|Bay at the Back of the Ocean and Càrn Cùl ri Éirinn (the Hill/Cairn of [turning the] Back to Ireland), said to be adjacent to the beach where St. Columba first landed.|
IT must have taken the little band of missionaries, even if the wind were in their favour, fully a day to make the coast of "Calyddon" or "the Land of Forests," as Scotland was then called by the Britons south of the Clyde.
They landed first, we are told, on the island of Oronsay, but on climbing a hill to look out over the waste of waters, Columba caught sight of the far faint coast of Ireland lying like a blue cloud on the horizon. It was more than he could bear, and the mariners put out to sea again, sailing northwards till they reached the little island of Hy or Iona, off the coast of Mull. (Hy or Hii means "the island"; Iona "the blessed island.") The bay where they landed still bears the name of Port'a Curraigh or "the Bay of the Wicker Boat." No trace of the hills of Erin was to be seen from the low-lying rocks of Iona, nothing but the blue mountains and the dark crags of the Hebrides and the white-capped waves of the sea. Here, therefore, the ambassadors of Christ resolved to build their little monastery and to make their home.
It was a happy choice. No better quarters could have been found for a missionary station. Iona, separated only by a narrow channel from the island of Mull, lay exactly opposite to the friendly kingdom of Dalriada, and the missionaries had only to sail up the chain of lochs, now united by artificial means and called the Caledonian Canal, to find themselves in the heathen country of the Picts. The weird and austere beauty of the Hebrides with their wild rocks and foaming seas did not at first appeal to the Gaels of Ireland, fresh from the green hills and smiling landscapes of their native land. The bare crags and the dark mountains, the grey skies and the hollow waves that beat perpetually on those bleak shores,
and bring The eternal note of sadness in,
the wailing of the wind through the caves and the narrow channels fretted into weird shapes by the ocean tide, made a music which was alien to their ears, and strangely melancholy to their warm Irish hearts. Again and again the passionate note of longing for the dear mother-country breaks out in the writings of Columba.
'Twere sweet to sail the white waves that break on the shores of Erin,
'Twere sweet to land 'mid the white foam that laps on the shores of Erin,
My boat would fly were its prow once tumed to the dear land of Erin,
And the sad heart cease to bleed.
There's a grey eye that ever turns with longing look to Erin,
No more in life again to see the men and maids of Erin.
There's a mist of tears in the melting eye that sadly turns to Erin,
Where the birds' songs are so sweet.
Hy, he calls the "land of ravens"; it was only after many years that he was to sing of the place of his exile as Hy of my love, Hy of my heart, dear then as the land of his labours and of his apostolate for Christ, and very close in his affections to the country of his birth.
The poet-heart of Columbcille could sing of his regret for the island of his birth; but he was not the man to let it interfere with his work for God in the island of his adoption. Iona consisted for the most part of barren and desert moor. Columba asked and obtained it as a gift from Conal, King of the Dalriadan Scots, and set his monks at once to cultivate the soil. The huts of the brethren were built in a circle round the church, with a guest-house and a simple refectory adjoining. The building was of wood and wattles, and the work proceeded rapidly. The hut of Columba was in the most elevated spot of the monastic enclosure, and here, during the short intervals between his missionary journeys, he spent his time in prayer, study, and the transcription of the Holy Scriptures. Iona had its writing school for the training of the younger monks, and became famous later for the excellence of its scribes. Adamnan in his Life of St. Columba mentions the scriptorium with its waxen tablets and the styles for writing, the inkhorns and the pens, with the brushes and the colours for illuminating the manuscripts.
In all the labours of the day Columba took his part; no work was too humble for the holy abbot, and he exacted from others the same cheerful diligence as he himself practised. No one was allowed to be idle, there was work enough for all, and each was expected to take his share. When the manual labours were ended for the day, the monks betook themselves to prayer, reading, or writing, while the less expert could always employ themselves in works of charity for the common good. Even while the brethren were engaged in active labour, they strove to occupy their minds with thoughts of God, so that their work might be hallowed by prayer and bring its blessings on their mission. When the toils of the day were at an end they took their rest on their hard pallets of straw; but Columba slept on the bare ground with a stone for pillow, as had been his custom from his earliest years.
The rule of a Celtic community recommended hospitality to guests as strongly as personal austerity, and nowhere was this rule more faithfully observed than at Iona. No sooner were the monks settled in their new home, than pilgrims came from every quarter to ask counsel of Columba or to embrace the religious life under his direction. The holy abbot, who sought in every action of his life to make atonement by true humility for the movement of pride that had cost him so dear, would go himself to meet them. Kneeling before them he would loosen their sandals and wash their feet, which he kissed with reverent devotion; performing for them, in imitation of his Divine Master, this lowliest of services. At every hour of the day or night shouts might be heard across the narrow channel that divided Iona from the island of Mull. At this signal the brethren would leave their work to go down to the shore where, stepping into their "curraghs," they would row across the Sound to fetch the pilgrims.
