St Columba of Iona: A Complicated Legacy

Blessed St. Columba’s Day!

Today we remember the Apostle to Scotland. An involuntary exile from Ireland, Columba arrived in the Scottish kingdom of Dalriada in the 560s and founded a small monastery on the island of Iona, on the then northern border of Dalriada and Pictland, a likely frontier region between the relatively new Scottish dynasty and the Picts. Columba was politically astute, accepted his potentially perilous location and obtained a royal grant from both the Dalriadan king and the dominant Pictish king of the day. Using his political skills, he becomes a kingmaker advancing Aedan mac Gabran to the Dalriadan throne and then using all his skills to advance Aedan’s career for about twenty years, fostering strong ties between his Irish kin, the Ui Neill, and Dalriada and meanwhile evangelizing Pictland perhaps enforced by Aedan’s military successes in eastern Scotland. It is impossible to ignore that Aedan’s military career begins declining with Columba’s death.

Columba’s political skills are undeniable, but they can not be the main focus of his legacy. Columba built an empire to the glory of God. He instilled in his hundreds, if not thousands, of disciples an unwavering commitment to piety, poverty, study, and evangelism. They were the forerunners of the Franciscans, except that they developed their monastic style as a pure adaption of the monastic fathers Martin and Anthony of Egypt; while the Franciscans reached the same spirit as a reforming reaction to the excesses of their day. Francis had to travel to Egypt to find Muslims to attempt to convert. Columba was surrounded by pagans, his mission field was all around him. Columba also took a more sensible attitude toward poverty; his monasteries would be simple and poor, but self-supporting, relying on the staple of Irish income, cattle alone.

Unfortunately, Columba’s disciples were not as politically astute as he had been. By comparison, Columba must have been a political prodigy. His disciples were unswervingly loyal to his memory and directions to follow his rule. They stubbornly resisted the growing influence and authority of Rome for about 80 years and in the process lost control of at least 75% of their churches and monasteries beginning with their loss at the Synod of Whitby in 664. In the post-Reformation world, this often appears to be a virtue but that is not how Bede or their other contemporaries saw it. Adomnan understood the price they were paying better than most, and wrote the Life of Columba to attempt to shore up Columba’s reputation, but even he couldn’t convince the wider church of Iona that it was time to accept change and save what they could. Writing some thirty years later, Bede made Columba a scapegoat for Lindisfarne’s fall from political power. He understood that his culture would have viewed their loyalty to Columba as a virtue, so their failures must be Columba’s fault. Too often we forget that being a patron saint can cut both ways, praise while his disciples prosper but criticism — even questioning his sanctity — when they fail, particularly for following their master’s directions. Today, of course, we recognize that Columba can not possibly he held responsible for his disciples response to an issue that didn’t even occur during his lifetime. Interestingly Bede takes pains to separate Columba’s death from Augustine’s arrival at Canturbury in the chronological summary of his History. Its almost as if he must prove that the Roman mission began before Columba’s death, even if they didn’t actually arrive in Britain until afterwards. Could Iona have claimed that Columba’s physical presence in Britain had prevented Rome’s arrival? Clearly Columba’s legacy was still an active issue over 130 years after his death. The legacy of this astutely political abbot has always been tied to politics and rose and fell accordingly.

Today, Columba’s popularity is on the rise again making him co-patron saint of Ireland (with Patrick and Bridget) and one of the most popular saints in Scotland with St Andrew and Margaret. The Episcopal Church remembers Columba with the following collect:

O God, by the preaching of your blessed servant Columba you caused the light of the Gospel to shine in Scotland: Grant, we pray, that, having his life and labors in remembrance, we may show our thankfulness to you by following the example of his zeal and patience; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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