Columba and Spiritual Proximity

Columba and Spiritual Proximity

Rolfe, Alexander

The Heroic Age Issue 7 Spring 2004


Argues that nearness to other monks was a dominant theme in Adomnan’s Life of St. Columba. Spiritual proximity is of much greater concern in early Irish monasticism than in Benedictine or Pachomian monasticism, even while the Irish are noted for lonely peregrinatio.

The Irish saints of the sixth century are famous for leaving their familiar surroundings and pursuing a harsh exile in the wilderness. Voluntary exile is prominent in Adomnan’s Life of St. Columba, which includes figures such as Cormac, who three times set sail in search of “a desert in the ocean,” and Baitan, who similarly launched himself and some companions direction-less upon the sea (Adomnan 1.6 and 1.20). Columba himself “sailed away from Ireland to be a pilgrim,” and “lived as an island soldier for thirty-four years” (Adomnan 1.7 and the second preface). This propensity for exile has led scholars to compare them to their eremitic forerunners in Egypt. The Irish themselves consciously imitated St. Antony, particularly in seeking solitude. The focus on peregrinatio has overshadowed the fact that Columba was the abbot of a community, and therefore squarely in the tradition of cenobitic monasticism begun by Pachomius (d. 346) in Egypt, who established the first communal monastery. This tradition continued in Egypt under Shenoute (d. 466), as well as the direct successors of Pachomius. Perhaps the most important exponent of communal monasticism in the west was Benedict of Nursia, the author of the Benedictine Rule. Studying Columba in the light of these dominant figures of cenobitic monasticism throws an unexpected and pervasive feature of Adomnan’s Life into high relief. One of the most striking aspects of the Life of St. Columba is the degree to which Columba’s prophecies, miracles, and visions re-establish the intimate connection between himself and other Christians, in spite of physical separation.

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