Celts to the Creche: Day 1
St. Aidan of Lindisfarne
died August 31, 651 AD
On this 1st day of Advent, let us begin this Celts to the Creche pilgrimage with Aidan. He who was a Celtic monk/bishop from the great Irish monastic foundation on the Isle of Iona off the western shore of Scotland. He established a famous Celtic-style monastery on the beautiful and sacred isle of Lindisfarne in an area of northeastern England known as Northumbria. From Lindisfarne, Aidan was able to evangelize and share the Good News of God’s love through Jesus the Christ that shone as a beacon of light throughout England. Bishop Aidan became known as the “Apostle to the English.”
Monk/Bishop sent from Iona. Oswald, the future king of Northumbria and his other prince brothers had been raised in exile among the Gaels of the Dal Riata. It is likely that Oswald had visited the great Irish, Celtic abbey of Iona, perhaps even living there. Iona is a tiny island off the western coast of Scotland founded by St. Columba (see Day 4 of Celts to the Creche).
In 634, Oswald returned from exile and became King of Northumbria. He immediately sent for help from Iona to convert his pagan kingdom. The monk Corman was sent from Iona to convince the Northumbrians to follow Christ. It quickly came to light that Corman obviously wasn’t the right person for this daunting task. He didn’t last too long as he described the Anglo-Saxons as too obstinate and intractable. He returned to Iona and Aidan heard Corman tell his story of woe.
Aidan bravely told Corman that he had been unreasonably harsh with his unlearned listeners. Then with even more courage, Aidan explained to Corman that he should have allowed the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria to be fed the milk of the word like babies and not expect them to eat the meat of solid doctrine.
Aidan to Lindisfarne. The Spirit works in interesting ways! Aidan in about 635 took Corman’s place and began setting up his monastery on Lindisfarne (known also as Holy Island), an island that is cut off twice a day by the water. Lindisfarne was far enough away for some quietness and solitiude, but yet close to the king’s palace at Bamburgh. Yet, Aidan had a problem communicating with the Northumbrians as Irish Aidan could not speak the British tongue. The problem was solved when King Oswald who was fluent not only in the British tongue, but also in Gaelic that he had learned from his childhood years of exile among the Irish, was able to translate for Aidan as he preached the milk of the gospel to the people in the area.
Aidan’s Influence. Aidan’s monastery on Lindisfarne flourished and many more monks came from Iona to help him set up churches and to evangelize northern Britain. Aidan not only set up churches, but he also recognized the giftedness of Hilda (see Day 2 of Celts to the Creche) and enlisted and entrusted her to set up double monasteries (where monks and nuns both lived and worshipped, ruled over by an Abbess) in Northumbria. Aidan was considered to be a man of deep faith, prayer, and simplicity whom the Northumbrians trusted to follow his teachings.
Aidan’s Gifts. Sadly, Aidan’s dear friend King Oswald was killed by King Penda of Mercia in battle in 642 and Oswin became king. Aidan and the new King Oswin also had a good relationship. There is a story that King Oswin gave peripatetic Aidan, a horse to help him over difficult terrain in his evangelistic work. Aidan then in turn gave the horse to a beggar asking for alms. When Oswin heard of this, he was furious that Aidan had given his gift away to a beggar. Aidan replied: “Is the son of a mare more precious to the king than a son of God?”
Aidan was also known for fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays and when a feast was set before him, he often gave it to the hungry. The gifts he received were given to the poor or used to buy freedom for slaves, some of who became monks at Lindisfarne. During Lent each year, Aidan would retire to the small island of Farne off of Lindisfarne for prayer, penance, and solitude.
Aidan’s Resurrection Day. After serving sixteen years working for the conversion of Northumbria to Christianity, Aidan was heartbroken when King Oswin was killed by his cousin Oswy (Oswiu), King of Bernicia in 651. Aidan died less than two weeks later on the last day of August in a shelter he had erected against the buttress of his church at Bamburgh. Some of Aidan’s bones were later taken to Ireland with Bishop Colman when he left Lindisfarne after his bitter disappointment when the Celtic way of life lost out to the Roman Catholic way at the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD.
Through Aidan’s service to God, Lindisfarne became not only a community of monks, but also a center for the spiritual life of Northumbria. The magnificently beautiful Lindisfarne Gospels was produced at the scriptorium at Lindisfarne after Aidan’s tenure about 715 AD, but the Irish/Celtic influence he brought to Lindisfarne was a precursor to this treasure. We mainly know about St. Aidan from The Venerable Bede’s biography of St. Aidan that he included in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
Aidan Still Touches Our Lives Today: In the 21st century, the international ecumenical and dispersed Community of Aidan and Hilda is headquartered on Lindisfarne that honors the memory of these two great early Celtic leaders. Ray Simpson, a Celtic author and speaker is the founder of this community.
