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Seeding Communities: St Columba and Iona
By Helen Watson White in All Sorts
the sense of community has developed over millennia from prehistory to nowSEEDING COMMUNITIES: ST COLUMBA AND IONA
This is the time of year a large chunk of the worldwide Church remembers St Columba, the sixth-century Irish monk who founded the Iona community (at first a monastery) on an island in what is now Scotland. Tradition says he landed on the island of Iona on the eve of Whitsunday -- Pentecost -- in the year 563AD.
Many stories of his life and work were gathered after Columba's death by a distant relative called Adomnan, also a saint, who was the ninth abbott of Iona, from 679 to 704AD. His Life of St Columba reached me through the Celtic library of the late Revd Helene Mann. Her books are housed in the chapter room in St Paul's Cathedral, where (quarterly) we celebrate a Celtic-style communion.
Although Columba's dates appear so early, he was not of course the first to spread the gospel in the west and north of Britain. Born three generations after the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, he received well-established traditions of learning, mission and service before passing them on. Columba saw a great expansion of the faith in Ireland and Scotland, at a time when the monastic
ideal caught the imagination of recently converted people and drew large numbers of them into the religious life. By the time he died, however, most Scots and many Irish were still pagan. As in other countries and eras, the gospel was grafted onto a pre- existing religion, adopting some of the character of its context.
The communities Columba and others founded not only survived but flourished after the death of their founder-patrons, through the transmission of stories -- legends, really, about a saint's prophetic or miraculous powers. Stories were a sort of "devotional truth", says Richard Sharpe, modern-day translator of Adomnan's Life of St Columba, quite obviously imitating the miracle stories about Jesus, none of which can be verified as a 'true' historical record. But it has to be repeated, weekly if necessary: in the minds of the gospel writers and all who wrote the Hebrew Bible there was no notion of factuality or history as we know it.
In the present age of what is shockingly described as ' alternative facts' or 'alternative news', we do have to take seriously the idea that everyone writes their own version of history in their minds, re-writing what others have conceived as unalterable truth. The negative side of this has important ramifications for 'objective' journalism. On the positive side, however, much-embroidered stories are the reason why Judaism and Christianity survived to the present day.
What has survived, indeed, is a sense of community much larger than the family or monastic community, originally a cell-group of minds and hearts intent on prayer: what we have now is a worldwide human web of imaginative connections, evolved through millennia from pre-historic people talking around a fire. My encyclopedia tells me the earliest human dwellings have been dated to 50,000BC; Scotland has been inhabited for some 8,500 years; Aboriginal peoples in Australia date back 40,000 years... As soon as language arose, there were stories. Stories are what bound a family together, then a clan, then larger groupings, including faith communities.
Like the story of Columba, some of the tales still told in the Global Village are pretty old, and some are older than old. You think 563AD is old? I watched a fascinating TV programme about the Orkney Islands, where some of both John's and my ancestors lived. In 1999 a UNESCO World Heritage Site was formed there, including a cluster of houses making up Northern Europe's best- preserved Neolithic (late Stone Age) village. In 2009, at the Ness of Brodgar in the Orkneys, archaeologists discovered another extensive complex of stone-built structures. A typical dwelling had decoration and art as well as the basics: niches for sleeping and -- especially -- space around a large hearth in the centre, for cooking, eating and story-telling. Even more impressive were the ruins of a unique 82ft x65ft Neolithic 'cathedral' of stone, with walls that must have been abnormally high, considering that in a ruined state they are, at the base, 16ft (over 5m) THICK.
Part of the nearby World Heritage Site are the Standing Stones of Stenness -- 4 remaining pillars of a circle very like Stonehenge, the largest 19ft high. Stonehenge is said to be built in about 2800BC, but the 'cathedral' was found to be even older. Experts are concluding that not only did the Orkney 'cathedral' pre-date Stonehenge, the Ness of Brodgar complex in its entirety was a cultural and religious centre which influenced all of Britain, dating from before 3000BC. There is a whole network of Stonehenges on the archeological map of the British Isles, and it was on the Orkneys that Celtic people seem to have learned to combine their ritual worship with remarkable engineering feats in stone.
-- Helen Watson White