Saint Columba is a figure with a remarkable personal story and an important legacy for Christianity in Scotland. Monsignor Jamie MacNeil from the Diocese of Argyll & the Isles reflects on the impact of Columba on 21st century Scotland.
If you think that these days are unsettled and confusing days in the life of the Church, they are, in fact, rather gentle in comparison with the utter turmoil that was experienced at the time of St Columba. What to us would be merely a dispute with St Finnian, eventually led to a pitched battle in which many men were killed. There was also other bloodshed in which Columba was implicated. I doubt that Columba would have made much progress with the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. A historical perspective on situations always brings a calming light.
As a result of the turmoil, Columba was threatened with excommunication for these deaths, but, eventually, after the intervention of St Brendan, it was decided that he should be sent into exile instead. It would seem that St Columba himself cooperated wholeheartedly with this decision, as he was aware of his own share of the guilt for the bloodshed. Exile was accepted by him as part of his punishment, and was to be used by him to make up for any damage he had caused. It is suggested that he only returned once to Ireland. What was achieved by Columba in Scotland and beyond is well known, and such a significant part of our Christian heritage. When we let go and leave behind even our own serious human shame, when we “move on”, trusting in God’s mercy and his power in human weakness, grace achieves so much.
Columba truly is an inspirational figure for our journey of faith today. We live in changing times within the Church and in the context of a rather precarious world-scene. When there is change there is always insecurity, not-knowing and perhaps anxiety. People like security, certainty and clarity; we need to know, we need to be right. It can become very tempting to look for safety in the things that we can control; so easily, externals – ritualism, rubrics, dress, the letter of the law, dogmatism, us-and-them – can become over-important.
Columba reminds us that life’s journey always involves what cannot be known. Any external turmoil is only a reflection of the inner struggle; it is a confirmation of the call to the inner journey of faith, the faith of Abraham. It is a rugged, lived journey that leads through suffering from power to humility, from control to trust. It is the journey of the surrender, letting go and dying, that is the only way to resurrection.
Perhaps it is best expressed in prayer:
Lord, grant us the courage to set sail,
Following the example of St Columba.
Disturb us out of the place where we are,
Where we are too at home,
Where we are complacent and self-satisfied,
And lead us safely on the arduous but joyful pilgrimage
To the place where you want us to be,
The haven where our deepest being is at home
And we can finally rest.
Monsignor Jamie MacNeil is the current Administrator of the Cathedral in Oban. Hailing from Barra in the Outer Hebrides, Monsignor MacNeil studied at the Scots College in Rome from 1971 until 1978. He returned for a further period in 1980.
The images included in this article are all of depictions of Saint Columba in the Scots College, Rome. On the front page is the stained glass window showing Columba and his monks approaching Iona in the 6th century. It can be seen in one of the corridors that leads to the main chapel. Also featured is the mosaic that stands at the altar of the Blessed Sacrament in the crypt. It portrays the miracle attributed to Columba when he changed water into wine. Both were kindly donated to the college by the parishioners of St Columbkille in Rutherglen.