Friday, 29 January 2010

This Little I Know About... St Aidan.

Another Saint whose story begins with a battle.

In 616 King Æthelfrith of Bernicia (roughly south eastern Scotland and north eastern England – but you can look it up on wikipedia for yourself) was defeated by King Rædwald of the East Angles. The sons of King Æthelfrith (Eanfrith, Oswald and Oswiu) fled to Dál Riata and ended up being educated at the monastery on Iona.

Oswald returned from exile and regained the throne in 634, at the battle of Heavenfield. The night before the battle he is said to have had a vision of that redoubtable warrior-saint, Columba, urging him on to victory.

Oswald’s experiences on Iona had clearly made a deep impression on him, because one of the first things he did on regaining the throne, was to request that the Abbot send some brothers to found a monastery near his stronghold at Bamburgh. The first mission to Northumbria was not a rip-roaring success; the brother who had been sent, returned with the report that the people were ‘intractable, obstinate and uncivilized’.

As the monks of Iona absorbed this gloomy news of failure, St Aidan stepped out of history’s shadows. He responded to the unsuccessful evangelist, with the words: 'It seems to me, brother, that you have been unreasonably harsh upon your ignorant hearers: you did not first offer them the milk of simpler teaching, as the apostle recommends, until little by little, as they grew strong on the food of God's word, they were capable of receiving more elaborate instruction and of carrying out the more transcendent commandments of God.'

To speak up in a committee meeting when volunteers are being looked for is to commit a schoolboy error: naturally, the rest of the monks welcomed St Aidan’s insights, and packed him off to King Oswald. Although he didn’t even speak the language of the people he was going to, and the King often acted as his interpreter, Aidan’s mission was a great success, and he founded a monastery on Lindisfarne, another holy island on a far coast.

I find it sad that we know so little about Aidan, because the journey which I’ll be making from Iona to Lindisfarne was his journey. Both Columba and Cuthbert had their biographies written by near contemporaries, and a wealth of stories and traditions have grown up around them, but about St Aidan we know so very little.

Personally, I find him the most likeable of our triumvirate of Celtic Saints – the fierceness of Columba’s anger, and the stringency of Cuthbert’s asceticism, make them both the sort of characters that you would only want to emulate up to a point. In the glimpses we have of St Aidan I see something of that simple human warmth and unhurried kindness which we call ‘holiness’, and I think to myself, ‘That would be a good way to live’.

‘St Aidan used to travel everywhere, in town and country, not on horseback but on foot… in order that, as he walked along, whenever he saw people whether rich or poor, he might at once approach them and… invite them to accept the mystery of faith…’

Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

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