Columbanus : biography

543 – 615

When the bishops refused to abandon the matter, Columbanus, following St. Patrick’s canon, appealed directly to Pope Gregory I, sending him three letters, defending the Celtic custom with strong but affectionate words. In the third and only surviving letter, he asks "the holy Pope, his Father" to provide "the strong support of his authority" and to render a "verdict of his favour", apologizing for "presuming to argue as it were, with him who sits in the chair of Peter, Apostle and Bearer of the Keys". None of the letters were answered, most likely due to the pope’s death in 604. Columbanus then sent a letter to Gregory’s successor, Pope Boniface IV, asking him to confirm the tradition of his elders—if it is not contrary to the Faith—so that he and his monks can follow the rites of their ancestors. Before Boniface responded, Columbanus moved outside the jurisdiction of the French bishops. Since the Celtic Easter issue appears to end around that time, Columbanus may have stopped celebrating Celtic Easter after moving to Italy.

Columbanus was also involved in a dispute with members of the French royal family. When King Theuderic II of Burgundy began living with a mistress, the saint objected, earning the displeasure of the king’s grandmother, Brunhilda of Austrasia, who thought a royal marriage would threaten her own power. The saint did not spare the demoralized court, and Brunhilda became his bitterest foe.Cusack 2002, p. 173. Upon the death of King Gontram of Burgundy, the succession passed to his nephew, Childebert II, the son of Brunhilda. When Childebert II died, he left two sons, Theodebert II who inherited the Kingdom of Burgundy, and Theudebert II who inherited the Kingdom of Austrasia. Since both were minors, Brunhilda declared herself their guardian and controlled the governments of the two kingdoms.

Theuderic II venerated Columbanus and often visited him, but the saint admonished and rebuked him for his behavior. Angered by the saint’s moral stand, Brunhilda stirred up the bishops and nobles to find fault with his monastic rules. When Theuderic II finally confronted Columbanus at Luxeuil, ordering him to conform to the country’s conventions, the saint refused and was then taken prisoner to Besançon. Columbanus managed to escape his captors and returned to his monastery at Luxeuil. When the king and his grandmother found out, they sent soldiers to drive him back to Ireland by force, separating him from his monks by insisting that only those from Ireland could accompany him into exile.

Columbanus was taken to Nevers, then travelled by boat down the Loire river to the coast. At Tours he visited the tomb of Saint Martin, and sent a message to Theuderic II indicating that within three years he and his children would perish. When he arrived at Nantes, he wrote a letter before embarkation to his fellow monks at Luxeuil monastery. Filled with love and affection, the letter urges his brethren to obey Attala, who stayed behind as abbot of the monastic community. The letter concludes:

Soon after the ship set sail from Nantes, a severe storm drove the vessel back ashore. Convinced that his holy passenger caused the tempest, the captain refused further attempts to transport the monk. Columbanus made his way across Gaul to visit King Chlothar II of Neustria at Soissons where he was gladly received. Despite the king’s offers to stay in his kingdom, Columbanus left Neustria in 611 for the court of King Theudebert II of Austrasia in the northeastern part of the Kingdom of the Merovingian Franks.

The Alps

Columbanus travelled to Metz, where he received an honourable welcome, and then proceeding to Mainz, where he sailed down the Rhine river to the lands of the Suebi and Alemanni in the northern Alps, intending to preach the Gospel to these people. He followed the Rhine river and its tributaries, the Aar and the Limmat, and then on to Lake Zurich. Columbanus chose the village of Tuggen as his initial community, but the work was not successful. He continued west by way of Arbon to Bregenz on Lake Constance, where there were still some traces of Christianity. Here the saint found an oratory dedicated to Saint Aurelia containing three brass images of their tutelary deities. Columbanus commanded Saint Gall, who knew the local language, to preach to the inhabitants, and many were converted. The three brass images were destroyed, and Columbanus blessed the little church, placing the relics of Saint Aurelia beneath the altar. A monastery was erected, Mehrerau Abbey, and the brethren observed their regular life. Columbanus stayed in Bregenz for about one year. Following an uprising against the community, possibly related to that region being taken over by the saint’s old enemy King Theudebert II, Columbanus resolved to cross the Alps into Italy.