St Aidan of
Lindisfarne 1 Cor 9:16-19; John 13:16-20
Just off the north east coast of England lies a large tidal island which
is cut off by the sea twice a day. A road runs across the causeway and
residents and visitors are able to cross between the island and the mainland
safely at low tide. At one end there is the remains of a small castle
on a pyramid-shaped hill. A village surrounds a parish church and apart
from that there is only rough grass, some small fields, and a great deal
of wildlife, mainly birds. Perhaps you have visited or seen Lindisfarne
also known as Holy Island. It is a popular destination for both tourists
and pilgrims. Today we commemorate one of its earliest inhabitants who
chose it on purpose, and made it a base which had far-reaching consequences:
St Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne, d. 651.
To appreciate Aidan it helps to know something of his life and times.
These isles were a very different place 1400 years ago. The Romans had
withdrawn sometime in the 4th C. leaving a number of different peoples
to take over. The isles, including the area we now know as England, were
wild, densely forested and populated by Angles, the original British,
the Irish, and Saxons. There were a number of smaller kingdoms and tribal
areas and there was often warfare, conflict and shifting alliances. These
times, known as the early middle ages, were brutal and difficult. To survive
you had to be a warrior.
Oswald took the kingdom of Northumbria in battle and soon after requested
the Irish monks at Iona to send a Christian mission to his people. Oswald
himself had been in exile as a child and was educated and influenced by
the monks on Iona. When Oswald became king of Northumbria, he established
his base at Bamburgh on the coast, and wanted his people to live as peaceable
Church, the kind of Christian culture in which Aidan grew up was different
from the Roman style of Christianity which Augustine brought to Kent.
Eventually the two traditions clashed and the Roman one was adopted at
the Synod of Whitby in 664, but Celtic spirituality has enjoyed something
of a revival in recent times. It’s popular for various reasons.
An interest in Celtic literature was cultivated by some Victorians who
had a romantic idea of life in the more remote times and parts of our
isles. More recently David Adam, amongst others, has composed simple prayers
and written extensively about Aidan, Cuthbert and the Celtic church. There
is also a desire amongst some English Christians to rediscover an “original”
spirituality of our land. A more profound reason why this kind of spirituality
appeals is that it links prayer and belief with concern and reverence
for creation. The Iona liturgy that we use as part of our worship here
has its roots in this kind of spirituality.
So what can we learn of and from Aidan? His name means “little fire”
or “flame” and this means both that a passion burned in his
heart and that light shines from his life in dark times. The collect of
St Aidan speaks of his simplicity, humility and love for the poor. I would
like to take each of those in turn as a way of thinking further about
this saint and missionary who brought the life and light of the gospel
to our land.
a monk, perhaps not of the kind we might readily imagine living a cloistered
life in a large establishment with the sounds of chanting drifting around
a large abbey. That kind of monastic life came much later. But Aidan lived
as simply as he could with his community. They lived in groups of small,
primitive buildings, leading a common life. They were dedicated to prayer,
work to support their life and education. They went on preaching tours
around the country, returning to their community perhaps with boys who
were brought for schooling. Life could be quite harsh, but they thought
of the bleak seascape being like Jesus in the wilderness. They lived close
to the land and this is very much a theme of celtic spirituality –
rejoicing in creation. Aidan accepted the fact that he was a creature
and in that there is much simplicity.
You may wonder
why Lindisfarne was chosen as a suitable place to establish a community
of monks. Aidan saw that it combined two important things: on the one
hand he was near enough to Bamburgh castle where the king held court.
Oswald had invited the monks at Iona to send missionaries and so he valued
their advice. Lindisfarne allowed Aidan to get to the king quickly if
necessary. But Lindisfarne, being a tidal island was also cut off by the
tides twice a day. That provided enough distance for the monks not to
get caught up in the king’s affairs completely, but to maintain
their spiritual integrity. They were to be in the world but not of it.
This balance is also reflected in the way Aidan treated people: all were
treated equally whether rich or poor, of high status or low. Aidan was
simple in his dealings with people. I think we can learn from this simplicity.
We are not all called to be monks or nuns, but to accept our creatureliness
is important as well as living as simply as possible. To treat all people
with equal respect and not to let wealth or status influence us is also
important as we try to follow Christ. This is what lay behind Paul writing
to his Corinthian friends and saying that he strove to offer the gospel
freely to all, regardless of who they were or what he might get out of
it in order to attract as many as possible to Christ.
Today’s gospel reading is some of the words Jesus spoke to his disciples
after he washed their feet in the upper room. He said that he was sending
them out as servant and messengers of God just as he had demonstrated
his service of them in the name of God. Those who accepted the messenger
also accept the one who sent them. St Aidan was sent to serve Oswald’s
people and to be a messenger of the good news. One of Aidan’s methods
was to travel on foot rather than on horseback. The rich or powerful went
on horseback. But that meant the rider was always above anyone on foot.
Aidan could have used a horse, but he preferred to meet ordinary people
on their own level – to speak to them as and where they were. I
think that is a challenge for us. We often want to be in control and to
expect people to adapt to our way. We expect people to come into church
and fit in with us. But our society is full of many who have never been
in church. We need to find ways of meeting people where they actually
are, meeting them on their own level, in order to bring Christ to them.
Aidan went about Oswald’s kingdom from village to settlement not
only preaching but also healing and doing good. He would often use money
given to him to ransom slaves. He gave away anything given to him, sometimes
to the frustration of his benefactors! He was not afraid to speak out
and challenge the wrong-doing of wealthy or powerful men. In these ways
he demonstrated his love for the poor. This is such a challenge to us
with our relative wealth and our tendency to acquire. We are not necessarily
called to exercise poverty, as are monks and nuns, but we are called to
love the poor and for that love to be shown in our actions. There are
many ways in which the world wide Church seeks to alleviate poverty and
stand up to unjust structures. Our love for the poor can be demonstrated
both in private charity (say supporting Christian Aid or World Vision)
and also in supporting initiatives by organisations to bring about greater
economic equality in our world.
Aidan sought to serve Christ in leaving what was familiar and becoming
a messenger of the gospel to Northumbria. He would not want us to be followers
of Aidan. Rather he would want us to follow Christ’s example which
was simplicity, humility and loving service of the poor. The flame and
light of faith that was Aidan’s can also be ours through the grace
of God and the indwelling of the Spirit in our lives.
© Rev Paul Smith