People from all over the world pilgrimage to Lindisfarne. This isle is only accessible twice a day when the tide is out. The tide can come in quickly and pilgrims must be able to get across the mudflats in a timely manner.
One can also drive over a narrow road with little shacks on stilts in case the tide begins to come in too quickly.
In June of 2017, the stone foundations of a church were discovered by archaeologists on a rocky promontory on Lindisfarne. This foundation is likely resting on the original foundation of either Aidan’s or Cuthbert’s wooden church.
Feast Day is August 31
Basil Hume was the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and a monk at Ampleforth Abbey. In his book, Footprints of the Northern Saints, he refers to the lives of Paulinus, an earlier monk who evangelized Northumbria and also of Aidan: “There was such a continuity between what they believed and what they preached, and between what they preached and what they lived, that people immediately saw and felt the living presence of God in their midst.”
St. Francis said something very similar, “preach the gospel at all times and use words if necessary.” Even though St. Aidan struggled with the language of the Northumbrians, the Anglo-Saxons saw Aidan’s life of simplicity, good works, and faith in God and they knew that they could trust what this man was telling them about God’s love and care.
May we daily “walk the talk.” As a pastor, I often have to ask myself, “am I walking the talk or am I a fraud, am I bearing Christ or being a stumbling block, is my life a sermon or a script?” At the end of each worship service, I say these words, “And remember you may be the only Jesus someone sees this week, so make sure they get the right impression.”
St. Aidan was authentic and humble. His life spoke volumes concerning God’s character and love. He had a pastor’s heart in that he knew how to nurture people in their trust of God instead of banging it over their heads. Aidan must have been a very special person of integrity and trust for St. Hilda to change her plans from joining her sister in France as a nun to following his request to stay in Northumbria and to help him convert her people to Christ.
Prayer: O God, Three in One, help us to be people of authenticity and compassion, people who walk the talk, people whose lives are a sermon. Help us sense the encircling and empowering presence of the Spirit and the great Communion of Saints as we begin this Celts to the Creche pilgrimage towards Bethlehem, that place where Christ is born anew in our lives this sacred season. Amen.
A Few References:
“Aidan” by Richard Sharpe. The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Lapidge, Blair, Keynes, Scragg, eds. Oxford, Blackwell, 1999.
Bede, The Venerable. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. iii.
Blair, John. The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005.
British Library. Lindisfarne Gospels. Turning the Pages. (great digital version of the Lindisfarne Gospels).
Brown, Michelle P. How Christianity Came to Britain and Ireland. Lion, Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2006.
_____________. The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality, & the Scribe. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2003.
Dales, Douglas. Light to the Isles: Mission and Theology in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Britain. Cambridge, James Clarke & Co., 1997.
Earle, Mary C. and Sylvia Maddox. Holy Companions: Spiritual Practices from the Celtic Saints. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2004.
Foot, Sarah. Monastic Life in Anglo-Saxon England, c.600-900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Higham, Nicholas J. and Martin J. Ryan. The Anglo-Saxon World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.
The Holy Island of Lindisfarne. http://www.lindisfarne.org.uk
Hume, Basil. Footprints of the Northern Saints. London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1996, 2006 reprint.
Jones, Andrew. Every Pilgrim’s Guide to Celtic Britain and Ireland. Ligouri, Missouri: Ligouri Publications, 2002.
Jones, Kathleen. Who are the Celtic Saints? Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2002.
Leyser, Henrietta. Beda: A Journey Through the Seven Kingdoms in the Age of Bede. London: Head of Zeus, 2015.
Keys, David. Archaeologists’ Dig Reveals Ancient Lindisfarne Church. Church Times, July 7, 2017.
McDonald, Iain, ed. Saints of Northumbria. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1997.
Mayr-Harting, Henry. The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 1991, 3rd ed.
Rees, Elizabeth. An Essential Guide to Celtic Sites and Their Saints. London: Burns & Oates, 2003.
___________. Celtic Saints in Their Landscape. Stroud, UK: Amberley Publishing, 2011.
___________. Celtic Saints: Passionate Wanderers. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000.
Rollason, David. Early Medieval Europe 300-1050. Harlow, UK: Pearson, 2012.
Sawyers, June Skinner. Praying with Celtic Saints, Prophets, Martyrs, and Poets. Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2001.
Sellner, Edward C. Wisdom of the Celtic Saints, rev. and expanded. St. Paul, MN: Bog Walk Press, 2006.
Surtees Society. Vol. 8. Vita Oswinus, Rex Northumbriæ. Available at archives.com
Tristram, Kate. Aidan of Lindisfarne. www.lindisfarne.org.uk/general/aidan.htm
__________. The Story of Holy Island: An illustrated history. Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2009.
Wallace, Martin. Celtic Saints. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1995.
Warren, Brenda G. Celtic Hospitality and Welcome. Godspacelight.com
Woods, Richard J. The Spirituality of the Celtic Saints. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000.
Yorke, Barbara. Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England. London: Routledge, 1990, 1992 reprint.