Luxeuil…the “big name” in Columbanus

If you mention Columbanus and his monasteries to most people who know something about the history of early continental monasticism, the first place they are likely to name is Luxeuil. That’s a logical thing, since his monastery there became large and influential, more so than Annegray. Today, Luxeuil-les-Bains is a small city that seems to have fallen on hard economic times and whose claim to fame is the centuries-old hot springs from which the suffix of its name derives.

Interestingly, Columbanus tended to found monasteries where there was a source of water coming up from the earth, perhaps a carry-over from the pre-Christian Celtic tradition of seeing such springs or “wells” as coming from the source of sacredness. Many “holy wells” in the Celtic world were appropriated after the coming of Christianity and rededicated to saints. (So, Tobermory on the Isle of Mull is a combination of the Gaelic word “tober” [well] and the name of Mary the mother of Jesus. And the Bridewell Place, just off Fleet Street in London, is a well named for St. Brigid, or Bride in English.) If you’d like to see a short video of holy wells in Scotland and Wales from my first sabbatical, click here.

The Abbey in Luxeuil was dissolved during the French Revolution, when the church was seen as an instrument of the ancien regime. Since that time, the main monastic buildings have become a school and the municipal offices of the city. To be honest, it feels as if they have largely forgotten good old Columbanus. The church in Luxeuil adjacent to the monastery buildings certainly remembers him, and there is a copy of the great 20th c. statue of him outside, but the cloisters mention nothing of him, nor of the monastic tradition that was the lifeblood of Luxeuil for more than a thousand years.

In case you hadn’t guessed, I was a bit disappointed with Luxeuil and its lack of remembrance of its favorite son. (I was also thinking of this as a potential pilgrimage stop for the future, but I rejected that idea after visiting.) I dropped by the Tourist Information Office and asked about Columbanus, and the best the kind, young woman could do was to hand me a brochure about Annegray and to tell me there was a statue next to the cloisters. (The only business I saw in town named for Columbanus was a lingerie shop.)

Luckily, I was not deterred by the lack of a good steer. I knew that there was another statue of Columbanus inside a different courtyard in the school, and when school let out, I wandered right into the courtyard, looked around, and imagined myself as a latter day Benedictine. And the statue of Columbanus in the courtyard was somewhat less macho than the one that recurs in several sites associated with the Irish monk. (Score one for taking a walk at the right time and ignoring the “propriété privée” signs.)

I did have a nice experience in the rather grim, forbidding church, however. I found not only a chapel dedicated to Columbanus, but also a statue of St. Gall and his pet bear, and there was a lovely prayer of Columbanus.

I’m not usually one to light candles in a church to offer a prayer (blame my Congregational roots), but I did light a candle for Columbanus and gave thanks to God that he had the faith and the boldness to strike out into the Merovingian kingdom.

The translation of the prayer of Columbanus, in my best junior high school French, is “Lord, my God, May I never be separated from compassion. May my lamp burns with its flame and burns within me, that it enlightens others, that it never goes out.”

While the light of Christ, kindled and reflected by Columbanus and others across the millennia, has not gone out, I wondered what would be remembered of this saint in Luxeuil a century from now. To be sure, Columbanus himself upset the powers and principalities of his time. He urged the young Merovingian ruler who ascended the thrown while Columbanus was at Luxeuil to stop sleeping around and choose a wife. And when the young man refused (at the behest of his mother, who was pulling the marionette’s strings), Columbanus mourned. And when the rich young ruler asked to have his illegitimate children baptized, Columbanus refused. (Not the 21st century in its mores…) And that led the rule and his dear mother to banish Columbanus and all his Irish and British monks, sending them under armed guard to the Atlantic coast to be shipped back to Ireland. Well, that didn’t work, when poor weather convinced the ship’s captain that the storm was a message from God that Columbanus was to stay on the continent, so Columbanus and his followers, back on dry land, set off once again, eventually winding up in Bregenz.