August 31 – Aidan of Lindisfarne

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. —1 Peter 2:21

More thoughts for meditation about Aidan of Lindisfarne

“He cultivated peace and love, purity and humility; he was above anger and greed, and despised pride and conceit; he set himself to keep and teach the laws of God, and was diligent in study and in prayer…I greatly admire all these things about Aidan.” —the monk,The Venerable Bede,writing in his masterwork: “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” (3:17)

Aidan (ca. 600-651 A.D.) was an Irish Celtic Monk on the Island of Iona (630 A.D.), where The Book of Kells was made. Iona was founded by Columba, who was the missionary instrumental in converting the Picts of northwestern Scotland to Christianity. So his faith was nurtured in a deep, missional community.

Many Britons followed Jesus long before the faith spread to Ireland. This was due to the fact that Britain, but not Ireland, was part of the Roman Empire and Christianity following the trade routes of the Empire. Some of the missionaries who first took the faith to Ireland were British: Patrick (who became the “patron saint” of Ireland) was the most famous but not the only one. When the power of Rome declined, the Angles (from North Germany) began to infiltrate Britain and gradually turned it into England (the word “English” comes from “Angle-ish”). These incoming English were pagans.

The kingdom of Northumbria was largely created by the English warrior-leader Aethelfrith. But when he was killed in battle (in 616) his children fled into exile and some of these children found their way to what is now south west Scotland. Here they met the Irish monks of Iona and accepted the the Christian faith. Oswald, the second son of Aethelfrith, grew up determined to regain the throne of Northumbria and to let the pagans among his people hear about Jesus. In 633 he fought a successful battle and established himself as king, choosing Bamburgh, a natural outcrop of rock on the North-East coast, as his main fortress. He then invited the monks of Iona to send a missionary.

In 635 Aidan arrived with 12 other monks and chose to settle on the island of Lindisfarne (Holy Island), north of Bamburgh. An earlier missionary monk named Corman had given up, saying the people were too uncivilized and stubborn to be Christianized.

The monastery Aidan founded was said to be moderate—by Irish standards of aceticism! From here the community went out on mission. First they needed to learn the English language. Their new king of the English, Oswald, who had learned Irish in his boyhood in exile, helped them. Then they went out, using Aidan’s only method as a missionary, which was to walk the lanes, talk to all the people he met and interest them in the faith if he could. His monks visited and revisited the villages where he sowed the seeds and in time local Christian communities were formed.

Aidan loved to talk to the pagan Angles about Jesus. He would not ride a horse, because it deprived him of opportunities to witness about Christ while he traveled. It was easier to talk to people, he thought, when you were on their level.

One time King Oswin of the Angles gave Aidan an expensive horse, as befit the respect he had for him. Aidan had not ridden very far before he gave the horse away to a poor person. The King was angry with Aidan for doing this. Aidan asked the King if a horse was more important to him than one for whom Christ had died. The King, who was a Christian, repented and asked his forgiveness.

Aidan freeing slaves
Aidan freeing slaves

Strongly opposed to slavery, Aidan spent much time and effort in ransoming slaves and sending them home.

Aidan had to ensure that his efforts did not die with himself and his Ionian monks. What was needed was English leadership of the English church. He had to educate the next generation of leaders. Irish monks were very keen on Christian education, which required the new skills of book-learning, reading and writing and Latin—the language in which all the books they could obtain were written. Once the essentials of literacy had been grasped the expansion of mental horizons must have been amazing. Books could bridge the natural restrictions of time and space! School began with the 150 psalms and then went on to the four gospels. After these essentials, the students could master as much as their library offered and their minds could hold. Such education at this time could be obtained only in monastic schools. Aidan began with 12 boys, who of course would learn the practical work of being monks, priests and missionaries by observing and working with the older monks. Their system had a powerful impact.

The monastery on the Island was for men and boys only. This was not true everywhere. As the Christian faith spread in England double monasteries became popular; under the rule of one leader, monks and nuns, girls and boys, lived and worked in the same establishment. But Lindisfarne was different in that it had been founded specifically to be the center for mission. Nuns did not walk the lanes and speak to people. Aidan made sure that it was possible in Northumbria for women to become nuns if they so wished. He discovered the woman who was to become the most famous abbess of her day, Hild, who was to be in turn the abbess of double monasteries at Hartlepool and Whitby. Her contribution to the church was great: at least five of her students became bishops.

After 16 years as bishop, Aidan died at Bamburgh in 651. We do not know his age. What he had achieved may not have been clear to him at his death but subsequent history showed the strong foundations and lasting success of his mission. The missionaries trained in his school went out and worked for the conversion of much of Anglo-Saxon England.


Video: Footsteps of St. Aidan

Suggestions for action

Aidan was a humble, dogged evangelist. His style was incarnational. His radical monks built their community among the people. They did not refuse the aid of powerful people, but they also put them in their place. Their approach was face-to-face and on foot, not from above but alongside. He was also strategic, handing down his leadership to people he prepared to exercise it. Lindisfarne deepened the whole area of Northumbria for centuries as a center of learning and faith.

Circle of Hope has many similarities to Lindisfarne. From our “holy island” in the middle of the Philadelphia region we humbly present the truth of Jesus. We go back again and again, exercising our gentle influence. What is your part in it all? Pray for our strength and for the vision to be a community in mission.

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