February 17 — Finan of Lindisfarne; Silvinus

Finan of Lindisfarne* (d. 661) is also on the Western calendar, either on today or on the ninth; it’s hard to tell. Dang calendar reforms. Finan was an Irish monk at Iona*, who waded (swam, boated, flew, or something) ashore and became the successor of Aidan (Aug 31) as bishop of Lindisfarne. (Which is also an island, come to think of it.) An able administrator, he founded many churches and monasteries, including the famous double-monastery at Whitby*, also known (to people with green blood and other Celtic types) as Streoneshalh. He baptized Prince Peada of the Middle Angles (between 30° and 60°?), and also the East Saxons (all of them? sources can be so confusing). He built a beautiful cathedral on the Holy Island* in the “Irish” style, which is to say made of timbers, and with a thatched roof. One of his successors tore off the thatch and replaced it with lead sheeting. We hope it didn’t drip directly into the vegetable beds[1].

Finan is also known as the opponent of Ronan, a giant pteranodon from Tokyo—oops, sorry, that’s RoDan. RoNan was another Irish monk, albeit one who championed the new “RoMan” way of calculating the date of Easter[2], whereas Finan defended the traditional or “Celtic” method. (Which is a weird thing to call it when before the sixth century it was everybody’s method, but there you are.) Bede* says that the more Ronan argued, the more Finan dug in his heels. You’d think they were Irishmen. Both were made saints, but the traditionalist cause was ultimately defeated at the Council of Whitby, some three years after Finan died. Bede, while admitting Finan was a godly and holy man, saw this as a triumph of truth and right-thinking (the winners write history), but since Finan is our Orthodox saint today, we don’t have to agree. Some say that the fight was about more than fixing the date of the Feast, but was also something of a proxy for the overwhelming of the Celtic cultures of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons. In which case (as the Catholic Encyclopedia hints with unexpected sympathy), it was probably a mercy that Finan didn’t live to see it. The Irish monks at Lindisfarne who did live to see it moved back to Iona (their “hmpf” still echoes down the centuries).

Silvinus (d. 717) was born either in Belgium (according to the Belgians) or Toulouse (according to the Toulousie). He spent his youth, we are told, in the courts of Childric II (king, at various times, of Austrasia, Neustria, and Burgundy) and Thierry III (king, at various times, of Neustria (including Burgundy) and Austrasia). This will be on the test. He left his bride on the eve of the altar and caught a flight to Rome, with a layover in Jerusalem (clearly he flew United). In Rome he was made a bishop-without-portfolio, and sent to evangelize the pagans who were hugging the Belgian coast (it was feeling insecure). He was very kind to others and austere to himself, loving brightly-lit churches, cleanliness, and iron chains. He insisted on good music and fine furnishings for his flock, and drove his vestment suppliers nuts by repeatedly giving away his garments to the poor[3]. We are also told he ransomed slaves, but we are not given any details about that.

What he really wanted was to die a martyr or move to the desert[4], but murderous pagans and deserts being in somewhat short supply in eighth century Belgium, he had to settle for dying in peace at an abbey of Benedictine nuns. He was ushered out of this world, by his request, to the singing of selections from the Psalms.


[1] Although that could explain some other stories.
[2] I was going to ask if you saw what I did there, but that would be insulting.
[3] We can be sure they had his measurements memorized. Or at least on one of those little cards in a box somewhere.
[4] Some would ask if there’s a difference, but I don’t know the answer to that.