Crosfigell

St. Columba on the Hill of Angels, from a drawing by John Duncan, A.R.S.A.
St. Columba on the Hill of Angels, from a drawing by John Duncan, A.R.S.A.

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.

— Betha Colaim Chille, 229.

Holy in the End

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.

— Betha Colaim Chille, 224.

I Stretch My Eye Across the Brine

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.

Gregorian Masses of Cormac mac Airt

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.

Do Thou Assoil Me and Give Me the Sacrament

On a certain day Columcille was going to Tara of the Kings, and by adventure he met Bee mac De, the druid of Diarmaid mac Cerbail, King of Erin. And Bee had the gift of prophecy from God, albeit he was a druid, and he had made no false prophecy ever. But Columcille had foretold that Bee should twice prophesy falsely ere his death. And Colcumcille saluted him, and entered into friendly converse with him.

And he said: “Great is thy wisdom and knowledge, Bee mac De, in the tidings thou givest to other folk touching their deaths. Hast thou knowledge also of when thou shalt thyself die?”

“Thereof have I knowledge in sooth,” saith Bee. “There be yet for me seven years of life.”

“A man might do good works in shorter space than that,” saith Columcille. “And knowest thou for a surety that thou hast so much of life still?”

Then was Bee silent for a space, and thereafter spake he to Columcille and said, “I have not. It is but seven months of life I have.”

“That is well,” saith Columcille, “and art certain thou hast still so much of life to come?”

“I am not,” saith Bee, “and this is a token, O Columcille. I cannot withstand the prophecy thou hast made. For thou didst foretell that I should make two false prophecies ere I should die. There is left me but seven hours of this same day,” saith he. “Do thou assoil me and give me the sacrament.”

“It was to give thee this that I came hither today,” saith Columcille, “for God revealed to me that thou shouldst die today.”

Then did Columcille succor Bee with the consolation of Holy Church, and gave him the sacrament from his own hand. And Bee died then. And his soul went to Heaven through the goodness of God and the intercession of Columcille.

– Betha Colaim Chille (Life of Columcille),
X. Of Sundry Miracles and Prophecies of Columcille in Erin and of Certain Visions, 129;
compiled by Manus O’Donnell in 1532; edited and translated from manuscript Rawlinson B. 514 in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

I Would Not Speak Falsehood

View from atop Dunadd, (Scottish Gaelic Dún Add, 'fort on the [River] Add'), an Iron Age and later hillfort near Kilmartin in Argyll and Bute, Scotland, and believed to be the capital of the ancient kingdom of Dál Riata.
View from atop Dunadd, (Scottish Gaelic Dún Add, ‘fort on the [River] Add’), an Iron Age and later hillfort near Kilmartin in Argyll and Bute, Scotland, and believed to be the capital of the ancient kingdom of Dál Riata.
On a time that Columcille was in Alba, he sent holy Baithin on certain errands to Aedan son of Gabhran. Aedan inquired of him who that man was, to wit, Columcille, of the which the folk of the Western World gave such great report.

“He is a good man,” saith Baithin, “for he hath not broken his virginity, and he hath done naught, small or great, in vain-glory, and never hath he spoken falsehood.” Then Aedan bethought him how he might confute that. And he brought Columcille to him. And he let seat his own daughter Coinchenn in a chair in the presence of Columcille, and she with royal robes upon her.

“Beautiful is the maiden,” saith Aedan.
“She is in sooth,” saith Columcille.
“Were it pleasing to thee to lie with her?” saith Aedan.
“It were pleasing,” saith Columcille.

“Hearest thou him of whom it hath been said that never hath he broken his virginity, and he saying he were fain to be lying with a maiden!” saith Aedan.

“I would not speak falsehood,” saith Columcille. “And know thou, O Aedan, there is none in the world that is without the desire to sin. Natheless he that leaveth that desire, for God’s sake, shall be crowned in the Kingdom of God. And wit thou well, I would not lie with the damsel for the lordship of the world, albeit for the lust of the fleshly body that is about me, it is indeed my desire.”

If now Columcille had said at that time that he had no wish to lie with the damsel, Aedan had laid that against him as a lie, according to the word he had himself spoken, to wit, that save the human body of Jesu Christ, there hath none put on flesh that doth not have desire toward sin.

— Betha Colaim Chille (Life of Columcille),
XVII. More of the Labors of Columcille in Iona, 241;
compiled by Manus O’Donnell in 1532; edited and translated from manuscript Rawlinson B. 514 in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

All Affrighted and Adrad

Sound of Iona.
Sound of Iona.

Another time when Columcille was in lona, holy Baithin set out for that foresaid isle. Columcille warned him that in the middle of the night tofore a terrible beast had come into the harbor betwixt lona and the isle that he was bound for; and that all that should go past that harbor should be in sore peril from her.

Baithin replied, “I and the monster are in God’s hand,” saith he.

“Go,” saith Columcille, “with God’s blessing and mine. Thy stout faith shall save thee from that beast.”

Then went Baithin into his ship. And he had not been long travelling on the sea when they met the beast. Then were they all affrighted and adrad that were in the boat, save only Baithin. And he lifted his hands and eyes to Heaven and prayed God fervently to save him from the danger whereas he was. When Baithin had ended that prayer, he blessed the sea and its waters, and the beast fled before him. And she hath not been seen in that place from that time.

– Betha Colaim Chille (Life of Columcille),
XVII. More of the Labors of Columcille in Iona, 234;
compiled by Manus O’Donnell in 1532; edited and translated from manuscript Rawlinson B. 514 in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Columcille’s Three Pets

There were three pets that Columcille had; a cat, and a wren, and a fly. And he understood the speech of each of those creatures. And the Lord sent messages to him by them, and he understood all from them as he would understand an angel or human folk that might be sent with a message to him. And it happed that the wren ate the fly, and the cat ate the wren. And Columcille spake by the spirit of prophecy, and he said that it was thus men should do in a later time: the strong of them should eat the weak, that is to say, should take his wealth and his gear from him, and should show him neither right nor justice. And Columcille said that the while the Gael of Erin were thus, the power of foreigners should be over them, and whenever right and justice were kept by them, they should themselves have power again. And such love had Columcille for those little creatures of his, that he asked God to revive them for him, to get back the fly from the wren, and the wren from the cat. And he obtained that from God. And they were with him thenceforth as they were before, till they had lived out their lives according to nature. Wherefore he made this quatrain:

The deed they have done.
If God wills it, may He hear me:
May he get from my cat my wren;
May he get from my wren my fly.

— Betha Colaim Chille (Life of Columcille),
X. Of Sundry Miracles and Prophecies of Columcille and of Certain Visions, 118;
compiled by Manus O’Donnell in 1532; edited and translated from manuscript Rawlinson B. 514 in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.