quia vobis donatum est pro Christo, non solum ut in eum credatis, sed ut etiam pro illo patiamini
Phil. i. xxix.
Another time that Columcille was in Iona, he gathered the monks to him in the place where he was, and he spake to them and said:
“Today I am going,” saith he, “to the western part of this island on a certain errand, and let no man at all follow me.”
And the monks consented. And he went forth then to the place whither he had declared he would go. Howbeit there followed him, without his knowing, a certain monk that would fain learn the reason of his going into that solitary place. And he concealed himself in a hillock overlooking the place where Columcille was. And from thence he had sight of him. And thus it was he beheld him, in cross vigil, and his face turned upward toward Heaven, and praying God fervently, and legions of angels round about him on every side. For it was a custom of the angels to come to bring solace to Columcille when he was worn out with pious exercise in places chill and comfortless, or with standing in water to his chin, saying very long prayers in wintry weather or snowy, or from passing strong constraint that he put upon his body for lack of food and drink.
And this is the cause why God gave the monk the sight of the angels: to magnify the name of Columcille. And Columcille would not magnify it himself by letting men wit the visions that were given him. For in fear of feeling empty vanity he never made them known save he understood that to others beside himself there was need of disclosing them — as to pray for the soul of one that had died, or for those that were in peril on sea or land, or when to reveal them would increase the name or honor of some other holy man.
And when Columcille had finished his prayers, the angels left him; and he returned again to the monastery. And he gathered the brethren to him, and asked them which of them had followed him against the command he had laid upon them. And the monks that were innocent said that they knew naught thereof. When the monk that had followed him heard this, he fell on his knees before Columcille, and said that he had done a great sin, and begged forgiveness of Columcille therefor. And Columcille forgave him this when he saw his humility and contrition. And after this Columcille took that monk with him to a place apart, and required him so long as he should live not to relate to any one the angelic vision he had seen. And when Columcille died, the monk disclosed to the brethren the vision he had seen, so that the names of God and Columcille were magnified thereby. And in proof thereof, the Hillock of the Angels is to this day the name of the hillock where the monk saw the angels around Columcille.
On a time that Columcille was in Iona, the Adversary set on a certain woman of his congregation to bestow on him passing great love, to see if it might come to pass through her that he should entice him to sin with her; for of himself could he not overcome or tempt him, or bring him ever to do sin, small or great, in things pertaining to his body. And the love the woman had for him passed all bounds, so that she would liefer die than not come to reveal her love to Columcille, to try if she could get him to fulfill her desire touching the matter of having ado with her fleshly.
And she went to him to declare her purpose to him. And when this was perceived by that man that loved chastity, that subdued demons, that did strongly maintain the commands of God, that did tear out every flaw from himself and from every other, he knew the reason of her coming to him afore she told it him.
And he spake to her and said: “Woman,” saith he, “think on the judgment of Doom, and consider that it is from the dead thou hast come, and to the dead thou shalt return.”
And he did bless and consecrate her then from where he stood, and it came to pass by virtue of the blessing of Columcille, that when she heard from him the words of God, and his exhortation, all the evil desires that surrounded her love withdrew from her and her pure love remained within her, and she received from him faith and piety. So that woman became holy in the end, whereby the names of God and Columcille were magnified.
Another time also, while the blessed man was living in the Iouan island (Hy, now lona), he made this known to the assembled brethren with very great earnestness, saying, “To-day I wish to go alone to the western plain of this island; let none of you therefore follow me.” They obeyed, and he went alone, as he desired. But a brother, who was cunning, and of a prying disposition, proceeded by another road, and secretly placed himself on the summit of a certain little hill which overlooked the plain, because he was very anxious to learn the blessed man’s motive for going out alone. While the spy on the top of the hill was looking upon him as he stood on a mound in the plain, with arms extended upwards, and eyes raised to heaven in prayer, then, strange to tell, behold a wonderful scene presented itself, which that brother, as I think not without the leave of God, witnessed with his own eyes from his place on the neighbouring hill, that the saint’s name and the reverence due to him might afterwards, even against his wishes, be more widely diffused among the people, through the vision thus vouchsafed. For holy angels, the citizens of the heavenly country, clad in white robes and flying with wonderful speed, began to stand around the saint whilst he prayed; and after a short converse with the blessed man, that heavenly host, as if feeling itself detected, flew speedily back again to the highest heavens. The blessed man himself also, after his meeting with the angels, returned to the monastery, and calling the brethren together a second time, asked, with no little chiding and reproof, which of them was guilty of violating his command. When all were declaring they did not know at all of the matter, the brother, conscious of his inexcusable transgression, and no longer able to conceal his guilt, fell on his knees before the saint in the midst of the assembled brethren, and humbly craved forgiveness. The saint, taking him aside, commanded him under heavy threats, as he knelt, never, during the life of the blessed man, to disclose to any person even the least part of the secret regarding the angels’ visit. It was, therefore, after the saint’s departure from the body that the brother related that manifestation of the heavenly host, and solemnly attested its truth. Whence, even to this day, the place where the angels assembled is called by a name that beareth witness to the event that took place in it; this may be said to be in Latin “Colliculus Angelorum” and is in Scotic Cnoc Angel (now called Sithean Mor). Hence, therefore, we must notice, and even carefully inquire, into the fact how great and of what kind these sweet visits of angels to this blessed man were, which took place mostly during the winter nights, when he was in watching and prayer in lonely places while others slept. These were no doubt very numerous, and could in no way come to the knowledge of other men. Though some of these which happened by night or by day might perhaps be discovered by one means or another, these must have been very few compared with the angelic visions, which, of course, could be known by nobody. The same observation applies in the same way to other bright apparitions hitherto investigated by few, which shall be afterwards described.
