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Columbanus in his own words – Tomás Ó Fiaich

01 May, 2012

columbanusColumbanus was Ireland’s first European. When he was already fifty years of age, he set out with a group of twelve monks and reached Brittany. He travelled on to the Vosges Mountains in the east and founded three monasteries. Later, though he was expecting to be sent back to Ireland, he was able to go on to Switzerland where one of his companions Gaul separated from him. With other companions, Columbanus moved on to found a monastery at Bobbio in North Italy. Part I of this book give an account of his life largely based on a Life of Columbanus written by a monk of Bobbio called Jonas who joined the community of Bobbio just five years after it was founded. Part II gives extracts from his writings – the Rules he composed for his community, his penitential, letters, sermons and poems. Part III collects memories from the places he lived and worked, records places wher his cult memory lives on, and the influence he has had on movements in the tentieth century such as the world-wide Society of St Columban of missionary priests and sisters.

Tomás Ó Fiaich (1923-90) was a professor of Irish History in NUI Maynooth before he became Cardinal Archbishop of Armagh and published many works on Irish history and literature. This book, first published in 1974, is revised and re-issued with a new Introduction by Dr Damian Bracken of the School of History at University College, Cork.


I. The man behind the pen
II. An island monk
III. White Burgundy — and red
IV. Controversies and Expulsion
V. Wanderer for Christ
VI. Repose at last
VII. The stamp of greatness

I. Monastic Rules and Penitential
II. Letters
III. Sermons
IV. Poetry

I. Where Columban laboured
II. Widespread cult throughout Europe
III. Worldwide expansion


160 pp. Veritas Publications. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie

St Columbanus is a man of firsts in Irish history. The first Irish writer to leave a literary corpus, he is the first Irishman in the surviving literature to describe himself as Irish and to give an account of Irish identity.

Born in Leinster, he rose to prominence as master in the great monastery of Bangor on the shores of Belfast Lough until, secure and middle-aged, he left Ireland forever circa 591 in the company of a handful of followers and journeyed to continental Europe. There, with royal backing, he established a succession of monasteries: Annegray, Fontaine, and Luxeuil in the Vosges mountains [Haute Saone -between Dijon and Strasbourg], and Bobbio near Genoa. In time, Luxeuil and Bobbio grew to become major spiritual and cultural centres and produced some of the leading figures of continental Christianity. Guided by the Rules he wrote for monks, the monasteries became models for later foundations and, with their alumni, perpetuated Columbanus’s monastic ideals long after his death in 615.

Columbanus’s forceful personality is revealed in his writings – his Rules, sermons, and especially his letters to popes and to his followers – with their characteristic combination of profound spirituality and forthright adherence to principle. The letter he wrote to his followers as he waited to be sent back to Ireland following a conflict with the family of King Theuderich has an emotional charge that resonates down the centuries: ‘So my speech has been outwardly made smooth, and grief is shut up within. See, the tears flow, but it is better to check the fountain; for it is no part of a brave soldier to lament in battle.’ On the other hand, he was direct and unambiguous in his call to action when those in authority failed to use their power to give good leadership. From the supreme pastor of the Church he expected the supreme example of principled leadership. When it was lacking, it was his duty to confront the delinquent. To Pope Boniface IV, who reigned in the aftermath of the disastrous pontificate of Pope Vigilius, his demand for action was conveyed with characteristic and highly effective wordplay: ‘Be vigilant, I beg you Pope, be vigilant, and again I say, be vigilant; since perhaps Vigilius was not very vigilant.’ Considering his achievements and the example of sanctity that is his legacy, it is not surprising that Jonas of Bobbio’s Life of St Columbanus should have appeared less than a generation after the saint’s death. This is another first: Columbanus is the first Irishman to be the subject of a biography.

Many scholars have discerned a truculence, if not arrogance, in Columbanus’s works. For them, he is a brash and abrasive old Irishman. However, in many cases his direct manner of speaking has obscured for a modern readership the subtlety of his theology and the spiritual depth of his arguments which are founded on biblical learning and the writings of the Church Fathers. He adapted that learning to find solutions to the problems that he and his Church faced. The causes of poor leadership – especially spiritual – that he diagnoses in his letters and sermons are as relevant now as when he wrote almost one-and-a-half millennia ago. Leadership, for Columbanus, is a matter of service to others, not a quest to fulfil personal ambition. Problems start when that order is reversed, that is, when leaders fail to act selflessly in exercising their power to guide those over whom they have been given authority, but instead see power as an opportunity for personal or institutional advancement and enrichment. The pastor who sets the material or reputational standing of his institution above the spiritual well-being of his flock is courting disaster. The worldly cleric cannot warn or reprimand the wayward, especially if the offender is powerful, for he is vulnerable to any threat to his wealth and reputation, or to the wealth and reputation of his Church. It is precisely for this reason that Columbanus believes that monks make the best spiritual guides. Detached from the world, they are unassailable. They cannot be pressured by threatening their wealth or family; they have none. They are immune even to threats to their lives for, writes Columbanus in his letter to the Gaulish, or French, bishops, they follow the good shepherd (John 10) who laid down his life for his sheep. Columbanus’s analogy is pointed for the implication is that bishops are too concerned with material things and, therefore, their leadership is defective. As an example of their failure to cut their ties to the world, Columbanus mentions at the end of his letter to Pope Gregory the Great that he has heard their confessions and knows that, even after they entered the clerical state, they continue to sleep with their wives.

