St. Columbanus, Ulysses, James Joyce

Ulysses CCD: St. Columbanus

His mother’s prostrate body the fiery Columbanus in holy zeal bestrode.

Part of an occasional series on Catholicism in Ulysses.

The line above appears on page 27 of ‘Nestor’ in the midst of Stephen’s musings on young Sargent, the student receiving the young Artist’s tutelage in algebra. It’s a random line in the midst of Stephen’s musing on amor matris – a mother’s love. Columbanus is the name of Irish saint who did exactly what this line states – stepped over the body of his own mother in order to follow a holy calling. This is a reference you could easily step over and get on your way, but let’s take a moment to learn about who this Columbanus fellow was.

St. Columbanus, pronounced like Call ‘em, Bannus, lived in the late 6th and early 7th centuries. His name is the Latinised form of Columbán, which means “white dove” in Irish (modern spelling is colm bán). There’s also an Irish saint who’s called both Columba and Colmcille, but he’s an entirely different person, so set him aside for now. St. Columbanus’ feast day is November 23, and he is patron saint of motorcycles, though they didn’t have motorcycles back in the 6th century.

Most of what we know about St. Columbanus’ life comes from an account written a few years after his death by a monk named Jonas. You can read the entirety of his account here if you’re interested. It’s certainly the most colorful of the accounts I’ve read.

Columbanus was born around 540 in the province of Leinster in the southeast of Ireland. Columbanus was a clever, handsome young man, which attracted many comely maidens and lead to worldly temptations, if you follow my drift. He met a nun around this time that told him he would continue to be lead astray by lust unless he took extreme measures. He needed to leave the place of his birth and dedicate his life and talents to holy matters, which he promptly did. His mother begged and pleaded him to stay, going so far as to lay her body in his path to prevent him leaving. Columbanus stepped over her instead and made his way into the wider world.

After spending time in a couple of Irish monasteries, Columbanus journeyed to mainland Europe, first in the Burgundy region of France and later in Bobbio, Italy. For most monks, monastic life meant staying in one monastery for their entire career, but Irish monks tended to travel abroad to spread their message. Traveling was encouraged during this era because the fall of the Roman Empire in the previous century had allowed “barbarians” (aka non-Christians) to gain ground on the continent. Young men like the handsome, charismatic Columbanus, an originator of this peripatetic practice, would bring the Faith to these godless heathens.

Though he was able to found several monasteries in Burgundy, controversy began to grow around the Irish monks’ peculiar customs. For example, the Irish monks under Columbanus’ leadership celebrated Easter on a different date than the French monks. Shocking, I know.

The real conflict arose when Columbanus butted heads with the Frankish Queen Brunhilde who was acting as regent until her son was old enough to rule. Her son Theuderic was living out of wedlock with a woman. Brunhilde allowed this arrangement because she feared a marriage would weaken her power. Columbanus was imprisoned and driven out of France. He landed on his feet, though, and was embraced by the king of Lombardy in modern-day Italy. Columbanus founded a monastery at Bobbio where he lived the remainder of his life. He wrote against the Arian controversy at this time, which is of interest to Ulysses readers since it appears elsewhere in the novel.

To bring it back to our boy Stephen, St. Columbanus leaps to mind while he contemplates that weak, willowy boys like Cyril Sargent (and Stephen Dedalus) owe their lives to the love of mother. Stephen bears an enormous guilt for refusing to pray at his mother’s deathbed because of his rejection of Catholicism, metaphorically stepping over her body, while Columbanus is venerated for physically stepping over the body of his weeping mother in order to embrace the call of Catholicism.


Further Reading:

Jonas the Monk’s account of St Columbanus’ life:


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