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  Orthodoxy’s Western Heritage - Lindisfarne: the Holy Isle, Saint Aidan: First Abbot, Saint Cuthbert: Favored of God

Saint Aidan: First Abbot
Saint Cuthbert: Favored of God


Lindisfarne: the Holy Isle

     Just before His Ascension, the Lord gave His disciples command to "Go...and teach all nations," On the authority of Eusebius and others it is known that among those to hear the Gospels in the still infant years of the Church was the distant land of Britain, The Roman occupation in the first centuries brought increased trade, the ,growth of towns and cities and a relative stability which facilitated the spread of Christ's light. But the gradual decay of the Empire allowed invading pagan tribes of Angles and Saxons to overpower the Britons, and their Church suffered disintegration. Fortunately, however, Christianity had been carried west beyond the boundaries of Roman rule, beyond reach of the bellicose Saxons, to the Celts of Ireland where it spread and flourished as perhaps nowhere else. It was from Ireland that missionaries came preaching the Gospel to the heathen tribes of Britain's northern wilds. They first landed on the west coast of Scotland where, in 563, they established a monastic beachhead on the island of Iona. In the next century an equally important center of spiritual activity was to be found off the east coast on another 'holy isle,' Lindisfarne, whose missionary monks made an invaluable contribution towards invigorating British Christianity and enriching its heritage with their Celtic tradition.

     Among those converted and baptized at Iona was St, Oswald who, in 633, succeeded St. Edwin as king of Northumbria, a sizeable area occupying Britain's northeast and one of the three largest Saxon kingdoms; the other two were Mercia--located in the Midlands and ruled by the fiercely pagan king Penda, and Essex, further south, which had been converted not long before by St. Augustine of Canterbury and his monks from Rome. At once Oswald sent to Iona for a missionary to evangelize his still pagan subjects. The first to arrive, Corman, found the Northumbrians to be "of an obstinate and barbarous temperament," and he returned to Iona having failed in his mission. As the Scot fathers were deliberating their next course of action--for they were not easily dissuaded where there was an opportunity to save souls--one of the brethren addressed the defeated Corman, suggesting that perhaps his approach had been too severe, that he should have followed the example of the Apostles in giving his ignorant hearers "the milk of simpler teaching," and guiding them more gradually towards perfection. The fathers were impressed by the monk's discreet wisdom and elected him to launch a new missionary effort.

Saint Aidan: First Abbot

     Thus it was that after being consecrated bishop, Aidan arrived in Northumbria in 635 and settled on Lindisfarne where he set about establishing a monastery. The location he chose had several recommendations: the sea formed a wail protecting an isolation desirable for the concentrated spiritual activity of the monks, while for missionary purposes access to the mainland was provided by a natural causeway which appeared twice a day at low tide. As both bishop and abbot Aidan divided his time between his strict monastic observances and his expeditions into the countryside to preach the Gospel. King Oswald, whose royal residence at Barnburgh lay within sight of the Holy Island, occasionally accompanied the Gaelic-speaking Bishop as an interpreter. According to the Venerable Bede who has provided the primary source for Aidan's Life, "many Northumbrians, both noble and simple, laid aside their weapons, preferring to take monastic vows rather than study the art of war." When he died sixteen years later, Aidan was crowned with the well-deserved title "Apostle of the Northumbrians."

     The success of Aidan's apostolic labors was the fruit of his monastic struggles and holy life. An admirer called him "indifferent to the dignity of a bishop, but influencing all men by his humility and devotion." And Bede wrote that "the highest recommendation of his teaching to all was that he and his followers lived as they taught." Even on his long baptizing tours, Aidan went about mostly on foot, stopping to talk to those whom he met: the heathen he urged to be baptized and the Christians he encouraged towards a still more perfect way of life. His companions on these journeys, "whether monks or lay folk, were required to meditate, that is, either to read the scriptures or to learn the Psalms." In the practice of abstinence Aidan himself set an example for his monks by keeping a complete fast on Wednesdays and Fridays until the ninth hour, a custom which inspired imitation among many devout lay people. The bishop's self-continence was equally apparent in his attitude towards money and possessions; as a "father to the wretched," he was quick to give to the poor the alms and gifts which be himself received. When Oswald's successor, King Oswin, gave Aidan a fine horse which he agreed to use in case of a particularly difficult or urgent journey, the saintly Bishop did not hesitate to give it away with all its royal trappings to a beggar who met him with a request for alms. Some gifts of money Aidan used to ransom those unjustly sold into slavery. Many of these later became his disciples.

