“PERIGRINI: PILGRIM EXILE” – ST COLUMBAN DREAMED ‘TO BE A PILGRIM’
“Leaving home and undertaking a journey at the behest of God has deep roots in the Bible. God called Abraham to ‘leave your country and your father’s house and go to the land that I will show you… and I will make you a great nation and I will bless you’ (Gen 12:1-2).
The notion of peregrinatio (pilgrim or wanderer) in Ireland goes right back to St Patrick himself. Fr Aidan Larkin, in his book ‘Columban, Pilgrim for Christ’, writes: ‘By returning freely to Ireland, Patrick undertook peregrinatio perennis, exile in perpetuity. He intended to stay in Ireland and die there… in his (Patrick’s letter to Coroticus, ‘I have not laboured for nor has my exile (peregrinatio) been to no purpose.’ For Patrick and those who came after him, exile forever from one’s country is considered to be ‘white martyrdom’. At the time it was a major decision to take because technically peregrinus had no rights. In fact, he could be killed with impunity.
LONGING FOR EXILE
As we have seen, the idea of peregrinatio is rooted in the scriptures, but Larkin claims that ‘for these Irishmen (Colmcille, Columban, etc.) it derived much power from being a form of ascetical renunciation of particular social and political structures of Irish society, in which the position and legal protection of the individual were closely linked to the family group and the local community.’ In this way the monk imitated the self-emptying of Christ which St Paul writes about in Philippians 2:6-11.
Columban’s biographer, Jonas of Susa, tells us that a holy woman who originally encouraged to leave his home expressed her own regret that she did not opt for portior peregrinatio (a more intense exile).
Presumably this advice remained with Columban as he lived his adult life at Comgall’s monastery in Bangor. Jonas tells us that after many years in Bangor, Columban ‘began to long for exile.’ Jonas points out that, at first, comgall refused permission, presumably because of the important roles Columban fulfilled in Bangor. Then, in either 590 or 591, Comgall relented and gave Columban permission to leave.
“IT WAS MY WISH TO VISIT THE PAGAN PEOPLE…”
TM Charles-Edwards, the Oxford historian of early Christian Ireland, claims that Columban is ‘the greatest of the perigrini who left Ireland for continental Europe.’
Peregrinatio for Irish monks was not a choice for solitude. Colmcille and later Columban brought a community with them. In Columban’s case the group was composed of 12 monks with Columban as the abbot – patterned on Jesus and the apostles. Furthermore, in Letter IV which Columban wrote from Nantes to the monks of Luxeuil before he thought he would be deported back to Ireland, we learn that there is an added, missionary dimension to Columban’s peregrinatio: ‘It was my wish to visit the pagan people and to have the Gospel preached to them by us.’ Larkin argues persuasively that peregrinatio is intertwined with mission or preaching the Good News of the Gospel.
Dr Marie Therese Flanagan of Queen’s University, Belfast, points out how successful Columban and his companions were. When Columban arrived in Gaul in 590 AD the rural areas had only absorbed Christianity superficially. She claims that the situation changed dramatically with the arrival of the ‘holy men from Ireland,’ endowed with spiritual gifts, willing to travel, to run risks and prepared to face up to the paganism of the country people in their own rural dwelling places. They succeeded in creating the conditions for conversions through a conscious choice of the Christian way of life. The arrival of the Irish peregrini initiated a movement of spiritual renewal in Gaul which also showed itself in a wave of new monastic foundations not directly subject to the bishops, as in Ireland.
Around 600 AD, Dr Flanagan asserts, there were around 200 monasteries in Gaul, but with the Irish influence, in the course of the seventh century, around 320 more were added, the majority of them in northern Gaul, an area which Pierre Riche has defined as a ‘barbarous zone.’ Larkin thinks the figure is high, but agrees that the impact of Columban and his monks was remarkable.”
– This article by Fr Sean McDonagh was published in The Catholic Universe newspaper on Sunday 31st March, 2013.