Shrines, towns and landmarks across Europe bear Columbanus’s name and testify to the widespread diffusion of devotion to the saint. Indeed, he wrote with an awareness not just of an Irish identity, but in some sense as a European. In Columbanus’s letter to Pope Boniface, Benedict XVI recently noted that ‘we find for the first time the expression totius Europae (‘of all Europe’) with reference to the presence of the Church in the Continent’. Columbanus ends his letter to the Gaulish clerics on this theme of the unity of the European Church reminding his readers that in the Church, national allegiance and racial identity have been superseded (but not replaced) by a spiritual identity, ‘for we are all joint members of one body, whether Franks or Britons or Irish or whatever our races be’. This is more than a rhetorical flourish. Columbanus appeals here to the ancient image of the Church as a body. In a body, the individual members are bound together, their coordinated actions guided by concern for the good of the whole. In the body of the Church, the virtue that binds the members is caritas, ‘charity’. Members must not act out of self-interest, but be mindful of the needs of others. The divisions that convulsed the Church in Columbanus’s day, therefore, were seen as a grave threat. They indicated that the bonds of charity, the very foundation of the Christian community, had been ruptured. Christians had departed from the unity and charity of the Church of the apostolic age, that is, the Church as founded by Christ. Columbanus writes that loyalty to its past was essential if the Church was to regain its unity, and be fit to proclaim its message. On the other hand, to forget the past is the ultimate betrayal, it is an act of self-betrayal, a denial of one’s origins and the loss of identity.

Columbanus’s impact had a long afterlife, and was responsible ultimately for Ireland’s reputation as the land of saints and scholars. He wrote of Ireland’s location in ‘the Western regions of the earth’s farther strand’ and used dramatic imagery to portray the coming of Christianity to his homeland. Christianity, like the sun, rose in the East. Just as the sun’s journey across the sky is completed when it reaches Ireland, the last footfall in the West, so too the conversion of the Irish marked the point at which the Church fulfilled its mission to spread salvation to all peoples. In the middle of the ninth century, the biographer of St Gall, Columbanus’s follower, acknowledges the debt of his people to Ireland ‘whence the splendour of such light came to us’. The light of Christianity had shone westwards to Ireland, but now this light shines in the opposite direction, for the Irish led by Columbanus are the evangelisers, and those in eastern parts receive the light of salvation from the West. In that sense, this later tradition is a reflection of Columbanus’s belief that the conversion of his homeland on the edge of the world led to the spiritual and cultural enrichment of the West.

In gathering selections from the works and Jonas’s Life of Columbanus together in the original 1974 publication, Cardinal Tomas Ó Fiaich performed an important service by making that literature accessible to a wide readership, informing them of their own cultural and historical roots. This timely and unchanged reprinting of Tomas Ó Fiaich’s anthology brings the words of Columbanus to a new generation.

Further reading
The essays in M. Lapidge (ed.), Columbanus: Studies on the Latin writings (Woodbridge, 1997) are the most recent and authoritative assessments of the works attributed to St Columbanus. For an account of his career, see T. M. Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland (Cambridge, 2000), 344-90. For a treatment of his ideals of spiritual authority, see D. Bracken, ‘Authority and duty: Columbanus and the primacy of Rome’, Peritia 16 (2002), 168-213.

Dr Damian Bracken
School of History, University College Cork
15 February 2012


Who could listen to a greenhorn? Who would not say at once:
Who is this bumptious babbler that dares to write such things unbidden?

St Columban 5th Letter

Jonas of Susa entered the monastery of Bobbio in 618. It was a young monastery, founded only about five years earlier. Its founder, Columban, had died three years before Jonas’s arrival, and was already becoming a legendary figure in the conversation of those who had known him. An ideal situation, one would think, for Jonas, the man destined to write Columban’s life.

