Adomnán has also set down an order of malediction for them, to wit, a psalm for every day up to twenty days and an apostle or a noble saint for every day to be invoked with it, to wit, “Quare” and Peter, “Domine quid multiplicati” and John, “Verba mea” and Philip, “Domine Deus meus” and Bartholomew, “Dixit insipiens” and Thomas, “Deus, Deus meus respice” and Matthew “Iudica me Domine innocentium” and Jacob “Dixit iniustus” and Simon “Domine ne in furore” and Thaddeus, “Dixi custodiam” and Mattias, “Deus deorum” and Mark, “Quid gloriaris” and Luke, “Dixit insipiens” and Stephen, “Exurgat deus” and Ambrose, “Salvum me” and Gregory of Rome, “Deus, venerunt gentes” and Martin, “Deus, quis similis” and old Paul, “Deus laudem” and George, “Audite caeli quae loquor,” “Non nobis, Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo,” &c.
After fourteen years Adomnán obtained this Law of God, and this is the cause. On Pentecost Eve, a holy angel of the Lord came to him, and again at Pentecost after a year, and seized a staff, and struck his side and said to him, “Go forth into Ireland, and make a law in it that women be not in any manner killed by men, through slaughter or any other death, either by poison, or in water, or in fire, or by any other beast, or in a pit, or by dogs, but that they shall die in their lawful bed. Thou shalt establish a law in Ireland and Britain for the sake of the mother of each one, because a mother has borne each one, and for the sake of Mary mother of Jesus Christ, through whom all are. Mary besought her Son on behalf of Adomnán about this Law. For whoever slays a woman shall be condemned to a twofold punishment: that is, his right hand and his left foot shall be cut off before death, and then he shall die, and his kindred shall pay seven full cumals and one-seventh part of the penance. If, instead of life and amputation, a fine has been imposed, the penance is fourteen years, and fourteen cumals shall be paid. But if a host has done it, every fifth man up to three hundred shall be condemned to that punishment; if few, they shall be divided into three parts. The first part of them shall be put to death by lot, hand and foot having been first cut off; the second part shall pay fourteen full cumals; the third shall be cast into exile beyond the sea, under the rule of a hard regimen; for the sin is great when any slays the mother and sister of Christ’s mother and the mother of Christ, and her who carries a spindle and who clothes every one. But he who from this day forward shall put a woman to death and does not do penance according to the Law, shall not only perish in eternity, and be cursed for God and Adomnán, but all shall be cursed that have heard it and do not curse him, and do not chastise him according to the judgement of this Law.”
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.
Then leaving this spot, he ascended the hill that overlooketh the monastery, and stood for some little time on its summit; and as he stood there with both hands uplifted, he blessed his monastery, saying:
Small and mean though this place is, yet it shall be held in great and unusual honour, not only by Scotic kings and people, but also by the rulers of foreign and barbarous nations, and by their subjects; the saints also even of other churches shall regard it with no common reverence.
After these words he descended the hill, and having returned to the monastery sat in his hut transcribing the Psalter, and coming to that verse of the 33d Psalm, where it is written, “They that seek the Lord shall want no manner of thing that is good,” “Here,” said he, “at the end of the page, I must stop; and what follows let Baithene write.” The last verse he had written was very applicable to the saint, who was about to depart, and to whom eternal goods shall never be wanting; while the one that followeth is equally applicable to the father who succeeded him, the instructor of his spiritual children: “Come, ye children, and hearken unto me: I will teach you the fear of the Lord;” and indeed he succeeded him, as recommended by him, not only in teaching, but also in writing.
— St. Adomnán’s Vita Columbæ, Book III, Chapter 24.
The Annals of the Four Masters record the diesnatalis of St. Columba in the year 592, cheating the blessed man out of five whole years of his earthly life (though I am certain from my study of St. Adomnán’s Vita Columbæ that Columba would have been more than happy to give them up). St. Columba died on 9 June 597.
