The ancient Irish church/Chapter 6

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A great missionary enterprise, like that which resulted in the establishment of a monastery at Iona, and through it the conversion of the whole nation of the Picts, bespeaks a Church in which energy and zeal are no rare virtues. But missionary labour has also a wonderful reflex action. It is the product of holy energy and zeal, and in turn it produces the same. It is the Churches most interested in missions that are ever foremost in undertaking new missions, and it is these also that are most in earnest about their own home work. The Pictish mission was almost, if not entirely, in the hands of the followers of Saint Columba; but their example provoked to jealousy many of the other communities which were established in Ireland. We are not therefore surprised to find that the generation which saw Columba and his companions landing at Iona, was quickly followed by one when Irish missionaries went forth in many directions, and became famous as evangelizers and teachers.

It is a curious coincidence that the most remarkable of these missionaries was a namesake of the great apostle of Scotland. He is generally known now by the name Columbanus, to distinguish him from the founder of Iona, who is always called Columba or Columkill. But it need hardly be pointed out that the two names are really the same. Both mean 'Dove.' The termination kill means 'Church'; so that Columkill is 'Dove of the Church.' The addition is said to have been made in token of the great piety which Columba exhibited at an early age.

Columbanus, of whom we have now to speak, belonged to the monastic school of Saint Comgal at Bangor in the County Down. It is said that there were three thousand scholars in this establishment. This is scarcely credible, the less so as we know that the old biographers never stuck at a little exaggeration. On the other hand, if they exaggerate the numbers, they altogether underrate the learning with which these old schools abounded, for they were quite unable to appreciate it. When we read their works we are sorely tempted to think that the men whom they commemorate were as narrow-minded, as credulous, as superstitious, and as ignorant as they were themselves; and then when we find places described in general terms, and in very bad Latin, as centres of learning and wisdom, we are somewhat inclined to put the learning and wisdom along with the miracles in that region of myth, where everything is quite too unsubstantial and visionary for the founding of any serious historical argument.

Happily, we have better evidence than the writings of the biographers. In this case, for example, some of the works of Columbanus have come down to us, and they tell us what could be learnt in the old Irish schools, because it is certain that whatever learning he possessed was obtained before he left the country. From these works we find that he wrote Latin, both prose and verse, in excellent style; that he knew Greek, which was more than the Pope of Rome could have said; and that he was not unacquainted with Hebrew. He interprets his own name in the three languages, and says, 'I am called in Hebrew, Jonah; in Greek, Peristera; and in Latin, Columba.'[1] He not only knew these languages, but shows an acquaintance with Latin and Greek literature; and altogether his writings give us an entirely different idea of the progress that learning had made from that which we should have at first imagined. This school of Bangor seems to have been very jealous of the school of Iona. On one occasion the jealousy brought on actual warfare. At other times, however, the rivalry was of a healthier kind.

Columbanus was born in the year 543. He was therefore twenty-two years younger than his namesake of Iona. Of his early life in Ireland we have but little knowledge, except that he studied at several schools before he became a disciple of Comgal at Bangor. It was not until after his fortieth year that he began his missionary labours. First, he passed over to England, and from thence he made his way to France. His idea had been to have gone farther, and to have spent his energies in the evangelization of the heathen tribes beyond; but he found that there was no necessity to seek farther than the nominal Christians of Gaul, who seem to have gained little more than a new superstition from their conversion, while they retained all the cruelty and treachery of barbarism.

At the invitation of Guntram, King of Burgundy, he settled in that country. He was absolutely fearless in his denunciations of sin, and like another John the Baptist stood before the highest in the land and rebuked them to their face. Like the Baptist, too, he attracted great multitudes to his preaching, and even the princes whom he reproved were contented to hear him gladly, and sometimes, like Herod, 'did many things,' though it is to be feared without any real change of heart. Still further bearing out the resemblance, it was through the interference of a wicked woman that his labours were in the end brought to an abrupt termination, though happily, in his case, they were not ended by martyrdom. Refusing to give his blessing to the illegitimate children of Theodoric II., which were presented to him by Brunehault, the queen regent, he excited her resentment, and this resentment followed him persistently, until she had prevailed on her grandson to banish the fearless monk from his dominions. He was placed on board a vessel, the intention being to send him to Ireland; but after it had put to sea a contrary wind drove them back again, and the master of the ship, taking this as a Divine intimation that Columbanus was not to go to Ireland, landed him at the mouth of the Loire, and went on his journey without him. From thence Columbanus made his way to Switzerland, where one of his followers, Saint Gall, was left behind, and founded the establishment which has given name to one of the cantons. Eventually, he settled in North Italy, where he founded the famous monastery of Bobbio, near which he died in the year 615.

