August 31 – Aidan of Lindisfarne

Aidan of Lindisfarne* (d. 651) was born in Ireland, and learned monking on Iona*. It was to Iona that King (St.) Oswald of Northumbria (Aug 5) wrote when he wanted a missionary. He was mailed a harsh, bitter guy named Cormán, whom he sent back (in the original packaging) for being too harsh and bitter. When Aidan heard about this he rolled his eyes, said, “You did it wrong,” got bishopified, and went himself. Oswald and Aidan became fast friends. When Aidan wanted land for a cathedral, Oswald (with an eye to real estate prices on the mainland) gave him an island just offshore called Lindisfarne (“Pool-land”—the previous inhabitants may have been installers of aquatic recreation facilities, or not). Aidan founded a monastery there, and stocked it with monks from Iona. It was to become a center of learning for the whole of the north of England, as well as a base for evangelism to the same region, plus Mercia. It is also known for the beautiful Lindisfarne Gospels, an illuminated gospel book produced about the turn of the eighth century and written in the famed “insular” style, which, for those unfamiliar with Latin alphabets, is the one that looks the most like Elvish[1].

Aidan walked everywhere (except when he rode, but we are assured that was only in dire necessity), and always stopped to talk to people along the way (with an interpreter before he learned Anglo-Saxon—sometimes the king himself, who had learned Irish in exile). When he met Christians, he encouraged them in their faith, spurring them to almsgiving and other good works. He is credited with introducing weekly fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays (except in the fifty days after Pascha, of course) to England. When he met pagans, he told them the gospel, and urged them to be baptized. He made a special point of serving the poor, giving to the needy whatever filthy lucre he received from the not-so-needy. He founded monasteries and churches across the breadth and width of Northumbria, and was famous for his scholarship and knowledge of the Scriptures. What is more, Bede* thought very highly of him, and how many of us can say that?

After Oswald died, Aidan became buds with his successor, Oswine of Deira. Oswine gave Aidan a horse and cart to use in his travels, but the peripatetic bishop gave them to the first horseless-and-cartless peasant he met. Oswine, nonplussed, suggested that if the bishop wanted to go around giving away horses, he could pick ones of lesser lineage. Aidan gave him that look he had and said, “What’s more important to you, a horse, or the Son of God?” Oswine thought a second, then fell at the bishop’s feet and begged his forgiveness. “You’re a good egg,” Aidan said, raising the king to his feet. “This wicked and adulterous generation doesn’t deserve a king like you. You will die soon.” My sources don’t record the king’s response. I like to think he was too cultured to say, “Say WHAT?”

Not long after this, a pagan army besieged Oswine’s capital, and set fires around the outer walls. Looking up, Aidan saw the smoke drifting over from the mainland, and prayed fervently for the deliverance of the city. Suddenly, the wind changed direction, and the fire and smoke were blown back onto the besieging army. “Whoa, this Christian god has some strong juju,” the pagans said, “we’re gone.” Sadly Oswine was betrayed and murdered shortly thereafter. Aidan died twelve days later and was interred on the Holy Island, although (St.) Cuthbert (Mar 20) removed (some of) his relics when he fled to Iona after the Synod of Whitby*.

Aidan is the patron of Northumbria (naturally), and also of firefighters (reasonably).


[1]Or vice versa; how long ago did Fëanor invent Tengwar?