June 9 is the Feast Day of St. Columba of Ireland. At the age of 77, after a long career of devotion and service, St. Columba knew the time of his death was drawing near. He decided to make one last visit to the brothers of his order. Before he reached their dwelling place, Columba became terribly weary and stopped beside the road to rest. Soon, the white horse who had provided him with help and companionship over the years appeared and rested his head on the saint’s breast. Legend tells us that the horse, sensing that his beloved human was dying, began to weep.
As the poet Christine Valters Paintner writes, “The horse nuzzles Columba’s shoulder, shudders all down his white length, eyes glisten round and brown, great teardrops pool and drop, sounding like rainfall. Columba rests his forehead against the horse’s broad skull, closes his eyes, and each imagines the other, galloping together across heather and buttercups. The horse knows his dear friend will soon be leaving and mourns this coming loss; his hoof scrapes the ground, tries to write a word of goodbye. Columba rests there a long while, breathing in the scent of fur and fields, lets his cloak be soaked with tears.”
Columba blessed his faithful friend, and soon after died at the altar of the monastery.
This story of a horse’s grief is in keeping with research documenting animals’ responses to the deaths of their family, friends, and companions, both human and animal. Barbara J. King tells many such stories in her book, How Animals Grieve. On this St. Columba’s Day, may we remember to honor and support our animal friends always, especially in their times of loss and sorrow.