Reawakening our Origins – The Call to (W)Holiness
It appears that monasticism , in its origins, should be viewed as having a prophetic role vis-a-vis the human city rather than simply as providing an escape route into an alternative, purified, universe.
How we walk through this world has never been of more significance than it is today. If discipleship is communal and imitation is communion of the heart, the question of how we live this balanced life becomes a pressing question. The beauty of the Church is to be found in the quality of the living stones from which it is fashioned. The spiritual governance of these living stones through prayer, work, reading was the daily rhythm/rule that St. Columba established for both cenobitic (communal) and eremitical (hermit) monastic living, ‘Three labours a day; prayer, work and reading’ (rule 15).
This rule of St. Columba provides a simple framework of life that assists the follower to focus on the core essentials in perfecting his or her Christian faith. The task for followers of Christ is to focus on the quality of our life in Christ. In doing so we become witnesses to a living holiness that cannot be replicated by a corrupt world. Holiness is a currency secularism cannot trade in, and for the follower of Christ it becomes a sign and symbol of our genuine freedom from the corruption that is so prevalent in the world system.
He (St. Columba) spent thirty-two years as an island soldier and could not let even an hour pass without giving himself to praying, or reading or writing or some other task.
St. Columba led by example and the countless stories Adomnan tells of how this indigenous Apostle lived as a holy man, are testimony to the effectiveness of keeping things simple in your spiritual life.
Prayer – being nurtured in love.
Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:6).
The Apostle Paul teaches us to ‘Pray without ceasing’ (1 Thessalonians 1:17). For those who follow Christ prayer is the primary vocation. It becomes the sweetest sustenance to our being and the bitterest taste to our stomachs when we forget. The world is the battleground of our soul and prayer is the only weapon the soldier of Christ is given by which to undertake this battle.
We must take this battle seriously, recognising that the world is full of distractions designed to lure us away from the source of our humanness. Prayer is the fulfillment of our human purpose and the liberation of a suffocating creation. St. Columba teaches us, ‘Be alone in a separate place, near a chief monastery (city), if your conscience is not prepared to be in common with the crowd’ (rule1). Being alone in prayer reveals our true nature, there is no other position under heaven when we are more truly ourselves than when we face God alone.
The Holy Spirit invites us, woes us, leads us willingly to a place of prayer. Setting aside a location to pray enables us to move to a physical place of no distraction. ‘Let a fast place with one door enclose you’ (rule 4) is St. Columba’s injunction to be in a place of zero distraction, a chance to give our Creator our full and undivided attention.
Prayer is not something we do, it is something we are.
Prayer is a request for what is good, offered by the devout of God. But we do not restrict this request simply to what is stated in words. We should not express our prayer merely in syllables, but the power of prayer should be expressed in the moral attitude of our soul and in the virtuous actions that extend throughout our life. This is how you pray continually — not by offering prayer in words, but by joining yourself to God through your whole way of life, so that your life becomes one continuous and uninterrupted prayer. Basil the Great.
For the monastics the rule is a means by which the individual is perfected in faith, therefore let us use St. Columba as an inspiration, aspiring to pray continually in all things.
Work – being transformed by love.
Words are never adequate. The purpose of our life is to live out the mystery of the Holy Trinitarian community in all its fullness and work is part of that mysterious relationship. What we work at is both devotional and sacred. All we turn our hand to should reflect God’s holiness, and should never be valued according to financial reward. Work is one of the three daily labours upon which the Columban charism is founded and holds a unique transformational energy for revealing and creating that which is hidden (rule 15). Work is not as the secular world would have us believe principally for servicing material comforts or paying off unsustainable forms of material consumption. Perhaps one of the biggest lies perpetrated by the voices of secular materialism is that work is principally transactional, time for money, rather than transformational, time with love. For God is love (1 John 4:8b) and God sustains all things (Hebrews 1:3).
For St. Columba perfect work retained a spiritual quality that promoted genuine tears of emotion and satisfaction (rule 27). One notable example of the spiritual nature of work comes when St. Columba was an old man, unable to do much manual labour, he would pray for the monks labouring in the fields. This prayer led to a spiritual refreshment described by one of the brothers as ‘like a wonderful fragrance, like all flowers gathered into one; and a heat like fire, not the fire of torment but somehow sweet. And I feel too a strange incomparable joy poured into my heart’ (VC I:37). This refreshment and joy was experienced by all the monks of the work party when St. Columba prayed for their physical health.
St. Paul focusses attention on work as a means by which we sustain our physical needs and to live in peace with our neighbours. The quality and value of our work is focused on providing for ourselves, family and the common weal of the wider community (Titus 3:8 & 3:14). Again we see the value of work is measured in its impact for God’s Kingdom of righteous and justice, not the amount of financial return we can enrich ourselves with.
