Columbanus, Apostle to the Burgundians

By Theodore Sabo - Pullman, Washington, USA - 27 August 2015



In the Middle Ages, when the priest’s crozier had replaced the druid’s wand, men like Columbanus showed some of the attractiveness of monasticism which often had with it a love for all living things.  However it is reported of St. Kevin that when a woman tried to seduce him he threw her over the cliffs of his monastery which overlooked the sea.  Columbanus would not have done so, even though the prospect would have beguiled him more than it did Kevin.  Columbanus’ mother was, like the mother of John Chrysostom, a refreshing contrast to Augustine’s mother, and Columbanus had no more love for her than Chrysostom did for his mother.  She tried to prevent her son’s leaving the house to join a monastery, but Columbanus, inspired by an interview with an old female anchorite, leaped over her prostrate body, announcing that she would never see him again as he was destined to go “wherever the way of salvation led him.”  Columbanus was a type unbearable in adolescence but less so in old age.  He entered the monastic school of Bangor, learning, as was rare in those days, Greek and Hebrew as well as Latin; his mind relished the Latin classics and somehow emerged from their acquaintance spiritually unscathed.  In middle age he exiled himself from Ireland to convert pagans on the Continent.  With twelve monks he settled in what was then a forested valley among the Vosges and what is now Luxeuil-les-Bains.

The tonsure of the Irish monks was different from that of the monks on the Continent: all the hair on the front part of their head was shaved, but they were allowed to grow the rest as long as they liked; their enemies in the church claimed it was copied from the custom of Simon Magus.  They also made crucifixes out of common implements, multiplied prayers outside the mass, and immersed themselves in icy water.  Columbanus’ monks ate once a day, and their sleep was kept at a minimum.  “Let him not do as he wishes, let him eat what he is bidden,” Columbanus wrote of the monk’s duty.  “Let him come weary to his bed and sleep walking, and let him be forced to rise while his sleep is not yet finished.  Let him keep silence when he has suffered wrong, let him fear the superior of his community as a lord, love him as a father, believe that whatever he commands is healthful for himself, and let him not pass judgment on the opinion of an elder” (Katharine Scherman, The Flowering of Ireland, 182).

Columbanus was not at his best directing the monastery.  A solitary type who always needed to go out into lonely places, he spent much of his time wandering and meditating in the mountains where his diet was herbs, apples, and water.  He befriended, if one can believe his biographer Jonas, the birds and beasts and often called a squirrel from the treetops and took it into his hand, allowing the creature to enter the folds of his cowl at the neck.  He once encountered a bear about to devour the carcass of a deer killed by a wolf but persuaded the animal to leave it untouched.  He is also credited with having taught another bear to reserve some of the apples that grew outside the monastery for the monks who partook of them when no other food was available.  Once a pack of wolves attacked Columbanus, but seeing his tranquility they dispersed.

Columbanus got along better with animals than people and in fact said he preferred to be assaulted by wolves than men.  It was not long after coming to Luxeuil that he alienated his superiors in the clergy, mainly because of his obstinacy in following the custom of the Irish church which determined Easter, like the old Roman church, by reckoning the vernal equinox as March 18; he also antagonized his royal supporters who were the only ones who could protect him from his clerical opponents.  As might be expected, Columbanus, who demanded in all men qualities he required of himself, was stirred up to indignation by the dissolute lifestyle of the Burgundian king Theuderich and not only refused to baptize his illegitimate children, but went so far as to threaten him with excommunication if he did not mend his ways.  When Theuderich in his turn threatened to cut off the monastery’s alms, Columbanus went to the king’s courtyard but refused to enter the palace.  The king ordered a meal to be brought out to him, but Columbanus, whose daily pittance was a bowl of soup and a biscuit, resisted him.  According to Jonas, he cursed the food and the dinnerware broke into pieces so that the drink was spilled out over the ground and the food was scattered everywhere.  In Jonas’ words, “All saw the power of God burst into flame within him.”  Undeterred by Columbanus’ evident spiritual power, Theuderich had the saint thrown into prison.  It was only a miracle that led to his release, and the king had the Irish monks depart from the monastery of Luxeuil, escorted by soldiers.

Columbanus was almost seventy, but he had his revenge a few years later when Theuderich died in a fire.  On the Rhine he composed a rowing song to cheer his companions and was himself cheered when Theuderich’s brother Theudebert gave him a monastery overlooking Lake Constance, where Columbanus set himself the task of converting barbarians who still worshipped Wotan.  When the barbarians, unresponsive to the new religion, demanded that the monks depart, one of the monks, named Gall, asked to be left behind.  Columbanus, angered by Gall’s inflexibility, allowed him to stay but forbade him from saying mass until he himself died.  Two years later Gall told his deacon to prepare the altar, having been vouchsafed a vision of the glorified Columbanus surrounded by angels.