Columbanus was born into a noble family in West Leinster, Ireland, circa 543. (Though also referred to as Columba, he is not the same person as the celebrated father of Iona, whose feast day falls in June.) The few details that remain of his early life mark him as first class material for the hard life of the sixth century monasteries. Prior to his birth, his mother dreamed of a brilliant sun which would arise from her breast and illuminate the whole world. Columbanus came of age just as the first great monastic foundations were being established in Ireland. He received a classical education at Clonard, the great mother-school founded by St. Finian, where he discovered the three-fold division of prayer, manual labor and study of the scriptures that mark the boundaries of a monk's existence. He learned habits of sanctity and scholarship that would stay with him for the rest of his life.
Columbanus was by all accounts quite handsome in his appearance. He felt besieged by the sexual temptations so frequently offered by his countrywomen. He struggled against his own strong sexual urges as well. Driven by torment, he sought the counsel of a holy female hermit, who admonished him with accounts of biblical figures whose lives were undone by "wanton women." She advised him that his only hope for survival in holiness was to flee from the temptations of the world. Columbanus decided to act on this advice despite intense opposition from his mother, who begged him not to leave her. She tried to block him with her body, weeping and lying across the threshold of his door in an attempt to detain him. Conquering his natural feelings, he stepped over her prostrate form and left his home forever. He implored her not to be broken with grief, saying she should see him no more in this life, and that wherever the way of salvation led him, there he would go.
His first master was Sinell, Abbot of Cluaninis in Lough Erne. Sinell had also been trained at Clonard by St. Finian. Life at Cluaninis was spartan and the food poor - a battle to subject the body to the will - and obedience to the abbot was strict. During this period Columbanus composed a commentary on the Psalms. Soon after he felt called to the celebrated monastery of Bangor on the coast of Down, to live under the abbot St. Comgall. At that time Bangor was known as the monastery with the most ascetic practices in the country. Columbanus eagerly embraced the asceticism of Bangor, and for many years led a life conspicuous for fervor, regularity, and learning.
At about the age of forty he seemed to hear incessantly the voice of God bidding him preach the Gospel in foreign lands. At first Comgall declined to let him go, being loath to part with one who had become so great a help and comfort to him; but at length he realized he had no right to consider only his own convenience, and he gave his consent. Columbanus then set sail with twelve companions. Their names have come down to us as follows: St. Attala, Columbanus the Younger, Cummain, Domgal, Eogain, Eunan, St. Gall, Gurgano, Libran, Lua, Sigisbert and Waldoleno. The little band passed over to Britain, landing probably on the Scottish coast. They remained but a short time in England; sometime around the year 585 they crossed over to France, where they began their apostolic mission at once. Columbanus, by his holiness, zeal, and learning, was eminently fitted for the work that lay before him. Wherever he went the people were struck by his modesty, patience, and humility.
Columbanus and his followers made their way to the court of Gontram, King of Burgundy. Gontram gave him a gracious reception, and offered him the half-ruined Roman fortress of Annegray in the solitudes of the Vosges Mountains. Here Columbanus and his monks led the simplest of lives, their food oftentimes consisting of nothing but forest herbs, berries, and the bark of young trees. The fame of his sanctity drew crowds to his monastery. Many, both nobles and rustics, asked to be admitted into the community. Sick persons came to be cured through their prayers.
After a few years the ever-increasing number of his disciples oblige him to build another monastery. Columbanus accordingly obtained from King Gontram the Gallo-Roman castle named Luxeuil, eight miles distant from Annegray. It was in a wild district, thickly covered with pine forests and brushwood. This foundation of the celebrated Abbey of Luxueil took place in 590. But even these two monasteries did not suffice for the numbers who came to follow him, and a third had to be erected at Fontaines. The superiors of these houses always remained subordinate to Columbanus, but the saint so loved his solitude that he would often withdraw to a cave several miles distant, with only a single companion who acted as messenger between himself and his brethren.
