Colum Cille (17)
Faith together with works,
eagerness together with steadfastness,
tranquility together with zeal,
chastity together with humility,
poverty together with generosity,
silence together with conversation,
division together with equality,
patience without resentment,
fervour without harshness,
mildness together with fairness,
confidence without carelessness,
fear without despair,
poverty without arrogance,
confession without excuses,
teaching together with fulfilling,
climbing without falling,
being low toward the lofty,
being smooth toward the harsh,
work without grumbling,
guilelessness together with prudence,
humility without laxity,
religion without hypocrisy—
all these things are contained in holiness.
- Colmán mac Beógnai, “The Alphabet of Devotion”
Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.
- 2 Corinthians 7.1
Most of the monasteries that served as bases for community, worship, instruction, and mission during the period of the Celtic Revival were governed by a rule of discipline. When, in the mid-6th century, Brendan set out to form his own monastic community, one of the first things he did was to read all the monastic rules he could, hoping to learn from them how he ought to structure the community he would form at Clonfert.
One significant exception to this practice of having a common rule was the community founded by Colum Cille on Iona. While no monastic rule existed to instruct the monks how they should live and work together, everyone seemed to have known what was expected of them, and few, if any, fell out of favor with the community.
Colmán mac Beógnai was a student of Colum Cille and a member of the Iona community. He composed what he called “The Alphabet of Devotion”—think of it as the “ABCs” of living at Iona—to teach and guide the community according to the teaching and example of Colum Cille. This is our primary source for glimpsing the values, mission, and everyday life of the Iona community.
From the beginning of the “Alphabet”, holiness is the focus. Bringing holiness to completion was an individual calling and a community mandate. Imagine the impact such a community of like-minded and like-living men would make on the people around them. Who would not be deeply affected, seeing lived out the virtues and practices piled together in Colmán’s opening paragraph?
It’s safe to say that nothing like this exists anywhere we have ever experienced, not even in most of our churches. The diversity amid unity, humility and deference, hard work and zeal for life described here were the outcome of Colum Cille’s teaching and example. All who visited the community on Iona discovered the hospitality, devotion, vision, and energy of the place to be unlike anything they’d ever known. And all who came to live, learn, and work there made their contribution to the character of what became known as “Holy Isle.”
The summary of these virtues and practices is “charity” which produces holiness. The key to this “rule” of life was in fearing and loving God and being entirely subject to His will. This is life in the Kingdom of heaven as Colum taught it, Colmán experienced it, and the monks and community on Iona lived it for more than a hundred years.
Colum understood very well the fear of God. His early penitential poem, “Exalted First Sower”, portrays God as sovereign over all the cosmos, a Being of infinite wisdom, majesty, goodness, and power Who rules the vast cosmos according to His will and for His glory. The wise will get in step with this God, Colum taught, and forsake all temporal ambitions and material comforts to serve Him. Through Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit, all who believe may learn the fear and love of God by studying His Word. But they must study not merely to learn but to practice. As Colmán wrote, only those who learn and practice the fear and love of God will increase in charity and holiness and know the blessings of God in this life and beyond.
What was true for the monks on Iona is true for us as well.
Questions for Reflection
1. What is holiness? How would you explain holiness to an unbelieving friend?
2. How would you explain to a new believer what it means to bring holiness to completion in the fear of God?
Psalm 86.4-6 (Andrews: Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven)
Lift up my soul, fill me with gladness;
LORD, You are good, You will soon forgive.
Show me abundant lovingkindness;
let all who call on You ever live.
LORD, be gracious to me, LORD, be gracious to me,
heed to my poor pleading give.
Lord, You have called me to be holy. Help me to increase in holiness today so that I…
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.
 In John Carey, King of Mysteries: Early Irish Religious Writings (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1998), p. 233.