Friday, 31 August 2012

St Aidan

St Aidan, from All Saints, Evesham

To appreciate the story of St Aidan of Lindisfarne, who died on 31 August 651, there's really no substitute for reading the detailed account of his life provided to us by Bede. So here are some extracts from Book 3 of Bede's Ecclesiastical History, telling how Aidan came from Iona at the request of King Oswald of Northumbria to convert his kingdom to Christianity.

The translation is from A History of the English Church and People, trans. Leo Sherley-Price (Penguin, 1974), pp.144-5, 148-50, 168-70.

As soon as he became king, Oswald greatly wished that all of the people whom he ruled should be imbued with the grace of the Christian faith, of which he had received such signal proof in his victory over the heathen. So he sent to the Scottish elders among whom he and his companions had received the sacrament of baptism when in exile, asking them to send him a bishop by whose teaching and ministry the English people over whom he ruled might receive the blessings of the Christian faith and the sacraments. His request was granted without delay, and they sent him Bishop Aidan, a man of outstanding gentleness, holiness, and moderation. He had a zeal in God, but not according to knowledge, in that he kept Easter in accordance with the customs of his own nation...

On Aidan's arrival, the king appointed the island of Lindisfarne to be his see at his own request. As the tide ebbs and flows, this place is surrounded by sea twice a day like an island, and twice a day the sand dries and joins it to the mainland. The king always listened humbly and readily to Aidan's advice and diligently set himself to establish and extend the church of Christ throughout his kingdom. And while the bishop, who was not fluent in the English language, preached the Gospel, it was most delightful to see the king himself interpreting the word of God to his ealdorman and thanes; for he himself had obtained perfect command of the Scottish tongue during his long exile. Henceforward many Scots arrived day by day in Britain and proclaimed the word of God with great devotion in all the provinces under Oswald's rule, while those of them who were in priest's orders ministered the grace of Baptism to those who believed. Churches were built in several places, and the people flocked gladly to hear the word of God, while the king of his bounty gave lands and endowments to establish monasteries, and the English, both noble and simple, were instructed by their Scots teachers to observe a monastic life.

For most of those who came to preach were monks, Aidan himself being a monk sent from the island of Hii [Iona], whose monastery was for a long time the principal monastery of nearly all the northern Scots and all the Picts and exercised a widespread authority. The island itself belongs to Britain, and is separated from the mainland only by a narrow strait; but the Picts living in that part of Britain gave it to the Scots monks long ago, because they received the faith of Christ through their preaching...

[Bede then tells of the history of Iona and St Columba]

It was from this island and from this community of monks... that Aidan was sent, when he had been made bishop, to preach the faith of Christ to a province of the English. Among other evidences of holy life, he gave his clergy an inspiring example of self-discipline and continence, and the highest recommendation of his teaching to all was that he and his followers lived as they taught. He never sought or cared for any worldly possessions, and loved to give away to the poor who chanced to meet him whatever he received from kings or wealthy folk. Whether in town or country, he always travelled on foot unless compelled by necessity to ride; and whatever people he met on his walks, whether high or low, he stopped and spoke to them. If they were heathen, he urged them to be baptized; and if they were Christians, he strengthened their faith, and inspired them by word and deed to live a good life and to be generous to others.

His life is in marked contrast to the apathy of our own times, for all who walked with him, whether monks or layfolk, were required to meditate, that is, either to read the scriptures or to learn the Psalms. This was their daily occupation wherever they went; and if, on rare occasions, he was invited to dine with the king, he went with one or two clerics, and when he had eaten sparingly, he left as soon as possible to read or pray with them. Many devout men and women of that day were inspired to follow his example, and adopted the practice of fasting until None on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year, except during the fifty days after Easter. If wealthy people did wrong, he never kept silent out of respect or fear, but corrected them outspokenly. Nor would he offer money to influential people, although he offered them food whenever he entertained them as host. But, if the wealthy ever gave him gifts of money, he either distributed it for the needs of the poor, as I have mentioned, or else used it to ransom any who had unjustly been sold as slaves. Many of those whom he had ransomed in this way later became his disciples; and when they had been instructed and trained, he ordained them to the priesthood.

It is said that when King Oswald originally asked the Scots to send a bishop to teach the faith of Christ to himself and his people, they sent him another man of a more austere disposition. After some time, meeting with no success in his preaching to the English, who refused to listen to him, he returned home and reported to his superiors that he had been unable to achieve anything by teaching to the nation to whom they had sent him, because they were a ungovernable people of an obstinate and barbarous temperament. The Scots fathers therefore held a great conference to decide on the wisest course of action; for while they regretted that the preacher whom they had sent had not been acceptable to the English, they still wished to meet their desire for salvation. Then Aidan, who was present at the conference, said to the priest whose efforts had been unsuccessful: "Brother, it seems to me that you were too severe on your ignorant hearers. You should have followed the practice of the Apostles, and begun by giving them the milk of simpler teaching, and gradually nourished them with the word of God until they were capable of greater perfection and able to follow the loftier precepts of Christ." At this the faces and eyes of all who were at the conference were turned towards him; and they paid close attention to all he said, and realized that here was a fit person to be made bishop and sent to instruct the ignorant and unbelieving, since he was particularly endowed with the grace of discretion, the mother of virtues. They therefore consecrated him bishop, and sent him to preach. Time was to show that Aidan was remarkable not only for discretion, but for the other virtues as well.

Aidan and Oswald (Worcester Cathedral)

Such then was the bishop who brought knowledge of the faith to King Oswald and the English people under his rule. Thus instructed, Oswald not only learned to hope for the kingdom of heaven, which had been unknown to his ancestors, but was also granted by Almighty God, Creator of heaven and earth, an earthly kingdom greater than they enjoyed. For at length he brought under his sceptre all the peoples and provinces of Britain speaking the four languages, British, Pictish, Scottish and English.

Although he received such a height of power, Oswald was always wonderfully humble, kindly, and generous to the poor and strangers. The story is told how on the Feast of Easter one year, Oswald sat down to dine with Bishop Aidan. A silver dish of rich food was set before him, and they were on the point of raising their hands to bless the food, when the servant who was appointed to relieve the needs of the poor came in suddenly and informed the king that a great crowd of needy folk were sitting in the road outside begging alms of the king. Oswald at once ordered the food to be taken out to the poor, and the silver dish to be broken up and distributed among them. The bishop, who was sitting beside him, was deeply moved to see such generosity, and taking hold of the king's right hand, exclaimed, "May this hand never wither with age." Later events proved that his prayer was heard; for when Oswald was killed in battle, his hand and arm were severed from his body, and they remain uncorrupted to this day. They are preserved as venerated relics in a silver casket at the church of St Peter in the royal city, which is called after a former queen named Bebba...

The 'royal city' is Bamburgh, today an imposing fortress, within which stands the chapel mentioned by Bede.

Bede tells of several further miracles by Aidan, and then describes his death:
Death came to Aidan when he had completed sixteen years of his episcopate, while he was staying at a royal residence near the capital. Having a church and lodging there, Aidan often used to go and stay at the place, travelling about the surrounding countryside to preach. This was his practice at all the king's country-seats, for he had no personal possessions except his church and a few fields around it. When he fell ill, a tent was erected for him on the west side of the church, so that the tent was actually attached to the church wall. And so it happened that, as he drew his last breath, he was leaning against a post that buttressed the wall on the outside. He passed away on the last day of August, in the seventeenth year of his episcopate, and his body was soon taken across to Lindisfarne Island and buried in the monks' cemetery. When a larger church, dedicated to the most blessed Prince of the Apostles, was built there some while later, his bones were transferred to it and buried at the right side of the altar in accordance with the honours due to so great a prelate.

Finan, who had also come from the Scottish island and monastery of Iona, succeeded him as bishop and held the office for a considerable time. Some years later, Penda, King of the Mercians, came into these parts with an invading army and destroyed everything that he found with fire and sword; and he burned down the village and the church where Aidan had died. But, in a wonderful manner, the beam against which he was leaning at his death was the only object untouched by the flames which devoured everything around it. This miracle was noticed and a church was soon rebuilt on the same site, with the beam supporting the structure from the outside as before... When the church was rebuilt for a third time, the beam was not employed as an outside support again, but was set up inside the church as a memorial of this miracle, so that those who entered might kneel there and ask God's mercy. Since that day many are known to have obtained the grace of healing at this spot, and many have cut chips of wood from the beam and put them in water, by which means many have been cured of their diseases.

This spot can still be visited in the church at Bamburgh:

And Bede adds his own opinion on Aidan:

I have dealt at length with the character and life of Aidan, although one cannot commend or approve his inadequate knowledge of the proper observance of Easter; indeed, as I have made clear in my book on the seasons, I strongly disapprove of these practices. Nonetheless, as a truthful historian, I have given an accurate account of his life, commending all that was excellent and preserving his memory for the benefit of my readers. He cultivated peace and love, purity and humility; he was above anger and greed, and despised pride and conceit; he set himself to keep as well as to teach the laws of God, and was diligent in study and prayer. He used his priestly authority to check the proud and powerful; he tenderly comforted the sick; he relieved and protected the poor. To sum up in brief what I have learned from those who knew him, he took pains never to neglect anything that he had learned from the writings of the evangelists, apostles and prophets, and he set himself to carry them out with all his powers.

I greatly admire and love all these things about Aidan, because I have no doubt that they are pleasing to God; but I cannot approve or commend his failure to observe Easter at the proper time, whether he did it through ignorance of the canonical times or in deference to the custom of his own nation. But this in him I do approve, that in keeping his Easter he believed, worshipped, and taught exactly what we do, namely the redemption of the human race through the Passion, Resurrection and Ascension into heaven of the Man Jesus Christ, the Mediator between God and man.

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