The Death of Columba
Cathy McSporran (Creative Writing: University of Glasgow)
Yes, I recall the death of our blessed Saint Columba. The light of angels fell from the skies of Iona to call him to his much longed-for rest. After that, raging storms descended on the island, and the green seas became grey and treacherous. So the laity, who had flocked from the mainland and the islands and even Ireland to pay their devotions, had to stay weeping on the Ross of Mull, gazing across the heaving sea while we his monks laid our master in the earth.
I remember well, shivering around the open grave, staring down at the pure white shroud turning grey in the rain. The new abbot was reading from the Scriptures; his voice sounded thin in the wind, and was drowned out anyway by the noisy sobs of the seventy young monks behind us. We four elders stood at the corners of the grave, in pride of place, as befits the surviving members of the first Twelve.
We four did not weep. We were all recalling, I think, how we had wept for him once before, our lord Columba; when he died for the first time, over thirty years before.
I remember, too, standing on the beach of Iona for the first time, bathed in the hot summer sun, but shivering. There was a brisk wind, and I was still damp and a little queasy from the choppy crossing. I moved closer to my eleven brother monks. No-one spoke. We were all thinking, I believe, that this was the Holy Isle, and it had been the Holy Isle long before Christ was ever heard of on these islands. There was no sound but the howl of the wind, which, so we had heard, blew straight to this island from the ends of the earth.
Then we heard our master's great booming laugh, and turned our faces to him like flowers to the sun. Columba was standing twenty yards away, ankle-deep in the green blowing machair, arms outstretched. 'Here,' he called.
We ran to him, pushing like schoolboys and puffing up the steep incline. He beamed down at us. His ruddy face glowed, and his eyes were bright. His coarse white robe flapped around his legs. He wore no silks or satins now. Gone were the fine clothes I had hung on him since we were boys. His head was bare. And yet I thought I had never seen him more like a prince. He had turned his back on his home and his kingdom for the sake of the Word, and I saw now that he did not regret it for a moment.
'Here,' he said again. His great, deep voice rang out, it seemed, over all of silent Iona, 'here. Here I will build my church. From this spot the light will shine, and the Word of God will set a nation free.'
'Amen,' breathed Oran, his pale face shining in its frame of angels' golden hair. The rest of us murmured assent, as Columba beamed again and slapped Oran's shoulder.
'All Christian men will play their part,' he said, and then turned and called out something in the tongue of the Northern Picts. The lay-workers, still grouped around their coracle on the beach as if they wanted to leap back into it, began to trudge up the slope towards us.
We brothers edged away as the lay-men approached. They were rough men, small and dark, with long black hair and beards. Some were tattooed, all were none too clean. They were Christians, but, I believe, only just. They had wanted, I remember, to bring their women with them to Iona; of course Columba would allow no female, not even a cow in fact, to come and bring mischief to the Holy Isle. So the women had been banished weeping to the Isle of Women, and the men had been grumbling ever since. Right from the start we knew we would have trouble with them.
And yet they had their part to play, however small, in our mission. Columba favoured them with a benevolent smile, spread his arms wide to indicate the ground, and said a few more words of the laymen's harsh speech: obviously, This is the spot.
The eldest layman, a silver-and-black haired fellow with a dark blue spiral etched in the centre of his forehead, nodded shortly. He pointed to the ground and snapped out a few short words: a question. Columba's face flushed with anger. He shook his head violently and bellowed something at the leader, who after a moment shrugged, bowed slightly, and led his men away.
Of course we were full of questions, but my lord merely snapped, 'Pagan savagery,' and would be drawn no further. But then he seemed to notice our anxious faces, for he softened - he was never out of sorts for long, in those days - and led us in a prayer, for the Glory of God and the success of our venture. We were in a land of darkness and confusion, he told us, but we had brought with us the Light: the only true revealed Gospel. Tonight we would sleep under the stars, and tomorrow we would wake to a new dawn for ourselves, for Iona, and for all of this poor benighted country.
Whatever else the laymen were, they were speedy workers, and within days we had huts for sleeping and eating and storage. We worked beside them - I, a mere servant, worked on equal terms with the brothers who had been noblemen back in Ireland, and even with my lord Columba himself. That was Columba's way. 'All are servants in the eyes of God,' he told us, hauling on great wooden stakes, to show us how. I recall him most vividly in that way: his sleeves rolled back, laughing his great rumbling laugh as he laboured beside us in the summer heat. How strange that for all his times of miracles, those are the days I should remember best.
The church was to be raised last, on a high place overlooking the sea. We had saved our finest timbers for it; one of the laymen was carving crosses to stand before it. We spent a whole day raising the walls, after a delay in which the lay-workers seemed reluctant to begin, and Columba had to speak sharply to them once more. But it was a happy day, and we sang hymns and praised and laughed as we worked, trying to ignore the sullen, muttering Picts who kept glancing down at the church's foundations as if they expected them to crumble like sand.
