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On the Way: A Spiritual Journey with St Columbanus

38 minutes
First broadcast:
Sunday 09 February 2014

On the Way- a spiritual journey with St Columbanus

From the Church of St Columbanus, Bangor Co Down.

Led by Rev Alistair Morrison

Preacher: Canon Simon Doogan

Almost 1500 years ago, the Irish monk, Columbanus left the monastery in Bangor and went to Europe as a missionary. Today's service reflects on his life and journeying and on his significance for today.

Deuteronomy 1. 26-33
Acts 18 18-28.

  • St Columbanus 09/02/14


    Please note:

    This script cannot exactly reflect the transmission, as it was prepared before the service was broadcast. It may include editorial notes prepared by the producer, and minor spelling and other errors that were corrected before the radio broadcast.

    It may contain gaps to be filled in at the time so that prayers may reflect the needs of the world, and changes may also be made at the last minute for timing reasons, or to reflect current events.

    On the Way- a spiritual journey with St Columbanus

    From the Church of St Columbanus, Bangor Co Down.

    Led by Rev Alistair Morrison

    Preacher: Canon Simon Doogan

    Almost 1500 years ago, the Irish monk, Columbanus left the monastery in Bangor and went to Europe as a missionary. Today's service reflects on his life and journeying and on his significance for today.

    Deuteronomy 1. 26-33
    Acts 18 18-28.

    On the Way- a spiritual journey with St Columbanus. From the Church of St Columbanus, Bangor. Led by Rev Alistair Morrison. Preacher: Canon Simon Doogan. Organist and Choirmaster: Ian Bell. Producer: Bert Tosh


    Please note:

    This script cannot exactly reflect the transmission, as it was prepared before the service was broadcast. It may include editorial notes prepared by the producer, and minor spelling and other errors that were corrected before the radio broadcast.

    It may contain gaps to be filled in at the time so that prayers may reflect the needs of the world, and changes may also be made at the last minute for timing reasons, or to reflect current events.

    Opening Announcement: BBC Radio 4. Today’s Sunday Worship comes from St Columbanus’ Church, Ballyholme in County Down. It is led by the Rev Alistair Morrison and the preacher is the Rector, Canon Simon Doogan who introduces the service Canon Doogan: Later this year

    many Christians all over Europe

    will remember a saint

    whose vigour and vitality

    left a permanent mark everywhere he went.

    It’s to the sixth century Irish monk Columbanus

    to whom many French, German

    and even Italian Christians trace back

    their spiritual lineage.

    Celebrations marking

    the fourteen hundredth anniversary

    of Columbanus’ death begin in November,

    and it’s a milestone looming ever larger

    for all of us here

    in the ancient abbey town

    of Bangor Co Down.

    Thirty of Columbanus’

    most formative monastic years

    were spent at Bangor Abbey

    in its day

    a place of study, learning and prayer bearing many of the attributes

    of a modern university.

    But it’s to the Church of Ireland parish

    of Ballyholme

    that we welcome you this morning,

    and to our Church

    which bears Columbanus’ name.

    Columbanus was a stranger to Bangor

    when he first arrived around the year 5 5 8.

    His monastic journey

    began in Co Fermanagh,

    but his home was much further south

    in Ireland

    and as we’re about to hear

    the notion of home never really left him.

    Setting the scene for us

    are members of the traditional

    and award winning

    Irish music group Ards Comhaltas

    with the Irish Air Far from home.


    Far from home Ards Comhaltas Brian Balmer reads over the music

    "Now, you see,

    we must speak of the end of the way;

    for we have already said

    that human life is a roadway,

    and by the likeness of a shadow

    we have shown

    how doubtful it is and uncertain,

    and that it is not what it is;

    in the same manner, we have said before how incalculable and how blind it is;

    but concerning the end of our life,

    by the help of the Holy Spirit,

    our talk must be continued.

    It is for travellers

    to hasten to their homeland,

    likewise their part

    is anxiety upon the roadway,

    and in their homeland peace.

    Then let us, who are on the way,

    hasten home;

    for our whole life

    is like the journey of a single day.’’


    Jill Boal: Those words are the first of several extracts
    this morning from Columbanus Sermon Eight.

    They have the sound and feel

    of a man nearer the end of his life

    than the beginning,

    and they draw on an image

    running right through Christian Scripture,

    an image used most forcefully

    by Jesus Himself

    as He prepared the disciples

    to face His death:

    I am the way, and the truth and the life

    says the Lord

    no one comes to the Father except through me – as we’re about to sing in Thou art the way to thee alone,

    to the tune St James.

