Great Moments in Catholic History
Fr. Jacques Monet, S.J.

06 The Travels of St. Columban

Irish monks illuminate the "Dark Ages"

The little cove of Guimoraie cuts the coast of Brittany between Saint-Malo and Mont Saint-Michel. There, one day, probably during the spring of A.D. 580, appeared a small craft hailing from Cornwall. In it were 13 monks from the Irish monastery at Bangor under the leadership of St. Columban. Their influence was to rack the conscience of Europe for half a century and mark the entire future of the western Church.

Columban had been a monk since his earliest adolescence when, as a blond, beautiful, blue-eyed youngster, he had resisted the advances of certain young ladies (lasciviae puellae, his Latin biographer called them) and been advised by an old religious woman to "renounce the world and choose the cloistered rather than the secular life."

Entering at Bangor, he soon became renowned for amazing penances: absolute fasts on bread and water for months on end, immersion for long periods icy ponds, self-beatings and flagellations, and his lengthening of the divine office to some 75 Psalms a day in an unheated chapel in winter. He also became a writer and a poet of note.

When he landed at Guimoraie, Columban was 35, a rugged man, a blond-bearded gnarled giant, with muscles of steel, of whom it was said that he could fell a tree with one blow of his axe, and dig the soil for 15 hours on end without showing any signs of fatigue. In France, he would show himself to be a tireless pioneer, a healer, a passionate and prodigious preacher. He seemed a kind of Old Testament prophet on whose face, we are assured by witnesses, "the might of God was clearly visible."

Crossing France from west to east, Columban and his monks founded four great monasteries and were responsible for over 200 others in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. These in turn attracted monks by the hundreds, and layfolk by the hundreds of thousands, who came to pray, study, or be healed. Wherever Columban went, vocations sprang up and "he hurled the fire of Christ wherever he could, without concerning himself with the blaze it caused."

The irony is that Columban and his disciples, missionaries winning people to faith and/or repentance, clearing forests, creating towns were monks -- men who, by definition, had retired from worldly activity to meditate and to pray in solitude and silence. The explanation is that they were Irish.

In the isle of saints and doctors -- insula sanctorum ac doctorum — monks and monasteries had grown and flowered since the days of St. Patrick in the 450's. And there, unlike the rest of the world where dioceses and parishes were the basic units of religious organization, monasteries and monks ministered to the people, conducted schools, celebrated Mass, preached missions. There also, in monastic discipline, developed two characteristics which Columban would father throughout Europe.

The first was the practice of repeated confession of secret sins to a priest. Previously and elsewhere confession of grave sins was generally public, with absolution given by the bishop after a public penance and only once in a lifetime. But in Irish monasteries frequent, even daily confession to a priest and immediate absolution were part of the usual way.

With the preaching of Columban throughout France, the practice began to affect lay people, who came to ask the monks how to expiate their sins. And it spread all the more as the Irish monks developed penitential books in which penances, although fixed in almost legal fashion, were generally less severe and certainly of shorter duration than had been the case before.

The penances were hard, but the practice of the Irish monks answered a deeply-felt pastoral need. Eventually the whole Church adopted it.

The second characteristic of the Irish monks was their practice of voluntary exile, or what they called the "peregrination for Christ," that is, the leaving of their monastery and country to go and live in unknown, more or less hostile surroundings. In unbelievable numbers they set out to northern Britain, to Iceland, and even, it is claimed, to the Saint Lawrence valley. They suffered terror, shipwrecks, fires of polar volcanoes, and the fright of celebrating Mass on the back of a whale, which one monk mistook for an island.

They followed St. Columban to Europe, founding abbeys which became centres of spirituality, learning, industry; where monks with hoes, ploughshares, quills, brushes, paint-pots, music sheets, salve boxes and crucifixes worked and prayed and preached. Throughout the dark ages of barbarian invasions and civil wars, they kept alive culture and the Gospel of Christ: pinpricks of light in the European night.

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