Jonas was born in the town of Susa, a pleasant place in the Piedmontese Alps, only seven or eight miles from the present French frontier. Even today, after nearly two thousand years, its Roman remains are well preserved. In Susa itself and later in Bobbio, Jonas studied Livy and Virgil in surroundings which must have brought them easily to life again. He read some of the pioneer efforts of Latin hagiography — the life of St Martin of Tours by Sulpicius Severus, of St Hilary of Poitiers by Fortunatus, of St Ambrose by Paulinus of Milan. It was probably these which first gave him the idea of trying to set down in similar form the life of Bobbio’s founder, Columban — that and the young writer’s consciousness that he and Columban were in a sense namesakes. For Jonas was the Hebrew of the Latin columba, the dove.

Columban’s successor as Abbot of Bobbio, Attala, who made Jonas his minister or secretary, was able to give him much first-hand information. So also were many of the other monks who had followed Columban from Luxeuil or joined him in Bobbio in his declining years. There was Bertulf, the third abbot of Bobbio, a native of Gaul, who had earlier been a monk in Luxeuil. Jonas accompanied him as his secretary to Rome in 628 to consult with Pope Honorius concerning the problems facing Bobbio. Next he was off to Luxeuil where Abbot Eustasius, one of Columban’s favourite disciples, whom the Irishman was very happy to see as his successor there before his own death, was still happily reigning. Before or after his visit to Luxeuil Jonas had made the long journey across the Alps almost to the shore of Lake Constance where Gall, in his hermit’s cell at the spot which still bears his name, recalled his years with Columban until the day when the two Irishmen disagreed.

By the end of the 630s Jonas was back in Bobbio. He had travelled much, met those best qualified to talk of Columban, seen the spread of monasticism throughout Gaul by men trained in Luxeuil. He was the obvious man to write Columban’s story. Abbot Bertulf and the community urged him to write it but another task called him away for three years. We do not know its precise nature but it brought him first of all to the modern Belgium where Amand, the Bishop of that region, used him in the work of evangelisation. From Belgium he came into northeastern France where by a lucky break he met three members of the one noble family who looked back to Columban as their father in God. Chagnoald was Bishop of Laon and had earlier been one of Columban’s community in Luxeuil. Faro was now Bishop of Meaux, where his family had welcomed Columban after his expulsion from Luxeuil. Their sister Fara, dedicated to God by Columban in childhood, was now Abbess of Evoriacum, one day to be known as Faremoutiers in her honour and to become famous as a school for the daughters of kings and princes. Here Jonas began to put in order all the reminiscences of Columban that had been gathered over the years. It may have been 640 or 641 or even 642. There were new abbots in Luxeuil and Bobbio since he had last visited them and it was to these that Jonas addressed the carefully constructed preface of his work:

To the Fathers Waldebert and Bobolenus, most distinguished masters, highly honoured in holy rule, strong in virtues of religion, Jonas a sinner: I remember that three years ago when I was staying in Bobbio during my wandering in the country of the Apennines I promised at the request of the brethren and on the order of Abbot Bertulf to write an account of the life and work of our beloved father Columban, particularly as so many of those who had lived with him and seen his work were still alive …

He apologises for his lack of eloquence and clumsiness of expression and draws a series of ironical comparisons between his own poor efforts and the eloquence of scholars:

They, drenched with the dews of eloquence, have adorned the green fields with flowers; for us the parched earth will scarcely produce a shrubbery. They are rich in the balsam of Engaddi and the perfumes of Arabia; for us butter from Ireland provides poor fare … They seek the very exotic fruits of the palm tree; for us, as the poet of Italy (Virgil) has put it, the mild fruit of the humble chestnut …

It was all a literary device, for Jonas had no need to be so apologetic about his shortcomings. He was a man of his age and of his environment, and like all hagiographers of those centuries he wished to edify his readers. The miraculous powers of his hero were emphasised; his shortcomings were glossed over or omitted. But within this framework he put his material into a consecutive narrative, mentioning people and places with a frequency which contrasts with Patrick’s single Silva Focluti.

For all its faults, the life of Columban by Jonas lies behind everything that has been written about Columban by all the scholars ever since.


All we Irish, inhabitants of the world’s edge, are disciples of Saint Peter and Paul
St Columban, 5th Letter

The middle of the sixth century was the period when the young men of Ireland were frantically enthusiastic about becoming monks. Just as they flocked in droves to the continental centres of learning in the ninth century, to the new religious orders in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, to the Spanish and French armies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to the Irish Volunteers in 1913/14, the desire to take the monastic habit and ultimately to found a new monastic house was the ambition of a multitude around 550. For youths of spirit and dedication it was the noblest call to be heard in the Ireland of that era, combining practical Christianity, heroism, self-discipline, initiative and sacrifice to give a new sense of purpose to their lives.

