Columba's Psalter (a poem)


According to Irish tradition, Colmcille, or Columba, a monk and abbot, became obsessed by a desire to possess a particular psalter owned by a local king.

Saint Columba

He was unable to obtain it from the king, nor was he able to borrow it to make a copy of it for himself. He began stealing away with it during the night, taking it to his cell. It was said that he would hold his left hand up and that flames would rise from his fingers to give him enough light to do his copying, He was found out. Both the original and the copy were taken from him. In an angry rage he took to the field with his monastic army and slaughtered many of the kings men. He was defeated, and was ultimately exiled, forced to leave his beloved Ireland. He would not be allowed to return to Ireland until he had brought as many converts to the faith as he had left dead on the battlefield. This was the beginning of what would later be called the "White Martyrdom". It was this that started the the return of literacy and learning to the European continent after the fall of the ancient Roman Empire.


Columba's Psalter

The thing of too much beauty,
The word-winged thing, its borders
Bound in lovely, lithe colors,
Seemed alive, even gregarious.
Mystery rose from it
Like a thin ribbon of smoke
Scented with beyondness, and
I desired it with all my being.
The Ri* would not sell it,]
Would not lend it to me.
Could he see my lust for it
In my downcast eyes?
The bright thing held me in thrall.
I could not bear its absence.
Through the long nights that winter
I stole into the Ri’s fort
And bore the thing of beauty away,
Buried in the deep folds
Of my threadbare robes
And secreted myself, alone,
In the black solitude of my cold cell
To copy it, to make it echo
Upon new velum, a second-thing,
But at least mine.
I who had cast the world aside,
Who had vowed myself to Sister Poverty,
Could not stop my incarnate desire
To possess this unspeakable beauty.
My heart burned for it
And small flames grew up from
The uplifted fingers of my left hand
Pushing back the darkness,
Illuminating my own thieving script,
Heating my desires all the more.
It could not be, of course.
The Ri’s druid found me out
And relieved me of my dream.
It should have been easy then,
For one vowed to humility,
To let it go without concern.
But its loveliness had mastered me.
Overwhelmed me with a mad passion
To take it back, even at the cost of life.
I led my brothers into the field of battle
Against my dear Ri
And I slaughtered his men
Driven wild, as I was, with an
Unquenchable greed that
Possessed my whole heart,
My whole mind, my whole soul.
For this I was exiled,
Forced to leave my lovely Eire.
I was excommunicated from my home
Sent out to spend my wretched life in penance,
Until I’d claimed as many souls for Christ
As I had left lying on that bloody field,
Food for the insatiable crows.
And so I did. And so I did.
Thanks be to God. So I did.


Dan Doyle. "Columba's Psalter." CERC.

Reprinted with permission of Dan Doyle.


Dan Doyle has taught for 30 years at the high school and university level. He is currently in his 20th year at Seattle University in Seattle, WA. He is an Assistant Professor in the Matteo Ricci College of Seattle University and teaches several Humanities based courses including: The Greek, Roman and Medieval periods, Character Development and a Capstone course called, Unforgettable Books. He has been writing and publishing poems for most of his career. Dan Doyle is on the Executive Board of CERC USA.

Copyright © 2009 Dan Doyle

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.