Celtic Spiritual Poetry (12)
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, and ever despise transitory treasures…
- Columbanus, “Verses to Sethus” (ca. 700 AD)
Then He said to them, “Therefore every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old.”
- Matthew 13.52
Columbanus can sound like a bit of a killjoy. We have seen that he urges us not to waste our time on frivolous, transient, fleeting, worldly things. We are to invest the gift of time God gives us in eternal matters, in virtue, in seeking the Kingdom of God, and in contemplating Jesus.
To many people – including, I fear, many Christians – what Columbanus prescribes sounds a little, well, dull.
But he was serious about it, and we find him hammering away at this same theme in his poem to Sethus, another of his students and monks. This is a long poem consisting of 77 lines of Latin hexameter verse. I have not set this in hexameters, but am using Walker’s translation, since I’m only going to examine this selection from the poem.
I won’t say anything more about the form of the poem. Instead, I want to look at how Columbanus viewed those eternal, spiritual matters which he commended to Hunaldo and Sethus as worthy of their time. He described these as treasures. Treasures! That should get our attention. Whatever he is about to recommend in place of the fleeting pleasures of this world are things to be treasured, to delight in, enjoy, benefit from, and share with others. Life in Christ and His Spirit begins in the soul. With the mind we consider, analyze, and work to understand matters. With the heartwe cherish and delight in what we have come to understand. And with the conscience we set these things as default values, to guide everything else we do with the time of our lives.
Columbanus had come to understand the value of the things he was about to recommend. He had spent his entire adult life learning to love and delight in these treasures, and to so fix them in his conscience that he would not easily depart from them. The treasures he held out to Sethus, and us, enriched him with vision, courage, zeal for Christ, and a joyful life of fruitful ministry. He treasured these things because he had found them to be truly treasurable, and valuable beyond anything else he could have wanted.
And what were these treasures that Columbanus commended as deserving of the time of our lives?
The teachings of divine law, first of all. Columbanus means all of Scripture, including the Law of God, in this recommendation. He wanted us to feed on the Word of God, to count it out, passage by passage and book by book, and to spend it as the richest capital and currency of our lives, to become so acquainted with and prudent in the use of Scripture, that we would find ourselves daily enriched by reading, studying, meditating, and obeying the Word of God. As Jesus explained, our great treasure is in the Old and New Testaments, the whole counsel of God in Scripture. We will be impoverished in faith unless this is the cornerstone of our spiritual portfolio and treasure.
From Scripture, we turn to great teachers of the faith, to find from them guidance in living “a chaste life.” We have much to learn from saints like Columbanus, Colum Cille, and all the great teachers, pastors, and theologians of the past and present. We should study their works – “All that the learned masters have written before” – and work to imitate their examples, for in so doing, we will be enriched as followers of Christ.
This includes the heritage of poetry and hymns which adorn the ages of Christian faith. It is one of the great tragedies of our day that contemporary Christians know almost nothing about either of these. They read no poetry, not even the many excellent poems of our Christian forebears; and they are rapidly becoming strangers to the heritage of hymns from the earliest Church to the present. Our services of worship are filled with “new songs to the Lord,” and while it is perfectly good and worshipful to sing many of these, we must not do so at the expense of leaving our past behind. We enrich ourselves in faith and life by remembering and singing the great hymns of the past.
Columbanus considered such things as treasures – the teaching and example, and the heritage of poetry and hymns that our Christian forebears have left us. He indulged these treasures liberally, and by them God enriched his faith, enlarged his Personal Mission Field, and gave him joy abounding in every situation in his life.
We might say he lived like a rich man with an unlimited treasure, and we would be exactly correct.
Question for Reflection
1. What “treasure” fills your life with joy? How full is your treasury of the things Columbanus prescribed?
2. Why should we expect to know joy, peace, courage, and fruitfulness by “spending and investing” the treasure Columbanus prescribed?
Psalm 42.1-8 (Nettleton: Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing)
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?”
Now I pour my soul out in me as these thoughts come to my mind.
And I long to once again be where true worship I might find.
Oh my soul, be not despairing! Hope in God, and praise His Name!
For the Lord, your burden bearing, will restore your peace again.
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, work in my heart, so that I love the treasures You have provided for me and…
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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.
The translation is in Sancti Columbani Opera, G. S. M. Walker, ed. (Dublin: The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1957), p. 187.