“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” [Matthew 28:19]
The Apostles and those who joined and who followed them took our Lord’s admonition so seriously that within a few hundred years of the Resurrection and Ascension, their missionary efforts had brought the story of our salvation to most of the known world. Exactly how and by whom and by what route Christianity was taken to the British Isles we do not know, but by the grace of God, there were Christians being washed in the waters of Baptism and living by the Bread of the Eucharist in this most remote part of the Roman Empire in the second century and possibly earlier.
Did St. Joseph of Arimathea (possibly with St. Philip the Apostle) travel to this land, as many legends (East and West) claim? Were there Christians among the Roman legions stationed in Britain until the year 410? Did merchants who sold their wares from the Mediterranean through Gaul and on to Britain also bring word of the Triune God?
Whatever its origins – and despite the hardship of being a minority religion in a predominantly pagan land – Christianity was alive and flourishing in pockets of Britain for hundreds of years before the “official” missionaries arrived from Rome in 597.
According to St. Bede, the Church historian, Pope Eleutherus received a request for baptism from a British king around the year 167; St. Alban, the first known British martyr is thought to have received his crown of glory in either the persecutions of 209 or 305; British bishops are recorded as having attended the Council of Arles in 314; and by the 5th century there were numerous monasteries, particularly throughout Ireland. It was the men in these monasteries who, by their constant prayers, their daily recitation of the Psalms, and their zeal to share the faith who kept alive the light of Christianity. One of those monks was St. Columba.
Born into a royal clan in Donegal in the year 521, Columba showed a desire to follow God at an early age. His education was begun by his parish priest and he was later sent to be further educated by St. Finnian of Clonard who ordained him to the diaconate. Columba loved the monastic life and founded several monasteries in his native land – Derry, Durrow and possibly Kells, in which the beautifully illuminated Book of Kells was produced. Miraculous works were reported of the deacon Columba and he was known as a skilled scribe and a poet in the tradition of the Irish bards.
Something happened in the year 561 which changed the course of the monk’s life. There are several stories about what that momentous event was: some say that he was instrumental in inciting the people to avenge the death of a young man who had been murdered; others say that columba was involved in a fight over refusing to return a Psalter which he had copied for another monastery. Whatever the reason, Columba and twelve of his fellow monks left Ireland two years later for Scotland, the land of the Picts. Here they were given a small island for their use and the monastic community of Iona, with Columba as abbot, was established.
Columba’s penitential exile lasted for the rest of his life, and during this time the monks converted the pagans of the area to Christianity and built churches, strengthening a missionary tradition that was to continue after Columba’s death and spread from this land to continental Europe.
In Saints of the British Isles, Columba is said to have “looked upon the monastic life as military service for Christ, and the organization of the monastery reflected this. He practiced great asceticism, often retiring for prayer at night to solitary places, or by day into the woods. His bed was a stone.” [pg. 93-94] Columba maintained communication among the monastic communities he had founded, acting as the spiritual head of all, with local leaders under his authority. This unique custom was continued by Columba’s successors. He and his monks also maintained communication with the broader society back in Ireland. When the Irish high king expected the monks to contribute to an army, they instead provided him with a fleet. At an assembly in Druin Cetta around 580, the question of the social position of bards was being discussed, and Columba was instrumental in helping to preserve the status of these educated members of Irish society.
Separated as they were from much of the Christian world, the monks of Iona and other monasteries in Ireland and Scotland were unaware of Conciliar decisions regarding the figuring of the date of Pascha, following instead an ancient custom taught them by the anonymous first Christian leaders in this area. This became a major subject of conflict in the next century when there were contacts between the Roman missionaries and the Irish. The controversy was eventually settled at the Synod of Whitby in 664 (and Iona complied in 715) so that all the Christian world eventually came to celebrate the Feast of the Resurrection together.
St. Columba’s last years were spent quietly in Iona, writing and copying manuscripts and continuing the ascetic life of prayer. There are three extant Latin poems which are thought to be St. Columba’s compositions, and the Irish Academy has a Psalter whose Irish majuscule writing is believed to be the work of the saint.
On the morning of June 9, 597 (the same year that St. Augustine and his monks arrived in Kent to begin their missionary work among the Anglo-Saxons), Abbot Columba remained in the church after the night office. He gave up his soul to God before the altar where his monks found him as they arrived for Matins. St. Columba had lived a long, faithful life and his contribution to the spread of Christianity among the people of Irish and Scottish heritage lives on today. May God be praised in the witness of his saints.
Sources: A History of the English Church and People by Bede, tr. Leo Sherley-Price; Christianity in England from Roman Times to the Reformation, Vol. I: From Roman Times to 1066, Kenneth Hylson-Smith; Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, F. L. Cross, ed.; Saints of the British Isles, A. Bond andN. Mabin; The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Hugh Farmer.]