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Who is St. Colman?

Commemoration of St. Colman of Lindisfarne

Colman was in all probability a native of the West of Ireland; born in the province of Connaught in the year 605. Not much else is known about his early adult life, except that he entered the monastery at Iona and became a monk during the abbacy of Segenius, was a devoted disciple of St. Columba, and spent years in study and fellowship with his contemporaries St. Finian and St. Aidan.  

After the death of St. Finian in 661, Colman succeeded him as the third Abbot-Bishop of Lindisfarne. Lindisfarne was the most important monastery in Northumbria, England, close to the royal castle at Bamburg. The Venerable Bede gives a glowing account of the church of Lindisfarne under Saint Colman's rule. He emphasized the example of frugality and simplicity of living set by Bishop Colman and the complete devotion of his clergy to their proper business of imparting the word of God and ministering to their people. 

Colman’s brief episcopate is memorable largely because it came at a time of intense controversy in the Celtic church, including a fierce revival of the long dispute concerning the correct way of computing the date of Easter. There was also strong disagreement about whether local monastic leaders should have more power over local worship than distant (Roman) church authorities, and about how far the secular power of the king should extend over spiritual matters. While the Easter Controversy is the best known of the ecclesiastical disputes of Colman’s episcopate, a more obscure but an equally passionate argument was raging at the same time about the way that monks, priests and other ministers should cut their hair.

Clergy hairstyles may seem like a minor point of contention to us looking back from a contemporary perspective, but in fact it had tremendous spiritual significance. Then, as now, hair was a major signifier of social status. The tonsure issue was not a matter of fashion, but theology. The origin of the tonsure comes from the ancient Roman custom of shaving the head of a male slave as a way of indicating the master’s power—the slave’s forced submission to the master’s will is so complete that he even loses the ability to control the appearance of his own hair. (Forced haircuts are still used today as a visual symbol of an authority figure’s total control over a man’s life, and as a way to denote low hierarchical status, such as when soldiers enter boot camp.)

Greeks and Romans alike considered the shaved head to be the badge of the slave. Romans punished Christians by shaving their heads as a sign of contempt and mockery—making them wear their hair like slaves was meant to humiliate them. This eventually backfired, as some monks began to voluntarily shave their heads in the same manner and, when questioned, identified themselves as "slaves of Christ." 

Various religious orders practiced tonsure among themselves for hundreds of years, and toward the beginning of the sixth century many clerics in the North had revived the custom in a modified form: not shaving the whole head. Some orders left a narrow crown of hair, meant to signify Christ’s crown of thorns; some orders shaved off only a small circular patch on the crown of the head; some kept the entire head shaved above the ears, and some retained a wide band of hair around the head. The Roman Catholic Church abolished the practice of tonsure in 1972, but some orthodox religious orders practice voluntary tonsure even today. 

The tonsure controversy, therefore, was directly related to the larger issue of whether to follow ancient ways that had been preserved from the earliest Christians or to conform to modern practices being imposed at a distance from Rome. Clergy enjoyed a privileged status in seventh century Rome that was never dreamed of by early followers of Christ. As a result, many clergy there had abandoned the tonsure and began to wear their hair in the same way as the members of the ruling class. Thus they were not visually identified as servants, but masters. Roman clergy felt this was appropriate, as they were educated and well-respected members of society, but the Celts placed a higher value on the virtue of humility and felt the traditional visual image of clergy as servants of Christ should be preserved with the symbolic haircut. So although the Synod of Whitby in 664 is most often remembered for its celebrated argument over whether churches should use the Celtic method or the Roman method of computing the date of Easter, the tonsure issue was also an intensely debated matter on which many Celtic monks and clergy stood in irreconcilable disagreement with Rome. 

Colman spoke eloquently at the Synod of Whitby as the chief defender of the Celtic methods. Neither side could really prove the priority of their claims, but King Oswy made an imperial decision that everyone fall in line with the Roman practices of the rest of Western Europe. Colman, refusing to accept the king's ruling in a spiritual matter, resigned his bishopric and retired after serving only three years. He then left for Iona, taking with him all the Irish and about thirty of the English monks at Lindisfarne. 

For the next three years, St. Colman went to Scotland, founding several churches there. In 668, accompanied by approximately thirty Irish and English disciples, he crossed the seas to his native Ireland again, settling down on a remote island called Inishbofin, which means "island of the white cow." Colman founded a monastery there and built a school. The Inishbofin foundation was an initial success, but after a short while the monastic community was torn apart by conflict. It seems that the Irish monks were accused of leaving the monastery to go on preaching journeys during the Summer at the very time when they were needed for agricultural labor. Upon their return in the Winter, they then expected an equal share of the food with the English monks who had done all work of bringing in the harvest. The situation caused so much discord that Colman eventually settled the English monks in a separate foundation on the mainland, and named it Mayo of the Saxons. Mayo was widely known and praised as a significant center of sanctity and learning. It eventually became an episcopal see and is mentioned in the Synod of Kells. The Venerable Bede praises the fact that the abbots of Mayo were elected, rather than following Celtic custom as a "hereditary" monastery.  

The window icon at the top of this biography is almost certainly a representation of Colman’s role at the Synod of Whitby. His back is turned on King Oswy, shown as the smallest figure, in the background wearing a crown. In the foreground stands St. Hilda, the great female abbess who was among the strongest supporters of the Celtic method of computing Easter. Traditional Celtic tonsure was usually made by shaving only the front part of the head. We can presume that tonsure, rather than age or incipient baldness, is the reason for Colman’s prominent forehead and hairline.  

Almost 300 other St. Colmans can be found in lists of the names of Celtic saints. The one we celebrate today is identified as St. Colman, Last Columban Abbot of Lindisfarne, Founder of Inishbofin and Mayo. Some celebrate his feast day in August, but almost all accounts agree that St. Colman died on the island of Inishbofin on February 18, 675.

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