Colum Cille, “Adiutor laborantium” (6th
century) O helper of workers,
ruler of all the good,
guard on the ramparts
and defender of the faithful,
who lift up the lowly
and crush the proud,
ruler of the faithful,
enemy of the impenitent,
judge of all judges,
who punish those who err,
pure life of the living,
light and Father of lights
shining with great light,
denying to none of the hopeful
your strength and help,
I beg that me, a little man
trembling and most wretched,
rowing through the infinite storm
of this age,
Christ may draw after Him to the lofty
most beautiful haven of life
holy hymn forever.
From the envy of enemies you lead me
into the joy of paradise.
Through you, Christ Jesus,
who live and reign…
Translation, Thomas Owen Clancy and Gilbert Márkus, Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery
“Adiutor laborantium” – “Helper of Workers” – is one of two poems ascribed to Colum Cille, the founder and first abbot of the monastery on Iona, and one of the greatest saints of the mid-6th
century. Whereas the other poem, “Altus Prosator” – “Exalted First-Sower” – celebrates the majesty, greatness, and transcendence of God, this poem shows us a Father Who is concerned about the everyday details of our lives, that we might know His presence and rest amid all our trials and travails. The two poems together reveal much about the spirit and ministry of Colum, and about the period of the Celtic Revival.
Colum was a deeply spiritual man, scholarly, disciplined, and gifted with “second sight”, an evangelist, poet, and teacher of many. Though he left little in the way of written material, the Life
composed by Adomnán a century later gives us what the writer insists (over and over) is a true portrait of the man. Exiled from Ireland under mysterious circumstances, Column settled on the island of Iona off the coast of Scotland, where he established a great monastery, from which he and many others set forth to proclaim the Kingdom of Christ. Colum was regarded as the “head” of Irish Christianity up to the Synod of Whitby, in 664, when the Irish bishops yielded to the Roman pontiff, and the Celtic Revival began to wane.
This poem gives us a glimpse into the soul of Colum, a man who led a busy life of study, teaching, evangelizing, and laboring on the grounds and in the fields of the monastery on Iona. Colum understood that he had no strength of his own to do the work God had appointed to him, and here he shows us what must have been for him a daily formula of prayer for seeking the Lord’s help in this life and beyond.
This is an “abecedarian” poem, each line beginning with the next letter of the Latin alphabet (Owen and Márkus explain a couple of exceptions). Each line ends with a word ending in –ium, thus producing a consistent rhyme scheme. The poem is a plea to God, and to the Lord Jesus, for help amid the struggles and trials of this life, and for safety through this life to the eternal haven and paradise of God beyond. By the form of it we can see it was intended as a prayer to be frequently repeated – perhaps while walking to the fields, going on a journey, or moving on to another task – and to be shared with others. In the Latin it could have been easily learned and chanted – probably by various neumes – thus serving as a means for helping men at work keep focused on the Lord Who helps all workers and, beyond that, Who brings us to Himself in glory.
The titles with which Colum addresses God tell us something about his relationship to His Father: helper, ruler, guard, defender, lifter. These are the sentiments of one who knew God in the everyday details of life, and who experienced His presence and glory as a daily necessity and delight. Colum also understood the goodness and severity of God, Who blesses the faithful and opposes the impenitent, and Who is Lord even of human rulers and judges. God was to Colum light and life, hope and strength, a Judge to be feared, yet a Father to be trusted, invoked, and loved. He saw himself as one who was rowing through a stormy life, trusting God to draw him on through every trial to heavenly rest. It is not clear to me what Colum means by “…an unending/holy hymn forever”, but two thoughts come to mind. Colum may have been thinking about heaven, and the continuous singing of saints and angels before the throne of God, a metaphor for the unending devotion of all God’s elect. In certain monasteries of medieval Europe, monks were taught to breathe at different times during their chanting, so that the music itself would not be interrupted, thus reflecting their sense of the music of heaven. Alternately, Colum might have been thinking of his own life, and of this poem as a kind of symbol of his life. Was he praying that God would make him an “unending hymn”? That he would be a perpetual song of praise to God in everything he did? That God’s help to him in all his labors would bring forth from him work to praise and honor God?
It may be that Colum was deliberately vague here, intending us to reflect on both ideas. The poem has a “here and now” as well as a “then and there” focus. Colum is seeking the Lord’s help for his present struggles and labors, but he has an eye on “the joy of paradise” and the eternal rest of the saints when his days of work are done. By this poem he is, as was said of St. Brigit, practicing the life of heaven on earth through meditation and prayer.
This poem encourages me in two ways. First, it reminds us that God is concerned about the daily details of our lives, that He stands ready to be present with and to help all who all upon Him, seeking to honor and glorify Him in all they do. Second, it reminds me of the benefit of poetry and song, of how these can help us in setting our minds on the things that are above, and in practicing prayer without ceasing.
“Adiutor laborantium” is a song of grace, faith, hope, and living out the Kingship of Jesus in the everyday details of life. It gives hope to every “little man”, every “wretched”, “trembling”, struggling soul, that their Father in heaven knows their needs even before they ask, and stands ready to come to their aid when they ask in the name of Jesus for His help.
T. M. Moore For more insight to the legacy of the Celtic Christian period, order a copy of T. M.’s book, The Legacy of Patrick, from our online store.