It was in the wilderness that his typically Celtic love of nature is shown. Bishop Chamnoald, once Columbanus's disciple, tells that Columbanus would call out to the creatures when he went into the woods to fast or pray, and that they would come to him at once. He would stroke them with his hand and caress them: and the wild things and the birds would leap and frisk about him for sheer joy as pups jump on their masters. Even the squirrels would answer his call, climbing into the hands and onto the shoulders of Columbanus and running in and out of the folds of his cowl. Chamnoald said that he himself had seen this, and that we should not marvel that bird and beast should obey the command of a man of God. Animals are involved in several of his principal miracles including: escape from hurt when surrounded by wolves, and obedience of a bear which evacuated a cave at his bidding. Other miracles attributed to him include producing a spring of water near his cave; giving sight to a blind man at Orleans; and a miraculous multiplication of bread and beer for his community.
Columbanus stayed in France as Abbot of Luxeuil for more than twenty years. But there were frequent disputes with French bishops who did not share his fervent monastic spirituality. His ever-increasing influence allowed him to maintain primary control over his monasteries instead of acknowledging the authority of the local bishops, who did not enjoy having their power compromised. His devotion to Gaelic ways placed Columbanus at the center of the oft-recurring controversy over observing the Celtic date for Easter. Columbanus was erratic in his obedience, sometimes deferring to the Pope with great respect and other times refusing to appear when summoned before official disciplinary gatherings. Eventually King Theoderic drove Columbanus into exile for refusing to bless the King's illegitimate children.
When Columbanus crossed the Alps into the province of Lombardy, King Agilulph welcomed the exiled saint almost as a national asset, despite the fact that he immediately became involved in a doctrinal dispute with Arian factions who denied the divine nature of Christ. Columbanus found his reward of peace at the end of his life when King Agilulph of Lombardy gave him a tract of land called Bobbio, between Milan and Genoa, near the River Trebbia. At Bobbio the saint repaired the half-ruined church of St. Peter, and erected his celebrated abbey, which for centuries was a stronghold of orthodoxy in Northern Italy. He continued to preach to large crowds who were deeply moved at the sight of his long white hair and beard. His face though deeply lined with age and fatigue still shone with the zeal for Christ and was still able to move souls. He prepared for death by retiring to his cave on the mountain-side overlooking the Trebbia, where, according to a tradition, he had dedicated a perpetual oratory to Our Lady. Attala, one of his companions on his original apostolic trip to France, succeeded him as Abbot of that monastery. Much of what we know about Columbanus comes from a biography by an Italian monk named Jonas, written only a few years after his death while many of his contemporaries were still alive. Jonas was able to interview Attala and other close companions of the saint.
By nature Columbanus was eager, passionate, and dauntless; these qualities were both the source of his power and the cause of his mistakes. The fascination of this complicated saintly personality drew numerous communities around him. Bobbio in Italy became a citadel of faith and learning, while Luxeuil in France became the nursery of saints and apostles. From the walls of Luxeuil went forth men who carried his rule, together with the Gospel, into France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. There are said to have been sixty-three such disciples, who are accredited with founding over one hundred different monasteries. Columbanus was famous for the austerity of his Rule of Life, which incorporated many of the abstemious customs of Bangor and other Celtic holy communities. He also wrote an exhaustive list of penances to be imposed upon his fellow monks for every fault, however light. After his death most of his followers abandoned the severity of his Rule in favor of the Rule of St. Benedict, but his Penitential survived, and eventually became the model for the general penitential system of Western Europe.
Columbanus's body has been preserved in the abbey church at Bobbio, and many miracles are said to have been wrought there through his intercession. In the late 15th century the relics were placed in a new shrine and laid beneath the altar of the crypt, where they are still venerated. The sacristy at Bobbio possesses a portion of the skull of the saint, his knife, wooden cup, bell, and an ancient water vessel. St. Columbanus' Day is listed in many martyrologies as 21 November, but his feast is kept by the Benedictines and throughout Ireland on 24 November. Many dates in the saint's life are uncertain, but quite a few sources say he died in the year 615 on November 23.
*Source: Columbanus pictures from Columbanus and the Roots of Christian Europe.