For many in that first century, there was no place more remote than Britain. It was, as G. K. Chesterton says in his Short History of England, “lost in a night of northern seas, and finally lit up by the long search-lights of Rome, more for pride than for possession.” In bringing Britain within the orbit of the Roman world, “it was felt that the remotest remnant of things had been touched.” Britain was indeed “ultimata Thule—the other end of nowhere,” the end of the earth.
Even here, in the other end of nowhere, God would leave witness of His love in the persons of His saints. And one of the first and most beloved of these saints was Aidan of Lindisfarne.
Aidan lived in the early days of the Church’s missionary expansion into Britain, when pagan kings still fought to exterminate Christianity and the soul of Britain hung in the balance of that struggle. In our day, when people are appreciating fantasy and fairy tales once again, it is interesting to reflect that in those far-off days Christian men were living out fairy tales, in that the Christian Faith looked to many like a dream come true. The epic struggle between light and darkness—the subject of so much modern fantasy—was the daily adventure for Christians in that time.
Aidan, born in Ireland in about the early seventh century, became a monk on the famous monastic island center in Hii (“Iona” in Latin), off the west coast of Scotland. Monks from Iona went out to bring the Gospel to the pagans of Northumbria (in northern England) at the invitation of Oswald, the king of Northumbria, himself newly converted to Christ.
One such monk made an attempt, but returned to Iona unsuccessful. He complained that the pagans of Northumbria were too resistant to the Gospel, too hard-hearted. As the monks were deliberating what to do next, Aidan spoke up. He said, to their surprise, that the fault was not with the pagans, but with the preacher sent to them, and that his methods were too rough and inflexible. The pagans must be treated with gentleness, fed with the milk of mild teaching and encouragement before they could be ready for the meat of the Gospel.
The monks there recognized a true pastor and evangelist when they saw one. They appointed Aidan to return to Northumbria in the stead of the other monk. As Aidan did not know the language of the Northumbrians, King Oswald traveled with him as his benefactor, translator, and friend. The year was 635.
Aidan received consecration as bishop so that he could better establish churches wherever he went. King Oswald gave him Lindisfarne, an island off the east coast of England (just south of today’s Scottish border), as his episcopal headquarters. As the early English historian the Venerable Bede says, “As the tide ebbs and flows, the island of Lindisfarne is surrounded by sea twice a day like an island, and twice a day the sand dries and joins it to the mainland.” It was the perfect place to find monastic solitude, being both accessible to the world and inaccessible too. On Lindisfarne, the monk-bishop Aidan could seek God in uninterrupted holy stillness, and then go forth easily on his missionary journeys. Eventually Aidan established on Lindisfarne a school for monastic missionaries, training young English boys to preach the Gospel to their countrymen in their own language.
Though traveling with the bounty of the king, Aidan humbly went on foot on his many long journeys in the north of England. He would not come in royal splendor, riding on his high horse (either metaphorically or literally). Rather, he met the people where they lived, both geographically and spiritually, and would walk the weary miles to meet them in their homes as an equal, a friend bringing Good News from afar.
Aidan lived a life rooted in the Scriptures, and he encouraged those traveling with him to spend their time reading the Scriptures and committing the Psalter to memory. He found his delight in God and would often slip away quickly after a meal to spend time in solitude, reading the Scriptures and praying. God prospered Aidan, and he had great success, making converts to Christ and establishing monastic centers throughout northern England.
One secret of Aidan’s success was the humble love and compassion he had for all people. He refused to acquire wealth, but gave away all that he could. If someone gave money to him or his monks, they used only what they needed for their necessities, and gave away the rest to the poor or used it to free slaves. St. Aidan’s heart belonged to the poor and suffering of the earth.
In 642, Aidan’s friend King Oswald died in battle in his thirty-eighth year. Aidan grieved greatly at the loss of his friend. However, King Oswin succeeded Oswald, and Aidan came to love him just as dearly.
Bede tells the story of how King Oswin gave Aidan a fine horse to ride whenever he had to cross a river or travel quickly on an urgent errand. Not long after receiving this bountiful royal gift, as Aidan was riding somewhere on the king’s horse, he met a poor man asking for alms. Bishop Aidan immediately sprang from the horse and ordered that it be sold with all its rich trappings, and the money given to the beggar.
When news of this reached the king, he was shocked and perhaps a little irritated. When next he and Aidan went in to dine together, King Oswin asked Aidan about it: “My lord bishop, why did you give away the royal horse which was necessary for your own use? Have we not many less valuable horses which would have been good enough for beggars without giving away the one which I had especially selected for your personal use?”
Aidan at once replied, “What are you saying, Your Majesty? Is this child of a mare more valuable to you than this child of God?”
The king, a man of piety himself, humbly received the gentle rebuke, turning it over in his mind as he stood warming himself by the fire. Pricked in his conscience, he impulsively went over and knelt at Aidan’s feet, saying, “I will not refer to this matter again, nor will I ask how much of our bounty you give away to God’s children.” Aidan, deeply moved, raised him to his feet, assuring him of his love and begging him to sit down to his food without regrets.
Later on, during the meal, Aidan grew sad and began to cry quietly. Speaking in his own language, which the king did not understand, Aidan’s chaplain asked his bishop why he wept. Aidan replied, “I know that the king will not live long. He will soon be taken from us, because this nation is not worthy of such a king.”
Aidan’s words proved to be prophetic. King Oswin was soon afterwards murdered by his rival and successor. Aidan departed this world a mere eleven days later, dying, some said, from grief over his beloved royal friend, on August 31, 651. He was buried in the cemetery at Lindisfarne.
Aidan was, even in his earthly life, a wonderworker. The faithful told stories of how he predicted a storm at sea, and gave the sailors who would be caught in it some holy oil to pour on the water and calm the storm. Others told the story of how his prayers shifted the winds, diverting the flames that threatened to burn down a city and so saving its inhabitants.
But the real wonders of Aidan were his loving simplicity of spirit and his ability to touch men’s hearts with the love of God. In little over sixteen years of missionary work, Aidan left as a legacy a northern England well on the way to becoming Christian. As the historian Bede said, “He cultivated peace and love, purity and humility. He took pains never to neglect anything that he had learned from the writing of the evangelists, apostles, and prophets, and set himself to carry them out with all his powers. I greatly admire and love all these things about Aidan, because I have no doubt that they are pleasing to God.”
Working in a time of great upheaval, violence, and uncertainty (a time rather like our own), Aidan spread God’s peace by word and deed. Truly, even in a land at the other end of nowhere, God is wonderful in His saints.