Christianity for the Rest of Us

Christianity for the Rest of Us

Columba of Iona: Spiritual Pilgrim, Progressive Saint

June 9 commemorates Columba, the Abbot of Iona (d. 597), who
has become a rather unlikely saint-hero to contemporary emergence, liberal, and
progressive Christians–as well as postmodern folks who might identify
themselves as spiritual but not particularly religious.

Born in Donegal, Ireland in 521 with the given name,
“Colum,” meaning “dove,” Columba devoted his life to God and the Celtic
church.  He was a peripatetic
fellow, wandering about Ireland founding monasteries.  In 563, for unknown reasons, Columba left Ireland for
Scotland.  As his biographer notes,
“he sailed away, wishing to be a pilgrim for Christ.”


According to ancient Celtic Christians like Columba, faith
was a sacred journey.  They did not
invent the practice of pilgrimage. 
Rather, the Celts redefined the whole of the Christian life as a holy
journey.  As Columba is said to
have written:

counseled Abraham to leave his own country and go on pilgrimage to the land
which God has shown him . . . Now the good counsel which God enjoined here on
the father of the faithful is incumbent on all the faithful; that is to leave
their country and their land, their wealth and their worldly delight for the
sake of the Lord of the Elements, and go in perfect pilgrimage in imitation of


Unlike the early Roman Christians who made pilgrimage to
specific locations associated with Christ or the saints, Celts tended toward no
particular destination–except toward “paradise,” toward wisdom, salvation, or
divine union with God.  On this
quest they wandered across the seas; they wandered on land.  Occasionally they stopped to set up a
cross, some huts, and a small monastic community–as Columba did at Iona–but
then they mostly wandered again. 
Theirs was a vagrant life for Christ, a self-imposed exile from their
homeland to find new life in God. 
As one ancient historian noted, “They wanted to go into exile for the
love of God, they cared not whither.”


Over the centuries of Christian history, the journey
metaphor became somewhat lost–replaced by metaphors of kingdom, tribe, family,
and social order for faith and the church.  For many generations, faith was accepting one’s place in
God’s divine design and being obedient to those in authority above you.  Some Christians–those of a more fundamentalist
sort–still see things this way.

But for untold millions of others, metaphors of stability
and authority have become meaningless.  As a result, the metaphor of faith-as-a-journey has been
rediscovered and recovered.  It resonates
with many contemporary people.


Postmodern people possess no stable identity, nothing is
inherited from the past, no family ties bind, and all forms of personhood must
be chosen, and often, chosen again. 
Many people live in several states (or countries), marry more than once,
change religions one or more times, and switch jobs a dozen times or more.  Indeed, instability is so pronounced
that some philosophers argue that constant questing for personal meaning is the
only sane way to adapt to the contemporary world.  Life is an unfinished and unfinishable project.  Human beings are, in essence, homeless
wanderers, spiritual tourists or religious nomads.


Against the backdrop of change, some Christians argue that
the church must be more orderly or more authoritative–looking toward old
examples found in Roman Catholicism or Calvinism to enforce conformity and
stability.  But others have decided
that the better choice is to, as St. Columba did, embrace homelessness as a way of life–to leave the familiar homeland
and set sail for Christ wherever that may lead.  Stability and assurance come as they walk. Progressing on the journey is the mark of spiritual faithfulness, discerning the way the spirit leads is maturity.  Following in the footsteps of the ancient Celts, many
contemporary Christians have become peregrini,
wanderers with Jesus.


This is, of course, a new-and-ever ancient vision of what it
means to be a person of faith.  A
never-settled, always-grounded traveler of the way.  Or, as was prayed by ancient wayfarers:

Traversing corries, traversing forests,
Traversing valleys long and wild.
The fair white Mary still uphold me,
The Shepherd Jesu be my shield,
The fair white Mary still uphold me,
The Shepherd Jesu be my shield.

Happy St. Columba Day.  Sometimes the journey is the way.  I wish you safe travels.  Hope the road
rises up to meet you.

Comments read comments(15)
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posted June 8, 2010 at 10:09 am

Thanks Diana.
Great post and an awesome way to learn about our heritage.

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posted June 8, 2010 at 11:21 am

A lovely post that captures so deeply my understanding of my own Christian life. I’ve grown accustomed to using the words Postmodern or Post-Denominational to try and express who I am as a Christian. I rather think it is time to evolve out of defining my self according to what I am not but with what I am. A traveling, a wandering and wondering, a journeying Christian who can be at peace living in the questions that rise to meet me as I seek to follow the path of Christ where the Spirit leads.

