Project Canterbury

The Little Lives of the Saints

Told by Percy Dearmer

Illustrated by Charles Robinson.

London: Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., 1904.

St. Aidan, Bishop, 651.

August 31st.

IN the little island of Iona, far away on the rocky coast of Scotland, there once lived a quiet monk, named Aidan. So quiet was he that neither abbot nor brothers noticed him; and, when St. Oswald, the English king, asked the Abbot to send a bishop over to his country, no one thought of asking Aidan to go. He remained at home, and day by day he prayed in the little monastery church, read hit Bible and other noble books, and watched the rain-drift and the sunshine on the restless sea.

But the people of Northumberland, where Oswald lived, were stubborn heathens; and, though they were good to friends, they were rough and stand-off to strangers, as they are to this day. The learned Bishop whom the Abbot had sent from Iona could do nothing with them. He prtaced, he argued, he threatened, but those sturdy north-country men folded their arms and turned away. So this Bishop sailed back to the island of Iona in great discontent. "What is it, brother?" said the monks of Iona, "Why have you returned so soon?" "Alas!" he said, "these people are barbarous and stubborn. I have done them no good at all, and no one can convert such a race." The good Abbot leaned forward in his chair with sorrow on his face, and all the brothers sat gloomily round; for they longed always to bring men to Christ, and this failure was very bitter to them. "What is to be done," they asked, "to save this people?''

Then the quiet Aidan looked towards the unsuccessful Bishop, and noticed how stern and austere he was. The thought came into his heart that such a man could have shown no tenderness or sympathy to the heathen people. He felt that now he must speak.

"I fear, O my brother," he said, "that you were too severe with those unlearned men. Did you not forget the Apostle's words, that we should give such folk the milk of more easy doctrine first, and then afterwards, when they are well nourished, the strong meat of God's sublimer precepts?"

All eyes were turned to the man who had thus spoken, and a great silence fell upon the assembly. Then the old heads were bent together and a whisper went round from one to the other--"Aidan is the man!" After a while the Abbot rose and said, "Let Aidan be sent as bishop. For God has given him discretion, which is the mother of all virtues."

So Aidan was made bishop, and came to Northumbria. There the good King Oswald welcomed him, and asked him where he would like to have his bishop's seat. Aidan said that he had come from an island, and would fain live in an island still. So Oswald gave him the isle of Lindisfarne, which is just three miles long, like Iona. It is now called Holy Island, because so many good people came to live there. But it is not always surrounded with water: when the tide is low, the shore is left dry, and you can drive right across from the mainland to the isle. It is a rocky place and covered with stones; but the view from it is lovely. On the west is the wide sea; on the east, across the channel, rises the open country, with its fields and woodlands and villages; to the northward you can see in the distance, across the waters, the town of Berwick, where Scotland begins; and to the south Bamborough Head juts out into the sea with the ruins of the castle where once King Oswald lived.

Aidan did not spend much time in his island, but went all over Northumberland preaching to the people. The rough peasants and soldiers no longer turned a deaf ear to religion, for they heard it taught with so much love and sweet reasonableness that they one all grew loving and reasonable themselves. King Oswald and the Bishop worked together as close friends, as you shall hear when you are told the life of that king. To and fro the gentle Aidan went, through town and country, tramping on foot, lest a horse should make him seem too grand for poor people. Every one that he met, great or lowly, he asked to receive the Christian faith. Whenever he found a house where Christian people lived, he went in to encourage them and talk to the children; and one of the first things he did was to start a school where boys could be taught to be wise and good. The people came to love him so much that, when any village heard that he was coming their way, they laughed with joy, and flocked out in crowds to gather round him and listen to what he had to say. He taught the gospel of love and sacrifice, and he lived just as he taught. He never tried to get nice things for himself, but whenever a rich man gave him a present, he distributed it at once among the poor, or gave it to ransom those who had been sold into slavery, so that he was always himself, like St. Paul, "poor, yet making many rich."

