Missionary, Educator, Entrepreneur, Freer of Slaves and Humanitarian Statesman
Like its namesake, Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne, Aidan University strives to exemplify those characteristics so fully lived out through the life and work of this ‘son of Iona’. Saint Aidan was a product of his Celtic heritage and ancestry. Aidan lived a selfless and sacrificial life in service to all God’s creation. It is our sincere prayer that our students will be challenged to take up the ‘torch’ of our namesake and serve their generation from his example.
Just before His ascension, the Lord gave His disciples command to “Go…and teach all nations,” On the authority of the church historian, Eusebius and others, it is known that among those to hear the Gospels in the still infant years of the church was the distant land of Britain, The Roman occupation in the first centuries brought increased trade, the growth of towns and cities and a relative stability which facilitated the spread of Christ’s light. But the gradual decay of the empire allowed invading pagan tribes of Angles and Saxons to overpower the Britons, and their Church suffered disintegration. Fortunately, however, Christianity had been carried west beyond the boundaries of Roman rule, beyond reach of the bellicose Saxons, to the Celts of Ireland where it spread and flourished as perhaps nowhere else. It was from Ireland that missionaries came preaching the Gospel to the heathen tribes of Britain’s northern wilds. They first landed on the west coast of Scotland where, in 563, they established a monastic beachhead on the island of Iona. In the next century an equally important center of spiritual activity was to be found off the east coast on another ‘holy isle,’ Lindisfarne, whose missionary monks made an invaluable contribution towards invigorating British Christianity and enriching its heritage with their Celtic tradition.
Among those converted and baptized at Iona was St, Oswald who, in 633, succeeded St. Edwin as king of Northumbria, a sizeable area occupying Britain’s northeast and one of the three largest Saxon kingdoms; the other two were Mercia–located in the Midlands and ruled by the fiercely pagan king Penda, and Essex, further south, which had been converted not long before by St. Augustine of Canterbury and his monks from Rome. At once, Oswald sent to Iona for a missionary to evangelize his still pagan subjects. The first to arrive, Corman, found the Northumbrians to be “of an obstinate and barbarous temperament,” and he returned to Iona having failed in his mission. As the Scot fathers were deliberating their next course of action–for they were not easily dissuaded where there was an opportunity to save souls–one of the brethren named Aidan addressed the defeated Corman, suggesting that perhaps his approach had been too severe, that he should have followed the example of the Apostles in giving his ignorant hearers “the milk of simpler teaching,” and guiding them more gradually towards perfection. The fathers were impressed by the monk’s discreet wisdom and elected him to launch a new missionary effort.
Saint Aidan: First Abbot
Thus it was that after being consecrated bishop, Aidan arrived in Northumbria in 635 and settled on Lindisfarne where he set about establishing a monastery. The location he chose had several recommendations: the sea formed a wall protecting an isolation desirable for the concentrated spiritual activity of the monks, while for missionary purposes access to the mainland was provided by a natural causeway which appeared twice a day at low tide. As both bishop and abbot, Aidan divided his time between his strict monastic observances and his expeditions into the countryside to preach the Gospel. King Oswald, whose royal residence at Barnburgh lay within sight of the Holy Island, occasionally accompanied the Gaelic-speaking Bishop as an interpreter. According to the Venerable Bede, who has provided the primary source data for Aidan’s Life, “many Northumbrians, both noble and simple, laid aside their weapons, preferring to take monastic vows rather than study the art of war.” When he died sixteen years later, Aidan was crowned with the well-deserved title “Apostle of the Northumbrians.”
The success of Aidan’s apostolic labors was the fruit of his monastic struggles and holy life. An admirer called him “indifferent to the dignity of a bishop, but influencing all men by his humility and devotion.” And Bede wrote that “the highest recommendation of his teaching to all was that he and his followers lived as they taught.” Even on his long baptizing tours, Aidan went about mostly on foot, stopping to talk to those whom he met: the heathen he urged to be baptized and the Christians he encouraged towards a still more perfect way of life. His companions on these journeys, “whether monks or lay folk, were required to ‘meditate’; that is, either to read the scriptures or to learn the Psalms.” In the practice of abstinence, Aidan himself set an example for his monks by keeping a complete fast on Wednesdays and Fridays until the ninth hour, a custom which inspired imitation among many devout lay people. The bishop’s self-continence was equally apparent in his attitude towards money and possessions; as a “father to the wretched,” he was quick to give to the poor the alms and gifts which he himself received.
St. Bede tells the story of when King Oswin presented St. Aidan with a fine horse and trappings so the Bishop would no longer have to walk every where. No sooner had Aidan left the king’s palace than he came across a poor man asking for alms. The bishop gave the man his new horse and continued on his way. King Oswin was most distressed when he heard of it. St. Bede has left us the following account:
“The king asked the bishop as they were going in to dine, ‘My Lord Bishop, why did you give away the royal horse which was necessary for your own use? Have we not many less valuable horses or other belongings which would have been good enough for beggars, without giving away a horse that I had specifically selected for your personal use?’ The bishop at once answered, ‘What are you saying, Your Majesty? Is this child of a mare more valuable to you than this child of God?’
