- T.M. Moore
- October 12, 2023
Ireland to Iona, the hard way.
Colum Cille (7)
At the time when the blessed man first sailed away from Ireland, to be a pilgrim, two years after the battle of Cúl drebene…
- Adomnán, Life of Columba
Cutting short Ciarán’s life, and sending Colum cille over the sea, and expelling Mochutu from Rathen, these are the three bad stories of the saints of Erin.
- Oengus mac Oengobann, The Martyrology of Oengus
[Colum Cille] left the gospel which he had written with his own hand in sign of the covenant between himself and Berach; and he left abundant blessings with Berach, and proceeded on his way.
- Life of Berach
And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. Then they all wept freely, and fell on Paul’s neck and kissed him, sorrowing most of all for the words which he spoke, that they would see his face no more. And they accompanied him to the ship.
- Acts 20.36-38
The details of why Colum Cille left Ireland for Iona are sketchy. Those I have noted are about as much as we get, in addition to a few other, later additions. James F. Kenney reports that a document from the fourteenth century includes the story of Colum’s pilgrimage, which was occasioned by his quarrel with “Diarmait mac Cerr-béil, over this king’s judgment on the rights to a copy of a manuscript, and of the synod of Tailtíu, at which [Colum] was threatened with excommunication.”
The account, as I have tried to piece it together, goes something like this. Colum, studying at Clonard with Finnian, was invited to make a copy of a gospel book, probably a manuscript containing all four gospels. This no doubt would have thrilled him immensely, so great was his love for the Word of God. As we have seen, he requested Ciarán to lend him the monastery’s copy of the gospel book, so he could use it in making his own.
Apparently, either Colum made this copy and another, which he determined to keep for himself; or he simply tried to keep the copy he was making. But at Clonard, as at most Irish monasteries, the monks had very little personal property, and all the books copied in the monastery’s scriptorium were the possession of the monastery, to be used for training and in evangelistic efforts.
Finnian, exercising his proper authority as abbot of Clonard, requested the gospel book Colum had been copying. But Colum refused to surrender it—whether the one copy or the second one he had made for himself. Finnian appealed the dispute to the local king, Diarmait mac Cerr-béil—the monastery’s protector—and he ruled in favor of Clonard. The book was surrendered, and Colum returned home to raise an army. A battle ensued at Cúl drebene and many were killed. When he realized what he had done, Colum repented and appeared before the synod of Tailtíu for discipline. He was threatened with excommunication but was offered exile as an alternative. He accepted exile.
It seems that, whether out of compassion for him or in seeking to encourage him in his exile, the synod allowed him to keep his gospel book, which he subsequently entrusted to Berach before leaving for Iona, a gesture of surrendering his gospel book to its rightful owners.
In retrospect, it seems, the Irish regretted expelling Colum, though there is no denying he allowed his passions to overrule sound judgment in provoking a war with Diarmait. No life is so lost, so wretched, so befouled, that it cannot be soundly converted and put to glorious use by our Lord Jesus Christ. Consider the apostle Paul. At one time he was feared, and doubtless hated, by believers throughout Jerusalem and the region. But by the time he had returned to Ephesus, his friends wept at the thought they might not ever see him again.
His past was deplorable. But God redeemed him. And though he would suffer exile of his own—to Rome—yet he, as Colum would six centuries later, made excellent use of his time there for the sake of the Kingdom and glory of Jesus Christ.
Nothing you or I have done is so terrible that it should keep us from seeking the Lord and longing to serve Him day by day. Our Father knows the depths of our sin, and He sent Jesus to cancel them for us. In His grace and forgiveness, we can be daily renewed to serve and glorify Him.
Christians do not live in the past—at least, not in our sinful past. We live for the future, to make the most of all our time, taking one day at a time, and doing everything in that day for the glory of God (Eph. 4.15-17; Matt. 6.34; 1 Cor. 10.31). We may not establish a world class missionary training institute, like Colum did; but, like him, if we are faithful in daily working our own Personal Mission Field, we can believe that God will renew and refresh us daily, and use us for His glory in ways that only we could be used.
We may feel like exiles at times because of past sins; but any exile we may experience is merely God’s next step in His plan to get glory through our faithfulness. Find your own Iona and work it as diligently as Colum worked his. You’ll be amazed what God can do.
1. Have you identified your Personal Mission Field? Watch this brief video, download the worksheet, and get started today.
2. Do you have a prayer partner? Someone to pray for you as you work your Personal Mission Field, and for whom you can pray as they work theirs?
Psalm 51.14-19 (Aughton: He Leadeth Me)
Deliver us, from guilt, O LORD, You Who have saved us by Your Word;
and let our tongues Your mercy bless, and sing of Your great righteousness!
Refrain vv. 15, 18
LORD, open now our lips to raise to You sweet songs of joyous praise!
Thus let Your favor on us fall, and build and strengthen Zion’s wall!
No sacrifice, no offering would You have us, Your people, bring;
but broken spirits, cleansed of lies, and pure hearts You will not despise.
Now build Your Church, raise high the wall of those who on Your mercy call.
And take our lives and let them be sweet sacrifices, LORD, to Thee!
Lord, open new opportunities for me to serve You today, so that I may…
T. M. Moore
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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.
 Adomnán, p. 31
 Oengus mac Oengobann, p. 205.
 Charles Plummer, Lives of Irish Saints, Vol. II (London: Oxford University Press, 1922), p. 39.
 James F. Kenney, The Sources for the Early History of Ireland: Ecclesiastical (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1968, 1993), p. 435.
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 the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore