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Life of St. Columb – Pilgrim

August 14, 2011

Dear Friends,

Fr. Damian ZuerlienOur patron, Saint Columbkille, was a “man on the move.” Yes, he was a man of prayer, a man dedicated to copying the scriptures so that others could read them, a man who wrote poetry and songs, but he was also a man who was constantly moving on to establish other churches and monasteries. Like many of us, he was not necessarily thrilled to move on to a new place. In a poem he wrote when he left Ireland to begin his work in Scotland, he writes, “There is a grey eye that will not look back upon Ireland: it shall never see again the men of Ireland nor her women. I stretch my glance across the brine, from the firm oaken planks: many are the tears of my bright soft grey eye as I look back upon Erin.”

Sad though he was, Columbkille knew that for every pilgrim, God was their country of origin, their way and their ultimate destination. In the difficulties coming their way, the pilgrim simply joined his or her trials to those of Christ and, in doing so, brought the power of God’s love to bear on the challenge at hand.

Columbkille wrote a prayer for his monks to say as they went on their pilgrim way:

The path I walk, Christ walks it.
May the land in which I am be without sorrow.
May the Trinity protect me wherever I stay,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Bright angels walk with me – dear presence –
In every dealing
May I arrive at every place, may I return home:
May the way in which I spend be without loss.
May every path before me be smooth,
Man, woman, and child welcome me.
A truly good journey!
Well does the fair Lord show us a course, a path.

Can you sense in this very ancient prayer by Columbkille the popular Irish blessing, “May the road rise up to meet you”…? This prayer of Columbkille was said by his monks at the beginning and end of the day and before embarking on any journey no matter how long or short. It was a good reminder to them to have Christ as their companion on the road and that they should be as Christ to others when they meet them on the way.

Columbkille lived this sense of pilgrimage throughout his life so he could daily prepare for his final pilgrimage to see the face of God. His biographer, Adamnan, tells of a moment near the end of Columbkille’s life, which expresses his desire for the final journey: “One day his holy face was suddenly lit up with marvelous blissful joy, and he raised his eyes to heaven as he was filled with incomparable gladness. But hardly a moment later that sweet rejoicing had turned to sadness. Two monks were with him and asked the reason for this quick change of mood.

Columbkille replied, “Today is the thirtieth anniversary since I came to live in pilgrimage in Britain. A long time ago, I earnestly asked the Lord that he would release me from this dwelling and call me straightaway to the heavenly kingdom. That is why I was glad…for I saw the angels sent from the throne on high to lead my soul from this body. But see, now they are suddenly delayed, and wait standing on a rock on the other side of the strait, most anxious to come near me and deliver me…though the Lord had granted what I desired with all my strength, that I might die on this day and go to him, none the less he has answered the prayers of the churches…because of their prayers, and against my ardent wish, God has been pleased to add four more years to my life. This sad delay was justly the cause of the grief you witnessed.””

It is possible to be a pilgrim without ever having to do the physical journey. For the physical journey was simply an expression of the real interior journey. The purpose of the interior journey is not to know about God, but to know God, not to simply understand God, but to discover and enjoy God. St. Columbkille at an early age came to know God, and this relationship gave him the courage and the joy to journey to other lands and invite others into the same experience of knowing God.

Peace,

Fr. Damian


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