They that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing.
Psalm xxxiv. 10.
SUCH were the last words which Columba wrote on the eve of his death. 'Here,' he said, when he finished the verse as he was transcribing the Psalter, 'I must stop at the close of the page; my scholar shall write what follows.' And most truly his biographer adds, 'This verse was appropriate to the master as the next was to the disciple—" Come ye children, hearken unto me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord."' Brethren, we hearken now and seek to learn the lesson while our thoughts go back to that early morning nearly 1,300 years ago, when, as on this day, the promise found fulfilment on the desolate shore of Iona, and the teaching of a life of sacrifice was consummated.
The death of Columba was a true revelation of the saint. Twice, as it is related, the time of his departure had been delayed; once through the prayers of the churches that his help might still be continued to them, and once by his own prayer that his decease might not disturb the joy of Easter. But at last his Sabbath, his rest-day, as he called it, which he had foreseen, drew near. He knew that he must render to God on the morrow the life which had been entrusted to him. With tender thought for his household he went to the monastery barn and blessed it, and thanked God that his monks had still a year's supply in store. Afterwards he climbed the little knoll which overlooked the monastery itself, and blessed his house, and foretold how kings of foreign lands and saints of other Churches should do reverence to the mean and lowly place; then he returned to his own poor hut and continued a work of his early days, a transcription of the Psalter, till he paused at the words I have taken for my text. The evening service then followed; after this he went to rest, with a bare rock, as Adamnan says, for straw, and a stone for his pillow. So resting he gave his parting counsel. 'These, my little children,' he said, 'are my last words. I charge you to keep unfeigned love one with another. If you do so after the pattern of the fathers, God, the champion of the good, will help you..,' At midnight the bell sounded for matins.
Columba sprang up and entering the church before any of the brethren fell on his knees before the altar. A faithful attendant followed, and saw from afar the whole church flooded with angelic light. When he came to the door the light vanished; but groping his way through the darkness, he found the saint and lifted up his head and placed it in his bosom. By this time the brethren had come in with lights, and burst into lamentation at the sight of their dying master. Columba opened his eyes and looked round with an expression of marvellous gladness, for (his biographer adds) he saw the angel who had come to meet him, and responding to the action of his friend he feebly raised his hand that he might give by a sign the benediction which he could not pronounce with his failing breath. And so, like his Lord, he passed away in blessing.
The scene rises vividly before us, after the long centuries, with an unchanged and unchangeable message of victorious devotion. The hope, the prophecy of Columba still find fulfilment. He is to-day a living Evangelist on the crowded banks of the Wear, among people of another tongue, as on the desolate rocks of the place of his chosen exile. In different forms, under strange varieties of circumstance, his influence has found scope in this distant country. When Oswald was preparing himself for what seemed to D. S. 12
be a desperate conflict, Columba, it is said, appeared to him in a vision and with cheering words nerved him for victory. The cathedral at Durham claimed to possess among its treasures some of his relics; and now in our latest age a church is raised here to bear his name and bring, as we trust, something of his spirit among us, a spirit purified by the discipline of great sorrows in the power of peace.
We desire to honour the memory of Columba, and happily his portrait has been preserved to us in a life by Adamnan, which has justly been described as 'the most complete piece of such biography which Europe can boast of to the end of the middle ages. In this we see him as he appeared to those among whom he moved, and we can realise, at least in the broad features, what he was. He was then, in a word, a true man; a true Irishman; with all the virtues and faults of his race; tender, affectionate, self-willed, imperious, even fierce. The words of the Psalmist seem to find expression in his actions: 'How do I hate them, O Lord, that hate Thee.' He was not perfect, but he was a saint, complete, not in faultlessness, but in the unreserved consecration of his whole nature.
When we go further into detail we are guided by the plan of his biographer, who has grouped the memorials of Columba's life under three divisions: his prophecies, his miracles, his visions. By this arrangement he has rightly distinguished Columba's three main characteristics: his power of penetrative sympathy, his love of nature, his depth of spiritual insight. Columba read the heart of man, and therefore he could divine its issues. He felt the unity of creation, and therefore he could decipher some mysteries of its life. He saw the Presence of God, and therefore he could reflect its light. So, reading, feeling, seeing, he mastered, little by little, through struggles and losses, the lesson which we must try to learn, the lesson which he bequeathed at his death, the lesson of trust and peace.
I. Columba, I say, loved men, and through love he understood them. He was enabled to recognise the signs of a divine kinsmanship, the unconscious strivings after noble things, in the ignorant, the rude, the wayward. On one occasion when he was visiting the monastery of Clonmacnoise, a poor serving boy, mean, unpopular, and despised, sought, like the woman in the Gospel, to touch secretly from behind the hem of his garment. The saint perceived his purpose and laid his hand upon him and set him before him. The bystanders prayed him to loose hold of the wretched creature. 'Suffer it to be so now,' he replied, and bade the trembling boy open his mouth and put out his tongue. Thereupon he blessed him, and said to the astonished company, 'Let no man despise him however vile he may seem. From this hour he shall grow in favour and worth and wisdom, and his tongue shall be the organ of Divine eloquence.' The words found fulfilment and the lad grew up to be a saint, famous through all the churches of Ireland.
