“God thee bless, thou loved Iona.”

THE DEATH OF COLUMBA.

Saxon stranger, thou did’st wisely,
Sunder’d for a little space
From that motley stream of people
Drifting by this holy place;
With the furnace and the funnel
Through the long sea’s glancing arm,
Let them hurry back to Oban,
Where the tourist loves to swarm.
Here, upon this hump of granite,
Sit with me a quiet while,
And I’ll tell thee how Columba
Died upon this old grey isle.

I.

‘Twas in May, a breezy morning,
When the sky was fresh and bright,
And the broad blue ocean shimmer’d
With a thousand gems of light.
On the green and grassy Machar,
Where the fields are spredden wide,
And the crags in quaint confusion
Jut into the Western tide:
Here his troop of godly people,
In stout labour’s garb array’d,
Blithe their fruitful task were plying
With the hoe and with the spade.
“I will go and bless my people,”
Quoth the father, “ere I die,
But the strength is slow to follow
Where the wish is swift to fly;
I am old and feeble, Diarmid,
Yoke the oxen, be not slow,
I will go and bless my people,
Ere from earth my spirit go.”
On his ox-drawn wain he mounted,
Faithful Diarmid by his side;
Soon they reach’d the grassy Machar,
Soft and smooth, Iona’s pride:
“I am come to bless my people,
Faithful fraters, ere I die;
I had wish’d to die at Easter,
But I would not mar your joy,
Now the Master plainly calls me,
Gladly I obey his call;
I am ripe, I feel the sickle,
Take my blessing ere I fall.”
But they heard his words with weeping,
And their tears fell on the dew,
And their eyes were dimmed with sorrow,
For they knew his words were true.
Then he stood up on the waggon,
And his prayerful hands he hove,
And he spake and bless’d the people
With the blessing of his love:
“God be with you, faithful fraters,
With you now, and evermore;
Keep you from the touch of evil,
On your souls his Spirit pour;
God be with you, fellow-workmen,
And from loved Iona’s shore
Keep the blighting breath of demons,
Keep the viper’s venom’d store!”
Thus he spake, and turn’d the oxen
Townwards; sad they went, and slow,
And the people, fix’d in sorrow,
Stood, and saw the father go.

Street of the Dead, Iona.
Street of the Dead, Iona.

II.

List me further, Saxon stranger,
Note it nicely, by the causeway
On the left hand, where thou came
With the motley tourist people,
Stands a cross of figured fame.
Even now thine eye may see it,
Near the nunnery, slim and grey;—
From the waggon there Columba
Lighted on that tearful day,
And he sat beneath the shadow
Of that cross, upon a stone,
Brooding on his speedy passage
To the land where grief is none;
When, behold, the mare, the white one
That was wont the milk to bear
From the dairy to the cloister,
Stood before him meekly there,
Stood, and softly came up to him,
And with move of gentlest grace
O’er the shoulder of Columba
Thrust her piteous-pleading face,
Look’d upon him as a friend looks
On a friend that goes away,
Sunder’d from the land that loves him
By wide seas of briny spray.
“Fie upon thee for thy manners!”
Diarmid cried with lifted rod,
“Wilt thou with untimely fondness
Vex the prayerful man of God?”
“Not so, Diarmid,” cried Columba;
“Dost thou see the speechful eyne
Of the fond and faithful creature
Sorrow’d with the swelling brine?
God hath taught the mute unreasoning
What thou fail’st to understand,
That this day I pass for ever
From Iona’s shelly strand.
Have my blessing, gentle creature,
God doth bless both man and beast;
From hard yoke, when I shall leave thee,
Be thy faithful neck released.”
Thus he spoke, and quickly rising
With what feeble strength remain’d,
Leaning on stout Diarmid’s shoulder,
A green hillock’s top he gained.
There, or here where we are sitting,
Whence his eye might measure well
Both the cloister and the chapel,
And his pure and prayerful cell.
There he stood, and high uplifting
Hands whence flowed a healing grace,
Breathed his latest voice of blessing
To protect the sacred place,—
Spake such words as prophets utter
When the veil of flesh is rent,
And the present fades from vision,
On the germing future bent:
“God thee bless, thou loved Iona,
Though thou art a little spot,
Though thy rocks are grey and treeless,
Thine shalt be a boastful lot;
Thou shalt be a sign for nations;
Nurtured on thy sacred breast,
Thou shalt send on holy mission
Men to teach both East and West;
Peers and potentates shall own thee,
Monarchs of wide-sceptre’d sway
Dying shall beseech the honour
To be tomb’d beneath thy clay;
God’s dear saints shall love to name thee,
And from many a storied land
Men of clerkly fame shall pilgrim
To Iona’s little strand.”