     The Bishop' s exemplary character and selfless activity and the high spiritual caliber of his monks impressed many to undertake the angelic life and others to make large gifts of land for the founding of monasteries and building of churches. A school was established on the Holy Island where young boys were sent to be trained by the Scottish monks as priests and missionaries. The pupils not only learned Latin and memorized the Gospels and Psalter, but in living with the older monks they were exposed to a world of concentrated prayer and missionary fervor which prepared them for a life of service to God. The combined emphasis on monasticism and missionary activity was characteristic of the Celtic tradition and helped preserve a spiritual vigor less noticeable in the Canterbury school.

     Those discipled at Lindisfarne traveled throughout Britain, and as far as the Netherlands, establishing monastic communities as local centers for their missionary work. Aidan also encouraged the establishment of convents, and he tonsured the first Northurnbrian nun Hieu. He persuaded the devout woman Hilda to forsake her intention to become a nun in Gaul and to remain in England where she founded several convents; her most renowned community was a double monastery for men and women at Whitby on the Yorkshire coast, which produced at least five bishops before it was destroyed in 867 during the Danish devastation of the north. "So great was her prudence," wrote Bede, "that not only ordinary folk, but kinas and princes used to come and ask her advice in their difficulties and take it."

       God blessed His faithful servant Aidan with spiritual gifts. Bede reports several incidents in which they were revealed, carefully assuring his readers that they are "no groundless fables,'' but based on reliable sources. There was, in one case, a priest named Utta who was sent on a mission to Kent from where he was to return by sea. When he came to ask Aidart's blessing for the journey, the Bishop gave him some holy oil and forewarned him of a storm he would encounter. "Remember then to pour the oil on to the sea, and the wind will immediately drop, giving you had foretold.

     Another example of Aidart's wonderworking powers was manifest during the protracted 'holy war' which the obstinately pagan King Penda led against the northern Christians; it lasted some 20 years until his defeat in 654. From his retreat on Farne Island where he used to go for periods of solitary prayer, Aidan saw a column of smoke rising above the walls of the royal city some two miles distant. Raising his hands in entreaty, he cried out, "Lord, see what evil Penda does!" Immediately the wind shifted away from the city towards the assailants who retreated in haste.

     Aidan died at Barnburgh on August 31, 651. His body was initially buried at Lindisfarne, but when, in 664 the monastery accepted the decision of the Whitby Synod to adopt the Roman tradition, Aidan's second successor as abbot, St. Colman, took St. Aidan's remains and retired to Iona, still a stronghold of the Celtic Church to which Aidan had been faithful to the last.

    Even after the Whitby Synod, the spirit of the Celtic tradition continued to be spread abroad by those who had been spiritually nourished by Aidan and his Lindisfarne disciples. Among those who carried on Aidan's apostolic work were the four Anglo-Saxon brothers: Cedd, Cynebil, Caelin and Chad, former pupils at the Lindisfarne school. All four became priests and two eventually became bishops who founded monasteries and built churches after the tradition of their spiritual father. Cedd, after preaching in Mercia, one of Britain's last pagan outposts, became Bishop of Essex; while Chad, who most resembled Aidan in his genuinely humble and devout character, returned from Ireland where Aidan had sent him to study , and pursued missionary work in his native Northumbria before being made Bishop of Mercia. The brother-bishops followed Aidan's example: both were also abbots and resided at monasteries they founded--Cedd at Lastingham and Chad at Lichfield. Chad died in 672 and soon thereafter was venerated as a saint.

