Merton on St. Columba

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It may surprise you to learn that Thomas Merton had a bit of an interest in St Columba, though anyone who reads Merton will not be surprised that he might have picked up a copy of Adomnan’s Life of the saint (in Latin, of course) and will be even less surprised that he committed his thoughts to paper. Here’s the entry in his journal in full. It’s from the 12th of July 1964 (Dancing in the Water of Life p. 126):

Deeply moved by Adamnan’s life of St. Columba. A poetic work, full of powerful symbols, indescribably rich. Through the Latin (which is deceptive – and strange too) appears a completely non-Latin genius, and the prophecies and miracles are not signs of authority but signs of life, i.e., not signs of power conferred on a designated representative (juridically) – a “delegated” power from outside nature, but a sacramental power of a man of God who sees the divine in God’s creation. Then the miracles etc. are words of life spoken in the midst of life, not words breaking into life and silencing it, making it irrelevant, by the decree of absolute authority (replacing the authority of life which life has from its Creator).

Merton offers a really interesting take on sacramentality here, not as something external to creation but intrinsic to it, brought to light by those who have the purity of heart to see it. The miracles in the Life are truly fascinating and many are are deeply practical – a misplaced staff finds its way to its owner, the wind helpfully blows in two different directions to speed two monks on their separate ways, inedible fruit made sweet, protection from plague in places where his monasteries were founded. His intimate relationship with the creation was not all peaceful – he was happy for a charging wild boar to be struck dead, killed ‘by the power of his terrible word’ – but on the whole, the miracles associated with the saint are harmonious. I particularly like the story of a knife blessed by the saint which could do no harm to human or beast.

The other feature of Adomnan’s Life that particularly catches my attention is that holiness is indicated by luminosity, with light shining from the saint as a child, later as a priest ‘consecrating the holy oblation’ at the altar and shortly before his death. In this respect, as in many others in this account, we are reminded of the closeness of Columba’s mystical experiences with those of the desert monastics in Egypt (Admonan’s Life has a few deliberate echoes of Evagrius’ Latin version of St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony).

Without trying to say too much about a supposed ‘Celtic’ nature-mysticism, and certainly avoiding any Celtic exceptionalism, I think Merton is right in identifying a more integrated view of how human beings are located in God’s creation than we often assume to be present in Christian theology. Holy lives are marked by the radiant transfiguration that is God’s telos for all creation, not by ‘dominion’ over that creation.

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