Feast day: August 31
Saint Aidan is said to have been a disciple of Saint Senan (f.d. March 8) on Scattery Island, but nothing else is known with certainty of his early life before he became a monk of Iona...
He was well received by King Oswald, who had lived in exile among the Irish monks of Iona and had requested monks to evangelize his kingdom. The first missionary, Corman, was unsuccessful because of the roughness of his methods, so Aidan was sent to replace him. Oswald bestowed the isle of Lindisfarne (Holy Island) on Aidan for his episcopal seat and his diocese reached from the Forth to the Humber.
By his actions he showed that he neither sought nor loved the things of this world; the presents which were given to him by the king or other rich men he distributed among the poor. He rarely attended the king at table, and never without taking with him one or two of his clergy, and always afterwards made haste to get away and back to his work.
The centre of his activity was Lindisfarne, off the coast of Northumberland, between Berwick and Bamburgh. Here he established a monastery under the Rule of Saint Columcille; it was not improperly been called the English Iona, for from it the paganism of Northumbria was gradually dispelled and barbarian customs undermined. The community was not allowed to accumulate wealth; surpluses were applied to the needs of the poor and the manumission of slaves. From Lindisfarne Aidan made journeys on foot throughout the diocese, visiting his flock and establishing missionary centres.
Aidan’s apostolate was advanced by numerous miracles according to Saint Bede, who wrote his biography. It was also aided by the fact that Aidan preached in Irish and the king provided the translation. Saint Aidan took to this monastery 12 English boys to be raised there, and he was indefatigable in tending to the welfare of children and slaves, for the manumission of many of whom he paid from alms bestowed on him.
The great king Saint Oswald assisted his bishop in every possible way until his death in battle against the pagan King Penda in 642. A beautiful story preserved by Saint Bede tells that Oswald was sitting at dinner one Easter day, Saint Aidan at his side, when he was told a great crowd of poor people were seeking alms at the gate. Taking a massive silver dish, he loaded it with meat from his own table and ordered it distributed amongst the poor, and ordered the silver dish to be broken in fragments, and those too distributed to them. Aidan, Bede says, took hold of the king’s right hand, saying “Let this hand never decay!” His blessing was fulfilled. After Oswald’s death his incorrupt right arm was preserved as a sacred relic.
Oswald’s successor, Saint Oswin, also supported Aidan’s apostolate and when in 651, Oswin was murdered in Gilling, Aidan survived him only 11 days. He died at the royal castle of Bamburgh, which he used as a missionary centre, leaning against a wall of the church where a tent had been erected to shelter him. He was first buried in the cemetery of Lindisfarne, but when the new church of Saint Peter was finished, his body was translated into the sanctuary.
The monks of Lindisfarne, fleeing repeated Viking attacks, abandoned their holy island in 875, taking with them the relics of St. Oswald and St. Aidan packed into the coffin containing St. Cuthbert’s uncorrupted body. For over 100 years the monks wandered, settling here and there, and founding churches. In 995, fearing another attack from Danish raiders, the monks again fled with their precious relics. According to legend, when the monks approached the town of Durham the coffin began to grow heavy and one of the monks had a dream in which Cuthbert said his body would finally rest at ‘Dunholme’. None of the monks knew of such a place but, inquiring of local villagers, overheard two women speaking about a lost cow which was said to have strayed into ‘the Dunholme’. Investigated by the monks, this turned out to be a wooded promontory in a loop above the River Wear, which is where Durham cathedral now stands.
The monks of Glastonbury claimed that they held the bones of St. Aidan of Lindisfarne (in Northumberland) as early as the 11th century. We know that this was not his whole body, as it was accepted that half of it lay at Iona in Scotland, and some relics were also claimed by Durham Cathedral. As only a partial saint and the earliest recorded, it seems likely that Aidan may have been the only Northern relic brought south to Glastonbury by Tyccea, though not apparently because of the Viking threat.
Saint Bede highly praises the Irish Aidan who did so much to bring the Gospel to his Anglo-Saxon brothers. “He neither sought nor loved anything of this world, but delighted in distributing immediately to the poor whatever was given him by kings or rich men of the world. He traversed both town and country on foot, never on horseback, unless compelled by some urgent necessity. Wherever on his way he saw any, either rich or poor, he invited them, if pagans, to embrace the mystery of the faith; or if they were believers, he sought to strengthen them in their faith and stir them up by words and actions to alms and good works.”
He wrote that Saint Aidan “was a man of remarkable gentleness, goodness, and moderation, zealous for God; but not fully according to knowledge… “By which Bede means that he followed and taught the liturgical and disciplinary customs of the Celtic Christians, which differed from those of Continental Christianity. Montague notes that one effort of Anglo-Saxon education being conducted by Irish monks was that English writing was distinguished by its Irish orthography. Aidan brought to Ireland the custom of Wednesday and Friday fasts [see the Didache].
In art, Saint Aidan is portrayed as a bishop with the monastery of Lindisfarne in his hand and a stag at his feet (because of the legend that his prayer rendered invisible a deer pursued by hunters). He might also be portrayed (1) holding a light torch; (2) giving a horse to a poor man; (3) calming a storm; or (4) extinguishing a fire by his prayers, He is especially venerated at Glastonbury, Lindisfarne, and Whitby.