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from the June 2006 issue

The Sorrow of Columbkill

Adomnan writes that Saint Columba of Iona, still known as Columbkill, Columbkill the Wolf, of the tribe of the O'Neill of the North through his grandfather, Niall of the Nine Hostages, was a brutal man when he was young. He had a fierce love of God, war, and small, precious objects. A man of the sword, he spent his youth in a bronze cradle. He served under Diarmait and under God: Diarmait, king of Tara, who relied on his sword during his raids in the sea of Ireland, for the pillaging of oxen, and the riotous feasting that often resulted in massacre; and God, king of this world and the next, who could count on his sword to convince the followers of the monk Pelagus, who denied Grace, that His terrifying Grace had the weight of iron. Small objects are also allied to God and the sword: They are won at the point of a sword and all of them, chalices, rings, crosiers, are God's -- and the most beautiful, the rarest, the richest, those that the West, once they became abundant, would call books, speak of God and God speaks through them. Columbkill preferred books to ciboria, for this captain, the man Adomnan calls the soldier of the isles and of God, Insulanus Dei miles, this wolf was also a monk, as was the custom in those times, in a way inconceivable to our understanding. When he lay down his sword, he wandered from monastery to monastery, where he would read: He read standing, tensed, moving his lips and wrinkling his brows, with an intensity that is also no longer conceivable today. Columbkill the Wolf was a brutal reader.

In the winter of the year 559, he read.

He had just arrived at the monastery of Moville, with its dry masonry built on the barren heath facing the Irish Sea. It is raining, as it does in Ireland. One could hear the sea below but could not see it. Abbot Finian left him alone in the hut that served as a library. There are four books. Columbkill flips through the large church missal, a copy of the Georgics, and Priscian's grammar. He bends over the fourth, smaller volume held in a small pouch whose laces he undoes. He opens the book at random and reads: I hate and abhor lying: but thy law do I love. He is unfamiliar with this text. It is a lengthy laudatio in rhyme divided into one-hundred and fifty smaller works of praise. Facing the text are images of King David in the various guises associated with him -- slaughter and music. The colors are beautiful -- arsenic yellow and dizzying lapis blue. That blue and that laudatio, they are the text of the Psalms. It was the first psalter he had held between his hands, possibly the only one that existed in Ireland. He hears the sea crash below with all its might. He loses himself in the text.

For seven days he returns to the library as the rain continues. He reads standing, wrapped in his cloak, his hands swollen, his mouth voracious. By the seventh day he is very familiar with the text, he knows its movement, can recite the refrains; he recognizes the author's tics, knows it is the translation of Saint Jerome he holds in his hands; and that it is the monk Faustus who has copied it, for he has read in the colophon: ora pro Fausto. He prays for Faustus. He prays for Jerome. In spite of Faustus and Jerome, a devouring sadness eats at his heart: he would have to leave this book. That evening he dines with Finian, praises him as the owner of such a treasure. Finian beams with pride. On Columbkill's wolfen face flickers a vulpine smile. Allow me, he says, to make a copy. I will keep the copy for myself, no monastery in Ireland will be able to boast that it shares Finian's treasure. Finian, without responding, rises and leaves the table.

At night Columbkill slips out of his bed. Under the dark rain, hidden by the repulsive boom of the Irish Sea, he reaches the library. Like a thief he lights a small candle and copies the text of Faustus, who has copied Jerome. At Psalm IX, Finian enters and grabs the copy. The psalter falls, King David against the blue background plays the harp. The wolf bears his teeth, but Finian is also a wolf. Both are certain of their right and, very calmly, make an appointment to travel to Tara and King Diarmait, who will decide which of their claims is supported by God. Columbkill sits on his dripping horse, the somber rain carries him over a dark and slippery way, as the psalm relates.

In Tara King Diarmait on his chair of iron says: the text belongs to Finian as the calf to the cow. Columbkill tosses his ring of fealty at the king's feet.

Throughout the winter, seated on his horse, he assembles his warriors, forty neuvaines of young men in Drumlane, twelve neuvaines in Kells, thirty neuvaines in Derry. During the festivals of alliance when he is drunk and tired, he again sees the incalculable blue that appeared to spring from David's harp. He is happy, alone he sings the refrains of the psalm. In spring all the O'Neill are armed. He rides to Moville, the days are long, with six hundred horses. In the peat bog of Cul Dreihmne, Diarmait, under a clearing sky waits with a thousand horses. Columbkill genuflects, he prays for Faustus who is in heaven, the blue place that awaits us with favor. He feels like laughing. He rises, they unsheathe their swords. Over a dark and slippery way, they grapple and strike, many young men lie in the stable of death. By noon Diarmait and a thousand horses are lying in the swamp, and because the rain has redoubled its force they cannot be seen, but their dying can be heard, and the crows rejoicing. Columbkill, covered with blood and dirt, laughing, drunk, takes forty horse and at full speed gallops to Moville. He can be heard laughing at the head of the cortege in the rain. When Finian opens the door of his monastery, he sees the other before him with forty warriors. Their cloaks are as gray as the rain. Columbkill has the smile of a fox and the eyes of a wolf, and extends his open hand. Without a word Finian goes to get the small pouch and gives it to him. Forty horses ride away beneath the black sky.

In his war tent at Cul Dreihmne, Columbkill, trembling, opens the pouch, takes out the book. It is plump and gentle like a woman. It is his as the calf belongs to the cow, the woman to her lover: from the incipit to the colophon, it is his. He wants to enjoy it slowly, opens it, caresses it, runs his eyes over it, contemplates it -- and suddenly he is no longer trembling, no longer laughing, he is sad and cold, he looks in the text for something he had read and can no longer find, something in the image he had seen but has disappeared. He searches for a long time in vain: yet it was there when the book was not his. Everything seems to be ruined, changed, maybe only the colophon is as it was, the colophon where the monk Faustus asks that we pray for him. Columbkill lifts his head, hears the rasping of the wounded and the joy of the crows. He steps out of his tent, the rain has stopped: and above him large chunks of blue pass over the stable of death. The book is not in the book. The sky is an old blue place beneath which we stand naked, beneath which we are lacking the things we possess. He casts the book aside, casts aside his cloak and sword. He puts on the monk's robes, takes to the sea, searches for and finds a desert in the hated Irish Sea. On the barren island of Iona, he sits, poor and free, beneath a sky that is sometimes blue.

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