Cnoc nan Aingeal

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.

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.

Vita Columbæ, Lib. iii. cap. xvii.

Christ Was Victor in the North

A fanciful, 19th century depiction of St. Columba converting the Pictish King Bridei, a mural painting by William Brassey Hole, in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
A fanciful, 19th century depiction of St. Columba converting the Pictish King Bridei, a mural painting by William Brassey Hole, in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Of the manner in which St. Columba overcame Broichan the Druid and sailed against the wind.

On a certain day after the events recorded in the foregoing chapters, Broichan, whilst conversing with the saint, said to him: “Tell me, Columba, when dost thou propose to set sail?” The saint replied, “I intend to begin my voyage after three days, if God permits me, and preserves my life.” Broichan said, “On the contrary, thou shalt not be able, for I can make the winds unfavourable to thy voyage, and cause a great darkness to envelop you in its shade.” Upon this the saint observed: “The almighty power of God ruleth all things, and in His name and under His guiding providence all our movements are directed.” What more need I say? That same day, the saint, accompanied by a large number of followers, went to the long lake of the river Nesa (Loch Ness), as he had determined. Then the Druids began to exult, seeing that it had become very dark, and that the wind was very violent and contrary. Nor should we wonder, that God sometimes allows them, with the aid of evil spirits, to raise tempests and agitate the sea. For thus legions of demons once met in the midst of the sea the holy bishop Germanus, whilst on his voyage through the Gallican channel to Britain, whither he was going from zeal for the salvation of souls, and exposed him to great dangers, by raising a violent storm and causing great darkness whilst it was yet day. But all these things were dissipated by the prayers of St. Germanus more rapidly than his words were uttered, and the darkness passed away.

Our Columba, therefore, seeing that the sea was violently agitated, and that the wind was most unfavourable for his voyage, called on Christ the Lord and embarked in his small boat; and whilst the sailors hesitated, he the more confidently ordered them to raise the sails against the wind. No sooner was this order executed, while the whole crowd was looking on, than the vessel ran against the wind with extraordinary speed. And after a short time, the wind, which hitherto had been against them, veered round to help them on their voyage, to the intense astonishment of all. And thus throughout the remainder of that day the light breeze continued most favourable, and the skiff of blessed man was carried safely to the wished-for haven.

Let the reader therefore consider how great and eminent this venerable man must have been, upon whom God Almighty, for the purpose of manifesting His illustrious name before a heathen people, bestowed the gift of working such miracles as those we have recorded.

Vita Columbæ, Lib. II., Cap. xxxv.

THE DRUID.

Our Colum’s bark was in the bay,
But sore our oarsmen were dismayed,
The Druid Brochan barred our way,
And shouted to his gods for aid;
And swore by earth and sea and sun
No Christian hound should sail upon
The lake that he forbade.

His old grey hair hung loose and long
About his shoulders bowed with age,
He poured to heaven the piercing song
(Men said) of some old Pictish sage.
His eyeballs gleamed unearthly fire,
And, as his song rose ever higher,
He shook with palsied rage.

I swear his mountain demon heard,
Who knew not that our Saint was nigh,
Nor that a bearer of the Word
Was come beneath his own wild sky,
Where, king of all men’s hopes and fears,
Himself, they said, a thousand years,
Had ruled as God on high.

He heard, I swear, his priest’s distress,
And launched himself in one black cloud
Upon the bosom of Loch Ness,
While Pict and Scot in terror bowed,
And like a fiery thunder-snake
Came tearing down the long dark lake,
We heard him roar aloud.

Upon the wings of one wild storm,
Rushing with furious haste, he came;
I hardly saw his dragon form,
Through sheets and tongues of forkèd flame.
Unceasing thunder crashed behind
The rushing of the mighty wind,
Men trembled at his name.

But through the howling of the gale
More shrill arose the Druid’s cry,
“Now wretched Christian wilt thou sail?
Down on thy knees, adore and die,
And thinkest thou to cope with me?
Ye Picts and Scots, at last ye see
I am his master, I.”

