June the 9th is Saint Columba’s day, a saint who has a special place for me, as somehow, he feels bound up in my own journey to Faith. When I was 19, and moving from atheism, towards a greater spiritual openness, but by no means yet a Christian, I went for a long slow walk round Ireland. I went without a map because the Zen practice in which I was interested at the time, and on which I still draw in prayer, was always emphasizing ‘The map is not the reality”! You must utterly and absolutely be in the place you’re in, and let that place be what it is and teach what it has to teach without any overlay from your maps and preconceptions. So I took that literally and walked round Ireland without a map, just keeping the sea on my left!
One evening, St. John’s Eve it was, right at the end of my journey, I came round a headland at sunset into a beautiful little bay and inlet on the west coast in Donegal, just as the fires were being lit around the headlands for St. John’s Eve, and there was drinking and fiddle playing and dancing round the fires that evening. And I asked where I was, and they said Glencolmcille, and I felt a sudden quickening and sense of connection, as though a memory stirred. And they asked me my name and I said ‘Malcolm’, and they said, ‘Ah that is why you have come, because he has called you’, and I said ‘who?’ and they said ‘Colm has called you, Malcolm, for this is the place he fought his battle and gathered his disciples and from here he left for the white martyrdom and Scotland. And they told me the story of St. Columba, and the battle he had fought, of his repentance, his self-imposed exile, his journey with twelve disciples from this glen to Scotland where he founded the abbey of Iona from whence Scotland and much of the north of England was converted. ‘Of course he is calling you here’, they said, ‘for your name, in Gaelic means’ servant of Colm’, which is Columba.
And as they spoke I remembered at last, right back into my childhood, how I had been told stories about this saint, and how I was named for him, and how my grandmother had published poems about him and sung her lullaby for the infant Columba over me as a child. I wandered down to the shore whence he had set sail and felt how thin the veil was, how something of heaven, whatever heaven might be, seemed to glimmer through the sky and the sea itself in this place. And I thought: ‘I’m not a Christian, and I don’t see how I could ever become one, but if I do ever become one, I’ll remember Columba and I’ll go to Iona and thank him’. Which I did, and I did. Now here’s my sonnet for the saint. This poem is now collected in my book The Singing Bowl.
You called me and I came to Colmcille
To learn at last the meaning of my name
Though you yourself were called, and not the caller,
He called through you and when He called I came.
Came to the edge at last, in Donegal,
Where bonfires burned and music lit the flame
As from the shore I glimpsed that ragged sail
The Spirit filled to drive you from your home,
A fierce dove racing in a fiercer gale,
A swift wing flashing between sea and sky.
And with that glimpse I knew that I would fly
And find you out and serve you for a season,
My heaven hidden like your native isle,
Though somehow glimmering on each horizon.
Books by Malcolm Guite may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with Mr. Guite’s permission from his website. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.