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Nixon is Lord

posted June 8, 2010 at 11:26 am

The Celtic church? Like the Irish, that Jansenist freak show, home to more child molesters per capita than any other part of the catholic church? Home of the “No patent leather shoes that reflect up?”
Or how about the Scots and the WeeFrees, the Pat Robertsons and the C. James Kennedys? Or the Church of Scotland, collapsing faster than an old souffle? Or the Scots-Irish snake handlers and fundiegelicals? Or Ian Paisley? Or the Welsh, with two denominations for every three churchgoers?
Please. More sentimental drivel. Most of us don’t have the time to walk around; this is another semi-aristocratic pastime for the same idiots who think wandering labyrinths will serve as a spiritual exercise or that the Celts were somehow just on the cusp of celebrating gay marriage and lesbian bishops before their churches disappeared into the mists-the Lornadoon of churches.
Faith is indeed a journey-and Mainline protestantism is on the road to oblivion.

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Drane Spout

posted June 8, 2010 at 11:52 am

@Nixon is Lord
Somebody woke up on the wrong side of the bed today!

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Deacon John M. Bresnahan

posted June 8, 2010 at 9:20 pm

Nixon– Take a long walk on a nice sunshine filled day saying a prayer of Thanks for the beauties of Nature and the gift of Life God has given you.
If anything, the Celtic Church was known for its love of creation.
Maybe singing a few verses of an ancient Celtic melody would soothe your apparently hurting soul:
“Morning has broken
Like the first morning,
Blackbird has spoken
Like the first bird.
Praise for the singing!
Praise for the morning!
Praise for them, springing
Fresh from the Word!
Sweet the rains new fall
Sunlit from heaven,
Like the first dew fall
On the first grass.
Praise for the sweetness
Of the wet garden,
Sprung in completeness
Where his feet pass.
Mine is the sunlight!
Mine is the morning,
Born of the one light Eden saw play!
Praise with ELATION,
Praise every morning,
God’s re-creation
Of the new day!”
May St. Columba befriend your soul and lead you to the genuine joys and deep beauty so many billions over the centuries have found through the Catholic Faith.

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Nixon is Lord

posted June 8, 2010 at 9:58 pm

I don’t believe in god.
And the man who sang that song didn’t speak out against the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.
Life is neither a gift nor a curse; it simply is.
And which churches/religions didn’t “love creation”?
You didn’t deny anything I said.

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posted June 9, 2010 at 7:36 am

Since you don’t believe in God and have nothing but scorn for religion it seems, I am surprised you were even reading this article.

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posted June 9, 2010 at 7:37 am

Diana, thank you for your thoughts! You reminded me that life at its best is ever-changing, ever-growing, ever-exploring, ever-re-defining how the Holy One calls us out of our comfortable nests and into wonder of that generative life in the Spirit.

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Your Name Jeanne

posted June 9, 2010 at 12:30 pm

I loved my week long silent pilgrimage to Iona a few years ago. Did you know that that is where the Book of Kells originated? Now in Dublin. Columba was killed on the island of Iona. I’m a spiritual director (Shalem Institute) who has led a few Celtic retreats. A friend of m ine, also a spiritual director, leads Celtic retreats in Ireland.
Blessings to you-

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posted June 10, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Benedict refers to monastics like Columba as “gyrovagues”, which he considered one of the worst forms of Christian discipline. While the image of life as a journey of discovery may appeal to some Christians, Benedict’s insistence that we can learn God’s will best in community with others, is closer to our Anglican/Episcopal tradition. The application of “reason” and experience to scripture is not something that can be done very consistently if one is wandering from place to place.

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posted June 10, 2010 at 6:18 pm

I made a pilgrimmage recently to Iona. I was hardly there when I learned my mother died suddenly in Phoenix AZ. My journey FROM Iona involved 2 ferries, a “coach” ride, a train, a cab, a cane to help support my Parkinson’s legs, good shoes, a backpack, the Ash Cloud (damn that Cloud of Unknowing!), several airplanes and a rental car. I’m still trying to make sense of it all. Thru a FB friend, I “stumbled” into this blog. It comforts my grief and helps me understand a little better. Thank you.

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posted June 10, 2010 at 7:07 pm

Thank you, Diana Butler Bass. And thank you, Magmapoet :) To life, and to the Journey!

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posted June 10, 2010 at 11:08 pm

We are called to wander as Jesus and his disciples did – never quite sure of the road ahead but always with the stability of God as Center. This brings to mind Thomas Merton’s prayer, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me . . . I will not fear for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
Beautiful and comforting article for those of us who find it difficult fit into the ideal of stability of place.

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posted July 16, 2010 at 11:11 pm

It s true that the old beliefs and values have been changing and are giving way to the new habit of living. The instant way of doing things, the lack of stability has led to such a situation and it would be a difficult task to know about what has to be done. It would not be long before the only constant thing that will remain back in this world will be the change and instability.
christian discipleship

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air max

posted October 26, 2010 at 10:19 pm

Aw, this was a really quality post. air max In theory I’d like to write like this too – taking time and real effort to make a good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate alot and never seem to get something done.

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