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During the sixth and seventh centuries the greatest missionary activity was shown by the Scots who dwelt in Ireland. In that country religion was cherished with greater zeal than elsewhere, and learning was fostered for the sake of the Church. But not content with the flourishing state of Christianity in their own island, the most zealous monks often passed over to the continent. There even the nominal Christians were little inclined to follow the precepts of the religion which they professed. Gaul especially attracted the attention of the bold missionaries from Ireland, and the Irish usages became well established in some parts of the country. Unfortunately almost all the accounts of the missionaries from Ireland have been lost; consequently this biography of Columban is of great value.
Jonas, the author of this life, became a monk at Bobbio, in northern Italy, three years after Columban's death. He was soon employed on this biography, for which he obtained material, as he himself said, from the stories told by the saint's companions. Living as he did, among the latter, his account reflects their feelings faithfully, and we may be certain that he has recorded the events accurately, and has often reproduced the saint's own words. As is usual in such biographies, the miracles are numerous; for the contemporaries these formed the most valuable portions ; for modern students they are full of instruction, and throw much light on the daily life of the monks.
The language of Jonas is somewhat bombastic and difficult to put into Eng. lish. In some cases, the translator has been unable to determine the exact connection of certain clauses with the context. In such sentences he has translated literally, hoping that others might see a connection which he missed. In general, where he suspected any mistake, he has followed the Latin closely. A new and careful collation and transcription of the manuscripts would undoubtedly remove many
of the difficulties.
There has been no translation of this life into any modern language before, except a very imperfect rendering of selected passages by Abel in the “ Geschichtschreiber der deutschen Vorzeit.” In this translation the preface, which has little or no importance for the life of the saint, has been omitted from lack of space. All the rest is translated in full. The names of places have generally been modernized, because readers who live far from large libraries, might otherwise lose the geographical information given here.
THE LIFE OF ST. COLUMBAN.
BY THE MONK JONAS. Mabillon: Acta Sanctorum Ordinis S. Benedicti, Vol. I, Venice, 1733, pp. 3-26. Latin.
6. Columban, who is also called Columba, was born on the island of Ireland. This is situated in the extreme ocean and, according to common report, is charming, productive of various nations, and free from the wars which trouble other nations, Here lives the race of the Scots, who, although they lack the laws of the other nations, flourish in the doctrine of Christian strength, and exceed in faith all the neighboring tribes. Columban was born amid the beginnings of that race's faith, in order that the religion, which that race cherished uncompromisingly, might be increased by his own fruitful toil and the protecting care of his associates.
But what happened before his birth, before he saw the light of this world, must not be passed over in silence. For when his mother, after having conceived, was bearing him in her womb, suddenly in a tempestuous night, while she was buried in sleep, she saw the sun rise from her bosom and issuing forth resplendent, furnish great light to the world. After she had arisen from sleep and Aurora rising had driven away the dark shadows from the world, she began to think earnestly of these matters, joyfully and wisely weighing the import of so great a vision ; and she sought an increase of consolation from such of her neighbors as were learned, asking that with wise hearts they should examine carefully the meaning of so great a vision. At length she was told by those who had wisely considered the matter, that she was carrying in her womb a man of remarkable genius, who would provide what would be useful for her own salvation and for that of her neighbors.
ter the mother learned this she watched over him with so great care that she would scarcely entrust him even to his nearest relatives. So the life of the boy aspired to the cultivation of good works under the leadership of Christ, without whom no good work is done. Nor without reason had the mother seen the shining sun proceed from her bosom, the sun which shines brightly in the members of the Church, the mother of all, like a glowing Phoebus. As the Lord says : “Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” So Deborah, with the voice of prayer, formerly spoke to the Lord, by the admonition of the Holy Spirit, saying: “But let them that love Thee be as the sun when he goeth forth in his might."