And all men on their faces fell,
Only St. Colum, meek and pale,
Rising against the Druid’s spell,
Passed in the teeth of that wild gale,
Down to his bark, nor blenched with fear,
But bade us cross ourselves and rear
His mast and span his sail.

We strained the aching mast on high,
The raving sail we scarcely reared,
The screaming cordage lashed the sky,
We trembled while the Pagans jeered,
For there was never human oar
Could push that wind-caught bark from shore,
When such a tempest neared.

While Colum signed the cross above
Our floundering boat with outstretched hand,
The howling whirlwind burst and drove
Enormous breakers roods on land.
Yet, lo, our vessel put about,
And through the storm went up their shout,
“His boat has left the land.”

There in the teeth of that great wind,
Through blinding clouds of driving spray,
They saw us sail and leave behind
Themselves and their accursèd bay.
Our boat sailed on with even keel,
The billows could not make us reel,
The tempest could not stay.

Old Brochan cursed his powerless god,
His starting eyeballs wild with fear,
His demon, like a monstrous clod,
Dropped in the lake to disappear.
But far and wide the word went forth
That Christ was victor in the north,
And Colum was His seer.

— Douglas Hyde (ed.), The Three Sorrows of Storytelling and Ballads of St. Columkille, London, 1895.

To Confound the Druids

St. Columba, Bishop's House, Iona.
St. Columba, Bishop’s House, Iona.

By virtue of his prayer, and in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, he healed several persons suffering under various diseases; and he alone, by the assistance of God, expelled from this our island, which now has the primacy, innumerable hosts of malignant spirits, whom he saw with his bodily eyes assailing himself, and beginning to bring deadly distempers on his monastic brotherhood. Partly by mortification, and partly by a bold resistance, he subdued, with the help of Christ, the furious rage of wild beasts. The surging waves, also, at times rolling mountains high in a great tempest, became quickly at his prayer quiet and smooth, and his ship, in which he then happened to be, reached the desired haven in a perfect calm.

When returning from the country of the Picts, where he had been for some days, he hoisted his sail when the breeze was against him to confound the Druids, and made as rapid a voyage as if the wind had been favourable. On other occasions, also, contrary winds were at his prayers changed into fair. In that same country, he took a white stone from the river, and blessed it for the working of certain cures, and that stone, contrary to nature, floated like an apple when placed in water. This divine miracle was wrought in the presence of King Brude and his household. In the same country, also, he performed a still greater miracle, by raising to life the dead child of an humble believer, and restoring him in life and vigour to his father and mother. At another time, while the blessed man was yet a young deacon in Hibernia, residing with the holy bishop Findbarr, the wine required for the Sacred Mysteries failed, and he changed by his prayer pure water into true wine. An immense blaze of heavenly light was on many and wholly distinct occasions seen by some of the brethren to surround him in the light of day, as well as in the darkness of the night. He was also favoured with the sweet and most delightful society of bright hosts of the holy angels. He often saw, by the revelation of the Holy Ghost, the souls of some just men carried by angels to the highest heavens. And the reprobates too he very frequently beheld carried to hell by demons. He very often foretold the future deserts, sometimes joyful, and sometimes sad, of many persons while they were still living in mortal flesh. In the dreadful crash of wars he obtained from God, by the virtue of prayer, that some kings should be conquered, and others come off victorious. And such a grace as this he enjoyed, not only while alive in this world, but even after his departure from the flesh, as God, from whom all the saints derive their honour, has made him still a victorious and most valiant champion in battle.

— St. Adomnán’s Vita Columbæ, Book I, Chapter i.

In Fidei Florulentia

Prologue of St. Adomnán’s Vita sancti Columbæ, St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 555.
Prologue of St. Adomnán’s Vita sancti Columbæ, St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 555.

Meminerintque regnum dei non in eloquentiae exuberantia sed in fidei florulentia constare.

Let them remember that the kingdom of God inheres not with the exuberance of rhetoric, but in the blossoming of faith. St. Adomnán’s Preface to the Vita Columbæ.