Sunrise over Mull, from Iona.
Sunrise over Mull, from Iona.

III.

Thus the old man spake his blessing;
Then, where most he loved to dwell,
Through the well-known porch he enter’d
To his pure and prayerful cell;
And then took the holy psalter—
‘Twas his wont when he would pray—
Bound with three stout clasps of silver,
From the casket where it lay;
There he read with fixed devoutness,
And with craft full fair and fine,
On the smooth and polish’d vellum
Copied forth the sacred line,
Till he came to where the kingly
Singer sings in faithful mood,
How the younglings of the lion
Oft may roam in vain for food,
But who fear the Lord shall never
Live and lack their proper good.
Here he stopped, and said, “My latest
Now is written; what remains
I bequeath to faithful Beathan
To complete with pious pains.”
Then he rose, and in the chapel
Conned the pious vesper song
Inly to himself, for feeble
Now the voice that once was strong;
Hence with silent step returning
To his pure and prayerful cell,
On the round smooth stone he laid him
Which for pallet served him well.
Here some while he lay; then rising,
To a trusty brother said:
“Brother, take my parting message,
Be my last words wisely weigh’d.
‘Tis an age of brawl and battle;
Men who seek not God to please,
With wild sweep of lawless passion
Waste the land and scourge the seas.
Not like them be ye; be loving,
Peaceful, patient, truthful, bold,
But in service of your Master
Use no steel and seek no gold.”
Thus he spake; but now there sounded
Through the night the holy bell
That to Lord’s-day matins gather’d
Every monk from every cell.
Eager at the sound, Columba
In the way foresped the rest,
And before the altar kneeling,
Pray’d with hands on holy breast.
Diarmid followed; but a marvel Flow’d
upon his wondering eyne,—
All the windows shone with glorious
Light of angels in the shrine.
Diarmid enter’d; all was darkness.
“Father!” But no answer came.
“Father! art thou here, Columba ?”
Nothing answer’d to the name.
Soon the troop of monks came hurrying,
Each man with a wandering light,
For great fear had come upon them,
And a sense of strange affright.
“Diarmid! Diarmid! is the father
With thee? Art thou here alone ?”
And they turn’d their lights and found him
On the pavement lying prone.
And with gentle hands they raised him,
And he mildly look’d around,
And he raised his arm to bless them,
But it dropped upon the ground;
And his breathless body rested
On the arms that held him dear,
And his dead face look’d upon them
With a light serene and clear;
And they said that holy angels
Surely hover’d round his head,
For alive no loveliest ever
Look’d so lovely as this dead.

Stranger, thou hast heard my story,
Thank thee for thy patient ear;
We are pleased to stir the sleeping
Memory of old greatness here.
I have used no gloss, no varnish,
To make fair things fairer look;
As the record stands, I give it,
In the old monks’ Latin book.
Keep it in thy heart, and love it,
Where a good thing loves to dwell;
It may help thee in thy dying,
If thou care to use it well.

— John Stuart Blackie, Lays of the Highlands and Islands (1872).

The Whole Church Resounded with Loud Lamentations of Grief

The Mediæval Abbey of Iona.

