Fr Billy Swan
The feast of St Columba (521-597) on 9th June or St Columcille as he is also known, focuses our attention on one of the three patron saints of Ireland, the others being Patrick and Brigid. He is famously referred to in Adomnán’s Vita Columbae as ‘A Pilgrim for Christ’ for he left his native Derry and sailed for Iona where he founded a monastery and brought his Christian faith with him to Scotland. Yet the three-fold themes of displacement, pilgrimage and mission found in the life of St Columba are certainly not unique to him. They are connected themes in Scripture and relevant to the lives of Christians today.
Displacement and Mission in Scripture
Columba’s experience of pilgrimage and mission must be understood in the context of Scripture that he would have been familiar with as a scholarly monk. In the Old Testament, the great figure of Abraham was asked by God to leave his homeland and travel towards a destiny named as ‘the promised land’ (cf. Gen 12:1ff). Trusting in the word of the one who beckoned him, Abraham is asked to embark on a spiritual adventure that would see him gathering a countless army of descendants who would share his trust in God and who would also be led to this same promised land. This is what Abraham did and as this people began to gather and grow, at one point in their history they found themselves far from the promised land as slaves in Egypt.
Led by Moses, the people of Israel were eventually led out of Egypt and into the desert on their way forward to their promised destiny. On the course of that pilgrimage, Moses resisted calls for them to return to the familiar and insisted that they were being formed, even unknown to themselves, as God’s chosen people and that everything was unfolding under the loving providence of the God who had chosen these people as his own. In progress here was the formation of their own identity as a people, both individually and collectively. This formation process is seen in the spirituality of the Psalms that mirrors Israel’s life of prayer. In his book The Spirituality of the Psalms, Scripture scholar Walter Brugeeman draws our attention to a dynamic theme of the psalms that is relevant to our topic here. He groups many of the psalms under three headings – orientation, dis-orientation and re-orientation. Such, he says, was the collective experience of Israel through the years of slavery in Egypt, the exodus/desert experience and finally the settlement of Israel in the land of Canaan. In progress was the formation of a nation whose mission and identity would be open to and at the service of all humanity where all nations would join Israel in worship of the true and living God (cf. Is. 2:3ff).
This three-fold dynamic of orientation, dis-orientation and re-orientation is also seen with Christ in the New Testament. The daily orientation of the Apostles was irreversibly disturbed by their encounter with Christ in Galilee and as they embarked on a nomadic life of discipleship first and then preaching and mission after Pentecost. Responding to Christ set their lives on a new trajectory and spiritual adventure that would require them leaving their familiar environments and travelling to distant lands to become servants of a greater whole. This is what they did in obedience to the Master who clarified before his Ascension that the scope of their mission would not just be local but universal: ‘Go therefore, make disciples of all nations’ (cf. Matt. 28:19).
A good example of such a life is Paul of Tarsus. His life, guided by a strong religious conviction, was orientated in a certain way, namely the protection of the Jewish faith and the destruction of a new movement, later known as Christianity. On the road to Damascus, Paul had a mysterious experience of transcendence and light that dis-orientated him and that led to him to believe in Christ and becoming a leader in the Church he once tried to destroy (Cf. Acts 9:1ff). When Scripture tells us that Paul recovered his sight, we are being informed not just of Paul’s restoration of his ability to see but his radical re-orientation as a Christian, leader and founder of church communities outside the Jewish world. Once again, we see someone who is transported from the particular to become servant of the universal enterprise of salvation.
Finally, the First Letter of Peter was written to Christians of Asia Minor to encourage them in a time of trial and persecution. The words of Peter exhort these Christians in exile to hold fast to their identity as newly baptised in Christ, marked with God’s holiness. As Peter reminds them, they have been ‘chosen’ for this time and in this place to give witness to unbelievers, leaders of civil authority and those who view marriage differently. Peter urges them to be perfect examples to those around them to keep their witness pure. God had chosen them and was working his salvation through them.
In sum, both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures describe the call to faith as leading to a displacement from familiar environments and a call to a life of risk and adventure. It necessitates growth and formation on the part of the person or people involved and leads to the forging of a new identity where displacement leads to a mission at the service of a greater whole.
So how then do these stories from the Bible and the lives of the saints speak to us today? Jordan Peterson is a Canadian psychologist who attracts a large following of people through his lectures, work on social media and books. He is widely acclaimed to be one of the most influential people on Western culture today. His appeal is curious for it he draws on many Biblical texts that he sees as proto-types and containing the categories of human experience that are still relevant today. For example, on the call of Abraham, Peterson argues that the story is not just about an ancient nomad. It embodies archetypal insights about the call to every individual to become a hero. Abraham’s vocation does not preserve him from suffering caused by displacement but it does lead to ultimate salvation for him, his family and generations after him.
According to Peterson, Abrahams’s story of displacement and finding his mission is paralleled in the story of us all. As St John Paul II noted, God “stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be ground down by mediocrity” (World Youth Day 2000). Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl echoed this insight when he wrote: “Everyone has their own specifical vocation and mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced nor can his life be repeated. This everyone’s task is unique” (Man’s Search for Meaning, Boston, Beacon, 109).
For everyone who embraces his/her personal vocation, formidable challenges present themselves. There is a call that originates from outside ourselves but makes itself felt within. It requires a sacrifice and a response. There is disorientation that precedes re-orientation. Throughout it all there is a reconfiguration to a greater state of maturity as the contribution of the subject is called for on a bigger stage, beyond the person themselves.
In popular culture, fiction and film we see this played out in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. There Frodo and Sam leave the comfort of the shire and embark on a dangerous mission across dangerous territory. The scope of this mission extends beyond themselves and pertains to the good of all that will result when the ring of power is destroyed. These themes Tolkien would have borrowed from Scripture and masterfully included them in his epic tale. The heroism of the fictional Frodo and Sam was preceded by the heroism exhibited by the historical Columba where inevitable suffering of exile is accepted as part of a pursuit of an ideal and as a response to a call.
The inevitable crises, setbacks and downturns do not frustrate the providence of God who retains his power to bring good out of evil and to use the circumstances of the person or group to advance his kingdom. Real life stories like that of Columba open up the possibility for the modern Christian to identify the providence of God at work in experiences of displacement where new places and conditions forge a new identity and new sense of mission.