I was tired after the day's labour, and happy to lay myself down in my pallet by my master's feet. Columba too was well pleased; 'This is a good day's work, Diarmait,' he said. I agreed. In the silence that followed, I heard distant, rhythmic singing from the camp of the laymen - the master had already assured me that their songs were properly Christian, but still I found them disturbing. I was about to ask the master about these men, but then I heard his soft snores in the darkness, and I curled up to sleep.
I dreamed of a great heartfelt cry, and I woke with a start into near-darkness. The doorway of the hut was a dark grey oblong. There was no sound from the master's pallet. I squinted for a long moment at the master's bedding, and finally realised that it was empty. And then the cry came again, not in my dreams but outside. The voice was Columba's.
I scrambled out into the cool pink dawn. From my brothers' hut came sleepy questions and exclamations. I made my way uphill, expecting to see the church silhouetted against the East. Instead, I saw only two human figures: Columba and Oran - standing stricken, and staring at the church walls' flattened timbers lying strewn on the ground.
Within minutes all the brothers were there, demanding explanations, of which there were none. Oran, always an early riser, had heard a crash, and had immediately woken Columba - neither had seen any person anywhere near the church. Nevertheless the lay workers were summoned, and approached the toppled church clumped together, muttering and crossing themselves and making the sign against the Eye. Columba spoke angrily to their leader, who spoke angrily in return, but would not come close to the fallen walls. Eventually Columba sent them back to their camp. 'Dark forces,' we heard him murmur to himself, 'what are we to do?'
'We rebuild,' said Oran. 'With Christ as our help, how can we fail?'
The rest of us held our breath; but after a moment Columba smiled. 'Our brother is right. Let us rebuild.'
We rebuilt our church, twice as strongly this time. It was a still, sweltering day; only in the late evening did a wind begin to blow, and it was little more than a breeze, nothing at all by the standards of those windswept islands. For caution's sake, Columba set an overnight watch on the church, but I think all we brothers went to bed that night quite unconcerned.
But it was a troubled night. Twice I was woken in the blackness by my master crying, 'No, no!'; each time when I woke him and asked him what he had dreamed, he told me roughly to go back to sleep. I must have slept lightly, however, because the crash of falling timbers just before dawn woke me immediately.
My lord Columba was the first to reach the site of the toppled church, but the rest of us were just behind. Columba seized the arms of the young brother on watch, and shook him to calm him down. The youngster was nearly hysterical. No wind had been blowing, he said; no-one had been near the church. The walls had simply toppled, as if the hand of God had pushed them.
Columba nodded grimly. After a moment he said, 'Only chaste monastic hands must undertake this work. Let us pray, brothers, and prepare ourselves.' So that day the lay workers stayed in their camp, and we twelve brothers and our master rebuilt our church as strongly as we could, as strong, I believe, as any earthly thing could be made.
And yet it was not enough. My master hardly slept at all, and so neither did I. When the terrible crash of falling wood came, he got up calmly and went outside. Soon all thirteen of us were gazing at the wreckage of our house of God, and (so we thought) of all our hopes.
But Columba had the solution. Grim-faced, he gathered us to him. His mouth worked silently for a moment, and his eyes seemed to fill with tears. Finally he said:
'God has spoken in my dreams, brothers. He has told me that if our church is to stand, one of us must be sacrificed. One of us must be buried living in the foundations, or our mission will fail, and the people of this land will stay in darkness.'
There was a long silence. God help me, I do not know how long I would have stayed quiet. But then Oran stepped forward, his face pale. 'I will do it,' he said simply.
Columba's face flushed. At last his tears fell. 'When I am a saint in heaven,' he said to Oran, 'no-one shall approach me, except through you.'
And so that very day, the lay-men made an open coffin, and laid it in the earth beneath the west corner of the church. They worked quietly and contentedly now - once I saw the leader looking at Oran and nodding in satisfaction. Then they withdrew to their own camp, and left us to bury our own.
And so at dawn the next day, Oran, pale and a little sleepy from a drink of herbs I had made him, climbed into the coffin as sweetly and calmly as a good child laying down to sleep. We each kissed him, our lord Columba last of all. And then we piled up the earth, last of all covering his face. No work was done that day - we spent the rest of the day in prayer and meditation, and weeping.
So then, was that the time, you may ask? Was that the first death of Columba? Ah, no. Do you think my lord had never seen death? Do you think he had never lost dear ones before? No, no - he shed more tears that day than any of us, but his sorrow was intermingled with praise. Time and again joy would suffuse him, and his eyes would shine as he spoke of the beauty and purity of Oran's sacrifice, until we were full of joy too. Then he would weep again, and so did we.
The next day the lay workers returned, and the church was rebuilt. After a long night, we all rose from our - I must admit - sleepless beds, and found the walls still standing.
