The creed alone remained. But the saving grace of penance and the longing to root out the lusts of the flesh were to be found only in a few. Everywhere that he went the noble man preached the Gospel. And it pleased the people, because his teaching was adorned by eloquence and enforced by examples of virtue.
- Jonas, Life of St. Columban
Watch, for the sea is stormy and whipped up by fatal blasts, for it is not a solitary threatening wave such as, even across a silent ocean, is raised to overweening heights from the ever-foaming eddies of a hollow rock, though it swells from afar, and drives the sails before it while Death walks the waves, but it is a tempest of the entire element, surging indeed and swollen upon every side, that threatens shipwreck of the mystic vessel; thus do I, a fearful sailor, dare to cry. Watch, for the water has now entered the vessel of the Church, and the vessel is in perilous straits.
- Columbanus, Letter to Pope Boniface
“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write, ‘These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God.’”
- Revelation 3.1, 2
As Columbanus and his team moved through Brittany into Gaul, they found the faith languishing. There were plenty of churches, and most people were familiar with Christian teaching, especially with the Apostles’ Creed. But it was a faith in word only.
Little attention was given to sanctification and life in the Spirit. The people professed belief in Jesus and attended church faithfully, but they were starving on spiritual gruel, and were defenseless against the winds of worldliness and the waves of self-interest washing over the land.
The preaching of Columbanus, coupled with the humility, selflessness, and service he and his team demonstrated, came like a breath of fresh spiritual air to the people of Gaul. They rejoiced to hear the Word of truth and to meet preachers whose lives fleshed out the substance of what they preached in works of discipline, self-denial, sacrifice, generosity, and love.
Here is why the Celtic Revival (ca. 430-800 AD) is so important. The great revival began with Patrick. When it reached Europe by peregrini like Columbanus, it came to congregations of believers who were Christians in name and words only. The people professed faith in Jesus, but they had no true spiritual life within them. Church leaders were compromised with worldly ways, as Columbanus protested in other letters. Their teaching and preaching allowed them to stay on good terms with the ways of the world while talking the talk of the faith. Consequently, the people were starving spiritually and being engulfed by the worldliness that was everywhere prevalent. Their pastors and teachers, who should have been a bulwark against such tides and torrents, embraced and embodied the very practices that were sinking the “mystic vessel” of the Church in Gaul.
Is this not what historian Barbara Tuchman described as a “distant mirror” of our own day? For all our churches, schools and colleges, parachurch ministries, publications, conferences and seminars, and websites, and despite the fact that Christians number in the scores of millions in this country alone, we’re not having much impact on the surrounding culture or society. The waves of materialism and narcissism are washing across the decks of our churches; and the winds of compromise with unbelieving worldviews are filling the sails of many preachers and teachers.
We are in danger of becoming a Church in name and words only, and we need men like Columbanus to bring us the full truth of God in exemplary lives of Kingdom-seeking conduct.
Columbanus’ commitment to Christ and His Kingdom would cause him to run afoul of both religious and civil authorities. He would be scorned, threatened, and exiled twice; but he would not compromise his convictions. And the young people of Gaul flocked to him by the thousands, desperate for something real to live and die for.
We need such men today – men of discipline and grace, truth and conviction, men devoted to realizing more of the presence, promise, and power of Christ’s Kingdom, men who will dare to cry, “Watch! Repent!”
Psalm 79.1, 2, 6-9 (Passion Chorale: O Sacred Head, Now Wounded)
O God the nations all Your inheritance have spoiled!
Your City have they ruined, Your temple they have soiled!
Your servants’ bodies all to the birds of heav’n are thrown;
The flesh of all Your faithful the jaws of beasts now own.
Pour out, O Lord, Your wrath on all who deny Your Name;
Who trust You not nor seek You, bring down to deepest shame!
For they have with great rancor Your precious saints devoured;
Lay waste their habitation at this late dreadful hour.
Fill me with Your Spirit, Lord, and help me to be bold in…
The Disciplined Life
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All Psalms for singing from The Ailbe Psalter. Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
In Name and Words Only?
- T.M. Moore
- November 22, 2018
The Church in Columbanus' day was a distant mirror of our own time.
T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.