The incidents in the life of Columbanus are full of interest, but are for the most part outside the scope of this present work. He was the great competitor with Benedict in the reformation of the monastic system; and such was his success and the popularity of his rule that at one time it seemed as if his influence, and not that of Benedict, was to change the aspect of monasticism in all succeeding ages. Moreover, his followers worked with such fearless and untiring activity, and presented in themselves such examples of self-denial and devotion, that, as has been well said, 'For a time it seemed as if the course of the world's history was to be changed; as if the older Celtic race that Roman and German had swept before them had turned to the moral conquest of their conquerors; as if Celtic and not Latin Christianity was to mould the destinies of the Churches of the West.'[2] All this, however, is beside our present purpose. We have only to consider the life and work of Columbanus in so far as it throws light on the history of the Church in Ireland, the country which sent him forth as an apostle and evangelist.

The rule which Columbanus imposed on those who were his followers is still extant, and is generally supposed to have been derived from that already in force in Comgal's establishment at Bangor. If so, Bangor must have been very different from Iona. The picture drawn in the last chapter of the life of those who looked up to Columba as 'father, is that of a peaceful Christian community, where the highest law is the law of love, and punishments, if they existed at all, occupy such a secondary place that they are never mentioned by the saint's biographer. There are penances, of course, but they are all for open and scandalous sins—never for mere breaches of discipline; and it cannot be said that they erred on the side of severity. A man who had been guilty of fratricide and incest was not too harshly dealt with when sentenced to twelve years' exile among the Britons—particularly when it was left quite optional with himself whether the sentence was to be carried out or not.

When we come to the 'Rule' of Columbanus, we are on very different ground. We have none of the genial feasts made for the welcome of visitors; no killing of oxen for the common meal; but day follows day in one monotonous and continued fast, barely enough food for sustaining life being taken, and that consisting merely of vegetables, pulse, meal, and biscuit—only varied by a fast still more strict imposed as a punishment for some paltry offence. Brutal inflictions of the lash are threatened at every step. For speaking in a loud voice there were six stripes. The same punishment for not repressing a cough at the beginning of a psalm, or for omitting to say, Amen. For some offences, as many as two hundred stripes are ordered, to be given twenty-five at a time.

The difference between the two systems is so striking, that a doubt naturally arises in the mind as to whether Columbanus founded his rule on that Comgal after all. There is another possibility: that Bangor was not so very different from Iona, and that Columbanus, being dissatisfied with what he considered its laxity, left it for the purpose of following a stricter rule; and that these terrible whippings are of his own invention. At all events, it is pleasant to remember the picture that Adamnan gives of Iona, which shows us that whatever Bangor may have been, other places in Ireland were very far indeed from accepting such a tyranny as Columbanus would have wished to impose.

This excessive severity, repugnant as it is to all our ideas, was one of the great factors in the success of Columbanus. When carelessness and indifference abounded, the intense earnestness of these men must have been the more remarkable; and when the people thought of religion at all, they could scarcely help being attracted by those to whom the Faith was such a reality that they were ready to give up everything of pleasure and indulgence for its sake.

In the work of Columbanus we have the Irish Church brought for the first time into contact with the outside world. Columba and the monks of Iona, when they invaded Pictland, left the isolation of Ireland for a still greater isolation. Columbanus, on the other hand, found himself surrounded by an ecclesiastical organization in some respects very different from any that he had known at home. The bishops were real spiritual magnates, instead of being, as often in Ireland, subject to the abbot of a monastery. They exercised territorial jurisdiction, and they all of them paid allegiance to the Bishop of Rome. In Ireland, Rome seemed to be a very distant and unknown place; and they had but little conception of that great system of Church government which was being perfected under her auspices.

Columbanus, when he went to France, carried with him all the ideas in which he had been brought up. He never thought of conforming himself to the usages of those into whose land he had come. His monasteries were in Gaul, but they were not Gallic. Whatever was the country in which he sojourned, he was still an Irishman, and it never entered his head that he should belong to any other than the Irish Church.

The differences soon became apparent. Columbanus computed the time for celebrating the feast of Easter differently from those who were around him, and therefore while one was keeping the fast of Lent, the other was commemorating with a feast the Resurrection of our Lord. Here was a visible token of nonconformity. Any one could see that the Church of Ireland and the Church of France were not in accord. The matter was considered to be of sufficient importance to warrant the assembling of a synod of the French bishops, who considered the advisability of expelling Columbanus from the country. To this synod the latter addressed an epistle, in which he begs that he and his companions may be allowed 'to live with you in peace and charity, in silence amongst these woods, near to the bones of our seventeen brothers who are dead, in the same way as up to the present we have been allowed to live amongst you these twelve years, and that as we have heretofore done, we may still fulfil our duty in praying for you.' He goes on to argue with them the question in dispute, and finally, he makes an appeal for mutual forbearance. But he gives no sign of being ready to alter his practice in the least, or of conforming to the ways of those who were around him. At the same time he wrote a letter to Pope Gregory the Great on the subject. This, as well as another letter written at a later period to Pope Boniface IV., is of the highest importance as throwing light on the position which he took with regard to the Pope, and as telling us from his example something of the way in which the subject of papal supremacy was regarded by the Irish Church. That Columbanus was altogether wrong in his arguments on this particular question, whereas the Church of Rome was right, does not concern the matter one way or the other. At present we have only to consider how far he as a member of the Irish Church considered himself bound by the authority of the Pope.

