Life of St. Columb – Books

July 24, 2011

Dear Friends,

Fr. Damian ZuerlienIn the days before the printing press, the only way to get a  book was to make a copy – by hand or to have another person  make a copy for you. So, living in the 500’s, the only way for St.  Columbkille to have a book was to do the slow and meticulous work  of copying the text. No Amazon or local bookstore handy. In  Adomnan’s life of Colum Cille, he says that Columb placed the  copying of texts as important as reading and praying. I am thankful  that I live in the age of computers. It was bad enough living in the  age of typewriters and before copy machines, but I cannot imagine  what it must have been like to create each book by hand. There are  several stories from the life of Columb that are worth retelling and  parents can probably relate to them as well:

One day Columb was sitting by the fire in the monastery when  he saw a monk named Luigbe reading a book. “Take care, my son,”  he said, “take care. For I think that the book you are studying is  going to fall into a vessel of water (sound familiar parents).”  Columb’s concern was well-founded for when the young man got up  from reading, “he casually tucked the book under his arm and let it  slip and fall into a bucket of water.” Adomnan thinks this is evidence  of the saint’s ability to see the future, but I think it was evidence of  how well he understood the monks in his community, just like  parents can predict when milk will spill at the table! Of course, all  the parents who can predict the spilling of milk may be saints too.

Another day, Columb was sitting in his writing hut when he  heard a man shouting from the other side of the Sound of Iona, as  was commonly done, to announce his arrival on the island. Columb  says, “The man who is shouting across the sound is too careless to  watch what he is doing. Today he will tip over my little horn and  spill the ink.” Columb’s helper heard what he said and so stationed  himself at the door to guard the ink and keep the man at a  7  distance, but he happened to be doing something else when the  visitor arrived. “As he went forward to kiss the saint, he upset the  horn with the edge of his garment and spilt the ink.” Adomnan does  not say if Columb got angry or yelled at the guy. Maybe Columb  realized that it was the guy’s excitement at meeting Columb that  caused him to spill the ink. Parents, ever have your children’s  friends shouting outside the house and know that when that child  gets inside they are sure to tip over something? Holiness or spiritual  insight? Perhaps, a bit of both?

One day Baithene came to Columb and said, “I need one of  the brethren to help me go through the text of the psalter I have  copied and correct any mistakes.” The saint said to him, “Why do  you bring this trouble on us when there is no need? For in your copy  of the psalter there is no mistake – neither one letter too many nor  one too few – except that in one place the letter “I” is missing.” So  it was. Having gone though the whole psalter, it was found to be  exactly as the saint predicted.” Apparently one of the gifts of St.  Columb was the grace of an internal spell check. Of course parents  may know that certain of their children rarely make a mistake and  they could harbor a guess that all is well…

There are lots of other stories about his commitment to copying  texts so that others could read them. Such was his commitment  that even as an old man and on the night of his death he was  copying texts. The last thing he copied was from Psalm 34, “those  who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” Then he laid down his pen  and said, “Here at the end of the page I must stop. Let Baithene  write what follows…”  Of course, St. Columbkille is the patron saint of…bookbinders.


Fr. Damian

A series of writings from his biography by Fr Damian Zuerlein: