“Since all the world is but a story, it were well for thee to buy the more enduring story, rather than the story that is less enduring.”
–Saint Columba (521-597)
Columba was a Celt, born and raised in Ireland. Ironically given a name meaning Dove, Columba’s fiery personality and zeal for God and his word, would be the source of great failures, and also the makings of the man—and of history. Columba has all the markings of an apostle, and his missionary vision and strategy still influence us today.
Columba was born into a Christian family with direct links to St. Patrick (his grandfather had been baptized by Patrick himself). It was a family of nobility, with close ties to the reigning King. Columba was a mischievous and energetic child, with a zest for learning and an intelligent mind. Columba was given the nickname Columcille (Column of the Church) by his friends for his strong religious interests, and was taken on as a special charge by a priest.
Rather than work toward a potential future as a reigning monarch, Columba chose to learn under Christian leaders who introduced him to scripture study, monasticism, and a life devoted to Jesus. In his mid-thirties, Columba was ordained and caught a vision for missions. Soon he was going out with other monks to establish monasteries around Ireland. Legend says Columba planted a hundred monasteries during this short period.
While a true strength, Columba’s zeal could also be his greatest weakness. He is described by historian Will Durant as “a fighter as well as a saint, ‘a man of powerful frame and mighty voice;’ his hot temper drew him into many quarrels, at last into war with King Diarmuid; a battle was fought in which, we are told, 5,000 men were killed.” The catalyst of this two-year period of violence and battle was a rare manuscript of the Psalms, which Columba had secretly copied and refused to give up. After the battle, in remorse for the deaths he had caused, Columba dedicated himself to be “an exile for Christ,” to leave his home country of Ireland, and take the gospel to new places. He was determined to win as many to Jesus as had died in that battle. That desire would not only be realized, but surpassed.
Columba put together a missionary band of 12 companions, and they moved together to the small Island of Iona, which would be the center for evangelization to both Scotland and northern England for over 30 years. They established a monastery, an unremarkable grouping of huts in traditional celtic style, which not only served as a base for simple monastic life—worship, labor and study—but became the key training center where monks were prepared for missionary work on the nearby islands. Iona would be a central base of outreach for centuries, and influence the spread of several other monasteries with a similar strategy and purpose.
Columba made his own missionary journeys from Iona and is credited with evangelizing the Picts of the Scottish Highlands, including King Brude, who came to Christ through Columba’s witness. Columba encountered opposition from the Druids and would challenge them to pit their magic against the power of God. His life and ministry were marked by many reported miracles of power, prophecy, and healing, and his devotion for Jesus and passion for missions inspired countless followers to commit more wholeheartedly to God.
Columba’s love and study of scripture fed this missionary passion. Robert D. Linder writes of Columba, “[he] left an indelible impression on Irish and Scottish Christianity. In particular he bequeathed to his beloved monks—and through them to their converts—a love for books, especially the Bible. Out of this devotion to the Bible grew Columba’s emphasis on bold missions.” Columba tirelessly promoted evangelistic outreach as central to the Bible’s message. The heart of his monastic code, “work, prayer and reading,” became central to the practice of British Christianity.
Columba’s failings earlier in life bore later fruit in his diplomatic presence with leaders and authorities on the Islands. He saw peacemaking as an important role for the Christian leader, settling disputes and avoiding violence whenever possible. His background of nobility gave him extra influence in his missionary work. He came to live into his name, Dove, in very practical ways, as a peace-loving, kind-hearted leader.
In sharp contrast to his earlier choice of resorting to violence and physical power in a dispute, Columba led his monks to engage power encounters with spiritual tools. In one recorded encounter between Columba’s followers and the Druids, “the pagan priests tried to outshout Columba’s singing monks, but…the monks simply drowned the Druids’ din by chanting Psalm 145 ‘like a peal of thunder.’” While his love of the Psalms at one time drew Columba into physical battle, it later opened doors for his followers to live in spiritual victory.
Columba did not allow the obstacle of his shortcomings and failures to stop him in his call to live passionately for Jesus. Instead, he let his failures fuel his zeal and vision, and the result was great transformation in the British Isles.
Sources include: From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, Ruth A. Tucker, and Great Leaders of the Christian Church, ed. John D. Woodbridge