August 31 Saint of the Day – Aidan of Lindisfarne

On this day in 1803, at 11:00 a.m., Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left Pittsburgh on their expedition to the west coast. Their purpose was to reconnoiter the Louisiana Purchase, establish an American presence in unclaimed territory, and find a woman whose likeness could be stamped onto the obverse of a dollar coin.

Aidan of Lindisfarne (icon)Aidan of Lindisfarne (d. 651) was born in Ireland, and learned monking on Iona. It was to Iona that King Oswald of Northumbria 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 required land for his 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 were installers of aquatic recreation facilities). 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. (Or vice versa; how long ago did Fëanor invent Tengwar?)

Aidan of Lindisfarne (fresco)Aidan was a mingler. He walked everywhere he went (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 his earlier 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 taking care of 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, was famous for his scholarship and knowledge of the Scriptures, and what is more, Bede thought very highly of him, and Bede wasn’t exactly promiscuous in his praise of Celts.

After Oswald’s death, Aidan became buds with his successor in the south, Oswine of Deira. Oswine gave Aidan a horse and cart to use in his travels, but the peripatetic bishop immediately gave them away to the first horse-and-cartless peasant he met. Oswine was nonplussed, and 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 scratched his head, 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.

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.” But Oswine was not long after betrayed and murdered. Aidan died twelve days later and was interred on the Holy Island, although Colmán removed (some of) his relics when he fled to Iona after the Synod of Whitby. He is the patron of Northumbria (naturally), and also of firefighters (reasonably).

Copyright © 2013 Alex Riggle. All Rights Reserved.

August 31 (Wikipedia)
Aidan of Lindisfarne (Wikipedia) – Main source
Saint Aidan of Lindesfarne (SQPN)
St Aidan the Bishop of Lindesfarne (OCA)
Lindisfarne (Wikipedia)
Lindisfarne Gospels (Wikipedia)
Insular script (Wikipedia)
Oswine of Deira (Wikipedia)
Icon of Aidan is from Wikimedia (Public domain according to this rule)
Fresco detail from “King Oswald of Northumbria translates the sermon of Aidan into the Anglo-Saxon language,” ceiling of the parish church of St. Oswald, Otterswang, Bad Schussenried, Landkreis Biberach, Baden-Württemberg. Photographed by Andreas Meinrad von Ow, 1778, is from Wikimedia (public domain)