"Columba at Bridei's fort" by John R Skelton (illustrator) - Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall
WE have already seen how it was often given to St. Columba to know of events that were happening far away from the place where he might be, and how by his gift of prophecy he could sometimes foretell what would come to pass in the future. As he grew older it seemed to those who knew him intimately that these flashes of supernatural insight became more frequent, and that the things of the next world were growing daily more familiar to him as the time of his earthly pilgrimage drew to an end. Many instances of this have been recorded by his biographers.
One morning at Iona when the Mass was about to be celebrated, Columba sent word to the priest whose turn it was to offer the Holy Sacrifice that day, to do it in honour of the glorious birthday of St. Brendan. The monk could not understand his abbot's behest as no word had reached Iona of the holy Brendan's death. Columba then told him that during the night he had seen in a vision the soul of Brendan ascending to heaven surrounded by a great company of rejoicing angels; he knew therefore that he had entered into his rest.
On another occasion he ordered that the Mass for the feast of a bishop should be sung. Now there was no feast marked in the calendar for that day, and the monks asked their holy abbot to tell them the name of the bishop in whose honour the Holy Mysteries were to be celebrated.
"Last night," he replied, "I saw the soul of Columban, the Bishop of Leinster, in heaven, surrounded with the glory of the blessed; it is in his honour that we must offer the Holy Sacrifice to-day."
Columba had a deep love and reverence for all honest labour done for God. One night he told his monks that he had just seen entering into heaven the soul of a blacksmith whom he had known long ago in Ireland.
"He has bought eternal life," he said, "with the labours of the earthly. He was charitable and gave of his poverty to the poor, therefore the Lord of the Poor has rewarded him."
In the course of his travels in the Highlands he met one day in a lonely gorge a countryman in great distress. He was returning from a journey, and had heard that during his absence from home, a band of Saxon marauders had laid waste his little farm and burnt his house to the ground. He was in an anguish of fear lest his wife and children should have perished. Columba comforted him with kind words.
"Go in peace, my good man," he said, "your cattle and all your possessions have, it is true, been carried off by the robbers; but God has been merciful. Your dear little family is safe; go, for your loved ones are waiting for you, and comfort their sorrowing hearts."
Again, a year after the attempt had been made to murder Columba and the monk Finn Lugh had saved his life, the Saint asked his companion if he remembered the occurrence.
"It is just a year ago to-day," he said, "since Donnell tried to murder me, and our dear Finn Lugh would have given his life for mine. At this very moment the would-be murderer has been struck down by an enemy in punishment for his evil deeds."
One of the Saxon converts of the Saint had joined the community at Iona, and had been given charge of the bakehouse. Columba would often go to encourage him in his labours and to speak to him of the things of God. One day the Saxon saw him suddenly raise his eyes to heaven and join his hands in prayer. "Happy, happy woman," he cried, "to whom it is given to enter into the heavenly kingdom, carried by the hands of the angels."
A year afterwards when speaking to the same man, he said to him, "Do you remember the woman whose soul I saw a year ago ascending into heaven? I see her now coming to fetch the soul of her husband who is just dead. She is fighting with her prayers for that beloved soul against the powers of evil, and the angels are praying with her. See! she conquers, she bears him off, for he has led a good and upright life, and the two who loved each other so dearly on this earth are united for ever in the joy and glory of heaven."
Columbcille seems indeed to have had some such intimation from God of the death of the greater number of his friends; a vision of the glory of that celestial country into which he was himself soon to enter, and after which he sighed with such ardent longing. If the angels had been with him in his youth, much more did they surround him in his later years.
Many stories are told of his celestial visions as he prayed in the forests of Skye, dear to him for their loneliness and silence. One dy, when he was at Iona he went out, giving orders that no one was to follow him. He was going to pray, he said, on a little hill to the west of Iona, which was one of his favourite retreats. One young brother, more curious than the rest, had heard strange tales about the holy abbot, and followed him carefully from afar to see what was going to happen. When he had come within a short distance of the place of prayer, he saw the Saint standing with arms raised to heaven, surrounded by a troop of white-robed angels. The young monk, trembling lest he should be discovered, made his way back to the monastery as quickly as he could.
When Columba rose during the night as was his habit to kneel in prayer on the cold floor of his cell, his heavenly visitors would throng around him, mingling their praise with his. It was not surprising that the things of heaven should be so near to one who cared so little for the things of earth. He would go out on a winter's night, says his biographer, and stand in the waters of an icy stream during the time it took him to recite the Psalter, that he might obtain grace by his sufferings for the souls of the obstinate sinners who refused to amend their lives. One day when he was praying in a lonely spot, a poor woman came in sight gathering wild herbs and nettles. Columba spoke to her and asked her what she was doing.
"I am gathering herbs for food," she replied, "for I have but one cow and it gives no milk; the poor must live as they can." Columba reproached himself bitterly that this poor woman should fare worse than he did. "We seek to win heaven," he cried, "by our austerities, and this poor woman, who is under no such obligation, outdoes us." Henceforward he declared he would make his meal of the wild herbs and nettles that he had seen her gathering, and gave strict orders that nothing else should be served to him. He even reproved Baithen, whom he so dearly loved, with unwonted severity, because, unable to bear the sight of his abbot's wretched fare, he had put a little piece of butter into the pot in which it was being cooked.
The heavenly light that the holy Brendan had seen surrounding Columba on that memorable day at Teilte was now frequently beheld by his companions. At night it could be seen shining through the chinks in the rough door of his little cell when all was in darkness, and the silence of the night was only broken by the voice of the holy abbot praying and singing the praises of God.
One winter's night, one of the younger brethren had remained in the church to pray after all had gone to rest. At midnight the door opened softly and Columba entered. A glory of golden light came with him, illuminating the church from wall to wall and from floor to roof. The little chapel where the brother knelt was flooded with the strange radiance and his soul was filled with a heavenly consolation. Columba knelt for many hours in prayer, and still the heavenly light shone round him as he prayed; while the brother watched him awestruck, scarcely daring to move for fear of being heard. The next day he was sent for by the abbot, who blessed him and gently bade him say nothing of what he had seen during the night.
Two of his religious, Baithen the beloved, and Diarmaid his faithful attendant, who were often in his cell to help him with his work and to carry out his instructions, noticed one day a sudden ray of joy shining from their master's eyes. A moment later the joyful expression gave place to one of intense sadness, and they begged Columba to reveal to them what it was that caused him grief.
"My children," said the Saint, "it is twenty years to-day since I first set foot in Caledonia. Earnestly I have been beseeching our Heavenly Father to bring my days of exile to an end, and to receive me into the heavenly country after which our hearts must ever yearn. It seemed to me that God had heard my prayer, and that I already saw the holy angels coming to bear my soul to its eternal Home, when suddenly they faded from my sight, and I saw them no more. It has been revealed to me that by reason of the prayers of those who love me on earth, the time of my sojourning has been prolonged. Therefore am I sad, beloved of my heart, because four long years must elapse before those heavenly messengers return. Then they will come once more and I shall depart with them to rejoice for ever in the presence of my God."
FRANCISCUS CANONICUS WYNDHAM
+ EDM. CAN. SURMONT
WESTMONASTERII, die 7 Octobris, 1913.