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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
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.