Sunday 9 June 2013

A call to remember St Columba

Address given on Sunday 9th June 2013, St Columba's Day, at Templederry, Nenagh & Killodiernan

I ring this bell to call us to remember St Columba, whose feast day it is today.
St Columba’s name in Irish is Colm Cille, which means Dove of the Church – Columba in Latin simply means a dove. He was born in 521 AD in Co. Donegal to an aristocratic, warrior family. He studied in Clonard monastery, Co. Meath, became a monk, and eventually was ordained a priest. In his early years he is said to have founded several monasteries including those at Kells, Derry and Swords.

But Columba was not always as peaceable as his name suggests. He got embroiled in a quarrel over a psalm book with St Finnian of Moville. Columba borrowed the book and copied it secretly for his own use, but Finnian disputed his right to keep it. He took it to court and the High King adjudicated the case, coming to the famous judgement, ‘To every cow its calf, to every book its copy’ – setting a precedent that is still remembered in copyright law. Columba would not accept the judgement, and the dispute eventually resulted in a pitched battle between the supporters of the two men in which 3,000 were killed.

A Synod threatened to excommunicate St Columba for the deaths he had caused, but St Brendan of Birr spoke up for him, and he was allowed to go into exile. Columba went to Scotland as a missionary, pledged to convert as many heathen Picts as had been killed in the battle.

Columba sailed into exile in 563 AD in a curragh with 12 companions.
No doubt he brought with him a precious copy of the Gospels and the psalms, perhaps also a bell like this one, as many early Irish saints did, to call his fellows to prayer and worship.

Landing on Iona, an island in the Inner Hebrides, he began his life’s work to convert the Picts to Christianity. This year is the 1450th anniversary of his arrival – an anniversary worth celebrating! He established a great monastery in Iona, one of the most important in the Celtic world, which he developed into a centre of learning and a school for missionaries.

He became deeply involved in Scottish politics, helping to broker peace between the warring Picts and Gaels. Isn't it wonderful how the aristocratic Irish warrior who caused so much slaughter became St Columba, the dove of peace. Today’s 1st reading (Micah 4:1-5) is very apt for his feast day:
‘(The Lord) shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’

Columba’s monastery continued to flourish after his death in 597 AD. It was renowned for its learning, and the scriptorium for beautiful illuminated manuscripts, among them many scholars suggest the Book of Kells. From Iona missionaries went not only around Scotland, but to England where St Aidan went from Iona to Lindisfarne, where he converted the heathen Anglo-Saxon Northumbrians.

The Iona monastery was eventually abandoned in 849 AD after being sacked several times by the Vikings. Its treasures and relics were dispersed around Scotland and Ireland, which may explain how Kells got its famous Book.

But Iona remained a sacred place. Scottish kings continued to be buried there, including Macbeth. And a Benedictine Abbey was built there in 1203 to cater for pilgrims, which continued to flourish until the Reformation when it was suppressed. The Abbey in turn fell into ruins.

But that is not the end of the story.
The history of Iona is one of continuing cycles of decay and rebirth – Columba himself, the Celtic monastery, the Benedictine Abbey. This brings Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel reading (John 12:20-26) into sharp focus: ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’.

So, in 1938 a Presbyterian Minister called George McLeod brought a party of men from Govan near Glasgow to rebuild Iona’s ruined Benedictine Abbey. In doing so he founded the Iona Community

The Iona Community today, in words taken from their website (, ‘is a dispersed Christian ecumenical community working for peace and social justice, rebuilding of community and the renewal of worship. (They) are an ecumenical community of  men and women from different walks of life and different traditions in the Church, engaged together and with people of goodwill across the world, reflecting and praying for justice, peace and the integrity of creation’.

The Community run pilgrim and retreat centres on Iona and nearby Mull. Newslink readers may remember a fine report by Jonathan Pyle about his pilgrimage to Iona. They run outreach programmes in Glasgow and for children. And their Wild Goose publishing house makes new, exciting liturgy and hymns available to Christians everywhere. The Rector regularly includes their materials in her services, particularly the Family Services, because they are so accessible. You may also remember John Bell, a member of the Iona Community, hosting his ‘Big Sing’ with us here 2 years ago.

In this their 75th anniversary year we can truly say that the Iona Community continues to bless us by building on their inheritance from St Columba.

Let me tell you a secret - I have a dream - foolish, maybe, perhaps impractical, but bold.

What is there to stop us in this Diocese, in our part of Ireland, from emulating our brothers and sisters in the Iona Community?

Bishop Trevor in his conversations on Vision, Mission & Ministry has given us permission to come up with new ways to express our faith. He has encouraged us to find a critical mass in clusters of parishes on a wider canvas than our historic parishes. We also have beautiful, ancient cathedrals such as those of Clonfert or Kilfenora which are barely used, but whose stones like Iona’s speak of a long, living Christian tradition.

We might start, perhaps, by calling together a group to adopt in a sense one of these cathedrals - only with the blessing of that parish of course. We might use it for modern, joyful services, designed to attract and inspire the young at heart in all generations from a wide area and from different Christian traditions. We might draw on Iona materials at first, but then we might start to develop our own voice. It would be wonderful if it became a place for pilgrims to gather. Perhaps a new dispersed Christian Community might come together around it. And who knows what blessings might flow from that?

So, I ring this bell to call us to remember St Columba.
·        Let us give thanks for his arrival on Iona 1,450 years ago, and for his work as missionary and peacemaker.
·        Let us give thanks in our own day for the 75 years of Christian witness and service of the Iona Community.

·        And let us give thanks for the inspiration we continue to receive from both St Columba and the Iona Community.

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