He had a Way with Animals

(A reflection on Columba)

Although one has plentiful pickings when reflecting on the hagiography of Columba – he is famous for founding the monastery on Iona – I am most intrigued by the legendary parts of his life story that involve animals.  By contrast, Columba often found himself at odds with human beings.  After all, his own self-imposed exile to Iona was precipitated by his possession of a manuscript of the Gospels which he’d illegally copied, something that had resulted in a war in his native Ireland, and the loss of many lives.  Columba suffered a great deal of guilt over his hand in the war, so he chose the penance of living in a place where he couldn’t see Ireland.

Columba clearly had a way with animals – well…except cows, which he banished from Iona, and women. He firmly believed that where there is a cow there is a woman, and where there is a woman there is mischief”.)

Perhaps the most intriguing work is from Adomán, dated near 640, “The Life of Columba”. Adomán describes Columba’s encounter with a monster in a lake, perhaps the Loch Ness Monster. While traveling along the river Ness, Columba runs across a group of Picts carrying the body of a dead friend.  The Picts explain that the friend had been swimming, but dragged underwater and killed by a “swimming beast”. Now, one might have thought it was enough for Columba to bring the dead young man back to life, but he does one better.  Columba orders one of his monks, Lugne Mocumin, to swim across the loch to fetch a boat tied up on the opposite side.  (You know this is a bad idea!)

Of course, Lugne splashes as he swims, attracts the monster who wastes no time closing in on the hapless monk.  They all yell to alert Mocumin, but Columba calmly steps to the shore, makes the Sign of the Cross, and shouts, “You will go no further!  Do not touch the man!  Leave at once!”  Amazingly, the monster makes a hasty retreat.  Score:  Columba 1, Nessie 0…, and unlike St. George, who had to slay the dragon, Columba merely yells at it.

Columba shows an even more tender side when he encounters other animals.  One touching account happens  the day before his death.  Columba had received visions that his time on earth was coming to an end, so he leaves to the barn where the other monks are to relay this message to them. On their way back together, Columba, in his weakened condition, has to stop and rest.  Just then a white horse (some accounts say it is his horse, while others claim it is just a horse used to carry pails of milk from the barn) comes up to him with tears falling from his eyes, and placed his head upon Columba’s chest.  Columba dies the following day.

It would be too easy to brush these fanciful accounts off as merely myth or fairy tales. We forget that storytelling was used for a different purpose in the day. These stories weren’t written as historical registry or a script for a History Channel documentary.  Stories were written to illuminate a larger narrative, and it was not unusual at all to use exaggerated accounts attributed to real historical figures.  We get a little taste of that in stories such as the one of young George Washington chopping down a cherry tree or throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac.  Stories can be object lessons or allegorical ways of explaining concepts that can’t always be defined in a finite sense.  Perhaps these stories of Columba were meant to teach us of the power of God in one, and the love and mercy of God in another.  A world without such stories would be drab, indeed.  In a world that seems even more consumed by division and hate than ever, perhaps it’s time to once again image the “why’s” of the mysteries of human nature rather than hyper-focus on “Who, what, when, and where”.

What animal story from your own life can you tell? Or, about your own animals? One perhaps that speaks volumes about the power of God in one, or in another of the love and mercy of God?

Maria Evans splits her week between being a pathologist and laboratory director in Kirksville, MO, and gratefully serving in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri , as Interim Priest at Trinity Episcopal Church in Hannibal, MO. 

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