Once when he was going round the graveyard in Iona, he saw an old woman cutting nettles for broth for herself. ‘What is the cause of this, poor woman?’ said Colum Cille. ‘Dear Father,’ said she, ‘I have one cow, and it has not yet borne a calf; I am waiting for it, and this is what has served me for a long time.’ Colum Cille made up his mind then that nettle broth should be what should serve him mostly from then on for ever; saying, ‘Since they suffer this great hunger in expectation of the one uncertain cow, it would be right for us that the hunger which we suffer should be great, waiting for God; because what we are expecting, the everlasting Kingdom, is better, and is certain.’ And he said to his servant ‘Give me nettle broth every night,’ said he, ‘without butter or milk with it.’ ‘It shall be done,’ said the cook. He hollowed the stick for stirring the broth and made it into a tube, so that he used to pour the milk into that tube and stir it into the broth. Then the people of the church noticed that the priest looked well, and talked of it among themselves. This was told to Colum Cille, and then he said, ‘May your successors grumble for ever! Now,’ said he to the servant, ‘what do you give me in the broth every day?’ ‘You yourself are witness,’ said the menial, ‘unless it comes out of the stick with which the broth is mixed, I know of nothing in it except broth alone.’ Then, the explanation was revealed to the priest, and he said, ‘Prosperity and good deeds to your successor for ever!’ And this has come true.
— Irish; author unknown; 11th century;
Whitley Stokes, On the Calendar of Oengus (Dublin, 1880), pp. c-ci.
The relics of Patrick were enshrined sixty years after his death by Columcille. Three precious reliquaries were found in the tomb, sc. the Cup, the Angel’s Gospel, and the Bell of the Will. The angel directed Columcille to divide the three reliquaries thus: the Cup to Down, the Bell of the Will to Armagh, the Gospel of the Angel to Columcille himself. And it is called the Gospel of the Angel, because Columcille received it at the Angel’s hand.
— Annals of Ulster, U553.3,
copied from a chronicle called the Book of Cuanu.
198. Then Columcille and his household departed from Erin, and this is the number they were: twenty bishops, two score priests, thirty deacons, and two score sons of learning that had not yet the rank of priest or deacon, as the poet, even Dallan Forgaill, hath said in this quatrain:
Forty priests their number.
Twenty bishops, lofty their virtue,
For psalmody, without doubting.
Thirty deacons, fifty boys.
199. And these folk were full of wisdom and knowledge and the graces of the Holy Ghost. And the years of Columcille at that time were two and two score. And other fourteen and twenty years of his life he spent in Alba in pilgrimage and exile.
200. Then went Columcille and his household into their ship. And there he made his quatrain:
My foot in my tuneful coracle;
My sad heart tearful
A man without guidance is weak;
Blind all those without knowledge.
201. And he bade farewell to Erin then, and they put out into the ocean and the great deep. And Columcille kept gazing backward on Erin till the sea hid it from him. And heavy and sorrowful was he in that hour. And it was thus he made this quatrain below:
I stretch my eye across the brine,
From the firm oaken planks;
Many the tears of my soft grey eye
As I look back upon Erin.
There is a grey eye
That will look back upon Erin;
Never again will it see
The men of Erin or women.
At dawn and at eve I lament;
Alas for the journey I go
This is my name–I tell a secret–
‘Back to Erin’.
– Betha Colaim Chille (Life of Columcille),
XIV. Of the Exile of Columcille from Erin, 198-201; compiled by Manus O’Donnell in 1532; edited and translated from manuscript Rawlinson B. 514 in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
On a time that Columcille was walking by the side of the river that is called the Boyne, the skull of a man was sent to him. And Columcille and the saints marvelled at the size of that skull, for it was far greater than the skulls of the folk of that time. Then said his household to Columcille:
“It is a poor thing for us,” say they, “to be without knowledge of
whose this skull may be, or where is the soul that was in the body wherein it dwelled.”
Columcille answered them and said: “I will not quit this place save
I get knowledge thereof for you from God.”
Then gan Columcille to pray God earnestly to reveal to him this
thing. And God heard that prayer of Columcille, so that the skull spake to him. And it said how it was the skull of Cormac mac Airt son† of Conn of the Hundred Battles, King of Erin and ancestor to himself. For Columcille was the tenth degree from Cormac. And the skull related that albeit his faith had not been perfect, yet such had been the measure thereof, and his keeping of the truth, that, inasmuch as God knew that Columcille would be of his seed, and would pray for his soul, He had not dammed him in very truth, albeit it was in sharp pains that he awaited the prayer of Columcille.
Then Columcille lifted up the skull and cleansed it right worshipfully. And he baptized it and blessed and buried it thereafter. And he left not the place ere he had said thirty masses‡ for the soul of Cormac. And at the last of those masses the angels of God appeared to Columcille, bearing with them the soul of Cormac to Heaven to enjoy glory everlasting through the intercession of Columcille.
— Betha Colaim Chille (Life of Columcille),
X. Of Sundry Miracles and Prophecies of Columcille and of Certain Visions, 131; compiled by Manus O’Donnell in 1532; edited and translated from manuscript Rawlinson B. 514 in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
† Cormac mac Airt was son of Art mac Cuinn and grandson of Conn Cétchathach (Conn of the Hundred Battles)
‡ The reference to “thirty masses” is likely anachronistic, as the custom of the thirty Gregorian Masses dates from A.D. 590, being established by Pope St. Gregory the Great at St. Andrew’s Monastery in Rome, originally restricted to the high altar of the monastery church, with the privilege later being allowed to other altars in Rome, and only centuries later extended to monasteries and churches throughout the world.