St Comgall (May 10)
Comgall (516-602) founded the abbey of Bangor, on the southern side of Belfast Loch.
Apart from a mission to Scotland in the company of his friend St Columba he spent all his life in Ireland. Nevertheless, through another saint, his disciple Columban, he exerted an important influence on European monasticism.
He was born in Antrim, the son of a soldier who was eager for him to follow a military career. Comgall, however, took himself off to study with the austere St Fintan at Clonenagh.
Although he apparently suffered some doubts about his vocation Comgall settled for the monastic life. After being ordained a priest he founded a small monastery on Loch Erne.
Drawn to extreme ascetism, he developed a penchant for praying while standing upright in cold rivers. This habit did not prove entirely popular with his followers.
Unperturbed, around 555 Comgall established a larger monastery at Bangor, based on equally testing principles. It was reported, surely with some exaggeration, that as many as 3,000 monks were housed there.
The Rule at Bangor has been preserved. Its essence was expressed in a few simple precepts: “Love Christ; hate wealth; piety toward the king of the sun; and smoothness towards men. Have nothing else dearer: patience and humility and the love of the Lord in your heart.” “Though great injuries come to you,” the Rule advised, “do not lament at this, because they are not more abundant than those of the King who sent them.” The Antiphonary of Bangor, written at the end of the seventh century, is now preserved in Milan. “Happy the family at Bangor,” the text runs, “founded on so sure a faith, graced with the hope of salvation, and made perfect in love.” The book also contains the earliest surviving Eucharistic hymn in western Christianity, Sancti Venite: “Come, you who are holy, receive the body of Christ, drinking (also) the holy blood by which you are redeemed.” About 585, Columban, who had spent many years under Comgall’s guidance at Bangor, set forth with 12 helpers, inspired with the formidable ambition of restoring Christianity within Merovingian Gaul.
Befriended by a Burgundian potentate he founded a monastery at Annegray, and then created bigger ones at Luxeuil and Fontaines.
The house at Luxeuil, in particular, became (albeit briefly) the religious and cultural centre of eastern France.
Colomban thought on the grand scale: writing to Pope Gregory I, he used the phrase totius Europae, one of the earliest allusions to western Christendom as a single unit.
His mentor Comgall, however, remained at Bangor, dedicated always to rigorous study and strict discipline. “My soul-friend has died and I am headless,” he explained. “You too are headless, for a man without a soul-friend is a body without a head.”