St. Columba and His Horse
The old man hobbles down the road
toward the monastery gate,
rests on a roadside stone,
hears clip-clopping of hooves approach
and his faithful companion arrive.
The horse nuzzles Columba’s shoulder,
shudders all down his white length
eyes glisten round and brown,
great teardrops pool and drop
sounding like rainfall.
Columba rests his forehead
against the horse’s broad skull,
closes his eyes and each imagines
the other, galloping together across
heather and buttercups.
The horse knows his dear friend
will soon be leaving and mourns
this coming loss, his hoof
scrapes the ground, tries to write
a word of goodbye,
then takes wildflowers in his teeth,
extends them to the saint, as if to say
his life was full of beauty and color,
but the petals are already wilting
in the summer sun.
The wisdom of the old sages rings,
“remember you will die” and on another day
this would prompt Columba to celebrate
the gift of a new morning, but today
death is as close as the horse’s warm nostrils,
he knows everything must
come to an end, even this love,
Columba rests there a long while
breathing in scent of fur and fields,
lets his cloak be soaked with tears.
—Christine Valters Paintner, The Wisdom of Wild Grace
Dearest monks and artists,
St. Columba (or St. Columcille as he is known in Ireland) is probably most famous for setting off across the Irish Sea in a small boat to found the Abbey on the island of Iona in Scotland which is still an active community today.
One of the stories about Columba is that he had a much loved horse. On the day that St. Columba was going to die, his horse approached him and knew he was about to lose his dear friend and so the horse begins to weep and they share some time of grief together.
I love this story of Columba’s animal companion expressing his grief so freely. There is much research to indicate the rich emotional lives that animals have and how they experience connection and loss, joy and sadness. This story for me is an icon of the tenderness of God.
There are 30 poems in my new collection The Wisdom of Wild Grace which explore these saint and animal stories. I have loved these stories for many years, this kinship with creatures as a sign of holiness. I know my own companion animals have been tremendous guides and sources of wisdom in my own life, and I find it heartening to know that in the desert, Celtic, and later medieval traditions these stories offered inspiration. Animals have another way of knowing and being which invites us to deepen into our instinctual nature, to learn to trust the wildness within ourselves.
I also love this story in particular because of the grief expressed. Another poem in my collection is about “St. Paul and the Lions” which similarly explores the way that animals can be facilitators of the grieving process. There is much for us to mourn these days – lost lives, lost ways of being, lost dreams, and much more. Allow some time in the coming days to make room for your lament. Holding it back serves no one.
One of the wonderful musicians we work with, Simon de Voil, wrote this song inspired by my poem. He spent several years living and ministering on the island of Iona and has a special connection to St. Columba.
There are actually two versions of this piece – one is the full song which you can hear on our album Earth, Our Original Monastery – and the other is the version above in the poetry video (which also is included on my new poetry album Sound & Stillness).
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
Video credit: Luke Morgan at Morgan Creative