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Colum Cille, son of Feidhlimidh, apostle of Alba, head of the piety of the most part of Ireland and Alba, next after Patrick, died in his own church in Hy, in Alba, after the thirty fifth year of his pilgrimage, on Sunday night precisely, the 9th day of June. Seventy seven years was his whole age when he resigned his spirit to heaven, as is said in this quatrain:
Three years without light
was Colum in his Duibh-regles;
He went to the angels from his body,
after seven years and seventy.
Dallan Forgaill composed this on the death of Colum Cille:
Like the cure of a physician without light,
like the separation of marrow from the bone,
Like a song to a harp without the ceis,
are we after being deprived of our noble.
The battle of Cúl Dreimhne was gained against Diarmaid, son of Cearbhall, by Fearghus and Domhnall, the two sons of Muircheartach, son of Earca; by Ainmire, son of Sedna; and by Ainnidh, son of Duach; and by Aedh, son of Eochaidh Tirmcharna, King of Connaught. It was in revenge of the killing of Curnan, son of Aedh, son of Eochaidh Tirmcharna, while under the protection of Colum Cille, the Clanna Neill of the North and the Connaughtmen gave this battle of Cul Dreimhne to King Diarmaid; and also on account of the false sentence which Diarmaid passed against Colum Cille about a book of Finnen, which Colum had transcribed without the knowledge of Finnen, when they left it to award of Diarmaid, who pronounced the celebrated decision, ‘To every cow belongs its calf,’ &c. Colum Cille said:
1. O God, wilt thou not drive off the fog,
[gap: extent: 1 line]
which envelopes our number,
The host which has deprived us of our livelihood,
2. The host which proceeds around the carns!
He is a son of storm who betrays us.
My Druid,—he will not refuse me,—
is the Son of God, and may he side with me;
3. How grandly he bears his course,
the steed of Baedan before the host;
Power by Baedan of the yellow hair
will be borne from Ireland on him the steed.
Fraechan, son of Teniusan, was he who made the Erbhe Druadh for Diarmaid. Tuathan, son of Dimman, son of Saran, son of Cormac, son of Eoghan, was he who placed the Erbhe Druadh over his head. Three thousand was the number that fell of Diarmaid’s people. One man only fell on the other side, Mag Laim was his name, for it was he that passed beyond the Erbhe Druadh.
The bishop (Mel) being intoxicated with the grace of God there did not recognise what he was reciting from his book, for he consecrated Brigit with the orders of a bishop. “This virgin alone in Ireland”, said Mel, “will hold the Episcopal ordination.” While she was being consecrated a fiery column ascended from her head.
— From an anonymous Life of St. Brigid, Bethu Brigte, Chapter XIX.
* * *
Now, I must admit, this passage is a very hard one for me. Unlike many, I take literally and historically many of the early Lives of Irish and Scottish saints. In most cases, I see no reason not to. For example, in St. Adomnán’s Vita Columbæ, there is not a single episode that I find fantastic or chiefly allegorical; I read it as a recounting of true events in the lives of Columba and those who, through his intercession, were saved. So the notion that St. Brigid received true episcopal ordination at the hands of St. Mel is a frightening prospect, as it is an act the Church now believes Herself unable to work.
At this time in Scotia and Alba, under the Columban monastic system, while there were bishops, they do not seem to have reigned over towns or dioceses and it was the great abbots and abbesses who had the primacy.
Now we are told in this passage that, not only did St. Brigid receive the outward signs of episcopal ordination, but that there was an heavenly approbation in the column of fire that rose from her head. Further, Bishop Mel refers to the holy virgin as having received the order of a bishop.
So, what does this mean? Is the passage simply an hyperbolic burst of enthusiasm on the part of the writer (or those who passed on the story)? Did the event occur? If it did, what spiritual effect might it have had on this woman? Was she indeed consecrated bishop?