Columba and my calling.

A fierce dove racing in a fiercer gale

A fierce dove racing in a fiercer gale

June the 9th is Saint Columba’s day, a saint who has a special place for me, as somehow, he feels bound up in my own journey to Faith. When I was 19, and moving from  atheism, towards a greater spiritual openness, but by no means yet a Christian, I went for a long slow walk round Ireland. I went without a map because the Zen practice in which I was interested at the time, and on which I still draw in prayer, was always emphasizing ‘The map is not the reality”! You must utterly and absolutely be in the place you’re in, and let that place be what it is and teach what it has to teach without any overlay from your maps and preconceptions. So I took that literally and walked round Ireland without  a map, just keeping the sea on my left! One evening, St. John’s Eve it was, right at the end of my journey, I came round a headland at sunset into a beautiful little bay and inlet on the west coast in Donegal, just as the fires were being lit around the headlands for St. John’s Eve, and there was drinking and fiddle playing and dancing round the fires that evening. And I asked where I was, and they said Glencolmcille, and I felt a sudden quickening and sense of connection, as though a memory stirred. And they asked me my name and I said ‘Malcolm’, and they said, ‘Ah that is why you have come, because he has called you’, and I said ‘who?’ and they said ‘Colm has called you, Malcolm, for this is the place he fought his battle and gathered his disciples and from here he left for the white martyrdom and Scotland. And they told me the story of St. Columba, and the battle he had fought, of his repentance, his self-imposed exile, his journey with twelve disciples from this glen to Scotland where he founded the abbey of Iona from whence Scotland and much of the north of England was converted. ‘Of course he is calling you here’, they said, ‘for your name, in Gaelic means’ servant of Colm’, which is Columba. And as they spoke I remembered at last, right back into my childhood, how I had been told stories about this saint, and how I was named for him, and how my grandmother had published poems about him and sung her lullaby for the infant Columba over me as a child. I wandered down to the shore whence he had set sail and felt how thin the veil was, how something of heaven, whatever heaven might be, seemed to glimmer through the sky and the sea itself in this place. And I thought: ‘I’m not a Christian, and I don’t see how I could ever become one, but if I do ever become one, I’ll remember Columba and I’ll go to Iona and thank him’. Which I did, and I did. Now here’s my sonnet for the saint. This poem is now collected in my book The Singing Bowl from Canterbury Press which you can get on amazon, or better still, order from your local bookshop! Click on the title or the ‘play button to hear me read the poem!


 You called me and I came to Colmcille

To learn at last the meaning of my name

Though you yourself were called, and not the caller,

He called through you and when He called I came.

Came to the edge at last, in Donegal,

Where bonfires burned and music lit the flame

As from the shore I glimpsed that ragged sail

The Spirit filled to drive you from your  home,

A fierce dove racing in a fiercer gale,

A swift wing flashing between sea and sky.

And with that glimpse I knew that I  would fly

And find you out and serve you for a season,

My heaven hidden like your native isle,

Though somehow glimmering on each horizon.

Glencolmcille, scene of a small epiphany

Glencolmcille, scene of a small epiphany

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Filed under imagination

21 responses to “Columba and my calling.

  1. Damion

    Thanks Malcolm.

    There’s something so special in the idea of being called by one so loving. To be told it so directly is deeply moving.

  2. What an amazing experience, and a charged sonnet to accompany it. Your final couplet reminds me of a piece of In No Strange Land by Francis Thompson:

    “The angels keep their ancient places;
    Turn but a stone and start a wing!”

    You convey beautifully the idea that heaven and your calling is there – here – waiting to be seen and engaged. I love the image of it ‘glimmering’ on the horizon, spilling over into our plane like the sun.

    Thanks for sharing this poem!

  3. Eleanor Haynes Prugh

    That is neat, Malcolm. I love your personal reflections on your God-walk through life. Thanks for giving.

  4. Loved the poem! My husband and I spent a week in Glencolmcille, and we definitely want to go back.

  5. Christine Orme

    Thank you for this wonderful poem and for sharing part of your story. Your comment about the map reminded me of a conversation I had many years ago with my brother-in-law. I had been a Christian for as long as I could remember and I knew the Scriptures well, but in the 1970s and 80’s I saw people turning to Christ – and their relationship with Him seemed much more ‘real’ than my own. This troubled me but I was greatly helped by something my brother-in-law said when I explained my dilemma. He thought for a moment and then said, ‘You’re like a traveller with a map; you know where you are from looking at the map, but you’re not enjoying the scenery because you are limited by what you understand from the map – there’s more to it than that.’

  6. lynndmorrissey

    This is such a beautiful poem and meaningful post, Malcolm. You were called by the Lord, and He even sovereignly oversaw your naming . . . as Christian, yes, but also your given name. I recently wrote a post about things we can learn about God and our relationship with him through our given names, even when many parents had no inkling of how God would use them. In your case, there was a purpose behind the choice, but my mother simply liked the name Lynn. Still, God has had lessons to teach me as I’ve contemplated the meaning of my name and my life. What a profound spiritual journey you have had, and all the while, even through atheism, God was calling you to Himself, just as He called Saint Columba. This post particularly resonated with me and the poem, too, because God called me to Iona in 2017. It was a life-transforming journey, and God met me on those ancient, thin shores. My journey was a profound one and God used it to free me from the stranglehold of fear (though I was a Christian when I sojourned there). So He calls us initially to Himself, and then continues to call us to deepening adventures and growth in Christ. But here is the requirement: “He called through you, and when He called I came.” That’s the deal: If we don’t come to Him and heed to call, we will miss the thin place of transformation; we will miss Him! I’m glad you went, and glad I did too.
    PS The Singing Bowl was my treasured find in the Iona bookstore. I devoured much of it on the plane ride home! Thank you so much for penning it!

  7. Jason Bickford

    ‘The world has no name, he said. The names of the cerros and the Sierras and the deserts exist only on maps. We name them that we do not lose our way. Yet it was because the way was lost to us already that we have made those names. The world cannot be lost. We are the ones. And it is because these names and these coordinates are our own naming that they cannot save us. That they cannot find for us the way again. Your brother is in that place which the world has chosen for him. He is where he is supposed to be. And yet the place he has found is also of his own choosing. That is a piece of luck not to be despised.’
    Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing

  8. Julie Fairweather

    This is a beautiful story and sonnet. Thanks for sharing. Does your book include your reflections as well as the sonnets?

  9. This was inspiring. Beautiful poem, beautiful life story!

  10. Hi Malcolm, can I ask what you mean by saying that you put the zen practice by drawing in prayer, I would be grateful for more clarity on your comment.

    • malcolmguite

      I simply mean that practices of stillness, awareness, letting go of ego, grateful awareness of the gift of your breathing, all these things which are part of zen tradition as well as almost all meditative practice in every faith, are also helpful for a Christian approaching God in reverent prayer. They are not religious practices themselves but they are part of ‘taking your shoes from off your feet when you stand on holy ground

  11. That is lovely! I am drawn to the saints of very long ago.

  12. Gerrie Bransby

    Thank you for this. I had an amazing journey through St Cuthbert and Lindisfarne to St Columba and my dearest Iona. Love your poem. I will investigate more. I have learned so much from these wonderful old Saints and I took the name of Sr Columba when I became an oblate. (Not that I was worthy !). Thank you 🙏🏼

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