Reading – being shaped by scripture.
Reading and its sibling study, recognise the importance of the mind in the formation of holiness. There can be no doubt that the discipline of reading and study was foundational to St. Columba and his community. Indeed the monastic way is a measurable journey into a deeper understanding of the scriptures, their relevance and centrality to life. Scripture was also foundational in both personal and communal pray. Praying the scriptures, memorising them and copying them was a daily ritual of the Columban family. Copying Psalm 34 was St. Columba’s very last activity. From the scriptorium he retired to the chapel to pray where he died in the arms of his servant and colleague Dairmait (VC III:23)
This immersion in reading and study was not only focussed on scripture, the library on Iona held many other sacred texts. Evagrius’s latin translation of the Life of St. Anthony and Sulpicius’s Life of St. Martin were well known throughout the Columban foundations. The Dialogues of Pope Gregory, including the Life of St. Benedict were also known and read. We know from St. Columba’s early life in Ireland he got into trouble for secretly copying a Psalter by St. Jerome.
Illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells, Durrow and the Lindisfarne Gospel all give a clear idea of the focus and dedication that all Columban foundations displayed when it came to reading, copying and decorating the Scriptures.
What is clear is that the scholastic devotion given to the reading of scripture and other religious texts demonstrated an intellectual inquiry that was both encouraged as well as dictated to all the monks who lived under under the protection of the monastic house (rule 5).
The monastic houses were therefore centres of learning, scholarly exploration, education and philosophical reasoning. There was no hint in their practice of shying away from growing in mind and understanding.
In the world the populous culture of personal opinion as truth (aped by significant sections of the modern western church) and a strong anti-intellectual rhetoric, is understandable when viewed against the backdrop of the deification of the mind since the (so called) enlightenment. The pre-eminence of scientific reasoning as the arbiter of truth in the post enlightenment settlement of western society has left an existential void to the meaning of the human condition and a yearning for deeper spiritual meaning. Science has opened many wonderful doors of discovery to humanity, and created as many questions about our human condition as it has attempted to answer. A Godless rationalism coupled with an a-moral economic philosophy has unleashed the demons of apocalyptic destruction upon the very creation itself. Abandoning God the Creator from our thinking is akin to walking towards a cliff edge wearing a blindfold on a moonless night – there is terminal danger with every step you take. However the notion of a reasoned, scholarly devotion to scripture and learning is both welcome and balancing for the growth of the follower of Christ, but only when equally yoked to devotional work and prayer. (W)holiness demands attention is given to prayer (the life of the Spirit), work (the engagement of the physical body) and reading (the expansion of the mind) in equal measure.
Starting Over Again.
We all dream of a pure church, a church not made with hands, a church that not only retains the presence of God but also embodies the very activity of God in its participants. The creation, the people of the land, the poor and disempowered all seek a church that is true to its original raison d’être. A purpose where the presence and activity of a Holy Creator God is made known by the quality of love lived out and expressed by the individual members of the Body of Christ one to another and welcoming of the stranger. It is the quality of our faith in Christ that sets us apart from a corrupted world system, not the eloquence of our words. This is the essential purpose of the monastic church – to be a place set aside in creation where holy souls can grow and holy communities can flourish.
Creation is the location for the rediscovery of an indigenous monasticism. Perhaps the climate crisis we now face as a species has helped us to focus on what was always our original mandate, namely to care for creation and live in harmony with all living things (Genesis 1:28-30). Our Celtic Christian ancestors understood this principle, their embracing of liminal geography and wilderness was their ascetic stance in relation to the world system. It is in the creational wilderness of mind, body and spirit that they found a pure love and joy in the undistracted presence of God.
This re-awakening of our origins will require nothing less than a starting all over again. It will take courageous men and women willing to pay the price of intentional detachment from the world order to begin to cast a future hope that has (w)holiness as its foundation. This is a movement towards simplicity of life, an acknowledgement of our need of creation and an embracing of humility and a child like faith.
St. Columba offers us a practical means by which to begin this journey. Through prayer, work and reading we can strip back the excesses in the Christian spiritual life and learn to focus on that which has eternal value.
Founder Society of St. Columba.
For a complete copy of Reawakening our Origins, please click on title.
 Philip Sheldrake. Spaces for the Sacred. (SCM Press: 2001), p.94.
 Adomnan of Iona. The Life of St. Columba. (trans.) Richard Sharpe. (Penguin Classics: 1995) p. 106.
 see Sharpe, in Adomnan’s Vite Columbae p.58-59.