In this series of reflections on the Rule of Columba our aim is to explore the wisdom of this ancient rule and find a newer expression and vitality in the modern era.
BE ALONE IN A SEPARATE PLACE NEAR A CHIEF CITY, IF YOUR CONSCIENCE IS NOT PREPARED TO BE IN COMMON WITH THE CROWD.
There can be no doubt that the Celtic Saints knew how to choose a location and be alone with God. Aidan’s Lindisfarne, Cuthbert’s Inner Farne, Kevin’s Glendalough, the disciples of Dicuil’s Bosham or Columba’s Iona are places that are inhabited by a true sense of the wild, the wonderful, the dramatic and the intensely beautiful. They were on the very edge of where humanity at the time could exist. The sensory overload you experience when standing in such locations is truly majestic. I have always been struck by what overwhelming instinct would drive ordinary men or women to abandon the shelter of their homes and warmth of their partners beds to journey to the edge of the known world and live out a sparse and meagre existence. No where in Britain and Ireland is more exemplary of this than the wild and exposed monastic rock of Skellig Michael, resting as it does, in the arms of the wild Atlantic and its Creator.
What is immediately recognizable when you begin to read Columba’s rule was that he placed the location of our encounter with Christ before the ‘naked imitation of Christ (rule 2)’. The more we reflect upon the location of our encounter with The Trinity, the more we can begin to appreciate the simple logic in this, as well as the profound impact that such a step could have in our lives.
Alone and separate does not mean lonely and isolated. There can be no doubt that to embrace the idea of being alone, can be a terrifying experience for many people. Walking away from the noise and bustle of modern society and the sense of self-importance derived from eating at this table, is an intentional step that is extremely counter intuitive in society and conventional church culture. The daily activity of modern life bombards ones senses with images, noises and activities, that in the final analysis, are questionable regarding how aligned they are to ones eternal reality.
‘If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as one of its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world-therefore the world hates you.’ John. 15:19.
To intentionally remove ones self from the worlds narrative is a bold step for anyone. A simple objective, yet complex to execute. One of Our societies primal tools used to keep us wedded to the worlds system is fear and desire. It is fascinating to reflect upon the crude nature of advertising as an illustration of this. Its primary drivers are;
- Desire to possess what we do not have or need,
- Fear of what may happen to us through what we cannot see or control,
- Ownership of a product that will satisfy the desire or alleviate the fear.
All this gives us the illusion of being in control over the natural order through domesticating of the world around us.
Being separate and alone moves us to a place where we have to live with our own inner turmoil, conversations, fears and desires without the soma of modern living that drowns out the voice of our true selves. Finding that place is not easy. For St. Columba and his many followers this was the first step. Find your space, find your location, find your stillness, find your place where you can be alone with the Trinity.
The pursuit of Columban spirituality is not just a practice of personal stillness and prayer, it equally involves discovering, with the Creator, that place that embodies the dynamism, drama and breadth of the encounter of the living Christ. The Columban charism is not cloistered, it is always seeking those places of liminal exposure in the landscape. This extract from the Columcille Fecit beautifully illustrates this point, St. Columba locates himself on a promontory, from where he can participate in creations conversation,
‘Delightful would it be to me to be in Uchd Ailiun,
On the pinnacle of a rock,
That I might often see,
The face of the ocean;
That I might see its heaving waves
Over the wide ocean,
When they chant music to their Father
Upon the world’s course’.
Naturally this practice takes on many shapes and forms. It can be a location, it can be a meditative state that opens one up to the eternal presence, it can be an iconoclastic image that triggers humility. Yielding to the ‘aloneness’ of self, ushers in the face of Christ in whom we encounter our true identity. It is here we are discovered and discover that we are never alone. The opening phrase of the Rule of Columba begins to capture the true kernel of what the indigenous Christian spirituality of the British Isles is all about. The yearning for intimacy with Christ in the total abandonment of self to love and passion of the Godhead. This can only be experienced through naked intimacy (one cannot be intimate in public after all, as society and institutionalised religions, classes that as indecent).
Yet this aloneness and the richness that flows from it is also set in an eternal location. The inner journey is captured in harmony with the created order. For the monastics of Britain this creational journey had to be remote, wild, exposed and inhabited by our presence with God alone. Creation it would seem is the cathedral of our worship. In the world of God’s Spirit intimacy means naked exposure, for example, the Psalmist could only capture the depth of God’s presence through the experience of being overcome by the power of water.
‘As deep calls to deep, at the thunder of your cataracts:
And all your torrents, all your waves have flowed over me’. Psalm. 42:7.
St. Columba understood that aloneness meant ‘togetherness without distraction’ and that the creation was the bed upon which we lie down with the Godhead. As we are enfolded in the dynamic personality of the Spirit, the immanence of Gods-self in the wonder and beauty of the created order will enable us to enjoy the nature of our true selves.