The Celtic church folk seem like family when you get to know them — inspiring spiritual ancestors! Some people think it is a little weird to get to know them — they are long gone, after all. But when we are trying so hard to represent Jesus as a radical, missional community, I’ve got to say a few words in honor of Columba. He stokes my fire. He’s right in the middle of re-creation, and we aspire to be as meaningful to our corner of the world as he was to his.
Re-creation is an earthy, sweaty process of creative suffering. Columba learned a lot about being reborn — about the kind of suffering-like-Jesus that pushes into the light from the dark. He knew about rebirthing — about the suffering-like-Jesus that pushes from the light into the dark. From both angles, he proved that the pain of getting deeply involved with God’s re-creation was worth it. As I tell you part of his story in honor of his death day, you’ll probably be considering what God is teaching you about being born into your own fullness.
Columba (521-97) might be more famous than you know. He is one of the three “patron saints” of Ireland, with Patrick and Brigid. He founded many communities of radical disciples of Jesus in Ireland before he went to Iona for the last 30 years of his life. From Iona he masterminded the mission to the great tribe called the Picts in Scotland. The community he founded on the edge of the world became the mother for hundreds of other communities all over Scotland and the world. It was a missionary factory for centuries. And it is known for being the place where the Book of Kells, one of Ireland’s artistic treasures, was written.
Columba was born a to an aristocratic family, the son of a king. When he was at Finnian’s great school in Clonard, Columba’s hut was in a favored place nearer the chapel, because he had brought so much with him when he came to join the community. Quite a bit was written about him, and some of it makes him look a little imperious, maybe overly ambitious, like he took himself quite seriously, especially as a young man. He was a leader. He did rash things but he made up for them and went on. He was intense, so intense, disciplined and austere that a lot of people could not keep up with his example. But all these attributes made him someone who could be followed.
He was a big, tall, handsome man. So the icon on this page does not do him justice. He’s old in it. He’s got his Celtic tonsure on (shaved up to a line from ear to ear). And he does have his book. Columba had a big voice too — you could hear him from far away. He often used it to sing. People loved to hear him sing. He wrote songs. He also loved to write poetry, and is known for having written one of the earliest known poems by an Irish native.
To get the full idea of his song, you have to pretend you are hearing it in some echo-y, house made of rock, a dark place with candles in the 500’s. This is just a bit of the very long piece:
Ancient exalted seed scatterer
whom time gave no progenitor:
he knew no moment of creation
in his primordial foundation
he is and will be all places
in all time and all ages
with Christ his first-born only-born
and the Holy Spirit — borne
throughout the high eternity
of glorious divinity:
three gods we do not promulgate
one God we share and intimate
salvific faith victorious:
three persons very glorious.
Try reading the Latin, it makes it even better.
Altus prosator, vetustus
dierum et ingenitus
erat absque origine
primordii et crepidine
est et erit in sæcula
cui est unigenitus
Xristus et sanctus spiritus
coæternus in gloria
Non tres deos depropimus
sed unum Deum dicimus,
salva fide in personis
This artistic son of a King turned to Jesus and went about making new Christians where there were very few in his big, dramatic, creative, radical way.
From dark into light
Columba’s introduction to creative suffering began with a shock to his system when he was about 40 years old. You may have experienced a similar situation that meant life or death for your faith. The Spirit of God does not let us rest in the dark; almost-involuntary birth pangs begin, and we have to push toward the light, even though the opening seems kind of small and we seem kind of weak. We have to repent, change and move along to our fullness.
Columba’s biographers aren’t quite clear on just what exactly happened, but here is the watershed moment. Finnian of Molville had a very famous rare book. It was a copy of the Jerome’s Vulgate, the first Bible translated into Latin. Columba went to stay with this other Finnian and every night he secretly went to the library and made a copy of this precious book for himself. One night Finnian caught him in the act. He told him to hand over the copy, which by rights belonged to him. Columba refused to do it, even though he was in the wrong. Finnian took his case to the high king of Ireland at Tara. The king ruled in his favor. He said: “To every cow its calf, to every book its copy” — the first copyright law.