Alta Proceritas

Steel engraving and enhancement of the Great Seal of Alexander II, King of Scots, from The Pictorial History of Scotland from the Roman Invasion to the close of the Jacobite Rebellion. A.D. 79-1746, Volume I, (London, 1859), facing page 68.
Steel engraving and enhancement of the Great Seal of Alexander II, King of Scots, from The Pictorial History of Scotland from the Roman Invasion to the close of the Jacobite Rebellion. A.D. 79-1746, Volume I, (London, 1859), facing page 68.

King Alexander, then lying in Kiararey-sound, dreamed a dream, and thought three men came to him. He thought one of them was in royal robes, but very stern, ruddy in countenance, somewhat thick, and of middling size. Another seemed of a slender make, but active, and of all men the most engaging, and majestic. The third again, was of very great stature, but his features were distorted, and of all the rest he was the most unsightly. They addressed their speech to the King, and enquired whether he meant to invade the Hebrides. Alexander thought he answered that he certainly proposed to subject the islands. The Genius of the vision bade him go back; and told him no other measure would turn out to his advantage. The King related his dream; and many advised him to return. But the King would not; and a little after he was seized with a disorder, and died. The Scottish army then broke up; and they removed the King’s body to Scotland. The Hebridians say that the men whom the King saw in his sleep were St Olave King of Norway, St Magnus Earl of Orkney, and St Columba.

The Norwegian Account of Haco’s Expedition Against Scotland,
Rev. James Johnstone, A.M., pp. 10-13.

Illuminated manuscript showing Uther Pendragon, Aethelbert, King Arthur, and Oswald of Northumbria, from Matthew Paris' Epitome of Chronicles.
Uther Pendragon, Aethelbert, King Arthur, and Oswald of Northumbria, from Matthew Paris’ Epitome of Chronicles.

Huius talis honorificentiae viro honorabili ab Omnipotente caelitus collatae etiam unum proferemus exemplum, quod Ossualdo regnatori Saxonico, pridie quam contra Catlonem Britonum regem fortissimum praeliaretur, ostensum erat. Nam cum idem Ossualdus rex esset in procinctu belli castra metatus, quadam die in suo papilione supra pulvillum dormiens, sanctum Columbam in visu videt forma coruscantem angelica; cuius alta proceritas vertice nubes tangere videbatur.

— St. Adomnán’s Vita Columbæ, Book I, Chapter i.

Vitreus Codex

OF THE ANGEL OF THE LORD WHO APPEARED VISIBLY TO
ST. COLUMBA WHILE STAYING IN HINBA ISLAND, WHEN SENT TO ORDAIN AEDHAN TO BE KING.

At another time, while the famous man was staying in Hinba island†, one night in an ecstasy of mind he saw an angel of the Lord sent to him, who had in his hand the glassy book (vitreum librum) of the ordination of kings, which the venerable man, when he had received it from the hand of the angel, at his bidding began to read. And when he refused to ordain Aedhan to be king, as was recommended to him in the book, because he loved logenan his brother more; suddenly the angel put out his hand and smote the Saint with a scourge, the livid mark of which remained on his side all the days of his life. And he added this word, saying, “Know for certain that I am sent unto thee from God with the glassy book (vitreum codicem), that, according to the words which thou hast read in it, thou mayest ordain Aedhan to the kingdom. And if thou art not willing to obey this command, I will smite thee again.” When, therefore, this angel of the Lord appeared for three nights in succession, having in his hand that glassy book, and committed to him the same commands of the Lord concerning the ordination of that king, the Saint, obeying the word of the Lord, sailed over to the Iouan island (Iona), and there ordained Aedhan, who arrived in those days, to be king, as he had been commanded. And among the words of ordination he prophesied future events concerning his sons and grandsons and great grandsons, and, placing his hand upon his head, ordained and blessed him.

Cuimine (Cummian) the Fair, in the book which he wrote of the virtues of St. Columba, has thus said, that St. Columba began to prophesy of Aedhan and his posterity, and of his kingdom, saying, “Believe without doubting, Aedhan, that none of thine adversaries will be able to resist thee, until thou first actest fraudulently against me and against my successors. Wherefore, then, do thou commend it to thy sons, that they may commend it to their sons and grandsons and posterity, lest they through evil counsels lose the sceptre of this their kingdom out of their hands. For at whatsoever time they do anything against me or against my kinsmen who are in Ireland, the scourge, which for thy sake I have endured from the angel, shall by the hand of God be turned upon them to their great disgrace and the heart of men shall be taken away from them, and their enemies shall be greatly strengthened over them.”

