it was given so often to Columba to behold the angels adoring their Lord on His altar throne, and to hear the melody of their voices as they sang the eternal song of praise.
Prayer, labour, and study divided the hours of the day, and young as was the abbot, the hand that governed, though gentle, was very firm. Columba had learnt from his holy masters in the spiritual life to lead his monks by example even more than by precept. He slept on the bare ground, with a skin for covering and a stone for pillow. Three times in the night he rose to pray, and his food was of the scantiest and poorest description. "Though my devotion is great," he would say, "I sit in a chair of glass, for I am frail and fleshly." No work was too menial for him, and he would carry the sacks of grain on his strong shoulders from the mill to the kitchen like the humblest brother. His austerities were the admiration of his monks, who strove in all things to follow the example set before them.
Of all the foundations of Columba, and we are told of no less than thirty-seven, Derry was the one that remained always the dearest to his heart, and many of the sweet songs of his making celebrate its praises.
The reason I love Daire is
For its peace and its purity,
And for its crowds of white angels
From one end to the other.
My Daire, my little oak grove,
My dwelling, my dear little cell;
O Eternal God in Heaven above,
Woe be to him who violates it,
sings the Saint in the soft Erse or Gaelic of his native land. "On every leaf of the oaks of Derry," he would say, "there sits a white angel listening to the brethren as they sing the praises of God."
The dear oak trees of Derry were never to be cut down, and if one were uprooted by the storm it was to lie for nine days before it was divided between the poor and the guest-house of the monastery.
There was a hamlet on the northern side of the hill, and a hundred poor were fed every day by the monks of Derry. Once during a thunderstorm some of the wretched little houses caught tire. The people hastened to Columba, who went at once to the church. There with outstretched arms he poured forth his soul in supplication before the altar, and the fire ceased at his prayer.
A fragment of the rule in use amongst the old Celtic monasteries has been preserved, in which we can see the spirit of the monks of Columba's time:
"Yield submission to every rule—that is devotion.
"A mind prepared for red martyrdom—that is death for the faith.
"A mind fortified and steadfast for white martyrdom—that is the trials and mortifications and crosses of earthly life.
"Forgiveness from the heart to everyone.
"Constant prayers for those who trouble thee.
"Love God with all thy heart and all thy strength, and love thy neighbour as thyself."
Strong and simple, like the saints of the time, to whom the "red martyrdom" might come at any moment, and to whose fiery natures the forgiveness of injuries was not always the easiest of precepts.
But Derry, with its oak grove and its angels, was not the only spot that was dear to Columba.
Foremost in his affections amongst the other religious houses of his founding was Durrow—in Irish Dair-nagh, or the plain of oaks. It was also known as Druin-Cain, or "the beautiful hill," and well did it deserve its name. The land, as was the case with so many of the old monasteries, had been given to Columba by a reigning prince, probably a kinsman of his own. Of Durrow the story is told that there was in the orchard of the monastery an apple tree noted for the abundance as well as the bitterness of its fruit. But Columbcille blessed the tree, and thenceforward, says the old chronicle, its apples became sweet and good.
While Columba was at Durrow he wrote the celebrated copy of the Gospels known as the "Book of Durrow." An ardent lover of the Sacred Scriptures, and a skilful and patient scribe, he is said to have written with his own hand no less than thirty copies of the Gospels and the Psalter. The "Book of Durrow" is a transcription of the four Gospels, exquisitely illuminated with the intricate designs of the Celtic school. On the back is to be deciphered a petition for prayers from "Columba the scribe, who wrote this evangel in the space of twelve days."
The poet-saint could sing the charms of Durrow as well as those of
There the wind sings through the oaks and the elms,
The joyous note of the blackbird is heard at dawn,
The cuckoo chants from tree to tree in that noble land.
And again he calls it:
A city devout with its hundred crosses,
Without blemish and without transgression.
"What ails you, Father?" asked Diarmaid, his faithful companion.
"My soul is sorrowful," said Columbcille, "for my dear monks of Durrow. Bitter is the weather, and their abbot keeps them hard at work, fasting and a-cold."
At the same moment Laisren, the abbot of Durrow, felt a sudden inspiration to bid his monks get their dinner, and take a little rest, on account of the severity of the weather. Another day about the same time, when the monks of Durrow were building their new church, Columba in his cell at Iona saw one of them falling from the roof. He cried to God for help, and his guardian angel—such is the flashlike speed of an angel's flight—caught the monk ere he touched the ground.
More famous even than the "Book of Durrow" is the celebrated "Book of Kells," the most wonderful monument of the art of the Sixth Century that has come down to us. It was written also by the hand of Columbcille for Kells, his third foundation, though some of the illustrations were probably added at a later date.
The story runs that not long after the foundation of Durrow, Columba went to Kells, one of the royal seats of Diarmaid, High King of Ireland. Now Diarmaid belonged to the southern branch of the Hy-Nialls and was regarded by the northern branch with no great favour. When Columba arrived the King was absent, and the Saint was treated with scant ceremony by the soldiers of the royal guard, to whom he was probably a stranger. When Diarmaid returned and heard of the insult that had been offered in his royal palace to the greatest and most beloved of the Saints of Erin, one of the royal blood and his own cousin, he was ready to make atonement by any means in his power. He offered to give Columba Kells itself and the surrounding country for the founding of a monastery and a church.
It is possible that Diarmaid, whose seat on the throne was anything but secure at the time, was not unmoved by the thought that the powerful clan of the Hy-Nialls of Tir-Connell would not be slow in avenging the insult to one of their clan. However that may be, Columba accepted the gift with gratitude, and so the monastery and the church of Kells came to be built.
The great Gospel of Columbcille, or the "Book of Kells," has been the admiration of all ages. The patience and the delicate skill required for such an undertaking is to be wondered at. Certainly the old monks believed that if a thing were worth doing at all it was worth doing well, particularly if that thing happened to be a copy of the Gospels of Christ.
The untiring zeal and the labours of Columba had indeed brought forth fruit throughout the whole country. His friends and kinsfolk were generous, and churches and monasteries built by the Saint and owning him as their patron and head sprang up in every direction. Derry, Durrow, Kells, Raphoe, Sords, Drumcliff, Kilmacrenan, Drumcolumb, Glencolumbcille are but a few of his foundations. More than ever might it have been said of St. Columba that he was beloved of God and of man.
But God shows His love for His Saints in ways which are not the ways of men, and the chastening fires of sorrow and of suffering were to purify that ardent and impulsive nature. The haughty spirit of the descendant of Niall of the Nine Hostages had yet to be conformed to that of his great Master Who is meek and humble of heart.
FRANCISCUS CANONICUS WYNDHAM
+ EDM. CAN. SURMONT
WESTMONASTERII, die 7 Octobris, 1913.