St. Aidan and the Legacy of Lindisfarne

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Long before the Reformation, the groundwork of the Anglican tradition was laid. Saints across the islands of Great Britain and Ireland spread Christianity to a previously Pagan people, with expressions that often differed from those in Continental Europe. Because of their influence on our tradition, these saints are usually listed among the Anglican commemorations in the ACNA’s liturgical calendar.

One of those saints is the Irish-born missionary and bishop Aidan (or Aedán in Old Irish). He re-evangelized Northern England for Christ in the 7th century and established the Lindisfarne community on what is still known as the Holy Island. We commemorate St. Aidan on August 31st, and, if we pay attention, we can apply much from his ancient community’s mission and rhythms to our lives of faith today.

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Aidan’s Story

Statue of St. Aidan at Lindisfarne Priory
Statue of St. Aidan at Lindisfarne. Photo: MattPhotos for Flickr.

Aidan was likely born in Ireland sometime around 590 A.D. We don’t know much about his early life. What we do know of his life comes mainly from the monk and historian Bede, born approximately 80 years later, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Catholic tradition tells us that Aidan’s early years were spent under the discipleship of St. Senan at the island monastery of Inis Cathaigh. However, while still relatively young, Aidan moved to the Abbey of Iona, founded by St. Columba, on an island off the coast of Scotland.

King Oswald’s Request

Christianity had long reached England, and missionaries like St. Patrick took the gospel from England to Ireland. However, in later years, areas of England such as Northumbria in the north had reverted to their Pagan beliefs. In 633, the baptized Christian King Oswald of Northumbria vowed to bring Christianity back to his people. He asked the monks of Iona to send missionaries to establish a Christian community.

Iona first sent a bishop named Cormán. However, his harshness alienated the Northumbrian people. When Cormán returned to Iona, complaining about the Northumbrians’ obstinance, Aidan offered that the bishop should have “followed the practice of the Apostles, and begun by giving them the milk of simpler teaching, and gradually nourished them with the word of God…”

The Lindisfarne Mission

It became clear that Aidan should be sent to take up the mission. He was ordained and consecrated a bishop. Aidan, with twelve others, arrived in Northumbria in 634. They established a monastic cathedral on the Island of Lindisfarne, which Oswald had apportioned to them as a base of operations. Bede records the strength of Aidan’s style of mission:

[Aidan] taught no otherwise than he and his followers had lived; for he neither sought nor loved anything of this world, but delighted in distributing immediately among the poor whatsoever was given him by the kings or rich men of the world… and wherever in his way he saw any, either rich or poor, he invited them, if infidels, to embrace the mystery of the faith or if they were believers, to strengthen them in the faith, and to stir them up by words and actions…

Bede also commends Aidan, who “cultivated peace and love, purity and humility.” This was a clear distinction from the more polemical method of Cormán. Aidan won over the Northumbrians with acts and words of God’s love. In The Celtic Way of Evangelism, George G. Hunter describes how Aidan told the people that, like the many warriors they had known,

…he and his people also served as the ‘soldiers’ of a King… [they] had come to represent the King who loved his soldiers and people so much that the King laid down his life for them! In dying, the King won a kingdom for his followers.

Lindisfarne quickly became a center of mission for Northumbria and, through it, to all of what is now northern England. But what sustained these missionary monks and their growing community day to day? The answer takes a clue from their very geography.

The Lindisfarne Rhythm

The sea separated Lindisfarne from the mainland for all but the two periods of low tide per day. During these times, a causeway was exposed, allowing people to cross. This quickly shaped the community’s rhythms. At the first low tide, the missionary monks would go out into the surrounding communities to preach the gospel and do benevolent works. The second low tide allowed them to return to the island for prayer and rest.

By intentionally having times of ministry and rest, the monks were imitating Christ. It was not unlike Jesus frequently going away to “a desolate place” (Mk 1:35, et al) soon after ministering to others. Missiologist and Anglican Compass contributor Winfield Bevins and his coauthor Mark Dunwoody write in their book Healthy Rhythms for Leaders,

The monks of Lindisfarne carried God with them far and wide out of a deep place of rest and delight in God’s presence. Missional spirituality is marked by the ebb and flow of the Christian life. So it should be with us; our mission to the world should flow from a deep well within us, from the very presence of the living God.

This prayer attributed to Aidan reflects the very heart of this tidal flow of ministry:

As the tide draws the waters close in upon the shore, make me an island, set apart with you, God, holy to you. Then, with the turning of the tide, prepare me to carry your presence to the busy world beyond, the world that rushes in on me, until the waters return and enfold me back to you.

The Lindisfarne Legacy

Incipit from Matthew in the Lindisfarne Gospels.
Incipit from Matthew in the Lindisfarne Gospels. Courtesy of the British Library and Wikimedia Commons.

Lindisfarne thrived for over two centuries under bishops such as St. Cuthbert. During this time, it became a center for mission in many forms. The bishop St. Eadfrith and assisting monks likely produced the famous illuminated manuscript, the Lindisfarne Gospels, there in the 8th century.

The abbey survived a Viking raid in 793. However, Lindisfarne’s monks fled the island in 875 during the Danish conquest. A smaller monastery, known as a priory, was established on the island in 1093. It lasted until Henry VIII dissolved it with all other monasteries in 1536.

Living Lindisfarne

So, how do we, as Anglicans, carry forth the mission of Lindisfarne today? It is in our very rhythms of life if we keep to them. There are times we go out on mission, acting in love and charity, preaching the kingship of Christ to the often hostile, desperately lost world around us. But there are also times allotted for rest, reflection, prayer, and worship, exemplified in our Morning and Evening offices, themselves drawn from ancient monastic rhythms. Aidan and his companions knew the value, in imitation of Christ, of recharging our physical and spiritual batteries. It goes against the world’s mindset but is vital to our existence in Christ. These rhythms of communion with God prepare us for when the day breaks, and we set out across the causeway to carry Christ’s Kingdom to this world again.

Cover photo: Lindisfarne Island by David Hobcote for Getty Images, courtesy of Canva.

Author

Jacob Davis

The Rev. Jacob Davis is the editor of Anglican Compass. He is a priest in the Diocese of Christ Our Hope and lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as assisting clergy at Grace Anglican Church.

View more from Jacob Davis

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