      Hymn: Thou art the Way: to thee alone (ST JAMES) Canon Doogan:

    Compared to some of the other saints

    of those early centuries

    we don’t have lots of gaps to fill

    with Columbanus,

    certainly not

    when it comes to his spiritual thinking

    and his theological priorities.

    Thirteen sermons

    bear the authorship of Columbanus

    alongside six letters,

    two sets of monastic instructions,

    a number of poems

    and a penitential

    now scattered

    through various European libraries.

    Not long after I arrived in Ballyholme

    a bushel of these were presented to me

    by a member of the parish,

    not from some dusty library shelf

    but downloaded from the internet!

    You can find a link to them

    on the Sunday Worship web page.

    So far as the penitential goes

    one recent commentator described it

    as ‘not as grim as it sounds’,

    but there is no denying

    Columbanus had a keen sense

    of his own unworthiness before God.

    He wrote of ‘having gathered

    the wretchedness of human life

    from considerations of daily experience’.

    A call to conversion of life

    was always at the centre of his message,

    and in that spirit we come to God now

    in sorrow for our sins…

      Rev Alistair Morrison

    Jesus said to the apostles:

    Go and make disciples of all the nations.

    Conscious of our failure

    to obey his commands,

    let us call to mind our sins.

    O taste and see that the Lord is good;

    happy are those who trust in Him.

    Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

    The Lord ransoms the lives of his servants and none who trust in him will be destroyed.

    Christ, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

    Come my children, listen to me:

    I will teach you the fear of the Lord.

    Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

    May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins,

    and bring us to everlasting life,

    through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


    Almighty and eternal God, by whose grace Your servant Columbanus

    left home and family

    to take the light of the gospel

    to unknown lands,

    grant that we, in the same spirit of love,

    may give our lives

    in selfless devotion to You,

    so that through us

    Your kingdom may come on earth

    and Your will be done

    to the glory of Christ our Saviour. Amen.


    Choir: Psalm 101 vv1-10

    I will sing of faithfulness and justice;

    to you, O Lord, will I sing.

    2 Let me be wise in the way that is perfect:

    when will you come to me?

    3 I will walk with purity of heart

    within the walls of my house.

    4 I will not set before my eyes

    a counsel that is evil.

    5 I abhor the deeds of unfaithfulness;

    they shall not cling to me.

    6 A crooked heart shall depart from me;

    I will not know a wicked person.

    7 One who slanders a neighbour in secret

    I will quickly put to silence.

    8 Haughty eyes and an arrogant heart

    I will not endure.

    9 My eyes are upon the faithful in the land,

    that they may dwell with me.

    10 One who walks in the way that is pure

    shall be my servant.

    Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit

    as it was in the beginning is now and shall be for ever. Amen


    Sandra Griffiths 2’]

    The reading is from the Acts of the Apostles

    chapter 18,

    beginning at verse 18


    After staying at Corinth

    for a considerable time,

    Paul said farewell to the believers

    and sailed for Syria,

    accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila.

    At Cenchreae he had his hair cut,

    for he was under a vow.

    When they reached Ephesus,

    he left them there,

    but first he himself went into the synagogue and had a discussion with the Jews.

    When they asked him to stay longer,

    he declined but on taking leave of them,

    he said, "I will return to you, if God wills."

    Then he set sail from Ephesus.

    When he had landed at Caesarea

    he went up to Jerusalem

    and greeted the church,

    and then went down to Antioch.

    After spending some time there he departed and went form place to place

    through the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.


    Now there came to Ephesus

    a Jew named Apollos,

    a native of Alexandria.

    He was an eloquent man,

    well-versed in the scriptures.

    He had been instructed

    in the Way of the Lord;

    and he spoke with burning enthusiasm

    and taught accurately

    the things concerning Jesus,

    though he knew only the baptism of John.

    He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside

    and explained the Way of God to him

    more accurately.

    And when he wished

    to cross over to Achaia,

    the believers encouraged him

    and wrote to the disciples to welcome him.


    This is the word of the Lord.

    Thanks be to God.  

    We sing a hymn celebrating the love of God, Love is his word,

    to the tune Cresswell

      Hymn Love is his word, love is his way (CRESSWELL)   Canon Doogan- Sermon 8’]

    The haircut mentioned for St Paul

    in today’s verses

    from the Acts of the Apostles

    was no mere short, back and sides.

    More likely

    it was a traditional Jewish Nazarite vow

    of the sort taken by someone

    who wanted to thank God

    for some specific and particular blessing.

    Not to be outdone,

    sitting in Ballyholme Parish Church

    this morning

    we have a window depicting St Columbanus

    with an Irish monk’s tonsure.