It is no wonder, therefore, that, gifted with this spiritual discernment, this sovereign hope, he claimed the obedience of complete devotion.
'You cannot stay with me a year,' he said to two pilgrims, who begged to be received for a time, 'unless first you take the monastic vow.' 'Though we had no such purpose,' was the reply, 'we yield to a word that must be inspired.' And when the brethren marvelled that poor unknown wanderers were so received without trial, Columba answered, 'These two strangers by their willing self-sacrifice have fulfilled their Christian warfare, and both shall pass away in peace within the month.' Columba had traced in them with the unerring instinct of the artist or physician the signs of death, and with the insight of an apostle the capacity for saving faith, and he used his knowledge for the love of Christ.
Such examples illustrate Columba's power. By a living sympathy he entered into the souls of those who came before him. He knew, as it has been well said, how 'to be poor of heart among the poor, how to weep for those who would not weep for themselves;' he knew how to foresee the bitter end of ostentatious austerities and the victory of humble penitence; how to bring peace by homely wisdom to a divided household; how to recognise the promise of a divine blessing in the willing accomplishment of the natural law written in man's heart. He had mastered the secret of effective help to the suffering by making his own the burden of which they could be relieved. On a bitter winter's day the saint was seen weeping. 'It is not strange that I should be distressed,' he replied to those who asked the cause, 'for I see my monks toiling far off at Durrow in a grievous case.' And forthwith, it is said, their taskmaster, stung by some sudden impulse, set them free and gave them necessary refreshment. We may lay the lesson to heart. Perhaps we have not yet learnt how soul touches soul, how prayer works its effects naturally, as we speak, through sympathy; and I seem able to understand how the tired reapers at Iona, when they returned home in the evening, found their loads lightened, as we read, when they reached the most difficult part of their way, for then Columba went to meet them in spirit, as he could not cheer them by his bodily presence. II. Columba loved men, and he loved nature also, and through his love he was enabled to master
some of the secrets of that deeper life which lies
beneath material things.
'For nature never did betray
The soul that loved her.'
Even if a strict criticism throws doubt upon the
authorship of the Irish poems which are attributed
to him, these show at least what he was supposed to
feel. And nowhere can we find more vivid images
brought together, 'the song of the wonderful birds,'
'the thunder of the crowding waves,' 'the level
sparkling strand,' all summoned before the eyes of
the singer's heart that he may better bless the Lord
—that is the end of all—in prayer, and praise, and
meditation, and work, and almsgiving.
So Columba, like many other early saints, learnt
the truth that
'He prayeth well who loveth well,
Both man, and bird, and beast.'
And there is no more characteristic story of his tenderness than that which tells how he bade one of his brethren watch by the western shore of the island in order to receive, and cherish, and feed a wayworn crane which would be driven there by the winds and fall exhausted at his feet. 'It comes,' he pathetically said, 'from our own fatherland.' He had measured, we see, the effects of the storm, and thought of the sufferings of the humblest creature which he could help. And so in the narrative of his death it is told that when he rested for a little while on his last return to his cabin, a faithful horse came up to him and placed his head in his lap, and wept like a man. 'You,' the saint said to the servant, who would have driven the beast away, 'with all your reason could not foresee my departure, but the Creator has revealed it to this poor brute in such a way as pleased Him.'
III. Columba loved men and he loved nature because in both he saw God. His vision embraced the great spiritual realities of life. He regarded things with a spiritual eye: therefore his countenance flashed from time to time with beams of an unearthly joy, when, in the language of his biographer, he saw the ministering angels round about him. Nor can we forget the truth which lies in the imagery. The first great promise in the Gospel assures us of the renewed intercourse between earth and heaven. 'Ye shall see,' the Lord said, using for the first time the title by which He is bound with the race, 'the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.' For us in virtue of the Incarnation, that which was shown to the patriarch in a vision has become a fact; and if we are told to see the angels ascending first, is it not that we may recognise the presence of the unseen powers among whom we live, whether we notice them or not? For Columba himself nothing was without the care of God: he trained his disciples to his faith, and they answered to his discipline. When a favourite scholar proposed to cross to a neighbouring island the saint told him, trying him, as we may suppose, of the monstrous creature that had been just now seen in the midchannel. 'I and that beast,' was the reply, 'are under the power of God.' 'Go in peace,' the master then said, 'thy faith in Christ shall defend thee from this peril.' 'Follow me not,' he said to another, 'thou mayest not abandon father, and mother, and country.' 'Thou art my father,' was the answer, 'and the Church is my mother, and my country is where I can gather the largest harvest for Christ.'