Then the history gets kind of mixed. However it got going, there was a war over this incident. Columba’s clan, whose members were mostly Christians, took up for him against the high king at Tara, whose followers were still mostly pagan. 3000 people died in a huge battle. Columba’s side won but Columba was mortified. The battle over his misdeed was a shame to Jesus. He was given a great penance. Radical that he was, a person who did big things, he put himself in permanent exile. He said, “I will never look on Ireland again.” And he vowed to go win as many people to Jesus as were killed in the battle on his behalf. That is creative suffering! — a radical pushing out of his darkness into the light.
He ended up on Iona, which was the first place he could get to where he could not see Ireland anymore. Columba turned away from what was wrong and literally went a new direction toward what is next. It cost him. He loved Ireland. He lost family and power. But he did something in line with what he was given to be and responded in faith to the mess he had made. He didn’t go on stealing and fighting. And it hurt. He took what Paul said seriously. “My present suffering are nothing compared to what is prepared for God’s children” (Romans 8). He got the message. If you fear what has been or you fear what is next, get into your boat and do something.
From light into dark
Columba looked for what was prepared for him. As a result, he had a great success in what he did for Jesus. He was soon crossing the strait from Iona to Scotland to try to convert the Pictish king. He took his great light and he pushed into the spiritual darkness with it.
To get to the city of the king, Columba and his comrades had to cross the river that goes out of Loch Ness. He asked one of his helpers to swim over and get a boat he saw on the other side that could carry him and the rest of the crew over the river. About halfway over, disturbed by all that splashing, a gigantic beast rose up out of the water. With a roar, it tried to devour the swimmer. Columba stood on the bank and said, “You shall go no further. Do not touch the man.” It was like ropes pulled the monster back. It was dragged back into Loch Ness. I don’t know if that is totally true. But they thought a monster was in Loch Ness way back in the day.
People don’t tell these stories for nothing. Whether you believe the history or not, the truth behind the story remains. Jesus will turn away our foes as well. What seeks to devour us feeds on our fear. But if we follow Christ we are God’s heirs and our destiny is secure. We’ve got to suffer through the work to get though to our destiny. But it is worth it. We’ve got to face the monster. God is on our side. Push your light into the darkness.
Not all of Columba’s creative suffering was as a result of his sin and poor judgment and neither is yours. We don’t just suffer just because we are fools. There is a positive side to how we suffer. Our pain often has more of the suffering of the artist to it. It is creative suffering like the trouble of giving birth to something. Trying to find a way to express our hope and convictions is an art. Trying to push the beauty of our relationship with God into the dark – how to say it, how to express it, how to get it out there – is creative.
The Celts were good at evangelistic art. They spread the gospel more by infiltration than by arguments, more by osmosis than by domination. They brought Jesus by art, by incarnation, by relating, by singing it. They let people experience their lives in Christ — feel what was in their hearts, trusting in the light to penetrate the darkness.
We are often pushing from the darkness into the light, but we are also pushing from our light into the darkness and they are both beautiful expressions of this groaning creativity of the Spirit in us. Our suffering is often a good thing. We need creative suffering. The example of the Lord and the message of the Bible is that suffering is part of creation. God can be creatively involved in our pain.
It took suffering to create us and recreate us. If you are broken and trying to push into the light, don’t let anyone steal that from you with a pill or a false promise. If you are trying to push some light into the dark through your art — whether it is setting the table or painting the Mona Lisa, singing, speaking, writing, conversing, even if you think you are a terrible artist and should just quit — don’t give up on that; die trying to do something. Whatever God gave you to do to express that creative suffering — push out of the dark into the light; push out of the light into the dark. In that you will be like Columba — and Jesus.