Scientists Discover A Saint’s Cell

I haven’t seen this story widely reported in the Catholic press, but it’s definitely worth sharing: scientists believe that they have found the scriptorium or “writing room” of St. Columba, one of the most significant figures in the history of Christianity.

St. Columba (521-597 A.D.) is known as one of the “Apostles of Ireland”, and you can read a more thorough biography of him by following this link. He lived the second half of his life on the Scottish island of Iona, where he founded a hugely influential monastic community in which he served as Abbott. He spent a great deal of time during the day writing and praying in his scriptorium, which was really just a little wooden hut that he built on a rocky mound overlooking the Abbey.

Not everything on Iona was contemplative, however. St. Columba and his companions also worked actively to expand their community to become a training center for missionaries to the many pagan tribes that dominated much of the British Isles during this period. In addition, the monks at Iona not only chronicled much of early Irish history, and preserved ancient texts for their library that would otherwise have been lost to us, but they are believed by many historians to have created the famous Book of Kells, with its lavish and strange Celtic decorations.

After St. Columba’s death, the spot where his scriptorium was located was given the name “Tòrr an Aba” (“Abbot’s Mound”), but at some point the wooden building itself burned down. The aforementioned Vikings pillaged Iona multiple times in the late 8th and early 9th centuries, so it is probable that the humble hut was torched during one of those raids. Eventually the site was covered with pebbles taken from the beach, most likely as a way to deliberately mark the location.

As noted in this (very thorough) explanation of the discovery, while there is no way to be 100% sure that the archaeological remains are in fact those of St. Columba’s hut, this is just about as close to certainty as you can get. The combination of tradition, documentation, and now, carbon dating, all point to this being where St. Columba did his work. It may well be that some of the hymns written by or attributed to him, some of which are still sung today, were written here.

One such hymn with which you may be familiar comes from composer Benjamin Britten. For the 1400th anniversary of St. Columba’s arrival on Iona, Britten was commissioned to set one of the saint’s hymns to new music. While more commonly known as “A Hymn to Saint Columba”, the proper title of St. Columba’s composition is its first line in Latin, “Regis regum rectissimi”. You can read the text in both Latin and in an English translation of it by following this link – although with all due respect to St. John’s Cambridge, I find this translation slightly unsatisfactory in that it downplays the key phrase which is also the title of the hymn.

Be that as it may, given that we now know where St. Columba sat and wrote hymns such as these, I suspect that many choir directors and choral groups are going to want to perform some of these works, including Britten’s, at the very spot where they were first written, nearly 15 centuries ago.

Technology and the Church: Why Can’t We Have This in America?

In conversation recently with a few friends, I brought up a wonderful online service which I have mentioned before on these pages. It always surprises me to learn that people are not familiar with it, so this is a good opportunity to extol its virtues to you.  Moreover, and more importantly to those in the U.S., I’d like to issue a challenge to those with the resources and know-how, and ask why we don’t already have something like it on this side of the pond.

Church Services TV provides both streaming and archived video from a growing number of cathedrals, churches, monasteries, and chapels around Ireland and the United Kingdom.  Each location has its own “channel” in a drop-down menu, so that one can quickly search for the feed from a particular parish, or switch between one church and another.  Visitors can check the schedule posted on the site to see what events are coming up that day, such as Daily or Sunday Mass, and there is also a special events calendar, useful for future planning purposes.  If you’re lucky, sometimes you may stumble across an unlisted event: I’ve caught concerts, talks, and things like baptisms, weddings, and funerals on the Church Services site this way.

What I find to be one of the most special aspects about this technology however, is what it can bring to the visitor throughout their day.  When you’re at the office or at home, trying to get work done and the phone, the kids, and/or the dog are all driving you crazy, it would be nice to be able to just take a break and go away and pray for awhile.  Oftentimes, that option is nowhere near practical.  Since Church Services leaves nearly all of the camera feeds on the site running all day, even though you may not physically be able to get to church for a few minutes of prayer after you’ve nearly blown your top, you’re one click away from having a live window into God’s house whenever you want it.

Although at night, most of the cameras on the site switch to black-and-white security mode, and the churches themselves often turn off all the lights, that doesn’t mean the site becomes useless.  Even then, I think there’s something profound and encouraging about seeing the sanctuary lamp burning before the tabernacle, in the midst of the surrounding darkness.  When all may otherwise appear dark, the light of Christ’s Presence is shining forth.  It’s not Adoration, but it’s not a waste of time, either, especially after a rough day.

