St. Aidan of Lindisfarne: A Patron for Our Times
Studying the lives of the saints provides us with models of faith and examples of virtue. In the case of St. Aidan, we get those items as well as a saint that can help us relate to the modern age. That’s no small feat for a man who died August 31, 651 A.D. At the same time, it’s not surprising. Our brothers and sisters in the heavenly cloud of witnesses (see Hebrews 12:1) never lose their relevance in the order of grace.
St. Aidan’s Life In Brief
St. Columba (Columcille in Gaelic) arrived on the small island in Iona in 563 A.D. to establish a monastery. The community served as a hub of missionary activity that covered Scotland, Ireland, and England. The famous Book of Kells—Kells being one of the daughter houses of the Iona monastery—came from the monks of Iona. It was this community that the Irish-born St. Aidan (Aodhán in Gaelic) joined. From 635 until his death in 651, St. Aidan was bishop of Lindisfarne, a small island off the coast of Northumbria in northeast England.
We do not know about Aidan’s pre-monastic life. Thanks to the Venerable St. Bede, many of the details we have of St. Aidan’s life are recorded in the Ecclesiastical History of England. St. Bede related how Aidan came to possess the bishopric. It has a touch of humor, especially for anyone who has spoken up at a meeting and suddenly found themselves with a large to do list.
After a fellow monk from Iona had zero success in evangelizing the Scots, Aidan offered constructive criticism: “Methinks, brother, that you were more severe to your unlearned hearers than you ought to have been, and did not at first, conformably to the Apostolic rule, give them the milk of more easy doctrine, till, being by degrees nourished with the Word of God, they should be capable of receiving that which is more perfect and of performing the higher precepts of God” (Book 3, ch. 5). Everyone at the council saw the wisdom in Aidan’s comment, turned toward him, and decided he was the man for the job. He was consecrated bishop and chose Lindisfarne as his see. He founded a monastery there that produced the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels in the early 8th century A.D.
The Cultural Situation St. Aidan Walked Into
One of the misconceptions that we easily fall into is that the saints had it easy. If I was holy like St. so-and-so, faith would be easy! If I had this or that charism, all the fallen away Catholics in my family would instantly go to confession. It’s a trap of the evil one, and what a clever trap it is. No saint—or disciple—ever has it easy. Once we start comparing ourselves to an imaginary, flawless saint, it always ends in disappointment.
St. Aidan’s personal gifts from God were a tremendous asset but like the rest of us, he did not have it easy. Religious practice in Northumbria was an odd mix of divergent beliefs. The native Anglo-Saxons themselves had a lot of diversity of pagan elements. Thrown into that mix was the paganism of the invading Romans. On top of that, Christianity had been present since the 3rd century. Yet this was the era of heresies: alongside the true faith were Arianism and Pelagianism. It was a time of spiritual obscurity; was it any wonder that Aidan’s predecessor found the inhabitants of Northumbria “intractable men… of a stubborn and barbarous disposition” (Book 3, ch. 5)?
Into this tossed salad of religious practices came Aidan. The religious chaos somewhat parallels our own day. The dominant spirit of relativism renders belief meaningless. Agnostics and atheists do not worship false pagan gods as in Aidan’s day, but their rejection of the truth mirrors that of the 7th century pagans.
This is where the story of St. Aidan becomes a great model for us in the 21st century, post-Christian West. He faced analogous problems back then. How did he respond? The virtues listed below transcend culture, centuries, and continents. If St. Aidan were a bishop today, these things would serve him just as well as they did 1,400 years ago.
Priority of Prayer
First, Aidan was a man of prayer. St. Bede almost casually remarked that when Aidan had business in the royal city of Bamborough, he retired to the nearby Isle of Farne. “He was wont often to retire to pray in solitude and silence” (Book 3, Ch. 16). Monks have prayer, holy reading, and contemplation in their job description and thus have more latitude for those things than the average non-monk. Still, this shows us the importance of mental prayer itself and the priority it should have in our lives.
Mental prayer is where we build the kind of relationship with Christ that gives us the ability to become saints. It is the fuel that keeps our faith going Dan Burke has an excellent series on mental prayer called “Into the Deep.” It shows that mental prayer can be practiced by anyone. The series has teaching on prayer as well as practical tips to make mental prayer part of daily life.
God hears us (1 John 5:15) and Jesus having opened the gates of heaven we can confidently draw near to the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16). In prayer we can abide in the love of the Holy Trinity as to bear much fruit (John 15:5). We can always pray (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and by doing so, we draw near to the Lord who is faithful. He will strengthen us and guard us from evil in our day (2 Thessalonians 3:3). Jesus wishes for His joy to be in us, and for our joy to be full (John 15:11). And Jesus waits for us, let us go to Him!
Being Able to Talk About Jesus to Anyone
All travel in the 6th century was either by horse or by foot. Unless pressed by an urgent matter, Aidan traveled exclusively by foot. King Oswin gave Aidan a beautiful horse—both a practical and affectionate gift. Crossing rivers or traveling with the aforesaid urgency is far easier on a horse. Yet when Aidan encountered a poor man on the road, the bishop immediately dismounted and gave him the royal horse. When word got back to the king, he was shocked (and probably a bit miffed). “What do you say, O king? Is that son of a mare more dear to you than that son of God?” At this the king was taken aback; he humbly saw the wisdom of Aidan and resolved never to question the bishop’s charity. (Book 3, ch. 14)
The reason why Aidan did not travel by horse was to facilitate his most effective evangelization strategy: he talked to people on the road. He would “turn aside to any whomsoever he saw, whether rich or poor, and call upon them, if infidels, to receive the mystery of the faith, or if they were believers, strengthen them in the faith and stir them up by words and actions of giving of alms and the performance of good works” (Book 3, ch. 5). And I think it is important to note, Aidan certainly met with some amount of failure. His willingness to talk about Our Lord did not guarantee that those he encountered would want to talk or listen.
The Key to an Authentic Witness
“It was the highest commendation of his doctrine with all men, that he taught nothing that he did not practice in his life among his brethren” (Book 3, ch. 5). How many times did Jesus exhort His listeners to attend to their heart? That is, not to make a mere exterior practice of religion. What good does that do?
We know this in our present day in both the positive and negative senses. We can usually smell a fraud a mile away. Would an angry, tyrannical priest lead many people to Christ? Conversely, St. Teresa of Calcutta’s tremendous holiness and charity made her known throughout the world. Countless other saints fall in St. Teresa’s category. Even the most well-crafted homily or pastoral initiative often pales in comparison to the disciple who lives Christ-like charity.
Just like the other virtues of St. Aidan, this is one over which he would never claim sole ownership. Being an authentic witness is difficult, but very attainable with grace. We do not have to be perfected to be a witness for Christ!
St. Aidan of Lindisfarne helped resurrect the Christian faith in a society that had gone astray. He is a great patron for our present day. Let us follow his example in prayer, evangelization, and practice. St. Aidan, pray for us!