You can imagine what great joy there was at Iona when the monks heard of his wonderful doings. They sent other good missionaries out to help him. And now all over the country monks preached, and priests christened the big rough heathens, and little wooden churches were built, and monasteries were founded with the money and lands that the rich folk gave. So Aidan's helpers increased in number as the work grew, and he had the happiness to see many of the slaves whom he had freed enter into another service and become priests of the Church. All his fellow workers, priests and laymen alike, used to live as he lived, reading the Bible and learning psalms every day. Sometimes, but not often, he would have dinner with the king; he would then take one or two clergy with him, and when he had eaten a little, he would hurry away to read or to write--so busy was his life.

After King Oswald had died, the new king, Oswin, gave Aidan a most beautiful horse with a jewelled saddle and bridle, hoping that he would use it when he had to travel quickly. Aidan rode away on it; but after a little while a beggar came up, and asked for alms. The bishop at once dismounted, and gave his horse with all its royal trappings to the poor man. Soon afterwards Aidan went to dinner with King Oswin, and, as the king came in from hunting, someone told him what had happened. The king was angry, and before dinner began he reproached Aidan. "Why must you, my lord bishop, give that royal horse to a beggar? It was necessary for your use! Had we not plenty of other horses good enough for the poor, without your giving that one which I had specially chosen for you to keep yourself?" Aidan replied "What is it you say, O king? Is that foal of a mare more dear to you than the Son of God?" Then Aidan sat down in his place at the great dinner table. But the king stood moodily in his hunting clothes with his attendants, warming himself by the burning logs of wood that crackled and sparkled on the fire-place in the middle of the hall. Suddenly he took off his sword, and ran to the Bishop; he knelt at his feet, begging him to forgive him. "From this time forward," he said, "I will never speak any more of this; and I will not mind how much money you give to the sons of God." For he knew that Aidan meant that even a beggar was God's son, and that to help those in need was to help our Lord himself. Aidan was much moved at his humility, and said, "I am indeed reconciled to you! Do you now sit down to meat and lay aside all sorrow." As the dinner went on the king grew merry again, but Aidan became so sad that the tears began to trickle down his cheek. "Why do you weep?" whispered the priest who sat beside him. "Because I know," he said, "that the king will not live long. I never saw so humble a king. He will soon be taken away from a nation that is not worthy of him."

King Oswin died soon after, as Aidan had foretold, being treacherously slain. A week afterwards Aidan himself was taken ill. They made him a tent outside the wall of a little wooden church, and then, leaning against a post that supported the wall, he gave up his soul to God.

The church was burnt down twice in after years, but each time the post which Aidan had leaned against was spared. Therefore men treated it as a sacred thing, and built the walls outside it next time, so that it came to stand within the church as a relic of Northumberland's first and greatest bishop.

A few months before he died, the Saint did two things which were thought to be miraculous, though they seemed to have happened in quite a natural way. One was when a friend of his, a priest, was going on a sea journey down to Kent, to fetch thence a princess who was to marry the Northumbrian king. Aidan warned him that he would have a storm on the way, but gave him some holy oil. "Cast this on the waters," he said, "and the storm will cease." So it was. A great storm overtook the ship, and the sailors thought that they must all be drowned. Then the priest poured out the oil on the sea, and the waters became calm, so that the ship sailed safely to her journey's end. We know now that oil poured on the waters will prevent the waves from breaking, but still it is curious that no one knew the secret at that time except Aidan.

The other story is that when the heathen king, Penda, was ravishing Northumbria, he laid siege to Bamborough. He tried all ways, but he could not take the city. Then, one windy night, he got a great quantity of wood and thatch, piled it on the windy side of the place, and set fire to it. Aidan was praying in his little island of Lindisfarne, when he saw the flames leaping high above the walls, till the wind blew them straight down on to the houses within. He lifted up his hands to heaven, and cried--"Behold, O Lord, what great mishief Penda is doing." Hardly had he said this prayer than the wind changed and blew the flames back upon Penda's army, so that they ran away in great confusion, and Bamborough was saved.

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