Christians are to strive for holiness of living, and there are many biblical admonitions about what does – and does not – constitute a holy life. As St. Peter wrote in his letter to the Christian converts under persecution in Asia Minor, “…gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ;…as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct…” [I Peter 1:4]
We Christians are urged to seek holiness by example – to imitate those whose lives are filled with Christian virtue. Since we have a “heavenly host” of saints – Apostles, Martyrs, Confessors, Abbots, Virgins, Widows – to provide us with exemplary models, we have only to turn to the calendar of saints for inspiration.
St. Aidan of Lindisfarne is one such example. As a monk, Aidan lived in simple poverty; as a friend of the king, he showed loyalty and trust; and when called upon to do the difficult job of evangelizing a barbarian people, he did not shrink from this calling.
The great chronicler of history, St. Bede the Venerable, from whom we know the stories of St. Aidan, tells us:
Among other evidences of holy life, he gave his clergy an inspiring example of self-discipline and continence, and the highest recommendation of his teaching to all was that he and his followers lived as they taught. He never sought or cared for any worldly possessions, and loved to give away to the poor who chanced to meet him whatever he received from kings or wealthy folk. Whatever people he met on his walks, whether high or low, he stopped and spoke to them. If they were heathen, he urged them to be baptized; and if they were Christians, he strengthened their faith, and inspired them by word and deed to live a good life and to be generous to others.
He required his followers, whether monks or laymen, to study the Scriptures and learn the Psalms; he inspired all to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays; he corrected the wrongs of the wealthy as well as the poor; and if he was given money, he used it to ransom those sold as slaves.
Born in Ireland early in the 6th century, Aidan entered the monastic community at Iona, founded by St. Columba nearly 100 years earlier. When King Oswald of Bernicia (who had been baptized while living in exile among the Scots) sent to Iona for a missionary to come and teach his people about Christianity, Aidan was ordained bishop and sent out for this work. Observing an island which was surrounded by water twice a day as the tide ebbed and flowed, Aidan requested this island for his monastery, and so the community at Lindisfarne was begun.
Bishop Aidan sought the assistance of King Oswald in his missionary efforts. “…while the bishop, who was not fluent in the English language, preached the Gospel, it was most delightful to see the king himself interpreting the word of God to his ealdorman and thanes; for he himself had obtained perfect command of the Scottish tongue during his long exile.”
After the death of King Oswald, Aidan’s royal friendship continued with his successor, King Oswin. It was this ruler’s generosity to the monk that gave us the wonderful story of how the king selected one of his finest horses as a gift for the bishop to use for crossing rivers and undertaking difficult or urgent journeys. Aidan accepted graciously but as soon as he met a poor man asking for alms, he gave the horse, with all its royal trappings, to the beggar. When the king heard of this, he asked the bishop why he had given away such a fine horse, when a more ordinary animal would have sufficed for a beggar. Bishp Aidan’s response was “What are you saying, your Majesty? Is this child of a mare more valuable to you than this child of God?”
Many miracles were reported of Bishop Aidan, miracles of foreknowledge which helped prevent disaster or prayers which brought about a saving change – miracles which resulted form his great love and concern for the people. St. Aidan became ill while traveling about the countryside visiting his flock, and died on August 31 in 651. His body was taken to Lindisfarne for burial.
Writing about 70 years later, Bede eulogized St. Aidan in this way:
He cultivated peace and love, purity and humility; he was above anger and greed, and despised pride and conceit; he set himself to keep as well as to teach the laws of God, and was diligent in study and prayer. He used his priestly authority to check the proud and powerful; he tenderly comforted the sick; he relieved and protected the poor. To sum up in brief what I have learned from those who knew him, he took pains never to neglect anything that he had learned from the writings of the evangelists, apostles and prophets, and he set himself to carry them out with all his powers.
May we, through God’s gracious mercy and the intercessions of St. Aidan of Lindisfarne, strive to do the same.
All quotes are from Bede’s A History of the English Church and People, published by Penguin Books, 1968. Other sources include Saints of the British Isles by Andrew Bond and Nicolas Mabin and The Oxford Dictionary of Saints by David Hugh Farmer.