In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. God is one. Amen.
This morning we celebrate the feast of our patron, St Aidan of Lindisfarne. He was an Irish monk in the 7th century, living and working and praying on the Scottish island of Iona. He was happy and peaceful there, seeking to be at one with the Lord, not seeking advancement, not seeking fame. An important trait of his personality and his prayer life was discernment—that is the ability to have and show good judgment, good awareness of how to tackle the challenges of life, good awareness of the will of God for his own life.
Certainly, the seventh century was a challenge for new Christians in these isles. Numerous pagan kings were seeking to undermine and destroy Christianity at that time. Surprisingly, the seventh century was disturbingly similar to our own twenty-first century when many leaders still seek to ignore or prevent the growth of Christianity or even to destroy it. How can we face and overcome these increasing attacks on the message of Christ and on Christians today? What guidance does St Aidan offer us about how to live today?
About 655, the King of Northumbria, St Oswald, asked the monks of Iona to send one of their monks to Northumbria to preach to the Saxons. The first monk who was sent couldn’t cope with the many pagans who surrounded him. He saw situations as “either-or”—either you were a Christian or you were a pagan—and he did not appreciate the need to move slowly in seeking such an important change in people’s lives. The Synaxarion: The Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church [August 30, Vol. 6, p. 677-679] notes that when the community of monks gathered to consider what to do next, it was Aidan who pointed out that “it would not be right to impose at first all the [challenges] of … the Gospel on these pagan people, but that [it would be right in keeping with the recommendations of St Paul] first [to] give them the ‘milk’ of doctrine” as set out in First Corinthians chapter 3 verse 2: “I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for [solid food].” Because of Aidan’s discernment, his brother monks sent him to Northumbria.
St Theodoret, a fourth-century Bishop of Cyr known for his Antiochene Biblical interpretations, has pointed out that in this passage from First Corinthians St Paul “is saying that he adjusted the level of his teaching to their lack of understanding” [Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians 179]. Another fourth-century Biblical commentator, Ambrosiaster, has stressed how “our Lord and Master [Jesus Christ] spoke one way in public and another way to His disciples in private” [Commentary on Paul’s Epistles]. Certainly, St Aidan spoke in many different ways during the 16 years he was in Northumbria, meeting with kings and queens, poor and rich people, the literate and the illiterate.
St Aidan reached out to the people of Northumbria as they were, encouraging them to grow in their understanding of Christ and His ways and His Church. Initially, Aidan could not speak English; and King Oswald served as his interpreter. The king also taught Aidan English and helped him to form a community of monks on the island of Lindisfarne. St Bede wrote of St Aidan: “At Lindisfarne … [Aidan] trained [the new monks] in the art of Christian fellowship and prayer. Then he began to tour the remote regions of Oswald’s kingdom. [Aidan] always travelled on foot, so he could talk to people on his journeys. He was [not concerned with] people’s social standing, speaking as eagerly about Christ to the humble peasants as to the wealthy lords.” [Robert Van de Weyer, Bede: Celtic and Roman Christianity in Britain, pp. 38-39].
St Bede has left us a calm, balanced description of how St Aidan lived, and I quote: “Since Aidan toured Northumbria on foot he was unable to carry the Scriptures with him. So, he learnt the New Testament and the Psalms by heart; and each day at the appointed times he would recite a Psalm and passage of Scripture to himself. In this way he maintained the monastic discipline. He dressed in simple woollen cloth, and ate whatever food was offered to him. Whenever a rich man gave him some precious object as a token of appreciation, [Aidan] either handed it on the poor, or used it to buy slaves their freedom. Many of these former slaves joined his community at Lindisfarne, and he trained them to preach the Gospel. If Aidan saw wealthy or powerful people do wrong, he was outspoken in [criticising] them; he never kept silent out of respect for rank or fear of reprisal [that is, revenge or retaliation]. But [Aidan] much preferred to encourage people in the good they were doing. Whenever he observed someone being kind and generous to others, he was lavish in his praise; and if that person was not already a Christian, he taught them to recognise Christ as the author of their loving [actions]” [Van de Weyer, p. 39].
St Aidan and King Oswald were what we would call today team players”—building up a group of people who would spread Christianity throughout Northumbria. St Bede wrote that “as a result” of the prayers and work of St Aidan and his monks, linked to the prayers and work of King Oswald, “people lived in peace and harmony. In particular, within the borders of Northumbria were members of all four nations which inhabit this island—British, Pict, Scottish and English; and under Oswald they came to regard each other as friends,” concluded St Bede [Van de Weyer, p. 40]. That is a model that can still inspire us today—to live in harmony in these Isles with our many different ideas and hopes, as we seek to deepen our own understanding of Christ and to bring Christ to others. St Aidan was a wise leader interested in guiding others into lives of prayer and purpose. May he guide us today, as he guided so many others centuries ago, into lives of prayer and purpose.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, always now and ever and unto the ages of ages.
Father Emmanuel Kahn