Saint Columban

His Life, Rule, and Legacy

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Terrence G. Kardong
  • Collegeville, MN: 
    Liturgical Press
    , November
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Leaving his native Ireland around the age of thirty-three, this sixth-century cleric roamed as far as Lombardy to combat the Arian heresy. His written rule of life for the three monasteries he founded in Gaul attests to his formidable character and zealous nature. His rule, printed in this volume by way of a commentary containing the entire source, follows that of St. Benedict by a few decades. For Terrence Kardong, a US midwestern Benedictine scholar, Columban’s version serves as a “vehicle of and partner with” that of Benedict (x). Yet Columban’s triple guidelines for eremites, cenobites, and penitents prove more demanding, in a northern clime, than the Mediterranean style.

Kardong situates these Latin sources within a brisk introduction of textual considerations and the saint’s life. Until Columban settled at Bobbio shortly before his death, his travels took him far from the cloister. Those he left behind faced a demanding regimen. They chanted psalms so often that their vocation fulfilled the Pauline command to “pray ceaselessly” (60). The desert fathers and John Cassian are applied well in Kardong’s engaging footnotes, which explain Columban’s frequent exhortations. Those living in community carry out an extensive system of penances: A leather strap metes out blows. Penalties for various mistakes and sins fill pages, and amounts of “stripes” are dictated. Not all punishments are so dour. If a brother spills too much liquid or solid fare, “let him know what he has lost by drinking water instead of beer” (87). Kardong’s sly take on the hazards of “night visions” will delight any reader attentive enough to follow along in the modern monk’s commentary (100).

Elsewhere Kardong refers one to the “passive aggression” found  in monasteries then as now, and he recommends Jaroslav Haŝek’s satire The Good Soldier Schweik (Penguin Classics, reprint 2005) as a relevant exemplar. A glimpse at etiquette reveals either a spirited playfulness or a messy habit of the earlier time: “If someone spits and hits the altar, twenty-four psalms” must be chanted; “if he hits the wall, six” (111). The bulk of these proscriptions covers more serious admonitions, though with similar results. “Saying mineor yoursbrings six strokes” (119). Kardong even connects the grim realities of much of this Rule to when a mountain lion wandered into a Colorado monastery. His sly humor lightens certain grim verses. He admits fairness must be balanced with justice, and he diligently shows in his footnotes how his translation plays off the original, with frequent lessons from his own experience of fifty years within a monastic community. Without these observations, this would be not only a far duller but a less useful project. Kardong’s attention to nuance testifies to his scholarship, and this neatly complements his previous translation and commentary on Benedict’s rule. 

In the final section, serious crimes commonly earn years of penance. Kardong notes how this code illustrates the “earliest form of a confessor’s manual for private confession (139). This attention to flaws and reparations continues in the current editor’s appended Rule of Walbert, a compilation incorporating earlier legislation and direction for religious women. Again, Kardong’s perspective informs: he notes that “monks racing to the choir is not as implausible as it sounds” (196). Walbert’s prolixity challenges the translator’s craft, which reveals a concentration on shame and honor in a life led publicly. Male or female, the monastic order imposed constant regimentation. This primary text written for noble daughters who habitually, if unmarried, wound up as abbesses supplements and adapts that for male monks.

An in-depth bibliography and indices for references to Benedict’s rule and patristic and monastic sources, topics within footnotes, Latin and Greek phrases from the same, and “Columbanian Persons and Places” all add value. Father Kardong has served as a reliable and humane interpreter of material over a distinguished career in which his wit, wisdom, and erudition serve anyone curious about early monasticism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John L. Murphy is Humanities Coordinator at DeVry University.

Date of Review: 
May 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Terrence G. Kardong, OSB, is a monk of Assumption Abbey, Richardton, North Dakota. He has been editor of The American Benedictine Review since 1982 and has written many books and articles, including Benedict’s Rule: A Translation and Commentary and Benedict Backwards, both published by Liturgical Press.


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