‘It was on his dear Iona that Columba found so many occasions for displaying that deep tenderness for all creation, that supernatural intimacy with creatures, that is so attractive in the lives of many saints. Numerous are the tales which reveal his power with Nature. One night in his hut he agonised in prayer over the pain of the world, the pain of evil, and of cruelty, and of a sinner’s death, holding it all against the pain of the Son of God on Calvary.
Columba had an especial devotion to the Cross of Christ, and through the dark hours he pondered on it. Worn out at last, he lay down on the stone that was always his bed, with his head on the stone pillow, and fell asleep. When he awoke he saw, sitting in the whole of the wall that did duty for a window, a robin. “Have you a song, red-breast?” asked Columba. At that the robin tilted his head, opened wide his shining eye on the saint, and sang a song so sweet that Columba, big man that he was, trembled at the beauty of it. And he understood the song of the birds, which told how he was in his nest near the great Cross upon which hung the Christ, how he saw Him white and bleeding, how the Christ looked at him with eyes so full of pain that he flew to Him and pressed his little brown breast on his forehead, trying to pull out one of the wounding thorns, trying to soften the suffering, so that his own breast was covered in blood. “My breast is red”, sang the bird, “for I saw Him die”. Columba felt his own heart enlarge with love for the Saviour as he listened to his tender song, and he at once wished to praise God for the bird and for its message. Carried away by his impetuous feelings, he knocked the wooden clapper which called the monks together for their services, and when they all came running, he told them of the bird’s song, and how even this tiny morsel of life and helped to ease Christ’s pain.
At the stone altar outside the church, Columba prepared to offer the praise of the Eucharist, his brethren all kneeling round; but first he raised his arms above his head and cried in his big, deep voice, “Come, all ye birds”. At once they came, flying through the air, which was just receiving its first glow of warmth from the sun climbing the eastern sky, flying in from all sides – little birds from the fields, big birds from the sea; larks and wrens, gulls and plovers, curlew and cormorants – all were there, and many others. “Peace to you from God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost”, said Columba. And “Peace”, answered the birds. They stayed quietly to hear the Mass, and at the end the Abbot, turning, blessed not only the monks but also the birds. Then all flew off, except the robin, who again piped his tender notes. “Peace in the Name of the Trinity”, said Columba. “Peace in the Name of Christ”, sang the bird’.
Sibyl Harton, 1898-1993
Fr Lee Kenyon