At one time he was living alone in that hollow rock, separated from the society of others and, as was his custom, dwelling in hidden places or more remotely in the wilderness, so that when the feasts of the Lord or saints’ days came, he might, with his mind wholly free from disquieting cares, devote himself to prayer, and might be ready for every religious thought.
- Jonas, Life of St. Columban
Lord, grant me, I pray Thee in the name of Jesus Christ Thy Son, my God, that love which knows no fall, so that my lamp may feel the kindling touch and know no quenching, may burn for me and for others may give light. Do Thou, Christ, deign to kindle our lamps, our Saviour most sweet to us, that they may shine continually in Thy temple, and receive perpetual light from Thee the Light perpetual, so that our darkness may be enlightened, and yet the whole world’s darkness may be driven from us.
- Columbanus, Sermon XII
As the deer pants for the water brooks,
So pants my soul for You, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
- Psalm 42.1, 2
Prayer was the foundation, scaffolding, and buttress of Columbanus’ life and ministry. He would often retreat for a season from his many duties, and the men he loved and served, so that he could devote himself to prayer only. The prayer at the end of Sermon XII, which goes longer than the excerpt above, is an excellent example of how this great saint prayed. His practice of prayer, especially during those times of solitude, can be instructive for us.
As we’ve seen, Columbanus understood the importance of praying about everything, especially those everyday and emergency needs that arose in the course of his ministry. But for him, prayer was more than simply making sure God was involved with the responsibilities and challenges of his life. Prayer was the way into love, into light, and into the Lord Jesus Christ, so that His love and light might flow through us to the world.
His approach, as we see it in Jonas’ vignette and Sermon XII, can be outlined in three prepositions: from, into, and unto.
From. Columbanus’ retreats for solitude took him away “from the society of others.” Prayer is first of all, and most importantly, a time for being alone with the Lord. We need to imagine ourselves passing through some spiritual veil, entering an isolated and undecorated closet, or walking through a woods, with no one around and no distractions to intrude on our time. Of course, we can pray in the midst of activities and the bustle of life, as well as with other people, and we should. But we will not pray well here unless we learn to pray well from all this, alone with the Lord.
Into. Getting away from other people and daily duties was for Columbanus a way of getting into the Lord Himself, like a deer slaking its thirst in the brook, our souls, taking in the refreshment that can only be found in God. Where do you go when you pray? Do you enter the presence of Jesus, with Him where He is, seated at the right hand of God? Do you envision yourself among saints and angels, joining your praises and intercessions with theirs? Do you smell the fragrances of that heavenly court, hear the glorious music that goes on without interruption, see the splendors of Jesus and His throne and radiant glory? When you begin to see yourself in prayer coming into such a setting as this, you will cry out like the psalmist, “When can I come and appear before God?”
Unto. Prayer is unto something, and, as Columbanus understood, it is unto our being transformed into the image of Jesus Christ – increasing in love, growing in light, becoming holy temples where Jesus dwells and God is glorified in all the myriad moments and simple details of our lives. Prayer is to equip us to be the dawning day of Christ in our dark and weary world, so that through us the Kingdom of Light rises and spreads and touches and transforms everyone we meet and every place we go (1 Jn. 2.8).
Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a prayer life like this? Prayer, Columbanus knew, is hard work. As the old monks used to say, orare est laborare – to pray is to labor. If we’re willing to work at prayer, day by day, learning and going from and into for the sake of going unto Jesus, then we can know the kind of prayer life that Columbanus did.
And maybe then we can change our world, too.
Psalm 42.1-3, 6-8 (Nettleton: Come Thou Fount)
As the deer pants for fresh water let my soul, Lord, pant for You!
Let my soul thirst as it ought to for the Savior, ever true!
Tears by day have been my portion, tears by night have been my food,
While my foes add to my sorrow, saying, “Where now is your God?”
Oh my God, my soul is weary, therefore I remember You.
Let Your grace and goodness near be, and Your promise, firm and true.
Lord, when trials and fears surround me, Your commands will be my song;
When distresses sore confound me, Your great love will keep me strong.
Lord, I pray, but I want to pray more like Columbanus, so today, now, I am going to…
Exercise Your Prayer Life
George Herbert, that great 17thcentury spiritual poet, wrote a masterful exposition of prayer called “Prayer (1).” His poem is packed with images to help us in thinking about and entering more deeply into prayer: a banquet, a battering ram, a plumb line, a bird of paradise, and more. In our book, The Poetry of Prayer, we take you image by image through Herbert’s poem and give you exercises to strengthen your prayer life. Here’s a great resource to read and share with others to bring more from, into, and unto into your prayers. Order your copy by clicking here.
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T. M. Moore, Principal
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.
From, In, Unto
- T.M. Moore
- December 6, 2018
With Columbanus in the school of prayer.
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.