Now this prophecy has been fulfilled in our own times, in the battle of Roth‡, when Domhnall Brecc, grandson of Aedhan, without cause wasted the province of Domhnall, grandson of Ainmire. And from that day to this they are ever on the decline through means of strangers, which excites in the breast deep sighs of grief.

— St. Adomnán’s Vita Columbæ, Book III, Chapter v.

† The Columban retreat isle of Hinba is perhaps Eileach an Naoimh (Eilean-na-Naoimh) [rocky place/island of the saint], the Holy Isle, southernmost of the Garvellachs archipelago, lying in Firth of Lorne between Mull and Argyll.
‡ The Battle of Moira, known archaically as the Battle of Mag Rath, was fought in the summer of 637 by the Gaelic High King of Ireland Domnall II against his foster son King Congal of Ulster, supported by his ally Domnall the Freckled (Domnall Brecc) of Dalriada. The battle was fought near the Woods of Killultagh, just outside the village of Moira in what would become County Down. It was allegedly the largest battle ever fought on the island of Ireland, and resulted in the death of Congal and the retreat of Domnall Brecc.

Eructavit Cor Meum Verbum Bonum

The sound of the Voice of Columbkille
Great its sweetness above all clerics:
To the end of fifteen hundred paces,
Though great the distance, it was distinctly heard.

— From the Irish Life of St. Columba in the Leabhar Breac.

I must not pass over another well-authenticated story, told, indeed, by those who heard it, regarding the voice of the blessed man in singing the psalms. The venerable man, when singing in the church with the brethren, raised his voice so wonderfully that it was sometimes heard four furlongs off, that is five hundred paces, and sometimes eight furlongs, that is one thousand paces. But what is stranger still: to those who were with him in the church, his voice did not seem louder than that of others; and yet at the same time persons more than a mile away heard it so distinctly that they could mark each syllable of the verses he was singing, for his voice sounded the same whether far or near. It is however admitted, that this wonderful character in the voice of the blessed man was but rarely observable, and even then it could never happen without the aid of the Holy Ghost.

A hillfort on the summit of Craig Phadrig, a forested hill on the western edge of Inverness, is supposed to have been the base of the Pictish King Brude (Bridei mac Maelchon).
A hillfort on the summit of Craig Phadrig, a forested hill on the western edge of Inverness, is supposed to have been the base of the Pictish King Brude (Bridei mac Maelchon).

Nam ipse Sanctus cum paucis fratribus extra regis munitionem dum vespertinales Dei laudes ex more celebraret, quidam Magi, ad eos propius accedentes, in quantum poterant, prohibere conabantur, ne de ore ipsorum divinae laudis sonus inter Gentiles audiretur populos.

But another story concerning the great and wonderful power of his voice should not be omitted. The fact is said to have taken place near the fortress of King Brude. When the saint himself was chanting the evening hymns with a few of the brethren, as usual, outside the king’s fortifications, some Druids, coming near to them, did all they could to prevent God’s praises being sung in the midst of a pagan nation. On seeing this, the saint began to sing the 44th Psalm, and at the same moment so wonderfully loud, like pealing thunder, did his voice become, that king and people were struck with terror and amazement.

— St. Adomnán’s Vita Columbæ, Book I, Chapter xxxxvii.

Great and Singular Merits

The Cathach of St. Columba.
The Cathach of St. Columba.

Of a volume of a book in the Saint’s handwriting which could not be destroyed by water.

