Columban, or Columbanus (not to be confused with Columba/Columcille of Iona), born in A.D. 540, is considered to be the first truly great Irish missionary, because even more than Columba, “he was the pioneer who inspired the mass exodus later.”20
From his writings it is obvious that he received a thorough education. His Latin is excellent and he refers with ease and authority to both pagan authors and Christian authors.21 Dubois describes Columban, “Ordained to the priesthood, fully versed in things human as well as divine, humanist and theologian, he learnt to unite and make inseparable two seemingly conflicting sides of spiritual life—contemplation and action.”22
Marnell describes the unique environment of Bangor in which Columban was molded:
It was a life that drew the more gifted of Ireland’s youth away from the violence rampant then in Irish life, as it was in life throughout the western world, and gave them a life of the spirit and the intellect, a life of prayer, and a life of work, but a life in which, by some formula lost in the mists of time and never quite recaptured, the asceticism of the anchorite was combined with the missionary’s service to the people.23
This was in contrast to most of the non-Celtic monasticism of that time which was definitely “not missionary” and “did not seek to save the world but to flee from it. The primary objective of the monk was his own salvation, not that of others.”24 Marnell’s description of “the asceticism of the anchorite…combined with the missionary’s service to the people” truly captures the heart of the Irish academic missionary movement.
Late in the sixth century, Columban left Ireland with twelve disciples and sailed to Brittany. When they disembarked, they immediately began preaching to the pagans in that region. So many people responded to their evangelism that King Sigebert summoned them to his court. Columban persuaded the king that he could teach them about the Christian faith as well as culture and civilization.25 The king provided land for the missionaries where they established a monastery. It grew so rapidly that soon they had to search for a site to establish another monastery.
Thus, in 590, Columban established a monastery at Luxeuil, which, in Dubois’ words, “was to become the most brilliant center of learning and virtue in the Middle Ages.” At Luxeuil a stellar group of brilliant scholars in a variety of fields, as well as a host of skilled artisans and craftsmen, gathered. For Columban, it was important to teach both secular subjects and religious subjects.26 The Irish commitment to a full-orbed Christian worldview, and to a broad education (not only theological education for the priesthood) is evident throughout Columban’s work.
With growth came more distractions to the life of prayer and solitude, which Columban craved. So he would often hide away in a nearby cave for long periods of time. He is the only sixth-century theologian to leave an extensive collection of writings on devotional practices and prayer. One of his most famous prayers is: “Inspire us with Thy charity, O Lord, That our loving quest for Thee may occupy our every inmost thought; that thy love may take complete possession of our being, and divine charity so fashion our senses that we may know not how to love anything else but Thee.”27
Eventually Columban was forced to leave Luxeuil and the other centers he had established in the region, because he had offended the king with his preaching. So he and many of his disciples began another long trek, eventually ending up in Italy, where he established the famous monastery at Bobbio which “became from the first century of its foundation, an intellectual center of incomparable radiance; the learning and the holiness of the monks illuminated Northern Italy; the richness of its library astonished the world of the humanists, and for nearly a thousand years this privileged abbey experienced a marvelous extension.”28
Marnell states: “Of all the Irish peregrini on the Continent there can scarcely be any doubt that Columban had the most widespread and lasting impact. Within a generation France was dotted with monasteries, founded by men who had been trained in Luxeuil. Most of their founders were natives of France….Columban supplied the inspiration, the Franks supplied the personnel.”29 More than sixty disciples of Columban fanned out across Europe wielding wide influence over the Continent.30 More than thirty monasteries were founded as a direct result of monks trained at Luxeuil, and another two hundred monasteries had some indirect linkage to Luxeuil.31
Marnell colorfully describes Columban as,
A microcosm of the entire Irish monastic movement: he was a missionary to the pagan; a theologian who debated with bishops and even with a pope; a public figure feared and therefore courted, without success, by a regent and a king; a poet who could versify his faith but also write a rowing song; the sort of man who could fell a tree with one blow of an axe and then strangle a bear. Such men have messages for popes and barbarians alike.32