It is so nice to have a traveling companion join you on your journey…true in life and true on pilgrimage. I was fortunate enough to have both happen…most recently my wife, Jane Anne Ferguson, joined me in Italy for the final leg of my Columbanus pilgrimage. Jane Anne and I have led Celtic Christian pilgrimages in Ireland (with Dom and Sarah Crossan) and in Scotland, so it was great to share part of this Irish saint’s journey as well.
Columbanus crossed the Alps from Bregenz and St. Gallen, which cannot have been easy for a fellow in his 60s traveling on foot. There was no 17-kilometer long tunnel for him to go through, so he had a lot more “up and over” than I did driving on the Autobahn/Autostrada across Switzerland into Italy. He came to Milan, the Lombard capital, to meet with Agilulf, king of the Lombards.
You may remember that St. Ambrose of Milan was a very influential fourth-century “doctor of the church,” and his orthodox Christian theology in Milan had been replaced by Arian Christianity with the influx of the Lombards. Arianism holds that Jesus Christ was begotten by God the Creator at a set point in time and was not pre-existent with God from the beginning of time, and was therefore subordinate. Arianism did not deny the divinity of Christ, but asserted that the Christ aspect of the Trinity derived from the Creator. That may sound like a theological nit that isn’t worth picking, but two ecumenical counsels found that Arianism was heretical, and it cost lives trying to settle.
At any rate, Agilulf himself was an Arian Christian, but he was married to a woman named Theodelinda, who was a Bavarian Catholic. Columbanus clearly fell into the latter camp, and yet Columbanus’s biographer, Jonas of Bobbio, claims that Columbanus “was honorably received by Agilulf…[who] gave him the choice of settling within Italy wherever he wished.” (trans. Alexander O’Hara and Ian Wood.) Whether Agilulf was quite so magnanimous is up for debate, but Columbanus and his monks settled along the River Trebbia. “It was a bountiful fertile place, with refreshing waters and abundance of fish,” records Jonas. His biographer also tells us that Columbanus found a half-ruined church in Bobbio, which he restored. Then he and his monks began to gather timber and to construct an abbey.
The abbey and its scriptorium (which copied many Irish manuscripts) became renowned as a center of learning in the Lombard kingdom of northern Italy. Columbanus prepared the soil and sowed the seed well in Bobbio. “After a year,” writes Jonas, “blessed Columbanus completed his blessed life in the monastery of Bobbio. on 23 November, he gave back his soul to Heaven, freed from its body.”
It may also be that Columbanus died in his cave-retreat in the hills near Colli, just above Bobbio. One tradition holds that this is the case, so my pilgrim-partner and I included a trek into the Appenines to search for the cave at Colli, which was an adventure along a sometimes unmarked trail. Near the end, we found shock-cords fastened to a rock wall with pitons to help us and fellow pilgrims walk along the steep hillside as we approached the cave. It was just beginning to rain a little, so the shelter of a large overhanging rock, which formed the cave, was welcome. A small open-air chapel with and altar had been set up there, and two crosses — a large wrought iron one and a smaller Celtic cross from an Irish admirer, were mounted into the face of the overhang. It was a lovely, solitary place for a prayer that we shared, giving thanks for the life and the courage of this Irish pilgrim.
It is almost as if Columbanus brought spores of an ascetic Irish Christian infection (in the best sense) and inoculated what is now France, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy with them. His was not an “aromatherapy version of Celtic Christianity,” as an elderly Irish priest told me years ago in Dingle. It was “muscular Christianity,” to borrow an anachronistic term.His monastic rule has a somewhat elite macho vibe that sets it apart from the kinder, gentler Rule of St. Benedict (whose lifetime was about 50 years earlier than that of Columbanus). Perhaps that spiritual and physically demanding lifestyle gave it a certain cachet and appeal that drew adherents who became the apostles who formed more than 100 monastic communities in Columbanus’s wake.
Today, Bobbio, more than any other place associated with the Irish saint, remembers and honors Columbanus well. Perhaps it is because, as one writer puts it, “Bobbio was an Irish town three centuries before the Vikings founded Dublin.” School kids know about Columbanus…middle-schoolers have their school in part of the old monastic buildings. (Napoleonic forces made their way here, as well, and Lombardy was a department of the French Republic for a time…so the monastery that had been founded in 1,200 years before “the little corporal” came to an end. Priceless manuscripts from the monastery, like the Bobbio Missal, a Gallican mass book, now live in Paris. Some others are in Milan, safely housed in the Ambrosian Library, where Italian librarians keep them out of the hands of everyone, even scholars who wish to have them digitized for online use.)
When we visited in late September, there were few tourists, and no sign of Americans, which was nice! The town is clean and net, has a beautiful Roman arched footbridge across the Trebbia, and preserves the legacy of its past rather beautifully. When we first walked into square in front of the cathedral, we saw a large metal compass embedded in the stone walkway, pointing in the direction of Navan, the presumed birthplace of Columbanus. The cathedral is not of Columbanus origin, but it is the first church one encounters after crossing the Roman bridge into town. The monastery cloisters house museums on two sides, a hallway one, and a school on the fourth. Just beyond it is a church dedicated to Columbanus and where his body lies in a stone sarcophagus in a crypt under the altar. (More about that in the next episode!)