Monday, August 31, 2009

Aidan of the Holy Isle (c. 590-651)

"Augustine was the Apostle of Kent,
but Aidan was the Apostle of the English."

Bishop Joseph Barber Lightfoot
Theologian & Bishop of Durham

"Whether in town or in the countryside, [Aidan] travelled on foot, never on horseback unless compelled by some urgent necessity. And as he walked along he stopped and spoke to whomever he met, both rich and poor: if they were heathen, he invited them to embrace the mystery of faith, and be baptised; and if they were already believers, he strengthened their faith, inspiring them by word and action to be good and generous to their neighbours." (From Celtic Fire: The Passionate Religious Vision of Ancient Britain and Ireland, ed. Robert Van De Weyer, 1990)

Some people have that wonderful gift of not meeting a stranger. My son has always had it. My good friend, Fr. Ray Maloney, has it. I don't. In the years I've known Ray, I doubt that there's ever been a dog or baby we've passed togther -- here in the U.S. or in England -- that hasn't been patted on the head and blessed! The sheer artistry of the ability of folks like Ray and Andrew to connect with people never fails to inspire me every time! It's the stuff of true evangelism. Yes, I dare utter that word so dreaded by uptight Episcopalians!

And speaking of evangelism: "The proof of the pudding is in the eating." When King Oswald took command of the kingdom of Bernicia (the territory of England extending along the shore of the North Sea between the border of Scotland and the river Tyne) in 633, he asked Abbot Seghine of Iona to send him a bishop to evangelize the people. Seghine sent Corman, who proved to be as crusty and severe as his name sounds! After returning some three years later, all he had to say was that the English people of Bernicia behaved like "savages" and had a "stubborn and barbarous disposition". Possibly true, but one wonders if the good Corman might have been self-projecting a bit.

Seghine, wise abbot that he was, calls a conference of all the monks to hear Corman's report and to help him discern who might be more suited to answer Oswald's request for a bishop. An Irish monk, Aidan, apparently related to the great Brigid of Kildare, a humble and simple man, had the courage to speak up and remind Corman that by "giving them first the milk of religion before its meat", one might better win these people over to Christianity. It proved to be an "Aha!" moment for the abbot and the Iona community. They immediately sensed that Aidan was someone who grasped how evangelism might be effectively done. And so Aidan came to Bernicia where, within a year, Oswald gave him a whole island -- Lindisfarne, just off the coast and near the king's fortress at Bamborough!

But before Aidan could embark on his big "E" campaign, he had to first learn to speak Scottish. Fr. John Julian writes: "Since there was initially a language barrier, and since King Oswald had learned the Scots tongue during his exile,
the king himself served as Bishop Aidan’s translator during his first year in Bernicia. And one of Aidan’s first acts was to consecrate and anoint King Oswald, using—for the first time in England—the rites and ceremonies still used in the crowning of the British monarch today.
" (Stars In a Dark World)

From then on Aidan simply kept to his monastic regimen of prayer, study, simplicity, and poverty, and by his example he taught both royals and commoners the enduring lesson of God's love in Christ. The great historian Venerable Bede, practically our only source of information on Aidan, relates a number of moving stories about Aidan's preaching of the Gospel, sometimes, as Francis of Assisi would say later, "using words".

Aidan died in 651 as simply as he lived, under a tent-like awning fixed to the buttress of the church building. Aidan had been an ardent supporter of the Celtic vs. the Roman traditions in his day. Thirteen years after his death, in 664, Aidan's friend, Abbess Hilda presided over the Council of Whitby, where, unfortunately, the Celtic traditions gave way to the Roman traditions in church practice. Bishop Colman of Lindisfarne, as many other Celtic leaders did, left England in the wake of this decision, carrying with him some of Aidan's bones back to Iona. The history of the disposition of the rest of Aidan's remains is, at best, conjecture as far as I can determine. Here is what Brittania, an online tour and travel guide has to say: "...The monks of Glastonbury claimed that they held the bones of St. Aidan of early as the 11th century. We know that this was not his whole body, as it was accepted that half of it lay at Iona in Scotland, and some relics were also claimed by Durham Cathedral. As only a partial saint and the earliest recorded, it seems likely that Aidan may have been the only Northern relic brought south by Tyccea, though not apparently because of the Viking threat..."

As mentioned above, Bede the Venerable is virtually our only source of factual information on Aidan. Betraying his own "slant" on church matters, here's his final word on Aidan:

...I have written thus much of the person and works of the aforesaid man, in no way commending or approving what he imperfectly understood in relation to the observance of Easter; nay, very much disliking the same, as I have clearly shown in another book; but, like an impartial historian, simply relating what was done by or through him, and commending such things as are praiseworthy in his actions and preserving the memory thereof, for the benefit of my readers: namely, his love of peace and charity; his chastity and humility; his mind superior to anger and avarice, and despising pride and vain glory; his industry in keeping and teaching the heavenly commandments; his diligence in reading and watching; his authority becoming a priest in reproving the haughty and powerful, and, at the same time, his tenderness in comforting the afflicted and relieving and defending the poor. To say all, in a few words, as near as I could be, informed by those who knew him, he took care to omit none of all those things which he found enjoined in the apostolic or prophetic writings, but to the utmost of his power endeavoured to perform them all in his actions."

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