In this series of short reflections on the Rule of Columba my aim is to explore the wisdom of Columba’s life in Christ and creation and to seek to apply this ancient rule, to my own personal exploration of the life of the Spirit. In doing so I hope that in some way the wisdom of Columba’s rule can find a newer expression and vitality in the modern era.
BE ALONE IN A SEPARATE PLACE NEAR A CHIEF CITY, IF YOUR CONSCIENCE IS NOT PREPARED TO BE IN COMMON WITH THE CROWD.
There can be no doubt that the Celtic Saints knew how to choose a location. Aidan’s Lindisfarne, Cuthbert’s Inner Farne, Kevin’s Glendalough, the disciples of Dicuil’s Bosham or Columba’s Iona are places that are inhabited by a true sense of the wild, the wonderful, the dramatic and the intensely beautiful. They were on the very edge of where humanity at the time could exist. The sensory overload you experience when standing in such locations is truly majestic. A view through history captured in the landscape of the Divine. I have always been struck by what overwhelming instinct would drive ordinary men or women to abandon the shelter of their homes and warmth of their partners beds to journey to the ends of the known world and live out a sparse and meagre existence, as in the case of Fionan, who on the wild and exposed rock of Skellig Michael fell into the arms of the wild Atlantic and its Creator.
What was striking to me as I began to read Columba’s rule was that he placed the location of the encounter with Christ before the ‘naked imitation of Christ’. The more I reflected upon the location of my encounter with The Trinity, the more I began to understand the simple logic in this, as well as the profound impact that such a step could have in my own life.
Alone and separate did not mean lonely and isolated. There can be no doubt that to embrace the idea of being alone, can be a terrifying experience for many people. Walking away from the noise and bustle of modern society and the sense of self-importance derived from eating at this table, is an intentional step that is extremely counter intuitive in society and conventional church culture.
Daily life and activity is intent on bombarding ones senses with images, noises and activities that in the final analysis are questionable regarding the value and legacy they impress upon ones eternal reality. To intentionally remove ones self from this narrative of society became a bold step away from feeding my ego. Given that our world seems to be about the communication of fear and/or desire over love and justice this may not be such an unwise move. It is fascinating to reflect upon the crude nature of advertising as an example. It would appear its three primary drivers are;
- Desire to possess what we do not have or need,
- Fear of what may happen to us through what we cannot see or control,
- Ownership of the product that will satisfy the desire or alleviate the fear.
All this gives us the illusion of being in control over the natural order and the domesticating of the world around us.
Being separate and alone moves me to a place where I have to live with my own inner turmoil, conversations, fears and desires without the ‘soma‘ of modern living to drown out the voice of my true self. Yet finding that place is not easy. For Columba and his many followers this was the first step. Find your space, find your location, find your stillness, find your place where you can be alone with the Trinity.
It then seems that location becomes more than just a place of personal stillness and prayer, it becomes an external manifestation of the relationship with Christ. A place that embodies the dynamism, drama and breadth of the encounter of the living Christ as this extract from Columcille Fecit beautifully illustrates,
‘Delightful would it be to me to be in Uchd Ailiun
On the pinnacle of a rock,
That I might often see
The face of the ocean;
That I might see its heaving waves
Over the wide ocean,
When they chant music to their Father
Upon the world’s course;’
Naturally this practice can take on many shapes and forms. It can be a location, it can be a meditative state that opens one up to the eternal presence, it can be a image that triggers humility. Yielding to the ‘aloneness’ of self, ushers in the face of Christ in whom we encounter our true identity. It is here we are discovered and discover that we are never alone.
The opening phrase of the Rule of Columba began to capture for me the true kernel of what the indigenous Christian spirituality of the British Isles was all about. The yearning for intimacy with Christ is the total abandonment of self to love and passion can only be experienced through naked intimacy (one cannot be intimate in public after all, as society and institutionalised religions, classes that as indecent).
Yet this aloneness and the richness that flows from it is set in an eternal location. The inner journey is captured in the outer landscape. That landscape needed to be discovered and needed to be remote, wild, exposed and inhabited by His and my presence alone. It seems to me that human beings are the only creatures on earth who intentionally build shelters for themselves to escape the power and rawness of creation, domesticate their surrounding landscape, call it normal and expect everything else to conform to this behaviour.
Yet in the world of God’s Spirit intimacy means naked exposure,
‘as deep calls to deep, in your rushing waters:
and all your torrents, all your waves have flowed over me’.
The psalmist could only capture the depth of God’s presence in the language and experience of being overpowered by the nature of water.
Columba understood that aloneness meant ‘togetherness without distraction’ and that the created order was the bed upon which we lay down with the Godhead. As I am enfolded in the dynamic personality of the Spirit, the immanence of Gods-self in the wonder and beauty of the created order allows me to be my natural self.