I CANNOT think of leaving unnoticed another miracle which once took place by means of the opposite element. For many years after the holy man had departed to the Lord, a certain youth fell from his horse into the river which in Scotic is called Boend (the Boyne), and, being drowned, was for twenty days under the water. When he fell he had a number of books packed up in a leathern satchel under his arm; and so, when he was found after the above-mentioned number of days, he still had the satchel of books pressed between his arm and side. When the body was brought out to the dry ground, and the satchel opened, it was found to contain, among the volumes of other books, which were not only injured, but even rotten, a volume written by the sacred fingers of St. Columba; and it was as dry and wholly uninjured as if it had been enclosed in a desk.

Of another Miracle in similar circumstances.

AT another time a book of hymns for the office of every day in the week, and in the handwriting of St. Columba, having slips, with the leathern satchel which contained it, from the shoulder of a boy who fell from a bridge, was immersed in a certain river in the province of the Lagenians (Leinster). This very book lay in the water from the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord till the end of the Paschal season, and was afterwards found on the bank of the river by some women who were walking there: it was brought by them in the same satchel, which was not only soaked, but even rotten, to a certain priest named Iogenan, a Pict by race, to whom it formerly belonged. On opening the satchel himself, Iogenan found his book uninjured, and as clean and dry as if it had been as long a time in his desk, and had never fallen into the water. And we have ascertained, as undoubted truth, from those who were well informed in the matter, that the like things happened in several places with regard to books written by the hands of St. Columba namely, that the books could suffer no injury from being immersed in water. But the account we have given of the above-mentioned book of Iogenan we have received from certain truthful excellent, and honourable men, who saw the book itself, perfectly white and beautiful, after a submersion of so many days, as we have stated.

These two miracles, though wrought in matters of small moment, and shown in opposite elements namely, fire and water, redound to the honour of the blessed man, and prove his great and singular merits before the Lord.

Vita Columbæ, Book II, Chapter VIII.

Certain Dangers of a Most Formidable and Almost Insurmountable Kind

A composite image of four photographs of moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita), photographed from the surface of Loch Na Keal, a sea loch on the west coast of Mull, Scotland.

The monstrous “insects” of this translation may have been jellyfish. They might have looked to the sailors as the tops of frogs in the water and their stinging tentacles would have coated the oars and the rest of the currach in a venomous poison.

* * *

The Prophecy of the blessed man regarding the Voyage of Cormac the grandson of Lethan.

At another time a soldier of Christ, named Cormac, about whom we have related a few brief particulars in the first part of this book, made even a second attempt to discover a desert in the ocean. After he had gone far from the land over the boundless ocean at full sail, St. Columba, who was then staying beyond the Dorsal Ridge of Britain (Drumalban), recommended him in the following terms to King Brude, in the presence of the ruler of the Orcades (Orkneys): “Some of our brethren have lately set sail, and are anxious to discover a desert in the pathless sea; should they happen, after many wanderings, to come to the Orcadian islands, do thou carefully instruct this chief, whose hostages are in thy hand, that no evil befall them within his dominions.” The saint took care to give this direction, because he knew that after a few months Cormac would arrive at the Orcades. So it afterwards came to pass, and to this advice of the holy man Cormac owed his escape from impending death.

After the lapse of a few months, whilst the saint was remaining in the Iouan island (Hy, now Iona), Cormac’s name was mentioned one day unexpectedly in his presence by some persons in conversation, who were observing that it was not yet known whether the voyage of Cormac had been successful or otherwise. Upon hearing this, the saint joined the conversation and said: “You shall see Cormac, about whom you are now speaking, arrive here today.”

And after about an hour, wonderful to relate, lo! Cormac unexpectedly arrived, and proceeded to the oratory whilst all expressed their admiration and gave thanks to God.

Having mentioned thus briefly the prediction of the blessed man regarding Cormac’s second voyage, we have now to relate another equally remarkable instance of the holy man’s prophetic knowledge regarding his third voyage.

When Cormac was laboriously engaged in his third voyage over the ocean, he was exposed to the most imminent danger of death. For, when for fourteen days in summer, and as many nights, his vessel sailed with full sails before a south wind, in a straight course from land, into the northern regions, his voyage seemed to be extended beyond the limits of human wanderings, and return to be impossible.