     It would be well here to insert a brief explanation concerning the Synod of Whitby mentioned earlier, for it affected not only Lindisfarne but also the future course of the British Church. Reference has been made to differences between the Celtic tradition and that of Rome introduced to Britain by St. Augustine of Canterbury. In practice the difference related to the monastic tonsure, the calculation of the date of Pascha and the basic organization of the Church. In the monastically-oriented Celtic tradition bishops were subordinated to abbots and the entire structure was less rigid than in the Roman tradition with its emphasis on a well-ordered state and central authority. Britain was not so large but that these two traditions didn't eventually come into conflict; the Synod of Whitby was convened to determine which tradition to follow. The victory of Canterbury signaled not only the unfortunate wane of Celtic influence, but also the alignment of the British Church with Tome by which it was gradually drawn into schism with the rest of the Western Church.

    Many of the Lindisfarne monks were, quite naturally, unhappy with the Synod's decision, and some, like St. Colman, left to join monasteries in the west. It was during this very difficult period of adjustment that one of England's most beloved saints, Cuthbert, came to be abbot of Lindisfarne, and through his spiritual stamina peace was restored.


Saint Cuthbert: Favored of God

     Cuthbert's recorded miracles surpass those of any other saint in this period of monastic flowering. When his remains were uncovered on the 11th anniversary of his repose, March 20, 687, he was found to be entirely incorrupt, "looking as though still alive; even his vestments were fresh." It was in honor of St. Cuthbert that the famous Lindisfarne Gospels were written and so intricately illuminated. And it was to ensure his veneration by future generations that the Lindisfarne monks commissioned Venerable Bede to write a full account of his life, a task completed in 721.

     Cuthbert was Lindisfarne's sixth abbot and manifested a spiritual kinship with its founder. As a youth pasturing sheep he saw on the night of St. Aidan's repose a vision of angels bearing a shining soul into the heavens. He was inspired to become a monk at Melrose, the first and most famous of Lindisfarne's offshoots established by Aidan, where his saintly spiritual mentor Fr. Boisil foretold his future consecration as bishop. Appointed prior, Cuthbert skillfully instructed not only the monks but, like Aidan, undertook extensive missionary journeys to preach to the Picts, a rough mountain people still inclined to their pagan ways. His counsel to all was "Learn to have constant faith and hope in the Lord."

    At the age of 30 Cuthbert was transferred to Lindisfarne as prior. While preserving the spirit of the Celtic tradition, he accepted the decision of the Whitby Synod for the sake, no doubt, of harmony, and his peaceful persuasion gradually won over the monks. Cuthbert felt strongly the Celtic love for the desert, and after twelve years he resigned as prior of Lindisfarne to withdraw, like Aidan, to the austere solitude of Farne Island where a wall cut off the sight of all but the heavens towards which he directed both heart and mind. Nine years passed when the king himself came to the island to persuade Cuthbert to become Bishop of Lindisfarne. Once again Cuthbert undertook vigorous missionary work, but a foreknowledge of his approaching death sent him back to the Farne only two yea rs later. In a matter of weeks a severe illness and trial by demons completed the purification which his ascetic and apostolic labors had begun.

    Cuthbert was buried at Lindisfarne where his grave attracted hundreds of pilgrims until Viking raiders forced the monks in 875 to leave the island, taking with them the coffin of their beloved saint, Today his holy remains --as also the Venerable Bede's--rest in Durham Cathedral, sadly disturbed, no doubt, by grievous events which have marked the recent course of the Anglican Church.

    Such a brief sketch is hardly adequate to convey the significance of such a wonderful saint, and it is hoped that the reader will be inspired to fill in the details by reading his Life. Although we may regret his acceptance of the Whitby decision, Bede' s eloquent and reliable testament leaves no doubt as to Cuthbert's sanctity. Surely he belongs together with his predecessors Aidan, Finan, Chad and others who are as jewels in the crown of Lindisfarne's holy legacy. The English Church, while it ultimately rejected the Celtic tradition centered at Lindisfarne, owes it a great debt which today's generation of British converts to Orthodoxy--the faith of their ancestors-are just beginning to repay through their rediscovery and veneration of a host of Celtic saints.