There is something difficult for twentieth-century minds to grasp in this seventh-century Irishman who by choice lived below our poverty level; who founded a series of monasteries among foreign peoples; who made friends of bears and squirrels in a forest retreat; who wrote and enforced the severest ascetic rules; who took it upon himself to give advice to popes and dared to rebuke rulers with power to put him to death; who preached diligently from a fund of biblical knowledge; who was unsurpassed in classical learning among his contemporaries, loving and in a free way imitating the Latin poets; and who in his late years wrote a versified letter in a rare meter…
- John T. McNeill, The Celtic Churches
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom…
- Colossians 3.16
I mentioned that Columbanus was a man immersed in God. John T. McNeill elaborates on that point by outlining the great learning and wisdom Columbanus brought to his work. He was a diligent student of the Scriptures. All his writings reflect a mind ready with Scriptural insights and allusions to support and further his arguments. And it was not simply that he understood the Bible, or merely had a good grasp of its teaching. The Word of God shaped Columbanus from the inside out. The power, courage, and perseverance he demonstrated throughout his ministry are the outward evidence of the inward, active power of the living Word of God.
Columbanus’ erudition was grounded in Scripture, but it did not end there. He was a student of the created world, where he spent much time in solitude with God, meditating on the creatures and places that made up the environment of his monasteries. He wrote that we cannot know the Creator apart from understanding His creation, for God reveals Himself in all His works, granting us glimpses of glory and workings of wisdom in even the most everyday aspects of our surroundings.
But he went even further. His writings demonstrate a knowledge of the writings of his Christian forebears and contemporaries. He mentioned, in a letter to Pope Gregory, that he had read his treatise on the work of pastors and derived much benefit from it. He takes the writings of Church Fathers into his own oeuvre with a seamlessness and ease that make it clear these were friends and mentors whose counsel he cherished.
And Columbanus studied the best writings of pagan writers as well, understanding that God’s common grace extends even to the lost, and that we can learn from the likes of the Latin and Greek poets about the nature of the human soul and the ways of the world.
God makes Himself known through all these avenues of revelation. Because he was so strongly rooted in the Word of God, Columbanus was able to let what God revealed there guide him in how to consider, assess, and make use of the revelation of the Lord oozing and flashing from various sources in creation and culture. The power of his ministry flowed from these founts, since each of the two “books” of divine revelation— Scripture and creation/culture—enabled Columbanus to maintain vital communion with God, and to know His presence growing within him.
Columbanus’ great learning was never merely for information or show. He was seeking wisdom, the life of Christ—the Wisdom of God (Prov. 8)—lived out through his own life. Learning that does not lead to such transformation has not yet realized its true purpose and end. Christ is the great treasury of all wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2.2, 3); we have truly learned, in whatever field we are studying, when Christlikeness and praise to Jesus are more consistently present in us.
We who know the Lord have the great privilege and calling of growing in Him, increasing in knowledge of His Word, will, and ways, and becoming more like Jesus as a result of all our learning in every field. Let us follow the example of Columbanus, that we may grow in wisdom and love for God, and be better prepared to serve the people around us from the power of His indwelling presence and inexhaustible grace.
1. Are you faithful in “reading” from both books of divine revelation—Scripture and creation?
2. What can you do to improve your use of each of these?
Psalm 145.1-12 (Brother James’ Air: The Lord’s My Shepherd, I’ll Not Want)
I will extol You, God, my King, and ever praise Your Name!
I bless You, Lord, for everything each day, and e’er the same!
Great are You, Lord, my praise I bring; unsearchable Your fame!
To ev’ry generation we Your wondrous works shall tell.
The splendor of Your majesty we contemplate full well.
We speak of all Your mighty deeds and all Your greatness tell!
Then shall we all the glorious fame of Your great goodness sing –
Your righteousness, Your gracious Name, Your mercy: praise we bring!
Your steadfast love remains the same, mercy our covering.
Your works shall thank You; all Your saints shall bless and praise You, Lord.
Your reign we bless without restraint; Your power fills our words.
Our children we shall educate in all Your splendor, Lord.
Lord, help me to grow into Jesus’ likeness as I…
Knowing, loving, and serving Jesus
All true learning leads us to Jesus and helps us to become more like Him. But how does that work? And how can we improve in this? Our book Know, Love, Serve offers a tour de force of the disciplines of knowledge, showing how we can grow through good use of them all. Order your free 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.
 John T. McNeill, The Celtic Churches (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1974), pp. 167, 168.