Sometimes a phrase gets stuck in your head, on repeat, and it won’t leave. In an idle moment you find yourself turning it over and over. It might be ‘a stitch in time saves nine’, or ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ or ‘Mhmmm Danone’. For me, during the run up to ColumbaFest, the phrase is ‘Columba’s Mumbles’. Columba’s Mumbles is fun to say out loud – you should try it.
Fun isn’t it?
This piece of tongue and cheek assonance is an almost rhyme that almost means something… but what? What are Columba’s Mumbles? This isn’t just in my head anymore, I’ve written a couple of paragraphs which you’re kindly reading, so I better think of something…
So Columba was a saint, and a fascinating historical figure. You could say he mumbles to us down through history to the present moment. A mumble, intimate but indistinct, might be a good metaphor for a cherished but also somewhat romanticised and obscured character, made distant by history and legend. Someone who lived between 521 to 597 but who left mumbles, echoes held in the damp earth, and searching wind, in the hearts of men and women who followed on in the generations after him. Perhaps Columba mumbles to us through the pages of time, but what about in his day, was Columba a mumbler?
The Irish Holy Man settled on the island of Iona, setting up a centre of culture and learning. He is credited with bringing Christianity to Scotland and creating ripples that would spread throughout Europe. Historical accounts suggest Columba lived a life of quiet simplicity and beauty but at the same time was also a major player in a tempestuous geopolitical climate, weighing in to offer skills in diplomacy and international relations.
Did he mumble? When writing hymns and poetry, transcribing texts, and praying, you can imagine Columba mumbling, testing a lyric or tasting a new idea or insight. But a grand advisor, envoy and negotiator with kings on speed-dial was hardly likely to mumble. Was he more the belligerent medieval spin doctor than softly whispering saint?
The rich themes of Columba’s life and legacy will inform our summer festival ColumbaFest. A cursory look into his life shows repeating but conflicting themes of gentleness and power, a passion for learning and art but also for exerting control and influence. The conflicting themes abound: retreat and pilgrimage, withdrawal and engagement, settled community and restless mission, simplicity and complexity. We will explore such issues in a contemporary context, unpacking how Christians continue to wrestle with the same things.
The paradox of Columba’s life is that he lived a quiet monastic existence while also living a (presumably) loud and passionate life on the international political stage. The tension between these two poles is lessened a little when we take into account the position Iona had at the time.
We tend to think of islands being remote, periphery places but when the easiest way to travel a distance was by sea – islands formed a vital component of political, economic and cultural infrastructure. When Columba settled on Iona he was not ‘getting away from it all’ he was going to the heart of things, the middle of the action. He sought peaceful reflection there, but also dynamic engagement in public life.
George MacLeod, who would go on to set up an ecumenical community on Iona in 1938, began his work in what was the equivalent of Iona in 20th Century Scotland – Glasgow. Just as Iona was at the hub of 6th century Scottish political and cultural life, Glasgow had been through the industrial revolution and had become an incredibly crowded population centre at the heart of public life. MacLeod wanted to respond to the depression and unemployment he saw in the docklands of the 30s. His core concern and inspiration was faithful and politically engaged response to an urban crisis. He saw the potential of rural retreat as a way of supporting a struggling urban population and giving it space to rediscover the values of community.
He took unemployed craftsmen and young clergy to Iona to rebuild the abbey and to feel what it was like to share the highs and lows of common life together with common purpose. It would seem Iona has always been bound up with the city, with the epicentre of civic and popular culture. Retreat from the city was not intended as a rejection of the city, a kind of religious tourism or escapism, instead it was to be a place from which to gain a new perspective on the city, so as to act in new and meaningful ways.
The balance between these two impulses: retreating from society and engaging with it, will be at the core of our discussion at ColumbaFest as we explore ways of being politically and socially conscious, active and wise. We will consider how music, poetry, theatre, and culture can be used to point beyond our current society, to imagine a better one, and also to help us to understand society as it is better. There are times to be restless and times to be calm. There are times we need to draw breath and reflect and there are times when we need to hold our breath and jump.
So we follow Columba’s Mumbles and also Columba’s Rumbles. The rumbles against injustice, pain and suffering, that along with his mumbles, rumble through the centuries.
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