Saint Aidan1 of Lindisfarne, the Apostle of Northumbria (died 651), was an Irish monk who heeded King Oswald's call to revivify English Christianity. In his missionary labors, he founded a monastic cathedral on the island of Lindisfarne (England), served as its first bishop, and traveled ceaselessly throughout the countryside, spreading the gospel to both the Anglo-Saxon nobility and to the socially disenfranchised (including children and slaves). His influence was such that the Venerable Bede dedicates much of the third book of his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation to describing this gentle and charitable monk's exploits.
Bede's meticulous and detailed account of Saint Aidan's life provides the basis for most biographical sketches (both classical and modern). One notable lacuna, which (somewhat paradoxically) reinforces the notion of Bede's reliability, is that virtually nothing is known of the monk's early life, save that he was a monk at the ancient monastery on the island of Iona (Scotland) from a relatively young age and that he was of Irish descent.2 As a result, it is from these two scant details that the present exposition begins as well.
Though Bede's account of Aidan's life is certainly laudatory, it is notable that the venerable historian did criticize certain elements of his religious practice (such as his adherence to the Celtic reckoning of Easter). Despite this (or perhaps even because of it), he provides an eloquent summary of the life and impact of the saint:
I have written thus much concerning the person and works of the aforesaid Aidan, in no way commending or approving what he imperfectly understood in relation to the observance of Easter; nay, very much detesting the same, as I have most manifestly proved in the book I have written, "De Temporibus"; but, like an impartial historian, relating what was done by or with him, and commending such things as are praiseworthy in his actions, and preserving the memory thereof for the benefit of the readers; viz. his love of peace and charity; his continence and humility; his mind superior to anger and avarice, and despising pride and vainglory; 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 or defending the poor. To say all in a few words, as near as I could be informed by those that knew him, he took care to omit none of those things which he found in the apostolical or prophetical writings, but to the utmost of his power endeavored to perform them all.3
In the years prior to Aidan's mission, Christianity, which had been propagated throughout the British Isles by the Roman Empire, was being largely displaced by paganism. Though it seemed a forgone conclusion that the region was returning to its indigenous religion, bastions of Christian thought continued to thrive in Ireland and Scotland. In one of these, the monastery of Iona (founded by Saint Columba), the religion soon found one of its principal exponents in Oswald of Northumbria, a noble youth who had been raised there as a king in exile since 616 C.E. Divested of his earlier beliefs and baptized as a Christian, the young king vowed to bring Christianity back to his people-an opportunity that presented itself in 634, when he gained the crown of Northumbria.4
Owing to his historical connection to Iona's monastic community, King Oswald requested that missionaries be sent from that monastery instead of the Roman-sponsored monasteries of Southern England. At first, they sent him a bishop named Corman, but he returned in abject failure to Iona and reported that the Northumbrians were too stubborn to be converted. Aidan criticized Corman's methods and was soon sent as his replacement in 635.5
The Misson of Saint Aidan
Allying himself with the pious king, Aidan chose the island of Lindisfarne, which was close to the royal castle at Bamburgh, as the seat of his diocese. An inspired missionary, Aidan would walk from one village to another, politely conversing with the people he saw and slowly interesting them in Christianity: in this, he followed the early apostolic model of conversion, by offering "them first the milk of gentle doctrine, to bring them by degrees, while nourishing them with the Divine Word, to the true understanding and practice of the more advanced precepts."6 By patiently talking to the people on their own level (and by taking an active interest in their lives and communities), Aidan and his monks slowly restored Christianity to the Northumbrian countryside. During the early years of their missionizing, King Oswald, who had learned Irish during his exile, often had to translate for Aidan and his monks, who initially lacked a facility for the English tongue.7
In his years of proselytizing, Saint Aidan was responsible for the construction of churches, monasteries and schools throughout Northumbria. At the same time, he earned a tremendous reputation for his pious charity and dedication to the less fortunate-such as his tendency to provide room, board and education to orphans, and his use of contributions to pay for the freedom of slaves:He was wont to traverse both town and country on foot, never on horseback, unless compelled by some urgent necessity; and wherever in his way he saw any, either rich or poor, he invited them, if infidels, to embrace the mystery of the faith or if they were believers, to strengthen them in the faith, and to stir them up by words and actions to alms and good works.… This the reading of scriptures and psalms, and meditation upon holy truths was the daily employment of himself and all that were with him, wheresoever they went; and if it happened, which was but seldom, that he was invited to eat with the king, he went with one or two clerks, and having taken a small repast, made haste to be gone with them, either to read or write. At that time, many religious men and women, stirred up by his example, adopted the custom of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, till the ninth hour, throughout the year, except during the fifty days after Easter. He never gave money to the powerful men of the world, but only meat, if he happened to entertain them; and, on the contrary, whatsoever gifts of money he received from the rich, he either distributed them, as has been said, to the use of the poor, or bestowed them in ransoming such as had been wrong. fully sold for slaves. Moreover, he afterwards made many of those he had ransomed his disciples, and after having taught and instructed them, advanced them to the order of priesthood.8
The monastery he founded grew and helped found churches and other religious institutions throughout the area. It also served as center of learning and a storehouse of scholarly knowledge, training many of Aidan's young charges for a career in the priesthood. Though Aidan was a member of the Irish branch of Christianity (instead of the Roman branch), his character and energy in missionary work won him the respect of Pope Honorius I and Felix of Dunwich.