Enda’s foundation on the Aran Islands, drawing some of its inspiration from Scotland, was the first motherhouse for these young men on Irish soil and it sent out Finnian to Moville, Eugene to Ardstraw, Tighearnach to Clones. Another Finnian, this time of Clonard, who borrowed some of his ideas from the Welsh monastic founders and reformers, became ‘teacher of the saints of Ireland’ and sent out the next great group of pioneers who have been given the picturesque title of ‘the twelve apostles of Ireland’ – Columba to Derry (546), Durrow (556), and Iona (563), Ciarán to Clonmacnois (about 550), Brendan to Clonfert (554 or 559), Molaise to Devenish, Cainneach to Aghaboe, Mobhi to Glasnevin, Colman to Terryglass, Sinell to Cleenish. A third group of sixth-century foundations owed little or nothing to Clonard – Bangor, founded by Comgall (d.603), Moville on Strangford Lough founded by Finnian (d.579), Glendalough founded by Kevin (d.618), Tuam by Jarlath, Cork by Bairre. And a fourth group was founded primarily by and for women – Kildare by Brigid and Killeavy by Moninne before the end of the fifth century, Killeady in Co. Limerick by Ita, and Clonbroney in Co. Longford by Samhthann, in the sixth century.

Young men must have compared the rugged grandeur of Clonenagh with the emotional appeal of Clonmacnois. For the sixth-century Irish monastic founders also had their own contrasting styles – Columba the gentle scribe, Ciarán the craftsman, Brendan the boatman, Fintan the extremist in matters of mortification, Molua the companion of the animals and birds.

When the youthful Columban decided on further studies about 560 with a view to entering the monastic life, he opted for the monastery of Cleenish on Lough Erne. It had been founded only a few years before by Sinell, who had done his apprenticeship with Finnian at Clonard. But then nearly every monastery in Ireland around 560 had to be a young monastery. The Clonard tradition, passed on no doubt to Cleenish, placed great emphasis on study and intellectual formation. Jonas probably heard of this emphasis later, for he records that Sinell was ‘famous for his holiness and for his learning in sacred things’.

Why had Columban to go so far from home to find a monastery to his liking? It has been conjectured that he was born about 543 on the borders of the modern counties of Carlow and Wexford. Jonas heard how the child’s mother had dreamt before he was born that a brilliant sun arose from her breast and illuminated the whole world. In his youth he must have sat at the feet of a learned teacher, for Jonas records that he studied grammar, rhetoric, geometry and the Sacred Scriptures, all of which formed part of the curriculum of the Irish monastic schools.

As he grew to manhood he was good-looking and girls were attracted to him. His formae elegantia, as Jonas calls it, appealed particularly to one young woman who tried to ensnare him. Columban fought the temptation with the gospel as his shield and sought the advice of an anchoress who lived in a nearby cell. Jonas purports to reproduce the answer she gave him, but reading between the lines we get the impression that the biographer is here using a literary device – much as a later Gaelic writer might take off on an alliterative run in such a dramatic situation:

Fifteen years ago I abandoned my father’s house to fight against temptation and sin. Christ is my leader. Since then the grace of God has kept me from turning back and if I were not a weak woman I would have crossed the seas in search of a wider battlefield. But you, burning with the fire of youth, stay at home. Whether you like it or not, you will find yourself in your weakness listening to the tempter’s voice. Do you think you can go freely in the company of women? Don’t you recall that Adam fell through the blandishments of Eve, that Samson was seduced by Delilah, that David fell through the beauty of Bethshabee, that the most wise Soloman was deceived through love of woman. Away with you, young man, go away from the destruction which has ruined so many, turn from the road that leads to the gates of Hell …

Columban returned home for the last time, frightened but determined. He must break with the family circle for ever and dedicate himself completely to preparation for the life of self-sacrifice that lay ahead. He told his mother he was leaving home. She pleaded with him, burst into tears and threw herself across the threshold to block his exit. He asked her not to grieve, and then in the first of several decisions, which to our way of thinking seem so hard and unrelenting, decisions which often appear cruel and hurtful to his friends, he stepped across her prostrate body and set off for the north, knowing they would never meet again. Jonas puts into his mouth at this moment the hard words of St Jerome:

The enemy holds the sword over me to strike me down; so what should I care for a mother’s tears … The true piety here is to be cruel.

Under Sinell in Cleenish Columban laid the foundations of his future learning. His commentary on the Psalms and some of his poetry were written while he was still a young man – some of them may have been composed while in Cleenish but they seem to fit most easily into his long years in Bangor. We do not know how long Columban remained in Cleenish, but Jonas tells us that as soon as he decided to become a monk he entered the monastery of Bangor.

Comgall, the founder of Bangor, was one of the great monastic fathers of sixth-century Ireland. He had served his own apprenticeship under Fintan of Clonenagh in Laois, the father of the most austere tradition within Irish monasticism.

As the glossator of the Martyrology of Oengus put it:

Fintan fial,
níro tomhail re ré riamh,
acht arán eorna foeda
is uisce creda triad.

Generous Fintan
consumed nothing during his life-time
except bread of withered barley
and muddy water from the clay.

