Sabbatical 2017: Chasing after St. Columbanus

EU map from Plan of St Gall
Map of monastic development from The Plan of St. Gall in Brief by Lorna Price

It is a beautiful, hot, sunny summer day in Colorado, and I’m getting things lined up to embark on the pilgrimage portion of my sabbatical as senior minister of Plymouth Congregational UCC in Fort Collins.

Sabbatical is meant to be a time set apart – sabbath time – for rest, reflection, study, time with family…things that sometimes take the back seat in the everyday deluge of parish ministry in a larger congregation. I am really grateful to our congregation and to the UCC for making this a priority for those of us who serve in this ministry. And thanks to those who have generously given money to Plymouth to support this journey!

The theme of this pilgrimage will be to follow in the footsteps of an Irish monk named Columbanus (or Columban)…not Columba of Iona, but rather a monk who was born in Leinster in about 543 and died at the monastery he founded in Bobbio, Italy in 615. He is best remembered for re-evangelizing Europe in the early middle ages after the decline of the Roman Empire (and with it the imperial Christianity it fostered, which had but a toehold in central Europe).

Columbanus was indeed a peregrinus – a pilgrim for Christ who forsook his lush Irish homeland in order to bring the gospel to those in foreign lands. Together with 12 disciples, Columbanus left from Bangor (near today’s Belfast) and set sail for Frankish Gaul (France), landing on the west coast in 585 and proceeding toward the Rhine, where he worked with local Frankish rulers to found monasteries at Fontaine, Annegray, and Luxeuil. He later ran afoul of the state when he refused to baptize the illegitimate child of the king, and he and his Irish monks were banished…but not for all that long. They returned to found monasteries in what is now Bregenz, Austria; St. Gallen, Switzerland; and Bobbio, Italy. All told, Columbanus and his disciples founded more than 100 centers across Europe.

According to Mary McAleese, former President of Ireland, Columbanus essentially united Europe by reintroducing orthodox monasticism from Ireland into the continent. And author Thomas Cahill credits him with being foremost among the Irish who “saved civilization” by bringing classical literature, learning, and Christianity back to the continent.

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My travel plan begins with a nonstop Lufthansa flight from Denver to Munich, and after an overnight, I’ve got a car leased for the next six weeks. After driving through southern Bavaria, my first stop is the Cistercian Abbey in Bregenz, Austria, where I will spend several nights with the brothers. A short trip will bring me to the great monastic library at St. Gallen, Switzerland. (St. Gall was an Irish monk, and one of Columbanus’s twelve disciples.) I’ll do a short side trip to the monastic island of Reichenau in the Lake of Constance, and then continue on to Luxeuil-les-Bains. I’ll spend time visiitng the archeological site at Annegray as well as the monastic buildings in Luxeuil. The final leg of the Columbanus part of the pilgrimage will be to cross the Alps into Italy and to conclude in Bobbio, where Columbanus’s tomb is located within the abbey he founded there.

How did an Irish monk succeed where others had failed in establishing a resilient Christian faith in Europe? And while we’re not likely to embrace his profoundly ascetic monastic rule, are there things we can learn from it 1,400 years later? I hope to address these and other questions as I become a pilgrim chasing after St. Columbanus.

If you wish, go ahead and subscribe to receive updates on this blog, and you’ll start seeing posts in early September when I arrive in Europe.


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