Columba was born in Ireland around AD521 and in his early forties he founded the monastery at Iona, and became its first abbot. He died there in AD597, the year that Augustine arrived in England bringing the way of the Church of Rome. We know much of Columba from the ‘Life of Columba’ written by his cousin Adomnán, a later abbot at Iona. Writings such as the Annals of Ulster and the Amra Choluimb Chille corroborate or add to Adomnán’s ‘Life’.

Columba was implicated in the battle of Cúl Drebene against the High King and further pressure for having made an unauthorised copy of Finian’s manuscript Scripture forced him to flee. As we saw, he came to Arran but, Ireland still in sight, continued on – most likely to visit his kinsman, Connall, King of Dalriada, who granted Columba the island of Iona in May AD563.

Columba had arrived with 12 other monks, and he led them in maintaining and extending two specific sacraments: Baptism whereby they welcomed new converts into the family of God and Holy Communion or Eucharist (from the Greek for thanksgiving) which continued that family link, that fellowship.

The Iona monastery grew and soon Britons, English, Celts, Irish and even a Pict were under holy orders there. They appear to have loved and respected him, and their number included a wider circle who had not taken holy orders but nevertheless chose the austere life, providing craftsmanship and labour in return for learning and fellowship. Columba travelled – we have seen reports of him at Inchcolm Island (the ‘Iona of the East’), and he twice visited Inverness. He is recorded as having met Kentigern at Kilmacolm (it means ‘church of my Columba’) another base for his missional work. 

Work was hard, both the austere lifestyle and the volume of tasks, from farming and herding to building as well as the important pursuits of praying, Bible study and copying Scripture for circulation. Columba was with them all, going round each one, interacting with them as they worked, seeing and helping them where they were and receiving and counselling visitors to the island.

He was also devoted to study of the Psalms, and spent long hours contemplating and transcribing, then discussing with the other monks.

As we have seen, Iona was a centre-point of the Kingdom of Dalriada, a Thin Place and a seat of learning and theological study. Astride all was the character of Columba, tying the strands together, reaching out to others; much loved. He forged links and kept them: Pictish kings and common folk came to Jesus through Columba’s friendship. A colossus in life, he led by serving God; relating to people.

As his life drew to an end, he had a foretelling of when he would die, and spent his last day transcribing from the Psalms which he so loved. Presently he wrote out:

“But those who seek the LORD lack no good thing,” (Psalm 34:10)

There he ceased, declaring that it would be left, fittingly, to his successor as the leader on Iona to pick up again at:

“Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD.” (Psalm 34:11)

He went into the monastery itself, lay at the altar and there he died as Adomnán wrote, “with a countenance full of wonderful joy and gladness.”

[from Timothy Pitt]

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