I would have liked to write one more post about St Brendan’s Isle, mostly to show you the ruins of the sixth century church and monastery which we shall visit during our pilgrimages next summer. Since today we celebrate St Oran, I’ll postpone that for a while, so we may focus on this little known, but wonderful saint and the amazing church on Iona dedicated to him. The two – the saint and his church – are perfect examples of humility and dedication to Christ. St Oran’s life has always been in the shadow of St Columba, his much better known abbot. Similarly, St Oran’s chapel is rarely given much thought; the Abbey attracts everyone’s attention, while St Oran’s stands by, almost invisible to most people.
You no doubt know the story of St Columba’s arrival to Iona in 563. For a long while, the saint and his companions tried in vain to build a church. For no reason, what they built one day would be reduced to ruins by the next morning. This happened several times, until eventually St Columba was told in a vision that the land required a human sacrifice for the building to stand up. This human sacrifice was St Oran, who offered himself to be buried alive so he may consecrate the land.
This sacrifice had nothing to do with this world and the demonic gods of pre-Christian Iona. Instead, it had everything to do with St Oran’s monastic brothers and the heritage these first monks were called to leave to the world by establishing the monasteries in the Scottish Isles. St Oran’s sacrifice was not meant to please some pagan spirits, but to firmly imprint on his companions’ hearts the otherworldliness of their faith. They needed to be free from the world (the world outside and the world inside) to the most extreme extent if their mission from God were to be successful.
St Oran’s faith and the decisions he made based on his faith cannot be in any way reconciled with the values of this world. They betray a way of thinking in which this life and its fulfilment (whatever one may understand by that) are not ultimate aims. St Columba and the other monks needed to build their monastery on the foundation of St Oran’s faith, as a sign over time that Christianity is not of this world and neither is their monastery.
St Oran was the first Christian to be buried on Iona. His body was the first Christian body to enter this land. The first Christian church on that pagan isle was built over his grave. St Oran’s holy madness, his willing foolishness for Christ, his otherworldliness: these are the true foundations of the monastery. They are the true foundations of Christianity itself.