Today the church commemorates Columba of Iona, the celebrated Celtic saint. He was born in about 521 in Donegal, Ireland, and attended several monastic schools before becoming a monk himself. He founded several monasteries, including probably those at Kells and Derry, but after a dispute with his former mentor, Finian, he left Ireland with twelve companions and landed eventually on the tiny island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides, just off the coast of Scotland. He founded a community there, built an abbey church and used the place as a springboard for mission throughout Scotland and beyond at a time when much of the country was untouched by Christianity. The community grew considerably and Columba was well known by the time of his death on this day in 597. He was instrumental in bringing Christianity to many people in his lifetime.
A community still exists on Iona but it is of much more recent origin, having been founded in 1938 by George Macleod, with the intention of continuing the work that Columba had begun, although in very different circumstances. It is an ecumenical community of men and women from many different walks of life and from very different traditions within the Christian church. Iona remains a place of pilgrimage and retreat (thousands visit every year) and is the source of many prayer books and worship resources following the Celtic ideal of simplicity and reverence for the awesome power of almighty God.
Columba, along with many other Celtic saints, sang praises to the skies. They memorised prayers and scripture so that their worship would not be restricted to books or churches but could be taken out and celebrated in the wider world. The approach was, as far as possible, one of naturalness and with the avoidance of affectation or elaboration. This ease and openness may explain why Columba and his fellow monks were so successful in their missionary activity.
It is this association with the natural that has led many to associate Celtic spirituality, and the work of Iona in particular, simply with the natural world – an appreciation of the beauty and wonder of the created order as seen in the mountains, seas and skies which are so majestic in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Whilst this is true to an extent it is important to remember that Columba and his followers saw God in what was around them – the stunning natural world. For many people today that is much more difficult and most live in crowded, polluted cities where the sun does not often seem to shine. But God is there too – he is in the lowest of places as well as the nicest. The headquarters of the new Iona community is actually in Glasgow and the focus of their mission is to the poor and deprived of that city. Columba would have approved. His focus was on bringing Christ to those who did not know him and who desperately need the love of God. His focus and his method was simple, direct. Perhaps attributes that we need to remember in our mission today?
Christ our life, you are alive in the beauty of the earth, in the rhythm of the seasons, in the mystery of time and space. Alleluia.
Christ our life, you are alive in the tenderness of touch, in the heartbeat of intimacy, in the insights of solitude. Alleluia
Christ our life, you are alive in the creative possibility of the dullest conversation, the dreariest task, the most threatening event. Alleluia
Christ our life, you are alive to offer re-creation to every unhealed hurt, to every deadened place, to every damaged heart. Alleluia
You set before us a great choice.
Therefore we choose life.
The dance of resurrection soars and surges through the whole creation.
It sets gifts of bread and wine upon our table.
This is grace, dying we live.
So let us live.
A prayer written by Kathy Galloway of the Iona community.