St Aidan: A Saint of the Past and for our Future
The 31st August sees the celebration of the Feast of St. Aidan, the patron saint of our community in Manchester. The facts of St. Aidan’s life and work are well known but there are three aspects that often escape attention.
First, St. Aidan was not the first monk from Iona to land in the northeast. The first returned post haste with lurid stories of the barbarism of the inhabitants and their resistance to the gospel. St. Aidan was wisely sent as a successor on the grounds that he was able to distinguish capacity for “spiritual milk” rather than “spiritual meat.”
“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food.” (Hebrews 5:12)
We do not know much more about this as a practical methodology but we do know of St. Aidan’s great humility and his commitment to education of the young, witness his establishment of a school for local youngsters on the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne which later produced both saints and bishops of the Church. Perhaps we should say that the saint knew what to share with the condition and temperament of each person according to the local culture.
In the conditions of Church and Society today we must follow this same pattern. We must not simply expect those who know next to nothing about Christianity to embrace the fullness and richness of Orthodoxy “in one go.” Those who have barely tasted and known that “the Lord is good,” (1 Peter 2:2) can hardly be expected to understand the nuances of the “filioque” or the Orthodox sacramental theology … but they can be Orthodox Christians! Working out what that means is the Orthodox mission task for today.
St. Aidan did not do any of this alone though as, initially, he did not even know the local language … which brings me to my second point.
St. Aidan enlisted the help of others in his great task, no less than the king (later himself to be a saint, Oswald) who became his interpreter on his evangelistic journeys through the northeast. He also had the foresight to know that the Church had to be built through both sanctity and community … something, in a sense, that would be second nature to him as a monk of Iona.
Similarly today, our mission task is a collaborative effort, a community based initiative, enlisting gifts and skills, sometimes from the most unusual quarters. There exist a plethora of voluntary activities and organisations today for various charitable causes but the Church cannot nor should not simply compete with these. Our missionary rationale is quite different. We serve because He served, we lay down our lives because He lay down his life, we preach the words of life because we have been given life. Orthodox missionary work is wholly about God the Life-Giver and bringing others to know Him and the gift of the gospel, each according to his own capacity and need.
Finally, and curiously perhaps for our purpose here, the Lindisfarne monastic community did not survive St. Aidan for more than two centuries, which is a short time of course in the life of the Church. In 875 AD the monks hurriedly left as the Viking raids along the east coast became more persistent and dangerous. They fled with St. Cuthbert’s body, arguably, Lindisfarne’s greatest son. St. Aidan’s legacy, however, did not die with these terrible events. His witness is not limited to temporal constraints and human empires and therein lies his greatness and significance for the Church today.
Our churches may well not survive in their present form. Historically, they have been closed by Muslims, atheists, communists, fascists. They have been plundered by invading armies. Their people have been persecuted, killed, scattered across the globe … just like the scattered children of Lindisfarne although on a much, much bigger scale. Orthodox Christianity, however, is not quenched by such attacks, such impermanence in its earthly foundations. Our life is hid in Christ and no one can touch that. This is what has preserved St. Aidan’s witness to this day. Against this faith and life the gates of hell itself can never prevail. Be of good courage, therefore, Christ has overcome … and so shall we!
Archpriest Gregory Hallam