When the holy man with his companions appeared before the king, the greatness of his learning caused him to stand high in the favor of the king and court. Finally, the king begged him to remain in Gallic territory, not to go to other peoples and leave him; everything that he wished should be done.
- Jonas, Life of St. Columban (7thcentury)
Time and the hour is flying, age glides away by moments.
Scorn the joys of a transient life that perish.
Do not pursue frail wealth and empty gain,
Nor let overflowing abundance of riches be your concern.
Let your treasures be the teachings of divine law,
And the holy fathers’ rules of a chaste life,
All that the learned masters have written before,
Or the songs sung by scholarly poets,
Take these, ever despise transitory treasures…
- Columbanus, “Verses of St. Columban to Sethus”
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
- 2 Timothy 2.15
Not long after Columbanus and his team arrived in Gaul, word of his work reached King Sigibert, who ruled over Austrasia and Burgundy in Gaul. He arranged to meet Columbanus and to learn more about him and his mission.
It was the practice of Irish peregrini like Columbanus to present themselves to local rulers, to gain their permission to labor among them for the Gospel. This practice goes all the way back to Patrick. Often, when a missionary arrived in a new jurisdiction, he would make a point of living off the land – so as not to burden the local economy – and of doing good to the local people, including, telling stories and explaining the Bible, teaching literacy, helping in various ways, easing burdens, and so forth. Thus they showed themselves to be servants of the people and an asset to any ruler who allowed them to remain and preach the Gospel.
This seems to have been the approach of Columbanus as well. Sigibert was more impressed by Columbanus when he met him in person, in particular because of his impressive erudition. Columbanus was a scholar/evangelist, and his written works reveal some of the depths of his immersion in the matters of study he recommended to Sethus in the lines quoted above.
Sigibert offered Columbanus abundant material support, which he promptly and courteously refused, saying, as Jonas reports, “that he did not wish to be enriched with the treasures of others, but as far as he was not hindered by the weakness of the flesh to follow the command of the Gospel.” Whereupon, Sigibert granted a ruined castle and surrounding lands to Columbanus, and this became his first monastic foundation, Annegray.
It was the simplicity and profundity of Columbanus that caught the attention of Sigibert. It would be that same simplicity and profundity that would so baffle and outrage the king, that he would send the Irishman and his team packing in due course.
Columbanus was a life-long learner, precisely as J. I. Packer insists we should all be in his excellent little book about growing old, Finishing Our Course with Joy. Because all true learning and knowledge emanates from and resolves in Jesus (Col. 2.2, 3), we should be eager learners and avid readers all our days. Calvin, commenting on Paul’s direction to Timothy to bring him the “books and parchments” he’d left in Ephesus (2 Tim. 4.13), observed: “It is evident from this, that the Apostle had not given over reading, though he was already preparing for death. Where are those who think that they have made so great progress that they do not need any more exercise? Which of them will dare to compare himself with Paul? Still more does this expression refute the madness of those men who ― despising books, and condemning all reading ― boast of nothing but their own ἐνθουσιασμοὺς, divine inspirations. But let us know that this passage gives to all believers a recommendation of constant reading, that they may profit by it.”
We must all continue to learn by reading, study, and lively conversation, beginning with Scripture and then branching out into whatever topics and resources will equip us for knowing the Lord and working our Personal Mission Fields. But Paul says we will have to be diligent in this, a Greek verb which literally means to work hard by expending energy and effort, doing your best to accomplish worthwhile ends.
Erasmus once said that, when he got a little money, he bought books. If he had any money left over, he bought food. As we shall see in our next installment, the company of scholar/evangelists who labored with Columbanus were of much the same mindset, devoting themselves to seeking the Lord and growing in grace and knowledge as of first importance, and worrying about what they would eat or wear secondarily.
Are you as diligent as you should be in studying to show yourself a workman who need not be ashamed? What can you do to improve in this aspect of your calling, so that, by a wide variety of means, filtered through the reading and study of God’s Word, you will be ready and able for every good work?
Psalm 111.1-3 (Manoah: When All Your Mercies, O My God)
Praise the Lord! O let my heart give thanks here amid His chosen race!
Your works are great, O Lord, and sought by all who know their grace.
For Your work is full of splendor, Lord, and of majesty most pure;
Your righteousness, O glorious God, forever will endure!
Lord, help me to be a diligent learner, so that I might know You better and…
Learning requires discipline
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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.