Having written the aforementioned verse at the end of the page, the saint went to the church to the nocturnal vigils of the Lord’s Day; and so soon as this was over, he returned to his chamber, and spent the remainder of the night on his bed, where he had a bare flag for his couch, and for his pillow a stone, which stands to this day as a kind of monument beside his grave. While then he was reclining there, he gave his last instructions to the brethren, in the hearing of his attendant alone, saying: “These, O my children, are the last words I address to you that ye be at peace, and have unfeigned charity among yourselves; and if you thus follow the example of the holy fathers, God, the Comforter of the good, will be your Helper and I, abiding with Him, will intercede for you; and He will not only give you sufficient to supply the wants of this present life, but will also bestow on you the good and eternal rewards which are laid up for those that keep His commandments.” Thus far have the last words of our venerable patron, as he was about to leave this weary pilgrimage for his heavenly country, been preserved for recital in our brief narrative. After these words, as the happy hour of his departure gradually approached, the saint became silent. Then as soon as the bell tolled at midnight, he rose hastily, and went to the church; and running more quickly than the rest, he entered it alone, and knelt down in prayer beside the altar. At the same moment his attendant Diormit, who more slowly followed him, saw from a distance that the whole interior of the church was filled with a heavenly light in the direction of the saint. And as he drew near to the door, the same light he had seen, and which was also seen by a few more of the brethren standing at a distance, quickly disappeared. Diormit therefore entering the church, cried out in a mournful voice, “Where art thou, father?” And feeling his way in the darkness, as the brethren had not yet brought in the lights, he found the saint lying before the altar; and raising him up a little, he sat down beside him, and laid his holy head on his bosom. Meanwhile the rest of the monks ran in hastily in a body with their lights, and beholding their dying father, burst into lamentations. And the saint, as we have been told by some who were present, even before his soul departed, opened wide his eyes and looked round him from side to side, with a countenance full of wonderful joy and gladness, no doubt seeing the holy angels coming to meet him. Diormit then raised the holy right hand of the saint, that he might bless his assembled monks. And the venerable father himself moved his hand at the same time, as well as he was able that as he could not in words, while his soul was departing, he might at least, by the motion of his hand, be seen to bless his brethren. And having given them his holy benediction in this way, he immediately breathed his last. After his soul had left the tabernacle of the body, his face still continued ruddy, and brightened in a wonderful way by his vision of the angels, and that to such a degree that he had the appearance, not so much of one dead, as of one alive and sleeping. Meanwhile the whole church resounded with loud lamentations of grief.

– St. Adomnán’s Vita Columbæ, Book III, Chapter 24.

I Desired to Depart to Christ the Lord

Machair — a fertile low-lying grassy plain — on the western side of Iona.

This episode actually occurred before the events recounted in the last post, but reflecting upon them, I wanted to showcase them here.

* * *

TOWARDS the end of the above-mentioned four years, and as a true prophet he knew long before that his death would follow the close of that period, the old man, worn out with age, went in a cart one day in the month of May, as we mentioned in the preceding second Book, to visit some of the brethren who were at work. And having found them at work on the western side of the Iouan island (Hy, now Iona), he began to speak to them that day, saying, “During the paschal solemnities in the month of April now past, with desire have I desired to depart to Christ the Lord, as He had allowed me, if I preferred it. But lest a joyous festival should be turned for you into mourning, I thought it better to put off for a little longer the time of my departure from the world.” The beloved monks all the while they were hearing this sad news were greatly addicted, and he endeavoured as well as he could to cheer them with words of consolation. Then, having done this, he turned his face to the east, still seated as he was in his chariot, and blessed the island with its inhabitants; and from that day to the present, as we have stated in the Book above mentioned, the venomous reptiles with the three forked tongues could do no manner of harm to man or beast. After uttering these words of blessing, the saint was carried back to his monastery.

– St. Adomnán’s Vita Columbæ, Book III, Chapter 24.