Feast of St. Columba of Iona

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Pilgrims on the island of Iona off Scotland’s northwest coast. Photograph by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

MONDAY, JUNE 9: You don’t have to travel to Scotland to honor St. Columba, the brilliant 6th-century Irish monk who still is inspiring pilgrims around the world. In fact, wherever they live in the world, descendants of the Clans MacCallum, Malcom and MacKinnon all claim spiritual connection to Columba. Those first two families bear echoes of his name, which was spelled in many different forms. The latter family, the MacKinnons, were abbots of Iona through a number of generations.

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Iona Abbey. Photo by John Hile.

Of course, the epicenter of St. Columba spirituality today is the tiny isle of Iona in the Atlantic Ocean off the northwest coast of Scotland. The island’s lore and legacy are spread worldwide by the Iona Community of men and women who try to follow the spiritual ideals inherited from St. Columba’s community. Iona has produced a remarkably influential circle of teachers and musicians. ReadTheSpirit magazine has featured interviews with the Celtic-Christian writer John Philip Newell, long associated with the Iona Community.

The Isle of Iona still attracts swarms of visitors during the summer months. Anyone can travel to the island and tour the sites administered now by Historic Scotland, roughly equivalent to the U.S. National Parks Service. There is a pleasant hotel on the island, which is open to the public. But, visitors hoping to experience one of the traditional Iona retreats in the abbey need to register long in advance with the Iona Community, starting by checking out information on Iona’s website.

Care to see a bit of the island for yourself? ReadTheSpirit took a fascinating pilgrimage to Iona in 2007! Check out the series, including videos.

WHO WAS ST. COLUMBA?

The Irish-born Columba studied at Clonard Abbey as a youth, amid others who would become some of the most influential figures in Irish Christian history. Of the thousands who studied at Clonard during the 6th century, a mere 12 stood out in the crowd and became known as the Twelve Apostles of Ireland; Columba was one of these 12. (Wikipedia has details.) St. Columba went on to be ordained as a priest and founded several monasteries. However, he also was accused of committing a crime that led to many deaths—and, in his efforts to “right a wrong,” cemented his name in history.

According to tradition, St. Columba copied the Book of Psalms while studying at Clonard Abbey, intending to keep his copy. When his instructor demanded the copy be handed over, Columba refused—and battle broke out. Rather than be excommunicated, St. Columba suggested he become a missionary in Scotland, to spread Christianity there. With 12 men in tow, Columba traveled to Scotland and didn’t stop until he reached a place where he could no longer see his native country: the island of Iona. Great success ensued, and soon, the man who had once been on the brink of excommunication was converting hundreds, eventually winning the affections of the pagan King Bridei and playing a role in Scottish politics. (Historic UK has more.) The “Vita Columbae” documents Columba’s miracles (which include an encounter with a Loch Ness Monster); his prophesies (which include one of his own death); and his apparitions. Columba also left behind several monasteries and hundreds of books when, according to records, he left the earthly world with such a smile on his face that those around him knew of the angels he had seen.

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