St. Colman of Lindisfarrne was one of the most remarkable saints of the 7th century. Not much is known of Colman's early life, save that he was born around 605 in western Ireland, which at that time was undergoing the great spiritual and literary renaissance associated with the island's first Christian centuries. Colman was probably of noble birth and was educated at Iona, the famous abbey in the Scottish Hebrides founded by St. Columba, Apostle to the Picts. Sometime during his youth Colman decided to take up the monastic life and formally joined the community at Iona.
It was during Colman's early years at Iona that one of the Ionian monks, St. Aidan, founded the island monastery of Lindisfarne off the coast of Northumbria in England (635), a monastery whose fame would eclipse that of Iona and which became the seat of the English Diocese of Lindisfarne. Colman appears to have been sent to Lindisfarne shortly after its founding and grew in virtue and holiness under the care of its second bishop, St. Finan. When St. Finan died in 661, Colman was the natural choice to succeed him and he was made Bishop of Lindisfarne.
The period of Colman's episcopacy (661-664) was fraught with the debates and controversies surrounding the Celtic liturgical and disciplinary usages of the Irish monks in their conflict with the Roman practices of the Anglo-Saxon monks of England. Disputes centered on the proper computation for the date of Easter, which takes a prominent place in St. Bede's history of the period. Other more superficial differences, such as the method of managing monasteries and the form of the Gaelic tonsure, also became bones of contention.
St. Colman, formed as he was in the cloisters of Iona, was firmly attached to the Irish usages, which had a solid pedigree going back to St. Columba, through him to the great St. Finnian of Clonard, and through St. Fortchern to St. Loman, who was himself a nephew and disciple of St. Patrick, glorious founder of Irish Christianity. Thus, the Irish practices must have had a tremendous authority in the eyes of Colman and those attached to them; indeed, they probably seemed integral aspects of Christianity itself and, through their attachment to great saints like Columba, Finnian and Patrick, possessed a sort of 'apostolic' authority. The Roman practices of the Anglo-Saxons, however, derived their usage from St. Augustine of Canterbury, himself immersed in the tradition of Rome and St. Benedict of Nursia and carried similar authority with the Anglo-Saxon monks.
As the Irish and Anglo-Saxon monks came into greater contact as England became more Christianized, disputes between the two usages threatened the unity of the Catholic faith in England. This led to the famous Synod of Whitby in 664, in which the representatives of the Irish and Roman usages presented arguments before King Oswy of Northumbria, who ultimately declared the Roman usage to be the only acceptable usage in the Kingdom of Northumbria, and by extension, all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
While St. Colman was a holy and loyal monk, he was too firmly committed to the Irish usages he had been raised in to abandon them for the Roman, and chose rather to resign his see in 664 than conform. St. Bede says that St. Colman took a small group of monks from Lindisfarne and, resigning that see into the hands of his successor St. Tuda, departed for Ireland, where he could continue his monastic life under the traditional Irish usages. Bede writes:
"He departed from Britain and took with him all the Irish that he had assembled in the Island of Lindisfarne, and also about thirty of the English nation who had been instructed in the monastic life. . . .Afterwards he retired to a small island which is to the west of Ireland, and at some distance from the coast, called in the language of the Irish, Inishbofinde [ruins of the church pictured above]. Arriving there he built a monastery, and placed in it the monks he brought with him of both nations".
This monastery struggled, however, due to the inability of the Anglo-Saxon and Irish monks who followed Colman to reconcile their cultural differences. This led Colman to conceive the idea of founding a separate monastery for his Anglo-Saxon brethren. Let us return to St. Bede:
"Then Colman sought to put an end to their dissensions, and travelling about at length found a place in Ireland fit to build a monastery, which in the language of the Irish is called Magh Eo."
Magh Eo, known by its more common English name Mayo, became a unique center of Anglo-Saxon monks who were nevertheless committed to the Irish usages because of their tender devotion to St. Colman. The community at "Mayo of the Saxons" received its first abbot, St. Gerard, in 670, and became renowned for the sanctity of its abbots and the erudition of its monks. St. Colman, however, remained with his Irish disciples at his monastery in Inishboffin, dying in 675 at the age of seventy. His Feast Day is commemorated on August 8th.
St. Colman is a particularly interesting saint because he lived in a time when, at least from his point of view, the ecclesial norms he was raised with and took as identical with the faith were drastically changing. Irish Christianity had contributed so much to the development of Ireland and Scotland, but it was about to be eclipsed in Britain by the Anglo-Saxon Church and its Roman-Benedictine customs. The distress St. Colman must have experienced in the wake of the Synod of Whitby is probably comparable to the disruption many Catholics felt in the wake of Vatican II, with disciplines, customs and cultural norms being called into questions and overturned.
The comparison is not perfect; with the exception of the celebration of the date of Easter, the Irish usage and the Roman practices were equally praiseworthy and the Irish Church boasted a number of great saints raised under the old practices. Similarly, the Roman practices introduced by Augustine were of great antiquity and sanctioned by some of the Church's greatest saints, like St. Gregory the Great and St. Benedict. The revolution experienced by Colman after Whitby was not like the progressive revolution that we experienced after Vatican II.
But St. Colman's response is very relevant. Immediately after Whitby, when he knew he could no longer continue his vocation in the new ecclesial reality, he withdrew to a context where he could. He did not "get with the program" in England, nor tough it out for the good of the community at Lindisfarne. Realizing that his ultimate priority was the salvation of his own soul, he withdrew to Ireland, where he knew he could pursue holiness and not violate his conscience regarding the traditions that had been handed down to him. In this he demonstrated that particular Catholic sensibility of attachment to what was handed on, and in that sense St. Colman was a 'traditionalist' of sorts, and Ireland his "traditionalist" enclave where he could worship according to the practices of his ancestors. St. Colman was not concerned that he was fomenting disunity in the Church, nor that he was promoting the growth of an arrogant sect. Rather he saw the worship of God according to the tradition handed on to him as of paramount importance and made that the determining factor in his actions.
St. Colman, ora pro nobis.