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Accidental Pilgrim - Travels with a Celtic Saint  

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Irishman Columbanus (c. 550 - 615) travelled across Europe consorting with kings, performing miracles, founding monasteries and upbraiding popes for their lack of intellectual rigour. A frustrating and fascinating man, he wrote the earliest surviving letters by an Irish person, and is perhaps the first examples of a classic Irish archetype - the exile who travels overseas and enjoys great success, but always longs for home.

Early life
Columbanus was born around 550 in Leinster, perhaps around Carlow. According to his hagiographer, Jonas of Bobbio, who wrote his Life in the 640s, a female ascetic told the young Columbanus to seek exile from his homeland for the greater glory of God, and to remove himself from the temptations of the local girls. He was probably from relatively prosperous stock, and he travelled to the the recently established monastery of Comgall in Bangor, Co. Down.

This was a long way from home, but there were two types of exile. It was considered worthy to move away from your people, but even more worthy to travel overseas as a pilgrim for Christ. So after many years at Bangor, Columbanus gathered twelve followers (the requisite holy number) and set sail for Brittany in 590.

Over to France
He travelled across France, and with the support of the Frankish king Childebert, he founded a small monastery at Annegray in the Haute-Saone region of France. He imposed an austere rule on his growing number of followers, and also spent time alone in contemplation out in the nearby forests. He quickly founded two more monasteries locally, at Fontaines and at Luxeuil, a ruined Roman settlement.

However, this rural saintly picture is not the complete story. Columbanus fought with local French bishops - partly over the timing of the celebration of Easter, and partly over his independence from their jurisdiction. It might be tempting to think of Columbanus arriving in a pagan country and bringing order and religion to a country in decline. This has certainly been the line taken in books such as Thomas Cahill's wayward, 'How the Irish Saved Civilization'. However, despite the Frankish invasion and the decline of the Roman Empire in the West, there was a great deal of continuity within the church hierarchy in France. Most of the bishops were of Gallo-Roman stock, and their power in their urban bases was considerable. There had also been an increase in interest in ascetic monasticism in France (for example at the island monastery of Lerins), and indeed the texts of Frenchman Cassian on Egyptian practice were influential with Columbanus.

However, the Church as Columbanus knew it from Ireland placed greater emphasis on the power of monasteries, and there was little diocesan structure. That, plus the patronage of the royal family encouraged him to follow his own path, much to the annoyance lof the local bishops.

Conflicts with authority
But his relations with the royal family grew to be frosty as well. Humble, he may have been, but Columbanus also scolded King Theuderic for his lascivious lifestyle, and fell foul of the canny political operator Brunhilde, Theuderic's grandmother, and a great power behind the throne. Columbanus urged the king to marry, and would not bless his children born to concubines, but Brunhilde feared her influence would be weakened by Theuderic taking a wife.

Something had to give, and Columbanus found himself banished from the country after 20 years, together with the monks who had first made the journey with him from Ireland. He was escorted across to the Loire, and then down the river to Nantes. He was supposed to take a boat back to Ireland, and we have a letter from Columbanus from the time, addressed to the monks he's left behind. It contains the moving lines, ' I confess I am broken through all this. I wished to help all, but when I spoke to them, they fought against me without cause, I trusted all, and have been almost driven mad.'

Jonas tells us that God intervened, and the boat ran bearing Columbanus ran aground and resisted several attempts to set sail, and Columbanus was free to set his sights on Italy.

Swiss monk accounts
Columbanus was in his sixties, but he undertook to travel across France again (this time further north to avoid returning to Theuderic's kingdom), and made it to Metz and the court of Theuderic's brother Theudebert. Theudebert gave Columbanus permission to found a monastery in the wild Apline edge of his kingdom, and he set out down the Rhine into what is now Switzerland.

Although nominally Christian, the Alammani people there maintained many of their pagan beliefs, and Columbanus' followers found themselves burning idols beside Alpine lakes. With some existence from an existing priest at Arbon, on the shores of Lake Constance, Columbanus founded a monastery at Bregenz, and he remained there for over a year.

Bella Italia
Jonas maintains that Columbanus didn't like it there for some reason, so gathering up his kit again, he headed over the Alps into Northern Italy, leaving his old companion Gall behind (he was to found the famous monastery at St Gallen). The Lombards had only arrived in Italy in 568, and the current king Agilulf followed the Arian heresy, but many of the Roman towns were still inhabited. Wth the support of the Catholic queen Theodelinda, the Irishman was well received at the royal court in Milan, and was given permission to found a monastery in Bobbio, in the Appenines south west of Piacenza.

Jonas tells of Columbanus carrying huge wooden beams as he works to restore the ruined church he'd been given, but by this time his health must have been failing. He died in Novenber 615, around a year after he'd arrived in Italy.

In some ways, the saint's journeys and monastic foundations are as much tributes to his obstinacy and political failures as they are to his holiness. Had he been more accommodating, he could perhaps have stayed in Luxeuil, but his uncompromising nature is clear in his writings. These include letters, the monastic rules he wrote for the French houses, as well as sermons and poetry. They all attest to his stern but complex character. He values quiet reflection, abstinence, humility and endurance, while on the other he's haranguing popes and kings, and being anything but humble.

But his influence was great - within around 50 years of his death there were over 100 foundations with ties to the important Columbanian houses of Luxeuil and Bobbio. Today, there are statues to the great man all the way from Brittany to the Vosges, and from Bregenz in Austria to Piacenza in Italy. What also survives is an invaluable collection of his writings, including letters, sermons and monastic rules - these are the oldest surviving writings by an Irish man or woman, making him the first Irish person we can in truth claim to know very much about (we have writings by St Patrick that are earlier, but he was British, don't forget).



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ISBN: 0340832282
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