Columbanus wrote to Pope Gregory in the hope of inducing that pontiff to use his influence for the purpose of quelling the storm that was raging round the Irish missionaries by reason of the opposition of the prelates. He insinuates rather than asserts that the agitation was set on foot by those who did not care to have their evil deeds brought to light, and that many of the bishops had obtained their positions through simony, and therefore were uncanonically ordained. He adduces the authority of Saint Jerome for the Irish practices, and warns the Pope that there ought to be no disagreement between his holiness and the saint, for whoever contradicted the authority of Saint Jerome would be looked upon as a heretic and rejected with scorn by the Churches of the West. He ridicules the idea that the decision made by one pope should in all cases bind his successors. Gregory's predecessor had been Leo, and Columbanus, in a quaint though not very complimentary manner, reminds him that 'a living dog is better than a dead lion.'

The letter to Pope Boniface is still more remarkable. He begins it by words which have been often quoted to show that Columbanus of all the fathers uses the strongest language in asserting the Pope's supremacy. He addresses his letter thus: 'To the most renowned Head of all the Churches of all Europe, the most charming Pope, the highly exalted prelate, the pastor of pastors, the most reverend overseer: a humble individual addresses himself to him who is highly exalted, the least to the greatest, a rustic to the polished citizen, a man of feeble utterance to him who is most eloquent; the last speaks to him that is first, the stranger addresses the homeborn, the poorest comes to him who is most mighty: nay, wonderful to relate! a thing never heard of before! that strange bird, the common wood pigeon (Palumbus)[3] dares to write to Father Boniface.'

This paragraph is interesting, as showing that Irishmen in the past, like those in the present, are sometimes disposed to regard the superlative adjective as most important of all the parts of speech. It is certainly an extraordinary introduction for the tirade that follows, in which he unburdens his mind with a vigour of language that is as unique as is the accumulation of compliments with which he begins. He is himself conscious of the fact that what he writes will be distasteful to the authorities at Rome, for at the beginning he endeavours to excuse himself by reminding them that better are the wounds of a friend than the deceitful kisses of an enemy. He then goes on to tell the Pope that 'the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles on account of you who are contending, both of you. For I confess, I grieve at the infamy that attaches itself to the chair of Saint Peter.' He gives as his justification of the right to lecture the Pope in this fashion that, 'we Irish—all of us—though we dwell at the very ends of the earth, are disciples of SS. Peter and Paul, and of all the disciples who by the power of the Holy Spirit wrote the Divine Canon. We receive no doctrine beyond that of the Evangelists and Apostles. We have had amongst us no heretic or Jew or schismatic, but the Catholic faith as it was first handed down by you, that is to say, by the successors of the holy apostles, is still kept by us unshaken.' He goes on to tell his holiness that if he desires not to lack apostolic honour he must preserve the apostolic faith. He acknowledges the supremacy of the see of Rome in so far as to give it the second place in all the world, Jerusalem being first; but he says that it is a painful and lamentable case if the Catholic faith be not held in the apostolic see; and that under certain circumstances a Church very much younger, but one which has never harboured heretics (in which description he not obscurely designates the Church of Ireland), might sit in judgment on the Church of Rome, and cut it off from communion 'until the memory of the wicked be effaced and consigned to oblivion.'

We are not to suppose that these writings of Columbanus were current in Ireland, or that any one in that country took such a decided stand with regard to the points of controversy. As a matter of fact the question as to the keeping of Easter, which was the subject of the letter to Pope Gregory, had not yet arisen in Ireland, and the 'Controversy of the Three Chapters,' which caused the letter to Pope Boniface, never arose there, and was in all probability quite unknown. The works of Columbanus only show us in what way an Irishman of that age regarded the question of Papal supremacy when brought into close contact with it for the first time. The life of Columbanus brings us down to the beginning of the seventh century (615), and tells us that up to that time the Church of Ireland was independent in so far as to claim the right to interpret for itself the Word of God and ordain its own rites and ceremonies; that it took for its sole rule of faith the writings of the Evangelists and Apostles; that it ignored (and if occasion had arisen would have rejected) papal supremacy; and that while conscious of its independence and of its difference in some points from the other nations of Christendom, it nevertheless held itself to be a part of the great Catholic Church.

  1. Adamnan gives the same explanation in his Life of Columba of Iona.
  2. Green, Short Hist. of the Eng. People, ch. i. § 3.
  3. By way of showing his humility, he will not call himself Columba, 'the dove,' but only Palumbus, 'the wood pigeon.'