Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne

In the seventh century, St. Aidan was the Bishop of Lindesfarne, an island in the North Sea, where he converted the Celts living in England’s far north. Thirteen centuries later, St. Aidan’s name lives on in a Christian ministry half a world away, adjacent to the Pacific Ocean, in Malibu, California. Little is known of the saint’s early life, save that he was an Irishman, possibly born in Connacht, and that he was a monk at the monastery on the island of Iona in Scotland.

There was conflict between Christianity and the pagan religions of the Anglo-Saxons and also conflict between the Christianity of the Celts and that of the Romans. In 633, King Oswald of Northumbria determined to bring Christianity to the pagans of his kingdom. From his fortress of Bamburgh, he sent messages to Iona asking for missionary monks to come and minister to his people.

King Oswald of Northumbria requested that Aidan be made bishop of the newly converted Northumbrians. Consecrated in 635, Aidan settled on Lindisfarne, where he established his church, monastery, and see near the royal stronghold of Bamburgh. Under his direction and that of his successors, Lindisfarne flourished as a leading ecclesiastical centre until the Danish invasions began in 793.

From Lindisfarne, Aidan evangelized northern England. He founded churches, monasteries, and, on Lindisfarne, a school for the training of ministers, among whom were Chad (first bishop of Lichfield), his brother Cedd (who converted the East Saxons), and Eata, abbot of Melrose. The Anglo-Saxon historian and theologian Bede praised Aidan for his learning, charity, and simplicity of life.

Aidan and King Oswald worked hand in hand, especially at first, since St. Aidan and his monks could not speak the language of the people. King Oswald translated for them until they became proficient in English. In 642 AD, the King Oswald was killed in battle against the pagan King Penda. Aidan’s protector became the next king, Oswin.

Aidan preached widely throughout Northumbria, travelling on foot, so that he could readily talk to everyone he met. King Oswin presented St. Aidan with a fine horse and trappings so the Bishop would no longer have to walk everywhere. No sooner had St. Aidan left the King’s palace when he came across a poor man asking for alms. The bishop gave the man his new horse and continued on his way. King Oswin was most distressed when he heard and asked, “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 or other belongings which would have been good enough for beggars, without giving away a horse that I had specifically selected for your personal use?” The bishop at once answered, “What are you saying, Your Majesty? Is this child of a mare more valuable to you than this child of God?”

After that response, the King humbled himself before his Bishop and said, ‘I will not refer to this matter again, not will I enquire how much of our bounty you give away to God’s children.”

It wasn’t long after this incident in 651 when King Oswin was murdered in Gilling, by his cousin. Eleven days afterward, St. Aidan also died after serving 16 years in his episcopate. He had become ill and a tent was constructed for him by the wall of a church. He drew his last breath while leaning against one of the buttresses on the outside of the church. This beam survived unscathed through two subsequent burnings of the church and at the church’s third rebuilding, the beam was brought inside the church and many reported miracles of healing by touching it.

What St. Aidan had achieved may not have been clear to him at death but subsequent history showed the strong foundations and lasting success of his mission. The missionaries trained in his school went out and worked for the conversion of much of Anglo-Saxon England. Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne is credited with restoring Christianity to Northumbria.

Also attributed to St. Aidan: There was also a time when King Oswald’s enemy, Penda, attempted to burn out Bamburgh, the kings’ city, by piling thatch and wood around the city walls. Bishop Aidan, who at the time was in retreat on his island two miles away from Bamburgh, saw the smoke and flames and raised his hands to the heavens, saying with tears, ‘Lord see what evil Penda does!’ No sooner had he finished speaking, when the wind shifted and drove the flames and smoke onto those who kindled them. The attackers quickly retreated and the city was saved.