For the milky way in the heavens, although it is itself bright, is rendered more beautiful by the presence of the other stars ; just as the daylight, increased by the splendor of Phoebus, shines more benignantly upon the world. So the body of the Church, enriched by the splendor of its Founder, is augmented by the hosts of saints and is made resplendent by religion and learning, so that those who come after draw profit from the concourse of the learned. And just as the sun or moon and all the stars ennoble the day and night by their refulgence, so the merits of the holy priests increase the glory of the Church.
7. When Columban's childhood was over and he became older, he began to devote himself enthusiastically to the pursuit of grammar and the sciences, and studied with fruitful zeal all through his boybood and youth, until he became a man. But, as his fine figure, his splendid color, and his noble manliness made him beloved by all, the old enemy began finally to turn his deadly weapons upon him, in order to catch in his nets this youth, whom he saw growing so rapidly in grace. And he aroused against him the lust of lascivious maidens, especially of those whose fine figure and superficial beauty are wont to enkindle mad desires in the minds of wretched men.
But when that excellent soldier saw that he was surrounded on all sides by so deadly weapons, and perceived the cunning and shrewdness of the enemy who was fighting against him, and that by an act of human frailty, he might quickly fall over a precipice and be destroyed,—as Livy says, “ No one is rendered so sacred by religion, no one is so guarded, that lust is unable to prevail against him,”—holding in his left hand the shield of the Gospel and bearing in his right hand the two-edged sword, he prepared to advance and attack the hostile lines threatening him. He feared lest, ensnared by the lusts of the world, he should in vain have spent so much labor on grammar, rhetoric, geometry and the Holy Scriptures. And in these perils he was strengthened by a particular aid.
8. When he was already meditating upon this purpose, he came to the dwelling of a holy and devout woman. He at first addressed her humbly, afterwards he began to exhort her, as far as lay in his power. As she saw the increasing strength of the youth she said: “I have gone forth to the strife as far as it lay in my power. Lo, twelve years have passed by, since I have been far from my home and have sought out this place of pilgrimage. With the aid of Christ, never since then have I engaged in secular matters ; after putting my hand to the plough, I have not turned backward. And if the weakness of my sex had not prevented me, I would have crossed the sea and chosen a better place among strangers as my home. But you, glowing with the fire of youth, stay quietly on your native soil; out of weakness you lend your ear even against your own will, to the voice of the flesh, and think you can associate with the female sex without sin. But do
recall the wiles of Eve, Adam's fall, how Samson was deceived by Delilah, how David was led to injustice by the beauty of Bathsheba, how the wise Solomon was ensnared by the love of a woman ? Away, O youth I away ! flee from corruption, into which, as you know, many have fallen. Forsake the path which leads to the gates of hell."
The youth, trembling at these words, which were such as to terrify a youth, thanked her for her reproaches, took leave of his companions and set out. His mother in anguish begged him not to leave her. But he said : “Hast thou not heard, 'He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me?'” He begged his mother, who placed herself in his way and held the door, to let him go. Weeping and stretched upon the floor, she said she would not permit it. Then leaping over both threshold and mother he asked his mother not to give way to her grief; she would never see him again in this life, but wherever the way of salvation led him, there he would go.
9. When he left his birthplace, called by the inhabitants, Lagener-land," he betook himself to a holy man named Sinell, who at this time was distinguished among his countrymen for his unusual piety and knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. And when the holy man saw that St. Columban had great ability, he instructed him in the knowledge of all the Holy Scriptures. Nevertheless, as was usual, the master attempted to draw out the pupils under false pretences, in order that he might learn their dispositions, either the glowing excess of the senses, or the torpor induced by slothfulness. He began to inquire into Columban’s dispositien by difficult questions. But the latter tremblingly, nevertheless wisely, in order not to appear disobedient, nor touched by the vice of the love of vainglory, obeyed his master, and explained in turn all the objections that were made, mindful of that saying of the Psalmist, “ Open thy mouth wide and I will fill it.” Thus Columban collected such treasures of holy wisdom in his breast
1 Leinster, in Ireland.