It was Fintan’s stern discipline, tempered by the personal stamp of Comgall himself, that had become the Rule of Bangor.

We must not imagine Bangor – or indeed any of the great Irish monasteries of the sixth century, for Bangor was one of the greatest – like an earlier version of one of the great medieval monasteries on the Continent. It was much closer in appearance to the primitive monastic settlements of the Nile valley than to a later Monte Cassino or Clairvaux, a collection of round wooden huts built around a small church and surrounded by an embankment. When the Latin word monasterium was borrowed into Irish, it first gave the form muintir which was applied not to the monastic buildings but to the people who dwelt in them. In short, for the Irish the monastery was the community, not the buildings. In physical layout probably the closest approximation on Irish soil today to an early Irish monastery is Butlin’s holiday-camp in Mosney, with its rows of small wooden chalets for sleeping in, grouped around a few larger communal buildings like the chapel and the dining hall.

From Adamnan’s Life of Columba, written at the end of the seventh century by an author who explicitly mentions that he had talked with men who had become monks in the previous century, we can reconstruct an authentic picture of a sixth-century Irish monastery in great detail. The monks lived in small cells constructed of wood or wattles – Columban’s own Rule later was to refer to a monk’s cellae suae cobabitator, thus implying that two or more might share the same cell. Side by side with the living quarters of the monks within the enclosure were the communal buildings, i.e. church, refectory and guesthouse. Originally these were built of wood also. St Bernard described the later oratory of Bangor as made ‘of smoothed planks closely and strongly fastened together’.

At the head of the monastic community stood the abbot, in some monasteries always chosen from the same family group. He was assisted by a kind of private secretary called the minister – in Bangor a certain Crimhthann acted as a minister for Comgall. A group of the senior monks – the seniores – were associated with the abbot in the direction of the community and the training of novices and from their ranks all offices of authority in the monastery were normally filled. The oeconomus was an important official who looked after the material resources of the monastery; other monastic office-holders, mentioned by Adamnan or Jonas, include the scriba, the guest master, and the cook or cellarer.

The daily fare of Comgall’s monks was bread, vegetables and water; milk and milk products were permitted later when the founder’s ultra-severe regime, inherited from Fintan of Clonenagh, was relaxed. As in other Irish monasteries the inmates wore sandals and a long white tunic covered by a coarse woollen outer garment and hood. Their daily life was a constant round of prayer, manual labour, study and mortification. They assembled in the church often each day for the recitation of the canonical hours, the night office being the most prolonged. They engaged in all the usual agricultural pursuits from the sowing to the threshing of the grain, and made the monastery self-sufficient not only in food but in drink, clothing, buildings and all kinds of implements and utensils. If Columban’s own learning can be taken as an indication of the studies pursued in Bangor, the monks there attained a high standard of Latin learning and a smattering of Greek, read the pagan classical authors and were deeply versed in the scriptures. No doubt those monks who showed sufficient talent spent much time copying manuscripts but the earliest Bangor manuscript now preserved – the Antiphonary – dates from a century after Columban’s departure. Fasting, silence, curtailment of sleep, repeated genuflections, prayer for prolonged periods with arms outstretched and corporal punishment inflicted on the palm with a leather strap were normal forms of mortification or could be imposed for breaches of Rule. It was a severe Rule, one of the hardest in any Irish monastery, yet for the seventh-century Bangor scribe it was:

The good Rule of Bangor,
Upright, divine,
Diligent, holy and strict,
Wonderful, just and sublime …

In this ascetic yet happy milieu Columban spent many years of his young manhood. He was chosen by the seniores to be raised to the priesthood and become one of the few ordained monks among a majority of lay religious. Although Jonas does not mention the fact, there is some evidence that he was placed in charge of Bangor’s monastic school and it is mentioned in the Lives of Gall and Deicola. When such an important figure in the monastic community first talked to Comgall of his desire to go abroad, he was rebuked by the abbot. But Columban finally convinced his superior that the call came from on high and Comgall gave his consent. Furthermore he allowed twelve of the brethren to accompany Columban on the great adventure. From references to some of the group by names in Jonas and in Columban’s own letters, we obtain the names of most of them – Gall, the most famous after his master, Domoal, who acted as Columban’s minister, Comininus, Eunocus, Equonanus and Columban óg (who died in Luxeuil), Libranus and Aedh, the member of the party in episcopal orders. Deicola and Lua were probably also in the original group and if it included Leobard and Caldwald they must have been the only two Anglo-Saxons among the twelve. The sea bore no terrors for such men – it was just outside the monastic enclosure at Bangor – and fortified by the blessing of Comgall they rowed courageously into the unknown. From this on, it was for Columban to take decisions on his own.


Below are excerpts from Columbanus’s Monastic Rules and Penitential and examples of two of his Letters.


