Celtic Spiritual Poetry (11)
Hear, my friend, these little verses I’ve sent, that you may read them frequently.
Unto your ears, I pray, these little words of mine may often resonate.
Never allow any vain, passing pleasure to cheat or beguile you.
All of the power of rulers and kings is but fleeting, my faithful one;
Likewise, the glory of temporal life slips by quickly, and perishes.
Do, friend, forgive me if any of my words offend or unsettle you.
Only remember: Avoid every excess; your needs met, be satisfied.
- Columbauns, “Verses to Hunaldo” (ca. 700 AD)
If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.
- Colossians 3.1, 2
The second stanza of Columbanus’ poem to Hunaldo continues the pattern of the first: The first letter of each line spells out the recipient’s name, and the six hexameters of each line – here again in dactyls –direct the teaching of the first 10 lines more pointedly to the recipient of the poem.
The focus shifts, as can be seen by the increased use of second person pronouns (“you”, “your”) which, although these appeared in the first stanza, are now more pointed and personal; and the change from the indicative to the imperative or hortatory mood. Columbanus wants Hunaldo – and all his students and monks – to be frequently reminded that the things we can see, and that we might be tempted to seek in this life, are fleeting and deceitful. He wants Hunaldo to read this poem often, and to allow it to settle into his “ears”. Thus he will be reminded to guard against every “passing pleasure” that can easily deceive and mislead. He will not fear “the power of rulers and kings” but will continue faithfully in the service of the Gospel. He will seek no glory for himself, but only that which lasts – the glory of Christ and His Kingdom.
Columbanus did not want Hunaldo to think that he was suggesting he was guilty of any particular sin. This poem was intended merely as a reminder and warning, to be shared with his colleagues for their mutual benefit. He asks pardon if he has offended in any way, or if he has troubled his friend’s soul. He concludes with a summary: Avoid all excesses. Learn contentment. The Lord will meet all your needs, and that’s really all you need to be concerned about in the time of your life.
Like, Columbanus, Paul understood that, while we live in a world of many visible and pressing temptations, this is not our true or final orientation. To make the most of the time God gives us each day, we need to set our minds on Christ, exalted in glory, and ruling at the right hand of God. By focusing on Him and His beauty, power, holiness, and agenda, we will learn to desire the things that last. Seeking the Kingdom of Christ – the daily advance, on earth as in heaven, of His rule of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Spirit – will become the defining motif of our lives, and will guide the use we make of our time and everything in it.
As believers, we are not often taught how to recognize and deal with temptation. We’re urged to confess our sins, when we become aware of them; but Paul also instructs us to keep an eye out for any temptations that may cause us to stumble into sin (1 Cor. 10.13). To be tempted is not to sin; Jesus was tempted throughout His life, but He overcame in every case. As Martin Luther is alleged to have put it: “You can’t stop the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from making a nest in your hair.”
When temptation presents an opportunity to sin, we have to make a choice. Either we will fall through that temptation into sin, and thus hinder our progress in the Lord. Or we will grow through that temptation by resisting the devil, fixing our eyes on Jesus, and continuing in the path of obedience to the Lord. By daily setting our minds on Christ, radiant in holiness and grace, and seeking always to allow His light to shine on our path, we will be able both to recognize the temptations that threaten to unhorse us, and to deal with them to preserve contentment and grow in our relationship with the Lord.
The time of our lives is a time of temptation. We need to work constantly at recognizing and resisting the allure of sin, and living in contentment with the Lord. Start the day by meditating on Jesus, seeking the mercy and grace of the Lord to sustain you throughout the day. You’ll be ready for whatever excess or distraction may threaten to snare you, so that, rather than fall through temptation into sin, you will grow through it into greater sanctification and joy.
Questions for Reflection
1. Meditate on Romans 7.7. How could you improve your ability to recognize temptation?
2. When temptation appears, how can focusing on Jesus and seeking grace through prayer help you to prevail?
Psalm 73.16-24 (Ellacombe: Hosanna, Loud Hosanna)
Into Your presence, Lord, I come and see the sinner’s end:
In slippery places they must run; to judgment them You send.
Destruction all at once must fall when You Your anger raise;
And terror will beset them all both now and all their days.
When my poor sad, embittered heart was pierced within by grace,
I saw how beastly was the part I chose before Your face.
But I am ever with You, Lord, You hold me by the hand,
And guide me daily by Your Word; in glory I e’er shall stand.
Set my heart to recognize and resist temptation today, O Lord, and help me to use the time of my life to…
Joy to Your World!
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See Jesus in Psalm 45
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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.