After that response, the king humbled himself before his bishop and said ‘I will not refer to this matter again, not will I inquire how much of our bounty you give away to God’s children.”
It was later that evening when Aidan had a premonition of King Oswin death, saying to his attendant ‘I know the king will not live very long; for I have never before seen a humble king. I feel he will soon be taken from us, because this nation is not worthy of such a king.”
With gifts of money Aidan used to ransom those unjustly sold into slavery. Many of these later became his disciples. Aidan tirelessly engaged in preaching and pastoral work. He traveled mainly by foot, stopping to speak with who crossed his path.
As St. Bede tells us, “Whether rich or poor, if unbelievers, to embrace the mystery of the faith, or, if already Christians, he would strengthen them in the faith and stir them up, by words and actions, to alms and good works. He was accustomed not only to teach the people committed to his charge in church, but also feeling for the weakness of a new-born faith, to wander round the provinces, to go into the houses of the faithful, and to sow the seeds of God’s Word in their hearts, according to the capacity of each. The Bishop’ s exemplary character, selfless activity and the high spiritual caliber of his monks impressed some to undertake the religious life and others to make large gifts of land for the founding of monasteries and building of churches. A school was established on the holy island where young boys were sent to be trained by the Scottish monks as priests and missionaries. The pupils not only learned Latin and memorized the Gospels and Psalms, but, in living with the older monks, they were exposed to a world of concentrated prayer and missionary fervor which prepared them for a life of service to God. The combined emphasis on monasticism and missionary activity was characteristic of the Celtic tradition, and helped preserve a spiritual vigor less noticeable in the Canterbury school.
Those discipled at Lindisfarne traveled throughout Britain, and as far as the Netherlands, establishing monastic communities as local centers for their missionary work. Aidan also encouraged the establishment of convents, and he installed the first Northurnbrian nun, a sister named Hieu. He persuaded another devout woman named Hilda to forsake her intention to become a nun in Gaul and to remain in England. She obeyed her bishop, and founded several convents in England. Her most renowned community was a double monastery for men and women at Whitby on the Yorkshire coast, which produced at least five bishops before it was destroyed in 867 during the Danish devastation of the north. “So great was her prudence,” wrote Bede, “that not only ordinary folk, but kings and princes used to come and ask her advice in their difficulties – and take it.”
God blessed His faithful servant Aidan with many spiritual gifts. Bede reports several incidents in which they were revealed, carefully assuring his readers that they are “no groundless fables,” but based on reliable sources. There was, in one case, a priest named Utta who was sent on a mission to Kent from where he was to return by sea. When he came to ask Aidan’s blessing for the journey, the Bishop gave him some holy oil and forewarned him of a storm he would encounter. “Remember then to pour the oil on to the sea, and the wind will immediately drop.” When the storm hit, Utta recalled the words if instruction, and poured the oil Aidan had given to him upon the sea. At that point the storm was stilled and the vessel was able to continue upon its way.
Another example of Aidan’s wonder working powers was manifest during the protracted ‘holy war’ which the obstinately pagan King Penda led against the northern Christians; it lasted some 20 years until his defeat in 654. From his retreat on Lindisfarne Island, where he used to go for periods of solitary prayer, Aidan saw a column of smoke rising above the walls of the royal city some two miles distant. Raising his hands in entreaty, he cried out, “Lord, see what evil Penda does!” Immediately the wind shifted away from the city towards the assailants who retreated in haste.
St. Aidan died at Barnburgh on August 31, 651. His body was initially buried at Lindisfarne. However, in 664 the monastery accepted the decision of the Whitby Synod to adopt the Roman tradition, Aidan’s second successor as abbot, St. Colman, took Aidan’s remains and removed them to Iona, which was still a stronghold of the Celtic Church to which Aidan had been faithful to the last.
Even after the Whitby Synod, the spirit of the Celtic tradition continued to be spread abroad by those who had been spiritually nourished by Aidan and his Lindisfarne disciples. Among those who carried on Aidan’s apostolic work were the four Anglo-Saxon brothers: Cedd, Cynebil, Caelin and Chad, former pupils at the Lindisfarne school. All four became priests and two eventually became bishops who founded monasteries and built churches after the tradition of their spiritual father.
Cedd, after preaching in Mercia, one of Britain’s last pagan outposts, became Bishop of Essex. Chad, who most resembled Aidan in his genuinely humble and devout character, returned from Ireland where Aidan had sent him to study, and pursued missionary work in his native Northumbria before being made Bishop of Mercia. The brother-bishops followed Aidan’s example: both were also abbots and resided at monasteries they founded–Cedd at Lastingham and Chad at Lichfield.