St Columba and St Magnus
WHILE Columba was growing into manhood among the mountains of Tir-Connell, St. Finnian, "Finnian of the Heart Devout" as the old writers love to call him, was founding his great monastic school of Moville on the northern side of Lough Cuan.
Not on his piety and sanctity alone did the renown of Finnian rest. He had been educated at the famous monastery of Whitehorn, founded by St. Ninian in the fourth century in the British kingdom of Galloway across the sea. St. Ninian was the friend of St. Martin of Tours, and it was from him that he obtained masons to build the Candida Casa or White House, the first stone church erected in Britain. Later, St. Finnian went on pilgrimage to Rome, a difficult and dangerous undertaking in days when ships consisted for the most part of a framework of willow overstretched with ox-hide; and famine, pestilence, wild beasts and barbarians were only a few of the perils that beset travellers by land. There he remained for three months, when he returned to Ireland, bringing with him a precious and priceless treasure.
This was a copy of the sacred Scriptures, translated and corrected by the hand of St. Jerome himself, and formally sanctioned by the Pope as the authentic text. No copy of this first edition of the Vulgate had as yet found its way into Ireland, and to the scholars and scribes of the day it was of untold worth.
"Here, my Father, is wine that God has sent us from heaven," said the young deacon, as he gave the vessel to his master, and Finnian marvelled greatly and gave praise and glory to God.
From Moville, Columba went to the great school of Clonard, there to pursue his studies under another St. Finnian—Finnian the Wise, the "Tutor of the Saints of Erin." Clonard was the most famous school in Ireland at the time, and even bishops and abbots, old in years and experience, did not disdain to come to learn wisdom at the feet of its holy founder. St. Finnian of Clonard had been himself the pupil of three great saints, St. David, St. Gildas, and St. Cadoc, at the College of Llancarvan in Wales. When Columba came to the school of Clonard it numbered, as the old writers tell us, three thousand scholars.
The problem of accommodation was very simple in an Irish school of the sixth century. A few precious manuscripts formed the whole library. The instruction was mostly oral, and given in the green fields round the moat of Clonard. A little hill or eminence formed the professor's chair, and the scholars sat on the slopes about his feet. They built their own little huts of clay and wattles in the surrounding meadows, and took their turn at herding the sheep and grinding in the quern, or handmill, the corn for the daily bread. They prayed and studied, learnt the exquisitely fine transcription that gave to the world the only books that were then to be had, and listened to the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures expounded by St. Finnian with a power and eloquence that drew men from all parts of Ireland to listen.
The son of the Hy-Nialls took his turn with the rest at grinding the corn in the quern and in the humble daily labours, but he accomplished his task so rapidly and skilfully that his fellow-scholars, who may have heard the story of the celestial companion of his boyhood, would assert that he had been helped by an angel. When the daily work was finished, he was always to be found, as of old, before the altar, absorbed in prayer. Even the elders treated him with deference. There was something so noble and commanding in his bearing, so high and holy in the glance of his keen grey eyes, so strong and compelling in the clear tones of his voice, that half unconsciously men bowed before him.
But there was one at Clonard who long withstood his influence. To the gentle-hearted Ciaran "Mac In Tsair," or the son of the carpenter, temptation had come in the shape of an envious thought.
"See, Ciaran," said he, "what thou hast left for the love of God, to give thyself to Christ in the monastic life; but Columba has sacrificed the throne which would have been his, had he not, forsaking the world, chosen rather to follow his Lord in poverty and humiliation."
His words scattered the mist of envy from the heart of the carpenter's son, who humbly asked pardon for his sin. From henceforth he became one of the warmest friends of Columba, who in his turn loved the gentle-hearted Ciaran with a true and tender affection. It was while the two were at Clonard together that their master St. Finnian dreamt that he saw two moons, one of gold and one of silver, shining in the sky. The golden moon illuminated the north of Ireland, and its beams shone over the sea as far as distant Alba, while the moon of silver shed its soft light in the centre of the land. It was made known to Finnian that the golden moon represented Columba, who was to carry the light of the Gospel to another people, while that of silver typified Ciaran, whose holiness was to be a light to many in his own country.
It was at this time that Columbcille showed the first signs of that gift of prophecy that was to make him so famous in after days.
There came to Clonard an old bard called Gemman, who was a Christian. Columba, who had a passionate love for poetry, put himself under his tuition that he might not only study the old minstrel lore of Ireland, but learn also to pour out his own heart in song. One day when the old man sat reading at a little distance from his pupil in the green meadows near Clonard, a young maiden, crying piteously for help, and hotly pursued by one of the bloodthirsty barbarians who were the terror of the more peaceful inhabitants of the country, fled towards him for protection. Gemman called to Columba for help, but it was too late. Even as he tried to hide the child under the folds of his long cloak her savage assailant pierced her to the heart with his spear.
"How long, O Lord," moaned the old man, as he gathered the body of the little maiden into his arms, "how long shall the blood of this innocent cry unavenged to heaven?"
Columba turned to him with flashing eyes.
"Thus long," he cried in a voice that rang like the trumpet of the avenging angel:
"Thus long, and no longer. The soul of that innocent child shall scarcely have entered heaven before the soul of her murderer shall be cast into eternal fire."
The words had scarcely left his lips when the barbarian, who was not yet out of sight, fell dead, struck down by the sudden judgment of God.
On leaving Clonard, Columba went in company with the gentle-hearted Ciaran to visit the school of another great master of the spiritual life, St. Mobhi of Glasnevin. There they met St. Comgall and St. Cannich, and formed with them a lifelong friendship. It was during his stay at Glasnevin that Columba was sent by St. Mobhi to Etchen, Bishop of Clonfad, to be ordained a priest, and it is characteristic of the simplicity of the times that the holy bishop, who was Columba's own cousin, and the son of a reigning prince, was found in the fields guiding the oxen of his plough.
We are told that the gentle-hearted Ciaran, the son of the carpenter, was beloved by Enda above all his disciples, and that when the time came for him to leave the Isle of Aran to found his own great monastery of Clonmacnoise on the banks of the Shannon, the old man knelt and wept bitterly on the rocky shore. Perhaps he may have foreseen the early death of his beloved pupil, the sudden quenching of that light that was to shine so brightly during the few years that remained to him of his earthly pilgrimage.
For a few years after his departure from Aran the holy Ciaran exercised his apostleship in his native country, and then founded the monastery of Clonmacnoise, which in after days was to become the greatest and most learned community in Ireland. Four months later a terrible pestilence broke out, and the gentle Ciaran was amongst its victims. He asked the brethren to take him out into the open air that his eyes might see the blue sky once again before he died. The skin on which he used to sleep was spread on the ground and they laid him on it, weeping bitterly the while. The dying man then asked to be left alone with St. Kevin of Glendalough, his soul's friend (the beautiful old Celtic name for spiritual father—still in use among the Catholics of western Scotland), who blessed him and gave him the Holy Communion.
Ciaran bade him a tender farewell, for, says the old chronicle, he loved him much. Then, lifting his eyes to heaven with a smile on his lips, the pure and holy Ciaran breathed his last, and white angels came and carried his soul to Paradise.
FRANCISCUS CANONICUS WYNDHAM
+ EDM. CAN. SURMONT
WESTMONASTERII, die 7 Octobris, 1913.