Celtic Spiritual Poetry (10)
Countless the changes through which all the seasons of temporal life role on:
On and on everything passes, as months in their turn revolve into years,
Leaving each moment to glide in its time to the years of senility.
Under their passing may you learn to comprehend life everlasting, and
May you thus spurn the alluring deceits of this temporal and passing life.
By smoothest luxury all decent virtue is gradually overturned.
Avarice, coupled with burning greed burns in the human breast, uncontrolled.
No mind devoted to vanity knows how to keep moderation. So
Understand: Silver is cheaper than gold, and gold than the virtues is
So much less valuable. Seek but for what you need, and you will have highest peace.
- Columbanus, “Verses to Hunaldus” (ca. 700 AD)
“‘And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
- Luke 12.19-21
Columbanus dearly loved his students and fellow monks. He left them 14 sermons to read and meditate on, in which he reminds them of what they most needed to know in serving the Lord: Scripture is our supreme authority; the Christian life is a life of discipline; we must seek ever to please God and to give Him thanks and praise; and we must not allow our life in time to become a snare, but always keep focused in our journey through time on the eternal life with Christ yet to come.
These brief homilies still hold much of value for contemporary Christians, as do the poems of Columbanus, which restate certain of these themes in verses that could be easily memorized, rehearsed, and shared with friends. The theme of time seems to have been of special interest to Columbanus, as we have already seen in his “Poem on the World’s Impermanence.”
Columbanus wrote poems to three of his monks, Hunaldus, Sethus, and Fidolius. A recurrent theme in each of these is that of how to make the best use of the time we have in this life. While he undoubtedly meant these poems for the individuals to whom they were addressed, he also like intended that they should be shared with their colleagues in the monasteries. We’ll look in detail at the “Verses to Hunaldus”, before picking through the two longer poems to discover Columbanus’ teaching on the time of our lives.
“Verses to Hunaldus” is an alphabetic poem of 17 lines, composed in Latin. The first 10 lines – which we herein consider – begin with the letters of their composer’s name: COLUMBANUS. I’m sure the fact that the two names – Columbanus and Hunaldus – are comprised of 17 letters, thus requiring 17 lines, must have delighted Columbanus no end, for both 10 and 7 are Biblical numbers of perfection. Each line consists of 6 feet of varied poetic meters. I have rendered the 6 feet of each line in dactyls (DUH-duh-duh, like saying everything). That, too must have had importance for Columbanus, since the poem is about people in time, and 6 is a number used in Scripture to represent temporal matters (6 days to work, for example).
Columbanus’ main point is easily identified: Time is changeable and short; make the best possible use of it for eternity. The things of this life allure and distract us. We should seek only what we need of this world’s goods, and guard our minds against greed and vanity. The luxuries of life, and all its silver and gold, are not nearly as valuable or dearly to be sought as are virtue and decency. We are deceived if we think we can find peace in the things of this life. Real peace – the highest peace – is known only in eternal life, in knowing God and Jesus Christ, and keeping focused on our King as we journey through this life.
The fool in Jesus’ parable believed that just a little bit more of everything would make his life complete. He forgot that our lives are not in our hands, and that at any moment we may be called to account for the way we have used God’s most precious temporal gift, the time of our lives.
By using his initials to begin these 10 lines, Columbanus seems to be saying that the preciousness of time was perhaps his most defining theme. God gives us the time of our lives, moment by moment, so that we may receive it with gratitude, invest it with diligence, spend it in worship and service, and send it back to the Lord for His praise and glory.
It’s a theme, in these very distracting and materialistic times, that we should make sure is one of our defining themes as well.
Questions for Reflection
1. Meditate on Ephesians 5.15-17. What is involved in “redeeming” the time God gives us?
2. Meditate on Psalm 90.12-17. How might you use this prayer of Moses at the beginning of each day?
Psalm 90.12-17 (Landas: My Faith Has Found a Resting Place)
Lord, teach us all our days to note that wisdom may be ours.
Return, O Lord, have pity on those servants who are Yours.
Each morning let Your love appear that we for joy may sing.
And make us glad for every day You us affliction bring.
Now let Your work to us appear; our children show Your might.
And let Your favor rest on us; show mercy in Your sight.
The work that You have given us, confirm, and to us show,
That we Your chosen path may walk and in Your precepts go.
Thank You, Father, for the gift of time. Help me always to use the time You give me for…
The Preciousness of Time
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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 this and subsequent quotations, I am in general following the translation in Sancti Columbani Opera, G. S. M. Walker, ed. (Dublin: The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1957), pp. 185-187, although I make adjustments to capture more faithfully the Latin structure of the poem.