When King Oswald died in 642, Aidan continued to receive support from King Oswine of Deira and the two became close friends. As such, the monk's ministry continued relatively unchanged until the rise of pagan hostilities in 651. At that time, a pagan army attacked Bamburgh and attempted to set its walls ablaze. According to legend, Aidan saw the black smoke from his cell at Lindisfarne Abbey, immediately recognized its cause, and knelt in prayer for the fate of the city. Miraculously, the winds abruptly reversed their course, blowing the conflagration towards the enemy, which convinced them that the capital city was defended by potent spiritual forces.9 Around this time, Aidan's friend (and the local monarch) Oswine of Deira was betrayed and murdered. Twelve days later Aidan died, on August 31, in the seventeenth year of his episcopate.10 He had become ill while on one of his incessant missionary tours, and died leaning against the wall of the local church. As Baring-Gould poetically summarizes: "It was a death which became a soldier of the faith on his own fit field of battle."11
Legacy and Veneration
After his death, Saint Aidan's body was inhumed at Lindisfarne, beneath the abbey that he had helped found. Not long after, some of the saint's relics were also transported to Ireland by Bishop Colman.12 Though his popularity waned in the coming years, "in the 10th century Glastonbury monks obtained some supposed relics of Aidan; through their influence Aidan's feast appears in the early Wessex calendars, which provide the main evidence for his cult after the age of Bede."13 His feast is celebrated on the 31st of August, on the anniversary of his death.
Today, Aidan's significance is still recognized in the following saying by Bishop Lightfoot:"Augustine was the Apostle of Kent, but Aidan was the Apostle of the English." - Bishop Lightfoot
- ↑ Aidan is the anglicized form of the original Old Irish Áedán.
- ↑ See Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (Book III) Medieval Sourcebook; David Hugh Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 8.
- ↑ Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (Book III: Chapter XVII).
- ↑ Baring-Gould, 63-70; Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (Book III).Retrieved January 18, 2008.
- ↑ F. Maurice Powicke and E. B. Fryde. Handbook of British Chronology, (2nd Edition). (London: Royal Historical Society, 1961), 237
- ↑ Baring-Gould, 392.
- ↑ Christina Hole. Saints in Folklore. (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1966), 110-111; Butler, 398.
- ↑ As described in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (Book III: Chapter V); Butler, 406-407.
- ↑ Baring-Gould, 399; Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (Book III: Chapter XVI).
- ↑ Powicke, 237
- ↑ Baring-Gould, 399.
- ↑ David Hugh Farmer. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 9.
- ↑ Ibid.
- Attwater, Donald and Catherine Rachel John. The Penguin Dictionary of Saints, 3rd edition. New York: Penguin Books, 1993. ISBN 0140513124.
- Baring-Gould, S. (Sabine). The Lives of the Saints. With introduction and additional Lives of English martyrs, Cornish, Scottish, and Welsh saints, and a full index to the entire work. Edinburgh: J. Grant, 1914. 1. Retrieved January 18, 2008.
- The Venerable Bede. The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, Translated by L.C. Jane. London: J.M. Dent; New York E.P. Dutton, 1910. Accessed online at: Fordham University's Medieval Sourcebook.
- Butler, Alban. Lives of the Saints, Edited, revised, and supplemented by Herbert Thurston and Donald Attwater. Palm Publishers, 1956.
- Farmer, David Hugh. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. ISBN 0192800582.
- Grattan-Flood, W.H., "Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne" in The Catholic Encyclopedia. 1909.
- Hole, Christina. Saints in Folklore. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1966.
- Powicke, F. Maurice and E. B. Fryde. Handbook of British Chronology, (2nd Edition). London: Royal Historical Society, 1961.