    It would surely have given St Paul’s haircut a run for its money and you can see it

    on the Sunday Worship web page.

    But the parallels

    between our own patron saint and Paul

    don’t end with a trip to the barber’s.

    For a start, both had farewells to say.

    Paul took his leave

    of the believers in Corinth,

    the Jews in Ephesus,

    the Church in Jerusalem

    and other Christian communities

    to name but a few.

    In the Irish monastic tradition

    Columbanus undertook exile for life

    and so his farewells

    were known to be permanent.

    We’ve already mentioned

    three Irish departures for Columbanus

    from Leinster, Cleenish and Bangor,

    but having landed on the coast of Bergundy

    Columbanus moved on from

    each of the five communities he founded


    from France to Germany to Northern Italy.

    So both Paul and Columbanus

    are well-described as travellers for God.

    Both knew what it was to walk away

    from the familiar and the comfortable.

    That said, both journeyed with company.

    Where St Paul

    sets off with Priscilla and Aquila

    Columbanus left Bangor

    with the biblical number twelve,

    including St Gall

    who was to found

    his own monastery in Switzerland.

    Both were unafraid of argument.

    St Paul’s cordial relations

    with the Jews at Ephesus

    gives the lie to the idea

    that religious differences in antiquity

    necessarily made for bad blood.

    After his discussions

    with them in the synagogue

    they wanted Paul to stay longer,

    and it was an invitation Paul left open,

    saying he would return if God willed.

    If Columbanus tried to follow

    that example of spiritual diplomacy,

    he did so with mixed success.

    But he was never afraid to fight his corner whether in the sphere of

    morality, theology or church order.

    At a slightly deeper level though

    perhaps we find another

    more directly spiritual parallel.

    On the face of it,

    both Paul and Columbanus

    were driven by a public call

    to proclaim the truth of Christ,

    and to strengthen and encourage those

    who had discovered that truth already.

    Yet both also seem driven

    by a more private, internal call

    to keep moving on

    as if there were some personal destination

    still to be disclosed to them.

    It’s as though

    the places and people they visit

    only serve to remind them

    that wherever they are headed in God,

    they have some way still to go.

    Certainly for Columbanus,

    as you’re about to hear

    in another extract from Sermon Eight,

    the ties and loyalties of the here and now

    were burdens from which he felt

    genuinely liberated.

    Brian Balmer

    "Let us not love the roadway

    rather than the homeland,

    lest we lose our eternal home;

    for we have such a home

    that we ought to love it.

    Therefore let this principle abide with us, that on the road

    we so live as travellers, as pilgrims,

    as guests of the world,

    entangled by no lusts,

    longing with no earthly desire…"

    Canon Doogan

    In his honour

    David Lennon of Ards Comhaltas

    sings his own composition:

    The White Dove.


    Song: David Lennon The White Dove vv1 and 2 Canon Doogan

    Because of his poetry

    and the cultured, elegant Latin

    he used for all his writing,

    Columbanus is often described

    as the first Irishman of letters,

    or as the subheading of one book calls him

    ‘the earliest voice of Christian Ireland’.

    But it transpires

    Columbanus was also the first person recorded as using the phrase ‘we Irish’

    in reference to his fellow countrymen.

    Doubtless he did so

    in an entirely natural, instinctive way,

    and doubtless it was neither an incendiary nor in any sense

    a political thing for him to say.

    But it does raise the question of attitude:

    what did Columbanus make

    of the new countries and peoples

    his missionary experiences

    introduced him to?

    There have been lots of discussions recently

    about what it means for us

    to be citizens of Europe.

    Geography, it’s been suggested,

    must be one of the things

    that shapes our psychology,

    the implication being that we see ourselves

    as independently-minded, island people.

    Plainly history

    has had quite a lot to do with it too,

    not least of all twentieth century history

    and two world wars.

    But Columbanus takes us back to a time

    when in terms of attitude,

    perhaps it wasn’t geography or history

    that played the primary role

    so much as religion.

    In a letter Columbanus wrote

    to Pope Gregory the Great

    around the year 600,

    we find for the first time the expression "totius Europae" – of all Europe.

    If that was an expression

    Columbanus coined himself,

    then he coined it first and foremost

    in reference to the Church.

    It’s been suggested, admittedly,

    that the continental Church

    struck the austere Columbanus

    as soft, even decadent.

    But the point is

    to the travelling Irish monks

    of fourteen hundred years ago

    the cultural unity,

    certainly of western Europe,

    appeared obvious.

    Arguably, when belief and spirituality

    were people’s most defining characteristics

    common ground could be found.