Accordingly, after the tenth hour of the fourteenth day, certain dangers of a most formidable and almost insurmountable kind presented themselves. A multitude of loathsome and annoying insects, such as had never been seen before, covered the sea in swarms, and struck the keel and sides, the prow, and stern of the vessel, so very violently, that it seemed as if they would wholly penetrate the leathern covering of the ship. According to the accounts afterwards-given by those who were there, they were about the size of frogs; they could swim, but were not able to fly; their sting was extremely painful, and they crowded upon the handles of the oars.

When Cormac and his fellow-voyagers had seen these and other monsters, which it is not now our province to describe, they were filled with fear and alarm, and, shedding copious tears, they prayed to God, who is a kind and ready helper of those who are in trouble. At that same hour our holy Columba, although far away in body, was present in spirit with Cormac in the ship. Accordingly he gave the signal, and calling the brethren to the oratory, he entered the church, and addressing those who were present, he uttered the following prophecy in his usual manner: “Brethren, pray with all your usual fervour for Cormac, who by sailing too far hath passed the bounds of human enterprise, and is exposed at this moment to dreadful alarm and fright, in the presence of monsters which were never before seen, and are almost indescribable. We ought, therefore, to sympathize with our brethren and associates who are in such imminent danger, and to pray to the Lord with them; behold at this moment Cormac and his sailors are shedding copious tears. and praying with intense fervency to Christ; let us assist them by our prayers, that God may take compassion upon us, and cause the wind, which for the past fourteen days has blown from the south, to blow from the north, and this north wind will, of course, deliver Cormac’s vessel out of all danger.”

Having said this he knelt before the altar, and in a plaintive voice poured forth his prayers to the almighty power of God, who governeth the winds and all things, After having prayed he arose quickly, and wiping away his tears, joyfully gave thanks to God, saying, “Now, brethren, let us congratulate our dear friends for whom we have been praying, for God will now change the south into a north wind, which will free our associates from their perils, and bring them to us here again.” As he spoke the south wind ceased, and a north wind blew for many days after, so that Cormac’s ship was enabled to gain the land. And Cormac hastened to visit Columba, and in God’s bounty they looked on each other again face to face, to the extreme joy and wonder of all. Let the reader, then, carefully consider how great and of what a character the blessed man must have been, who possessed such prophetic knowledge, and who, by invoking the name of Christ, could rule the winds and the waves.

— St. Adomnán’s Vita Columbæ, Book II, Chapter xliii.

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.

Daemones ab Eodem Recesserunt Fonte

The Grampian Mountains, Scotland.

Caput 10: De Alia Maligna Fontana Aqua Quam Vir Beatus in Pictorum Regione Benedixit

ALIO in tempore, vir beatus, cum in Pictorum provincia per aliquot demoraretur dies, audiens in plebe gentili de alio fonte divulgari famam, quem quasi deum stolidi homines, diabolo eorum obcaecante sensus, venerabantur; nam de eodem fonticulo bibentes, aut in eo manus vel pedes de industria lavantes, daemoniaca, Deo permittente, percussi arte, aut leprosi, aut lusci, aut etiam debiles, aut quibuscunque aliis infestati infirmitatibus revertebantur. Ob quae omnia seducti gentiles divinum fonti deferebant honorem. Quibus compertis, Sanctus alia die intrepidus accessit ad fontem. Quod videntes magi, quos saepe ipse confusos et victos a se repellebat, valde gavisi sunt, scilicet putantes eum similia illius nocuae tactu aquae passurum. Ille vero imprimis elevata manu sancta, cum invocatione Christi nominis, manus lavat et pedes; tum deinde cum sociis de eadem, a se benedicta, bibit. Ex illaque die daemones ab eodem recesserunt fonte, et non solum nulli nocere permissus est, sed etiam, post Sancti benedictionem et in eo lavationem, multae in populo infirmitates per eundem sanatae sunt fontem.

— St. Adomnán’s Vita Columbæ, Book II, Chapter 10.

The Aberlemno Serpent Stone, Class I Pictish stone, showing (top to bottom) the serpent, the double disc and Z-rod, and the mirror and comb.

This Virgin Alone in Ireland

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.

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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?