Two Rules are attributed to St Columban: the Regula Monachorum or Rule of the Monks and the Regula Coenobialis or Community Rule. Each Rule is found in a number of manuscripts which go back to the ninth or tenth century. The Regula Coenobialis was later expanded to include material from Columban’s successors in Luxeuil; the Regula Monachorum was subsequently shortened by the omission of material which was no longer relevant. It follows therefore that the whole of the latter, but only a portion of the former, comes from the pen of Columban.

The Penitential of St Columban is one of the most valuable documents in existence for a study of the doctrine of penance in the Irish Church. It made a system of private penance available to the laity as well as to the monks, and, as it was the earliest penitential in the Irish tradition to be employed on the continent, it had a significant influence on the development there of the new theology of the Sacrament of Penance.

All three documents are written in a somewhat arid Latinity, in sharp contrast to the rhetorical and imaginative style of Columban’s other writings.

The Rule of the Monks
St Columban’s Rule for his monks is a broad treatise on the basic virtues of obedience, poverty, chastity, mortification, silence, etc. in the monastery, rather than a list of detailed regulations concerning daily life. Laporte has suggested that the early chapters are a summary of a work composed in Bangor by Comgall. The Rule is strict in its demands but its tone is balanced and tolerant throughout. With the exception of one long chapter laying down regulations for the recitation of the Divine Office and some prescriptions regarding food and drink, the Rule is exclusively concerned with the interior dispositions of the soul. In this, Columban’s Rule differed enormously from the detailed regulations laid down in the Rule of St Benedict.

A sample of the Regula Monachorum is the chapter which deals with the meals of the monks:

The food of the monks should be poor and confined to the evening; let it be such as to avoid gorging, and their drink such as to avoid drunkenness, so that it may sustain them but do them no harm: vegetables, beans, flour mixed with water, along with a small loaf of bread, lest the stomach be strained and the mind stifled. For those who seek eternal rewards should only take account of a thing’s usefulness and use. Use of life must be kept under control, just as work must be kept under control. This is true discretion, so that the possibility of spiritual progress may be maintained with an abstinence that scourges the flesh. For if abstinence goes too far, it will be a vice, not a virtue. A virtue tolerates and embraces many material things. Therefore we must fast daily, just as we must feed daily. While we must eat daily, we must regale the body rather poorly and sparingly. The reason we must eat daily is because we must advance daily, pray daily, toil daily, and read daily.

The Community Rule
Like the Rule of the Monks, the Regula Coenobialis was drawn up for one of Columban’s monastic communities, possibly a different one from that which received the previous Rule. Walker takes chapters I to IX of this Rule to contain the nucleus which goes back to Columban himself; he would regard the later chapters of the shorter recension and the extra interpolations of the longer recension as having been added by Columban’s successors in Luxeuil. These show some relaxation of the stricter prescriptions found in the earlier part.

This Rule provides a more detailed commentary on the daily life of an early Irish monk than any other source. Yet even here a lack of systematisation is obvious, and the Regula Coenobialis would seem to have grown out of a collection of practical decisions given in the case of the breaches of discipline rather than being a conscious effort to draw up systematic regulations to order the whole life of the monastery.

As a sample of the Regula Coenobialis, chapters III—V, which deal with the omission of prayers, disrespect for sacred things and abuses of speech, are included here:

The monk who does not prostrate himself to ask a prayer when leaving the house, and after receiving a blessing does not bless himself, and go to the cross — it is prescribed to correct him with twelve blows.

Likewise the one who shall forget the prayer before work or after work — with twelve blows.

He who on his return home does not prostrate himself within the house to ask a prayer, is to be corrected with twelve blows. But the brother who confesses all these things and more, even as much as to deserve a grace penance, gets off with half penance, that is, a medium penance; and so on with these matters. Mitigate them thus for the moment.

The monk who through coughing goes wrong in the chant at the beginning of a psalm – it is laid down to correct him with six blows. Likewise the one who bites the cup of salvation with his teeth – with six blows.

The one who does not follow the order for the sacrifice – with six blows.

The one who smiles at the synaxis, that is, at the office of prayers – with six blows; if he bursts out laughing aloud – with a grave penance unless it happens excusably.

The one who receives the blessed bread with unclean hands – with twelve blows.

He who forgets to make the oblation until he goes to Mass – with a hundred blows.

The monk who tells idle tales to another, if he censures himself at once – with a mere pardon, but if he does not censure himself – with an imposition in silence or fifty blows.

He who defends himself truthfully, when questioned about something, and does not at once beg pardon and say `It’s my fault, I’m sorry’ – with fifty blows.

He who in all honesty sets counsel against counsel – with fifty blows.

He who strikes the altar – with fifty blows.