    You have to wonder

    could the same have been true

    five hundred years before Columbanus

    when the eloquent Alexandrian Jew Apollos

    arrived at Ephesus?

    Because besides St Paul,

    this morning’s snapshot from Acts

    presents another missionary figure

    for us to consider.

    Apollos had been instructed in

    ‘The Way of the Lord’.

    ‘The Way’ is one of the commonest

    names or titles for Christianity in Acts,

    and as we’ve heard

    Columbanus referred to ‘The Way’

    several times in Sermon Eight alone.

    ‘The Way’ has the advantage

    of conveying very directly

    that Christianity not only means

    believing certain things

    but putting them into practice.


    Apollos seemed clear

    that the essential Christian task

    was to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.

    Up to that point

    he knew only the baptism of John

    but what Acts seems to imply

    is that thanks to the Christians in Ephesus,

    chiefly Priscilla and Aquila,

    Apollos moves from belief into practice.

    If before

    Christ was a figure of history,

    now He is a living presence.

    Columbanus describes

    much the same spiritual shift

    in Sermon Eight,

    though he recognises that in this life

    that’s a shift none of us

    will ever make completely.

    Brian Balmer

    "Hence, spurning all wickedness,

    and laying aside all sloth,

    let us strive to please

    Him who is everywhere present,

    that with a good conscience

    we may happily pass over

    from the roadway of this age

    to the blessed and eternal homeland

    of our eternal Father,

    from present things to things absent,

    from mournful things to things of joy,

    from transitory things to things eternal,

    from earthly things to heavenly,

    from the sphere of death

    to that of the living…"

    Canon Doogan

    Over an age

    when so many of us are driven

    by the material comforts

    of the here and now,

    the Columbanus

    we commemorate later this year

    casts his shadow:

    a man who lived and breathed sacrifice,

    and who felt moved on

    continually and irresistibly

    by the draw of heaven –

    the true spiritual home of every Christian.

    In case you were wondering

    Columbanus’ Latin name means dove,

    the -an at the end

    apparently makes him

    the little dove or the lesser dove

    to distinguish him from his predecessor Columba of Iona.

    The idea

    that your name shapes your life or career

    is known as nominative determinism.

    As one writer has said,

    ‘Columbanus enjoyed his name,

    and surely smiled at the fact

    that never was any man less like a dove.’

    Song: David Lennon The White Dove v 3 Intercessions: Jill Boal

    Father we hold before you

    the nations and peoples of the world:

    in their prosperity and their adversity,

    in their plenty and their want,

    in their order and their chaos,

    in their harmony and their discord

    in their homelessness and displacement.

    Lord move the hearts of the powerful

    to hear the cries of those calling out

    from hunger or from thirst,

    from injustice or from pain.

    May concern replace corruption,

    may freedom replace fear…

    Saviour, we hear your call

    Help us to follow. Sandra Griffiths

    Father we hold before you

    the Church of Christ:

    in its worship and its witness,

    its building and its planting,

    its growing and its giving,

    its service and its sacrifice.

    Lord stir the hearts of believers everywhere

    that we might take up the missionary mantle

    to proclaim Christ’s truth,

    to demonstrate Christ’s love,

    to share Christ’s presence

    and to bring Christ’s peace

    wherever we go.

    Saviour, we hear your call

    Help us to follow. Rev Alistair Morrison

    Father we hold before you

    those who feel burdened or broken:

    by their effort to make enough to get by;

    by their struggle to provide for their families;

    by their desperation to be free

    of illness, depression or anxiety;

    by their longing to leave behind

    the loneliness and grief

    of their loss, separation or bereavement.

    Lord touch their hearts – and touch ours

    that in gentleness and compassion

    we might show them

    the light of hope

    the encouragement of faith,

    and the promise of rest everlasting in you.

    Saviour, we hear your call

    Help us to follow. Holy Spirit of Love In us, around us, above, Holy Spirit, we pray Send sweet Jesus this day! Holy Spirit to win Body and soul within, O Holy Spirit come! Hallow our heart, thy home. Amen Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen  

    To the Irish traditional melody Slane

    we sing our praise

    to the High King of heaven:

    Be thou my vision.

    Hymn Be Thou my vision (SLANE)  


    God who in days of old gave to this land

    the benediction of his holy Church,

    fill you with his grace

    to walk faithfully in the steps of the saints

    and to bring forth fruit to his glory:

    and the blessing of God almighty,

    the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,

    be with you and remain with you always. Amen


    Jesus said, ‘Go into all the world

    and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.’   Ards Comhaltas The Boat Song (Words: St Columbanus; Music: David Lennox)







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