Through such traits we can in some way realise the man, unsparing of others as of himself, demanding the absolute self surrender he had made, openeyed, to the world, in all its rich variety of changing phenomena, yet passionately fond of the written Scriptures; a sign to all who looked on him of the energy of spiritual forces, as he wielded the powers of the age to come.
What then, we ask, does Columba mean for us, this keen impulsive conqueror of souls, fearless in perils and restless in labour? Even in the simplest sense, we need the inspiration of his example in the strain of our conventional life. We need his bold trust in humanity, his confident appeal to generous feelings, his courageous exercise of moral supremacy, his strengthening of the family when he made the ties of the clan the model of his own order. We need his reverence for what we speak of as lower forms of life, the gentle love with which he confessed in deed that He who made him made them too; the thankfulness with which he acknowledged that life lies not in the things which we possess, out of their superfluous abundance, but in the splendours of earth and sky, and the joys of human intercourse, and the consciousness of divine kinsmanship, which are our common heritage. We need above all the power of spiritual vision, which discerns the eternal in things transitory, the terrible issues of self-assertion, the joy of consecrated service; a vision which is sufficient to chasten, to cheer, to inspire, to elevate, the simplest routine of daily duties.
What does Columba mean for us? To answer this question more fully here we must take account of the sister Church across the stream. Columba of Hy, Ignatius of Antioch; Columba, the Celtic missionary, and Ignatius, the Syrian martyr, honoured alike among us, symbolise the catholicity of our own Church. By a happy choice the very buildings in which they are commemorated are not less widely separated in type than are the men themselves. Here we have the Basilica representing the energy of that Roman law by which the Christian civilization of the West was united with the past; and on the other side the purest forms of Gothic architecture in which the Faith found its own natural expression in the North. And it is not, I think, an idle fancy which gladly notes that the very contrasts are combined in another contrast. The Roman sanctuary is assigned to the Irish saint and the English sanctuary to the Eastern one. Separately and together, sanctuary and saint, remind us of that which is our joy and our hope, that no one outward form, no one national character, no one man, can exhaust the fulness of our faith.
Here in this church the thought lies embedded for ever in the very foundations of the building. The foundation stone itself is two stones and not one stone: in that Irish and English are cemented together; and this material union will force all who worship here to think of and to pray for that consummation when every division of race and class shall be done away, and all whom Christ has redeemed shall be one man in Him.
All our hearts beat quicker when we think of such a consummation; but in order that we may share and enjoy and strengthen the spirit of catholicity which springs out of loyal devotion to a living Lord, whereby it is hastened, we must be prepared to give up much that we severally hold dear. God will bless the offering of our private preferences, habits, convictions, if it is made for a greater cause. It has been often said that there is nothing fruitful but sacrifice. I will dare to add that there is no lasting strength without obedience. Thus it may be that through the discipline of trial we shall ourselves find opportunities in the present perils which we view with the greatest alarm. The very work of Columba was the penitent confession of a great fault, the transfiguration of a great sorrow.
What does Columba mean for us, for me, to-day? The saint who stirs us after thirteen centuries with fresh enthusiasm, who speaks to us, though dead, with a voice of warning and encouragement, who helps us to reach out to the breadth and manifoldness of our faith, is recognised as a living friend. So God enables us to feel that earthly connexions are not essential to a true human fellowship. And such a reflexion cannot but stir us deeply here and now. The very form of our service tells us of one no longer seen whose presence is in all our hearts, and my own thoughts necessarily go back to words spoken not yet a year ago, words of thankfulness and hope, when your loved Father in God was given back, as we trusted, for a fresh period of faithful work. I do not wish to retract or to modify one phrase of joy and confidence which I used then. The gift has been made otherwise than we expected. But the gift is real and it is abiding. Never was the influence of him whom we have rather found than lost—I speak from daily experience—more powerful or more salutary; never did the sense of his absolute singleness of purpose constrain his people to bend their energies to one common end with surer effect; never was his strong wisdom more powerful to commend to our hearts the grace of fellowship, than now, when he moves us with a force from which all admixture of transitory elements is for ever taken away. It is through the saints of God, when their image rises before our soul in its purity, that we learn to recognise what is great and what is little in life: learn to distinguish what survives in glory through the last momentous change: learn to discern, dimly it may be and far off, that unity in which we find the coordination of our several activities, the completion of our fragmentary thoughts.
Yet once again, What does Columba mean for us? The answer which is addressed to all time, wrought put through his life, lies in the last words which he wrote and the last charge which he gave. This is his testament, 'They that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing.' 'My little children, keep unfeigned love one with another.' The promise is accomplished through every variety of outward circumstance. The command is valid through every temptation of personal differences If we bear the promise and the command in our memory, as we all can do; if we ponder them; if we bring them to the interpretation of our disappointments and our trials, it will not have been in vain that we have dwelt for a short space on the teaching of the first forefather of our Northern Church. Hear him then once more; hear psalmist and apostle through him: 'They that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing.' 'My little children, keep unfeigned love one with another.'