He who shouts loud talk without restraint, unless there is need – with an imposition of silence or fifty blows. He who makes an excuse in order to get pardon must do a like penance.

He who replies to a brother on his pointing something out ‘It’s not as you say,’ except for seniors speaking frankly to juniors – with an imposition of silence or fifty blows.

The only exception to this permitted is that he may answer a brother of equal standing if he remembers something nearer the truth than what the latter says.

The Penitential
The Irish Penitentials contain lists of the various ways in which people are liable to commit sin, together with the penance considered appropriate for each. The earliest Irish one which has survived is the Penitential of Vinnian, who is to be identified with either Finnian of Clonard (d.549) or Finnian of Moville (d.579).

The Penitential of Columban shows considerable dependence on that of Vinnian. Contrary to the opinion of some other scholars, Dom Jean Laporte has demonstrated that it is a single document which however falls into three parts, one for monks, one for the secular clergy and one for the laity. Apart from a few paragraphs added later, there is no reason to question Columban’s authorship of the document as a whole. It probably dates from his early period on the Continent in Annegray or Luxeuil.

The penances imposed by the Irish Penitentials as a whole seem severe to our modern outlook and Columban’s Penitential is no exception. The following excerpts, taken from the section dealing with the laity, will indicate the length and severity of penances to be imposed for sins of theft, perjury, wounding and drunkenness. Yet compared with the more vindictive penalties of public and perpetual excommunications enforced in earlier centuries, they offered to the penitent the hope of reconciliation and re-admission to the sacraments after the period of penance was over:

If any layman commits theft, that is, steals an ox or a horse or a sheep or any beast of his neighbour’s, if he has done it once or twice, he must first restore to his neighbour the loss which he has caused, and let him do penance for a hundred and twenty days on bread and water. But if he has made a practice of stealing often, and is unable to make a restitution, let him do penance for a year and a hundred and twenty days, and let him further promise not to do it again. He may go to Communion at Easter of the second year, that is, after two years, on condition that, out of his own labour, he first gives alms to the poor and a feast to the priest who adjudged his penance. Thus is the guilt of his bad habit to be removed.

If any layman commits perjury, if he does it through greed, he is to sell all his goods and give to the poor, and dedicate himself wholly to the Lord. Let him abandon the world and be tonsured and let him serve God till death in a monastery. But if he does it, not through greed, but for fear of death, he must do penance for three years on bread and water in exile and unarmed. For two more let him abstain from wine and meats; then let him offer a life for himself, that is, let him free a slave or maidservant from the yoke of bondage, and give alms frequently for two years. During this period he may quite lawfully use all foods except meat. Let him go to Communion after the seventh year.

If any of the laity sheds blood in a squabble, or wounds or maims his neighbour, he is to be forced to make good the damage he has done. If he has not the wherewith to pay, let him first carry in his neighbour’s work, as long as the latter is sick, and send for the doctor. After the man’s recovery, let him do penance for forty days on bread and water.

If any layman becomes drunk, or eats or drinks to the point of vomiting, let him do penance for a week on bread and water.

Six letters of Columban have survived; a number of others, of whose former existence we are certain, have now perished. A seventh letter, sometimes attributed to him because it concerns the Easter controversy, can scarcely be his and has been relegated by Walker to an appendix. The sixth letter below is in a different style from the others and its MS tradition also differs from theirs. It contains no formal address and is more in the nature of an exhortation, which is the title given to it in some of the sources.
The six letters may be listed as follows in the order in which they were written:
1. To Pope Gregory the Great, written probably in 600.
2. To the French Bishops meeting in Chalon, 603.
3. To a newly elected Pope, either Pope Sabinian in 604 or, less probably, Pope Boniface III in 607.
4. To his monks in Luxeuil and neighbourhood, written in Nantes in 610 as he awaited expulsion from France.
5. To Pope Boniface IV, written in Milan in 613.
6. To a young disciple – addressee and date unknown. (It may have been written in 610 to either Domoal or Chagnoald, both of whom acted as his minister). The Easter controversy figures largely in Letters 1, 2 and 3 and is mentioned in passing in Letter 4. Columban’s epistolary style is marked by a complex word-order, frequent use of alliteration, proverbs and puns, and the appearance of some rare words derived from Greek. The letters are all long, with one exception, and even at times long-winded; they have a preaching tone about them which makes them akin to his sermons. In their Latinity however they are carefully composed by an author who could be trenchant and persuasive in turn without departing from the niceties of style which good rhetoric demanded. Only some excerpts from each letter are given here.

Letter to Pope Gregory the Great, 600 AD
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ.