And so we carried on, for three days. We knew that we should rejoice for Oran in his new state of heavenly bliss. But I suppose we had not realised how much our daily happiness depended on Oran. How often did I, for one, look round for his smiling face and golden hair, and feel my heart sink? Even Columba was cool and distant, and once cuffed me for spilling his drink. We were a morning sky without the sun, without Oran.
It was the evening of the third day - a fine, golden evening, I remember - that Columba's outburst finally came. We were standing within the still-roofless walls of the church, listening as Columba led us in an unusually unenthusiastic prayer - when suddenly he fell silent. We watched him warily. At last he let out a cry; 'I can bear it no longer. Let us look on Oran's face once more.' He strode past us out of the church, calling back, 'Uncover his face!'
The lay-men stared as we poured out of the church door and round to the west corner. Columba was already on his knees, digging with his bare hands. We cried out to him to stop, but we might have been screeching seagulls for all the notice he took. So of course we had no choice; one by one we knelt beside our master, and began to dig.
Soon we were laughing and excited. I myself pushed through to the front, glad in spite of myself to be seeing Oran once more. I straightened up briefly to ease my back; and then I noticed that the lay men had all disappeared. I looked around. They must have been all but running, for they were already on the beach, and the first of them was climbing into the coracle. As I watched, two of them flung themselves into the heavy boat and prepared to push it off. I turned away from the beach, and pushed aside my brothers' jostling elbows to kneel down by my lord Columba, suddenly quite desperate to keep him close.
We fell silent as the first yellow curl was uncovered, but still we craned eagerly to see. The whole scalp was uncovered before the smell of decay hit us. The jostling ceased as the other brothers fell back a little. Not Columba, however; and not me beside him. Columba went on clearing away the dry soil, carefully, gently. And finally there, earth drawn up around his chin like a blanket, was Oran's lifeless face.
His skin had always been pale and fair; but now, even in the golden evening light, it was grey. His handsome face was gaunt and old. I could feel my brothers drawing further away. Only my lord and I remained. Columba leaned over Oran, his face as tender as a mother's. 'Our dear, lost Oran,' he breathed.
And Oran opened his eyes.
Gasps came from around the circle as the brothers leapt back. Oran's eyes were glazed and cold as a fish's. They flicked from side to side, and then settled on my lord Columba, who, like me, was rooted to the spot.
Oran's lips parted. Foul cold breath blew over us. Oran spoke, his voice a flat, rattling whisper, so low that only Columba and I could hear. He said: 'It is not as we supposed, Columba.'
After a long moment my lord found his voice. 'What is not?' he said.
'Heaven,' said Oran, 'and hell. It is not as we have read, Columba. Not. None of it. Listen.' A kind of urgency was creeping into that appalling whisper. His head moved from side to side. The earth on his right side began to stir, as if he were trying to lift his arm, or to sit up. 'Listen, Colum. Listen - '
My lord Columba let out a terrible scream. His face had gone as pale as Oran's. 'Cover him!' he shrieked. 'Cover his mouth! Let him speak no more!'
He was scrabbling at the ground as he spoke, and earth began to topple over Oran's eyes and nose. Oran's mouth opened wide and he began to howl, 'Columba! Columba!', but Columba pushed a great wave of earth over his mouth, and the sound gurgled and choked out. Then all of us were burying too, scrambling in the earth like dogs, until Oran's grave was once more intact.
Columba turned from us and ran, up into the shallow hills of Iona. The other brothers crowded around me, demanding to know what Oran had said - but I broke away and ran to my master's hut, where I crouched shivering all night. Sometimes in the darkness we heard Columba's voice shrieking wordlessly. One of the brothers, I forget who, came to tell me that the master must be fighting with demons. No-one dared to go to him.
He returned in the morning, talking of demonic possession and the lying tongues of devils. But he seemed to have shrunk. He continued to shrink over the next thirty years, while his stature as a saint grew and grew. He converted the Picts, as he intended. He set up sister monasteries. He worked miracles. He looked less and less like a man, and more like a carved stone saint. As his praises were sung he grew quieter and quieter, but for occasions when he would stare heavenwards and speak frantically of the angels and demons he could see there, fighting for the souls of men. Meanwhile, the rest of us would follow his gaze and see only the grey Northern sky.
And so he came to his death, after many years of longing and praying for it. I was there at the end - I was his bound servant and could never leave him, even if I wished to, which I did not. It has been said that in that very moment, the light of glory beamed upon Iona. The abbot of Jura saw our island as bright and golden as Jerusalem, shining for a thousand years, long after all other lands have sunk into the sea. But I was not worthy to see this - I saw only Columba's lined and shrunken face, as I covered it up forever.
And so Saint Columba has passed into heaven, and will be with us and all mankind for ever and ever. And that is good, and that is how it should be. But the four of us - the last of the Twelve - we miss our friend and our master Columba. Columba, whose laughter could drive away the chill of the Northern winds, and who died on that day thirty years before, as he leaned over Oran's open grave.
eSharp issue: autumn 2003. © Cathy McSporran 2003. All rights reserved. ISSN 1742-4542.