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  • St Columba: A Medieval Clairvoyant? July 6, 2012

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

    ***Dedicated to Paula de Fougerolles whose new book on Columba is the best historical novel on the Dark Ages since T. H. White laid down his pen***

    St Columba of Iona (obit 597) is perhaps the most interesting of all the medieval Gaelic saints: and given the  strange holy fauna running around the Irish jungle 500-1500 that’s saying something. We’ve met him before in this place dealing (remotely) with sea monsters and, on another occasion, praying against the Loch Ness Monster.

    Not the least interesting thing about Columba is that he was widely believed to have been a psychic (to use a modern word). The evidence is there for all to assess in Adomnan’s Life of Columba written about a century after the saint’s death from oral and written accounts handed down in his monastery. There are occasional clear folklore motifs in the life: hagiography sometimes trumps history. But there are also work-a-day accounts of Columba’s ‘far-sight’. Here is a random example.

    This Colca residing one time in Iona [Columba's monastery], with the saint, was asked by him concerning his mother whether she was a pious woman or not. Colca answered him, ‘I have always known my mother to be good and to bear that character.’ The Saint then spoke these prophetic words: ‘Set out now at once for Ireland, with God’s help, and question your mother closely regarding her very grievous secret sin, which she will not confess to anyone.’ To carry out the advice thus given him he departed to Hibernia: and when he interrogated his mother closely, she at first denied, and then she at last confessed her sin. When she had done penance according to the judgement of the saint, she was absolved, wondering very much all the while at what was made known to the saint regarding her.

    Was this a ‘cold’ reading? Does everyone’s mother have a ‘grievous’ secret just waiting to come to light? DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME. But what about the sequel? And remember a third of Adomnan’s Life describes episodes like these.

    Colca, however, returned to the saint, and remained with him for some days, and then asking about the end of his own days, received this answer from the saint: ‘In your own beloved country you shall be head of a church for many years, and when at any time you happen to see your butler making merry with a company of his own friends at supper, and twirling the ladle round in the strainer, know that then in a short time you shall die.’ What more need I say? This same prophecy of the blessed man was exactly fulfilled, as it was foretold to Colca.

    Beach is going to remain a sceptic here, but he was struck recently to see that Thomas Charles-Edwards a WANW Celticist compares Columba’s ability to the second sight that later became associated with mystics in the Gaelic world. It’s an interesting idea. However, when Columba looks ‘beyond the veil’ there seem to be a couple of differences in respect to the second sight as it comes to be understood in later centuries. Columba has simultaneous visions (which do not seem very second-sighty) and in those moments he sometimes attempts to influence what is happening rather than just reporting them, something that no seer would do.

    Columba suddenly said to his minister, Diarmit, ‘Ring the bell’. The brethren, startled at the sound, proceeded quickly to the church, with the holy prelate himself at their head. There he began, on bended knees, to say to them, ‘Let us pray now earnestly to the Lord for this people and King Aidan, for they are engaging in battle at this moment.’ Then after a short time he went out of the oratory, and, looking up to heaven, said, ‘The barbarians are fleeing now and to Aidan [Columba’s ally] is given the victory, a sad one though it be.’ And the blessed man in his prophecy declared the number of the slain in Aidan’s army to be three hundred and three men.’

    Is this attempt to influence reality through second sight something that used to be present in, let’s say, the druidic tradition. Or is Columba here saying: Christians see further and better? Any thoughts: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com