Now of course, an image on the screen is not the same thing as actually being present before the Real Presence, let alone receiving Holy Communion.  Nevertheless, one can see how there are many positive aspects of this kind of technology, which could be put to good use.  Much as radio and later television broadcast of the Mass has helped people like shut-ins to be able to pray and worship alongside their fellow Christians, while not a substitute for Mass or Adoration, this more recent technology also provides an opportunity for spiritual growth and refreshment to those who want to take advantage of it.

So this brings me back to my original question, because it strikes me that, if the good people of the Emerald Isle can put a service like this together, why don’t we have something similar in the U.S.?  Certainly, there are some churches around the country that have had low-tech webcams for years: I know of a few in places like Philadelphia and St. Louis, for example.  Yet to my knowledge, there is nothing comparable in America to this centralized site with so many participating churches, where not only can one watch live footage, but even go back and watch previous video.  There is clearly an opportunity here, waiting to be discovered and implemented.

In the meantime, gentle reader, I highly recommend that you bookmark the Church Services TV site, as I have, because you will be able to make good use of it when and if you need to.  And talk to your parish and your diocese about whether they might be interested in doing something similar where you are.  It would be great to see this service spread to more communities around the world, both as a source of spiritual growth for practicing Catholics, and as a tool for the New Evangelization.

Screenshot of the Church Services TV site

Screenshot of the Church Services TV site

Don’t Be Afraid of Halloween

Yesterday in an online discussion with a friend in Ireland, I commented how fascinating it is to see Halloween gaining in popularity in Ireland and the United Kingsom recent years, to somewhat resemble our practices here.  He (correctly) pointed out that on the contrary, from his perspective it was fascinating to see how Americans had taken some of his country’s customs and made them more popular, since many of our traditions surrounding this holiday originally came from Ireland.  However regardless of the origins of the holiday, there is certainly a split of opinion in this country as to whether we even ought to celebrate it at all.

Of course as is the case with many such celebrations formerly associated with Europeans and Christianity, Americans tend to secularize such observances so as to diminish any serious lessons which might be drawn from them.  Witches, zombies, vampires, and the like are people who are cursed, rather than blessed, and we are supposed to fear them, and turn away from practices and habits that lead us down the path of sin.  Yet on this side of the pond, we are just as likely to dress up as one of those creatures for love of a good prank, as we are something not frightening in the least: a famous person, a member of a profession, a character from fiction, a visual pun, and so on, that makes others laugh at us and compliment how clever we are.

This Halloween, I have not made any significant effort to replicate the experience of last year, which ended up having a much wider impact for me on social media than simply dressing up for a party.  Perhaps my mood is a bit more introspective this year, and I need a break from some of the silliness associated with the secular marking of this date on the Church’s calendar.  For Halloween in the Christian context of course, is simply the vigil for the Feast of All Saints’ Day, November 1st.  It has nothing to do with promoting the latest toys, cartoons, or comic book action heroes, and everything to do with recognizing how much we need to strive to be like the saints, and how dangerous not making that effort can be.

For those of you in Washington who are up for it, and are willing to forego tonight’s revels in lieu of something sacred rather than secular, I would urge you to attend the beautiful, candlelit Vigil of All Saints held each year at the Dominican Priory of the Immaculate Conception across the street from Catholic University.  It is always very well-attended, and a beautiful commemoration of the lives of the great men and women who have gone before us in the life of the Church to their heavenly reward, led by the student friars at the Dominican House of Studies.  Other church communities in your area will no doubt be holding events this evening as well, if you look for them.

If however you decide to be out and about this evening, whether on your own or with little ones or awaiting trick-or-treaters, remember that just because something looks infernal does not mean it has no value to you.  After all, looking at a Goya painting or a Medieval misericord does not make you insane or demonic: it is when you cease to find such things abnormal or disturbing that you run into problems. Halloween reminds us that we are imperfect and can suffer grave consequences as a result, if we do not examine ourselves and try to do better.  Thus in point of fact, this reminder of the eternal consequences of our actions can be particularly beneficial for those of us who actually do need reminding that we are flawed, fallen creatures.

It is only by being aware of what is trying to bring us down, and our trying our best to battle through such things, that we can hope to be like the saints, whom we remember on the morrow.  Therefore Halloween, as I see it, can be both fun and serious, at the same time.  Fun, because let’s face it: it is simply fun to dress up and pretend to be someone else once in awhile.  Yet serious, in that we ought to look at the images around us and reflect on whether we are doing all we can to try and do better, all the time, rather than giving up and falling permanently into shadow.  So long as we take it in that light, Halloween is nothing to be afraid of.

Predella of the Saints and Martyrs from the St. Dominic (Fiesole) Altarpiece
by Fra Angelico ( c. 1423-1424)
National Gallery, London