St Aidan, born in Connaught Ireland, was a monk at the monastery on the island of Iona in Scotland. According to tradition his birth had been heralded by signs and omens, and he showed evidence of high intelligence and sincere devotion even as a small child.
During the days of the Roman Empire the Christian faith had spread into England, but due to the Empire’s decline, there was a growing resurgence of paganism, especially in the north. Oswald of Northumbria had been living at the Iona monastery as a king in exile since 616 AD and was converted to Christianity. In 634 he gained the crown of Northumbria, and was determined to bring the Christian faith to his mostly pagan people.
Due to his experience of Iona, he sought missionaries from there. At first the monastery sent a new bishop named Corman, but he returned to Iona, saying that the Northumbrians were too stubborn to be converted. Aidan criticised Corman’s methods, and was sent as a replacement in 635.
Aidan chose the island of Lindisfarne, close to the royal castle at Bamburgh, as his headquarters. King Oswald, who spoke Irish Gaelic, often had to translate for Aidan and his monks, who did not speak English at first. When Oswald died in 642, Aidan received continued support from King Oswin of Deira, and the two became close friends.
An inspired missionary, St Aidan would walk from one village to another, chatting with the people he saw, slowly interesting them in the Gospel. According to legend, the king gave Aidan a horse so that he wouldn’t have to walk, but Aidan gave the horse to a beggar. By getting to know the people personally, and making them feel loved, Aidan and his monks slowly restored the Christian faith to the Northumbrian communities. Aidan also took in twelve English boys to train at the monastery, to ensure that the area’s future ministry and leadership would be English.
In 651 a pagan army attacked Bamburgh and attempted to set its walls ablaze. According to legend, Aidan prayed for the city, after which the winds turned and blew the smoke and fire toward the enemy, making it impossible for their attack to continue.
Oswin of Deira was murdered in 651. Twelve days later Aidan died, on August 31, in the 17th year of his episcopate. He had become ill while at the Bamburgh castle, and died leaning against the wall of the local church.
St Aidan’s expression of the Faith owed more to the the flavour and style of his native Celtic tradition than the contemporary Roman influence growing in the south of England. But his outstanding character, his Gospel teaching and his missionary zeal won for him the respect of Popes Honorius I and Felix I.
The monastery he founded grew and itself helped to found churches and other monasteries in the north. It also became a center of learning and a storehouse of scholarly knowledge. The Venerable Bede would later write Aidan’s hagiography and describe the miracles attributed to him.
Here is a well known prayer of St Aidan:
Leave me alone with God as much as may be.
As the tide draws the waters close in upon the shore,
Make me an island, set apart,
alone with you, God, holy to you.
Then with the turning of the tide
prepare me to carry your presence to the busy world beyond,
the world that rushes in on me
till the waters come again and fold me back to you.
O loving God, who called your servant Aidan from the peace of a Cloister to re-establish the Christian mission in northern England, and gave him the gifts of gentleness, simplicity, and strength: Grant that we, following his example, may use what you have given us for the relief of human need, and may persevere in commending the saving Gospel of our Redeemer Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
The sun rising over the path to Holy Island, Lindisfarne
St Aidan walked from Lindisfarne to Northumbria when the retreating tide opened a path to the shore.
Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, is off the coast of Northumbria. As “the tide ebbs and flows,” Bede wrote, “the place is surrounded twice daily by the waves of the sea.” When the tide ebbed, a path of wet sand appeared, a pilgrim’s track that Aidan walked to the mainland, and visitors walked to the island. When the tide flowed back, the path disappeared. Seals swam in the breakers.
Three miles long and one mile wide, off the east coast of Britain, the island was close to Oswald’s court, yet remote. The monastic community was protected by the king, but independent of his politics. In the island’s peace they could practice the contemplative prayer of love that Jesus had practiced in rowboats and on top of mountains. On the windy island they built huts, an oratory, and a hall to teach students to read and write Latin, the language in which their books were written. Hand-bells rang through the roar of the surf.
Retreat though it was, the island was also a place to leave, as St Aidan did many times, in order to reach the people with the love of Christ.