Original Goodness

Columbanus (540-615) was the quintessential Irish wandering monk. He shares a name with Columcille, or Columba of Iona, which means “the dove of the church,” but they are not the same person. Columbanus likely studied in the monastery at Bangor under the tutelage of Comghall, where he would have learned about the practice of private penance that is essential to Celtic spiritual direction. In fact, the practice of having a private confessor in modern Catholicism came from Ireland through Columbanus and to the rest of the Western church. In a very real way the art of anamchara is the original form of Christian spiritual direction in the West. The life of Columbanus was written down by Iona of Susa, more commonly known as Jonas. He describes Columbanus as such,

“Columbanus, who is also called Columba, was born in the island of Ireland. The site of the island, as they say, is pleasant, and lacks the wars of hostile foreign nations. The Irish, a people who, although without the laws of other peoples, are, nevertheless, flourishing in Christian teaching, inhabit this island. They are pre-eminent in their faith over all neighbouring peoples. Columbanus was born here when the Christian faith was being established among that people so that the faith, which that people in part held fruitless, might be fertilized by his support and that of his companions with fruitful labour.”

Columbanus, like his fellow monks at home in Ireland, believed in the goodness of all creation. The teachings of original goodness can be found woven throughout the Celtic tradition. Inspired by the opening chapters of Genesis, the early Celtic Christians knew that nature is infused with divine goodness and human beings in particular are very good. Columbanus wrote a series of sermons which were designed to be used for teaching the way of life he followed. In sermon 11 he talks specifically about the goodness of the human being and our being made in the image of God. He opens the sermon with these words,

“Moses wrote in the Law, ‘God made man in his own image and likeness.’ Consider, I beg you, the weight of these words: God, the all-powerful, invisible, unfathomable, ineffable, and unsearchable, when making man of clay, ennobled him with the dignity of his image. What does the human race have in common with God? What does earth have in common with spirit? For God is spirit. It is a great honour that God bestowed on men and women the image of his eternity and likeness to his own character.”

God is ineffable, which means that we can’t have any concept of God’s essence. No mental picture, no clever title, no abstract concept can name what God actually is, for God is unknowable. God cannot be searched by the intellect because God is completely beyond every means by which we can attain knowledge. God is omnipotent and has no limits of any kind. There is nowhere which is hidden from God. There is no truth which eludes God. It is astonishing to think that this is the image which we bear, that the image of this infinite love is at the essence of who we are!

This blending of earth with spirit, of what is mortal and fallible with what is perfect and eternal, is the mystery of the human condition. We are inbetween creatures, not only angels and not only beasts, but embodying both. This image of God, in which we are created, is good because it is the image of God. In our essence we are a reflection of what is true and beautiful. Yet, we see that humanity does not always act this way. That’s because the task of maintaining and preserving that image is our responsibility and free will allows us to care for it gently or to throw it aside altogether. Columbanus spoke of the beauty of God’s image and the need for us to preserve it when he said,

“It is a great adornment for men and women if they can preserve a likeness to God, while the defiling of the image of God is a great condemnation. For if they abuse what they have received from the breath of God, and corrupt the blessing of their nature, then they distort their likeness to God and destroy its presence in them. But if they use the virtues implanted in them appropriately, they shall be like God.”

Columbanus describes the image of God within us as a beautiful jewel which must be cared for with great attention. One pays attention to something according to its value. Just as one would not casually toss a precious gem into a pile of gravel for making a road, one should not treat the image of God which is inherent in our souls as if it were of no consequence. This beautiful gift which we have been given is more precious than gold and sweeter than honey and we are wise to care for it with all our attention, lest the greatest gift of God be given to us as if pearls before swine.

Columbanus speaks of the human being like an icon. Though he doesn’t use that exact word he does talk about the human being as both the image of God and a painting in the same short sermon. In essence we are a holy icon of grace. We are a work of art, a self portrait, which reflects the image of God and through which something sacred can be seen that is beyond the physical work of art itself. The thing that makes us different from a painted icon one might see in a church is that we have free will. We are a painting which paints itself, and does so with varying skill and effectiveness. All the virtues are part of the infinite goodness which is the essence of our being and it is our gift to God to return them in a pristine condition. As Columbanus says,, “Whatever virtues God sowed in us in our primal state, therefore, he has commanded us to return to him.”

During the sixth day of creation in the book of Genesis, we are told that humanity was created in God’s “image and likeness.” The image of God is the goodness of the eternal Christ which exists inside us and cannot be harmed or changed in any way, but the likeness of God is that which we give back to God of our own free will. We live in the likeness of God by picking up the virtues placed within our hearts. The likeness of God, unlike the image of God, can be horribly disfigured, and often we find it is so. When we no longer live according to the image of Christ shining in our hearts we typically create a new image over top of the original. We create an idol, made by human will, with our spiritual faculties and senses, and there, within the temple of our hearts, we worship it like a golden calf.

As history has shown there is a fine line between an idol and an icon and the division between them is shown by what the image is of. Many times we humans create images in our hearts of a god who is vengeful and petty, but this is an image painted by a human will and not the divine will. We can paint new images of God within our hearts that are crude and even violent. We can create God in our own image if we are not mindful, but this false image of God is only a phantom, an illusion, it is not the true image which remains forever untainted. Columbanus warned against this, by looking at the concept of contraries (or opposites), which we will discuss in a later chapter, when he said,

“Let us not paint the image of another; for they who are fierce, full of anger and pride, paint the image of a tyrant. Just as false knowledge is uncovered, so too a false image is revealed to be a phantom. For truth is distinguished from falsehood, justice from unrighteousness, love from malevolence, commitment from carelessness, fairness from injustice, affection from pretense, and both paint images upon us which are mutually opposed. For righteousness and unrighteousness, peace and conflict are opposites. In case we should introduce tyrannical images into ourselves, let Christ paint his own image in us, as he does when he says,: ‘My peace I give you, my peace I leave you.”

So be mindful and attentive of the precious gift which you carry from God, dear sisters and brothers. Tend to it and mind it according to its value. It is the most precious possession you will ever concern yourself with. It should be guarded from false images, polished and kept pure, and from it you should draw inspiration and wisdom to live your life in a good way. But still do not fear your free will, at its essence your will itself is good and beautiful and has its source in God alone. The image of God in which we are created is a gift freely given, but our creation was left incomplete on purpose so that we may complete it ourselves. To grow into the likeness of God is the gift which we give back to our creator. So be an artist. Paint upon your heart the image of Christ for there is no other image as beautiful and true. Adorn yourself with the likeness of God and live a beautiful life.

What image do you paint on the canvas of your heart?

Does this image reflect the love and hope of Christ?


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