‘…there came from Ireland to Britain a priest and abbot named Columba, a true monk in life not less than habit; he came to Britain to preach the word of God to the kingdoms of the northern Picts.’
Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
St Columba came to Britain as an exile, not as a missionary, and preaching the word of God to the northern Picts was almost certainly not one of his chief aims.
Following the departure of the Roman army from Scotland around the beginning of the fifth century, there had been a steady emigration from the north of Ireland to the west of Scotland. The kingdom these people created was called Dál Riata, and as their kingdom expanded so it encroached ever further on the territories of the northern Picts. Just a couple of years before Columba was exiled from Ireland, the Pictish King Bruide, fought and killed King Gabhran of Dál Riata, and reclaimed much of the territory that had been lost to the Irish colonists.
Iona, where Columba and his followers founded their monastery, was more or less on the border between the territories of Dál Riata and the Northern Picts. Furthermore, as a member of the Northern Uí Néill ‘royal family’, St Columba was related to the Kings of Dál Riata. These two facts are crucial in understanding a central part of Columba’s mission; in terms of his relationship to the Picts, and to the other powers in the region, it seems likely that Columba is best understood as a diplomat, an ambassador even, seeking to bring reconciliation where there were conflicts and at the same time trying to protect the interests of his kinsfolk. Given that he himself was exiled for his violent refusal to be reconciled with St Finnian and King Diarmait, it seems fitting that he was to give so much of his life striving to reconcile others and foster peace.
Reconciliation was also a significant part of the spiritual service that St Columba and the monks of Iona sought to offer. Many of those who came to the island came as penitents seeking absolution, and the path to absolution could be hard one on Iona. Some of the penitents were sent to the Columban monastery on the island of Tiree as a penance for their sins, and sometimes they were sent there for many years. Yet however ‘tough’ the remedy with which St Columba treated sick souls, there is also something of the ‘gentle Columba’ to be seen in many of his encounters with those who sought his counsel; we see someone with a real insight into the sufferings of the human heart, and with a deep compassion for those sufferings.
One of the monks of Iona told St Columba of a dream he had had, in which he saw three thrones, one of gold, one of silver, and one of glass. The Saint replied, ‘The throne of glass is mine, for though my devotion is fair, I am often frail…’