I wish, Holy Father (do not think it excessive of me), to ask about Easter, in accordance with that verse of Scripture: ‘Ask your father and he will show you, your elders and they will tell you.’ When an unworthy man like me writes to an illustrious one like yourself, my insignificance makes applicable to me the striking remark which a certain philosopher is said to have once made on seeing a painted harlot: ‘I do not admire the art, but I admire the cheek.’ Nevertheless I take the liberty of writing to you, strengthened by the assurance of your evangelical humility and I append the cause of my grief. For one has no reason to boast of writing when necessity demands it, even if the writing is to one’s superiors.

I have read your book containing the pastoral rule, brief in style, comprehensive in doctrine, crammed with sacred things. I acknowledge that the work is sweeter than honey to one in need. In my thirst therefore I beg you for Christ’s sake to present me with your tracts on Ezekiel, which I heard you composed with remarkable skill. I have read six books of Jerome on him; but he did not expound even half. But, if you please, send me something from your lectures delivered in the city. I mean the last things expounded in the book. Send as well the Song of Songs from that passage in which it says: ‘I will go to the Mountain of myrrh and to the hill of incense’ as far as the end. Treat it, I pray, either with others’ comments or with your own in brief. In order to expound all the obscurity of Zechariah, reveal his secrets, so that in these matters the blindness of the West may give you thanks. Everyone knows my demands are pressing, my inquiries wide. But your resources are also great, for you know well that from a small stock less should be lent, and ‘from a large one more’.

Let charity move you to reply. Don’t let the sharpness of this letter keep you from explaining things, since anger explodes into error, and it is my heart’s desire to pay you due honour. My part was the challenge, to question, to beg; let yours be not to deny what you have freely received, to bend your talent to the seeker, and to give the bread of doctrine according to Christ’s command. Peace to you and yours. Please pardon my rashness, Holy Father, for having written so boldly. I beseech you to pray for me, a most wretched sinner, even once in your holy prayers to our common Lord.

Letter to the French Bishops, 603 AD
Great harm has been done and is being done to the peace of the Church by different usages and diverse traditions. But if, as I have said, we first hasten by the exercise of true humility to cure the poisons of pride and envy and vainglory, through the teaching of our Saviour who says for our example: ‘Learn of me for I am meek and humble of heart,’ etc., then when we have been made perfect, with no further blemish and with hatred rooted out, let us all, as the disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ, love one another with our whole hearts. If there are diverse traditions as is the case regarding Easter … let us see which is the more true tradition – yours, or that of your (Irish) brothers in the West. For, as I have noted in the book giving my answer, which I have now sent you, though it was written three years ago, all the churches of the entire West consider that the resurrection should not take place before the passion, that is, Easter before the Equinox. They do not wait beyond the twentieth of the moon, lest they should perform a sacrament of the New Testament without the authority of the Old. But this I leave to another time. Besides, I have informed the Holy Father in three books of their opinions about Easter, and in a short pamphlet I have further taken the liberty of writing the same to your holy brother Arigius.

One thing therefore I request of you, holy men: with peace and charity bear with my ignorance and, as some call it, my arrogant insolence in writing. Necessity, not pride, is the cause of it, as my own worthlessness proves. I am not the author of this variance and it is for Christ the Saviour, our common Lord and God, that I have come to these lands as a pilgrim. I beseech you therefore by our common Lord, and beg of you by him who will judge the living and the dead, if you deserve to be recognised by him who will say to many: ‘Amen, I say to you that I never knew you,’ to allow me with your peace and charity to remain in silence in these woods and to live beside the bones of our seventeen dead brethren, just as up till now we have been allowed to live twelve years among you. This will allow us, as we have done up to the present, to pray for you as we ought. Let Gaul, I pray, contain us together, whom the kingdom of heaven shall contain, if our merits are good. We have one kingdom promised and one hope for our calling in Christ. We shall reign together with him, if we first suffer with him here so that with him we may be glorified.

I know that to many this long-windedness of mine will seem overdone. But I decided it was better to let you know what we are discussing and thinking here among ourselves. For our rules are the commandments of the Lord and the apostles. In them our confidence is placed. They are our weapons, shield and sword. These are our defence. They brought us from our native land. We strive after them here, too, though lukewarmly. We pray and hope to continue until death in them as we have seen our predecessors do. But, holy fathers, see what you are doing to poor veterans and aged pilgrims. In my opinion it will be better for you to support them than disturb them.

For the rest, fathers, pray for us as we also do for you, wretched though we be, and don’t look on us as aliens from you. For we are all fellow members of one body, whether Franks or Britons or Irish or whatever our race. Thus let all our races rejoice in knowledge of the faith and in recognising the Son of God. Let us all hasten to approach to perfect manhood, to the measure of the age of fullness of Jesus Christ. In him let us love one another, praise one another, correct one another, encourage one another, pray for one another, so that with him and one another we may reign and triumph. Pardon me, I pray, for being long-winded and presumptuous. I am labouring beyond my strength, most patient and holy fathers and brethren.


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