Some of these were merely moved by a desire to see and speak to the holy man whose fame had already reached their ears. Some were in need of advice, some of material help. Some had a load of sin and sorrow on their souls, and desired the Saint's absolution; some were suffering from diseases, and sought his prayers and blessing; while others wished to leave the world and join the brethren in their life of penance. There was no sorrow to which the loving sympathy of Columbcille did not extend, no necessity which did not appeal to his charity. He dealt with them all in turn, and gave to each according to his need.
It was on one of these occasions that Columba, engaged at the moment in transcribing the Scriptures, foretold sadly that one of the pilgrims who was heard shouting lustily on the seashore, would shortly upset his inkhorn. The visitor, a too enthusiastic admirer, in his eagerness to embrace the Saint, fulfilled the prediction to the letter. Luckily the sleeve of Columba's tunic was the only thing that suffered. He had probably put the precious manuscript in a place of safety.
He was careful with those who desired to embrace the religious life, and would make trial of their vocation with wise severity. He knew well that in those wild days it was no uncommon thing for men who had led evil lives to desire to make atonement for their sins in a monastery. Given that the repentance were sincere, he wholly approved their design, for many of the Saints of the Church have been converted sinners. But he knew also the weakness of human nature and the strength of the evil habits of a lifetime, and demanded that such penitents should go through a long probation and prove their sincerity by humility and obedience to those in charge of them before they were admitted to the religious life.
For these would-be monks he founded communities on some of the neighbouring islands, where wise and saintly men might try their virtue by a probation which lasted sometimes for seven years or even longer when necessary.
On one occasion when Columba was visiting one of these foundations on the island of Himba, he ordered that in honour of his presence, some savoury addition should be made to the frugal midday meal. The brethren gratefully partook of the holiday fare in the spirit in which it was given—with one exception. This was one of the penitents who was undergoing his probation and who seemed to think it more perfect to refuse the proffered dainty. Columba with kindly insistence offered the dish with his own hands to the reluctant brother, and pressed him to partake of it, thinking that some scruple might be distressing him. But he was met with an abrupt refusal. For a moment Columbcille was silent, then looking at the man sternly he said: "You refuse the comfort which I and your superior think it right to offer you. The time will come when you will become a thief again as you were of old, and will steal venison for your own pleasure in the forests of your native place." The prophecy was fulfilled. Not long after, the man returned to his evil life, and died unrepentant in his own country.
In spite of these precautions the community at Iona increased so rapidly that the island soon became too small to hold it, and little bands of devoted men were sent forth to found other monasteries on the mainland, to spread the faith and love of Christ. There are more than ninety churches in Scotland that can trace their foundation to the time of Columba; and each church, according to the custom of the time, had its neighbouring monastery.
The first missionary journey of Columba was to the Scots of Dalriada. They were Christians it is true, but living as they did surrounded on all sides by a heathen population, they were apt to be influenced more or less by the customs of their neighbours. It was necessary that friendly relations should be established with these men, themselves originally of Irish extraction, before attempting the conversion of the Picts. The monks of Iona were hardy mariners as well as tillers of the soil. The holy island had its little fleet of curraghs which varied in size according to the number of ox-hides used in their construction. In these frail barks the missionaries would brave the stormy seas of the Hebrides and all the dangers of the deep, secure in their trust in God and the prayers of their holy abbot. There were sharks, and whales too, on the coasts of Caledonia in those days, and the curraghs were small protection against such monsters; but the hearts of the mariners were stout and their faith was strong. They sailed northwards to far St. Kilda and the Orkney and Shetland Isles, where the ruins are still to be seen of churches which they founded.
The holy abbot would take his turn at the oars with the rest, and when he was not with the missioners on their travels would follow them in spirit from his cell at Iona, shielding and protecting them by his prayers. He knew by the supernatural light that God had given him when they were in danger, and suffered with them in all the hardships they endured. The interests of the last and least of them were as dear to him as his own. Small wonder then that the memory of the holy life lived more than thirteen hundred years ago is fragrant and living still, and that the name of Columba is cherished in the land of his adoption even to the present day.
FRANCISCUS CANONICUS WYNDHAM
+ EDM. CAN. SURMONT
WESTMONASTERII, die 7 Octobris, 1913.