“He was rightly loved by all.” Bede
Despite the time lapse of 1400 years or so, Aidan’s style of celibacy has much to teach us today.
For Aidan, personal poverty and celibacy were tools to enable him to live free of this world’s attachments in order to devote himself to the most important things: loving Jesus, loving His followers, loving all – especially the poor.
Aidan knew how to withdraw from the crowds as he sought refuge in the monastery on the island of Lindisfarne; he also knew how to live and walk among ordinary people. He was accessible; he was connected. The ‘set-apartness’ of the monastic life did not make him aloof from the cries and heartaches of the poor. He was a ‘people man’.
Celibacy must surely result in ‘brotherliness’ (the two-gender variety!), warm, large-heartedness, a love for Jesus practically outworked in a poured-out life to those around. Free of the ties of a human partner, pure Jesus-love can be shared with a wide range of people.
Even if contemplative by nature, or given to a life of prayer, the cries of humankind must touch our hearts and cause us to move, to do in some way, be that prayer or practical action – or both. We are celibate for Christ, for others; the two are synonymous.
As with Aidan, so with us: Celibacy – love for Jesus – love for the church – connection with and love for the people – go hand in hand. In celibacy, heaven touches earth; celibacy is a heavenly gift but our feet are fixed firmly on the earth, in, among – people. Indeed, paradoxical though it appears, the closer we are to God, the closer we are to those we find ourselves amongst.
“Brother, it seems to me that you were too severe on your ignorant hearer.”
These are the first recorded words of St. Aidan, described by one historian as ‘the Apostle of England”. Aidan at the time was a monk in St Columba’s famous Irish monastery on Iona on the west coast of Scotland.
The ‘brother’ to whom Aidan spoke was another monk called Corman who had returned downcast from a failed mission to Northumbria. He had been invited to evangelise the kingdom by Oswald, the Anglo-Saxon king, who had been converted through the Ionan monks. “I can’t do it,” he said dejectedly. “Those Northumbrians! They’re stupid. They’re pig-headed. In fact, they’re plain barbarians! It just can’t be done.”
All eyes turned on Aidan. “Well,” they said, “if you think you’ve got the answer, you’d better go and try it!” So they made Aidan a bishop, found 12 volunteers to go with him, and sent him off to Northumbria. This happened in the year 635 A.D.
Choosing the famous island ‘Lindisfarne’ for their monastery and mission base, Aidan and his monks began a very successful mission that reached the very heart of the people of Northumbria. Aidan refused to allow his position of leadership to raise him above the level of the poor. He used money given by the rich to buy boys from slavery whom he would take home to the monastery at Lindisfarne. Generally he insisted on walking everywhere so that he could take every available opportunity to meet ‘the people’.
The following story illustrates Aidan’s love for the poor. Oswald’s successor, King Oswin, was a good friend to Aidan and, worried by the fact that Aidan would not ride a horse, chose one of his best horses and gave it to him. A little while later he met a beggar, who asked for money so Aidan gave him the horse. The king, on hearing this, was angry. “There are plenty of poor quality horses in the royal stables which would do for beggars. But that was a very good horse, which I had chosen for you!” Aidan was amazed. “My lord king,” he protested, “surely you can’t mean to tell me that that foal of a mare is more important to you than a beggar, the child of God?”
This story gives an important clue to Aidan and his monks’ success. They had learned to love, to see ‘a child of God’ in the poorest of the poor. Bede, the famous historian and near contemporary of Aidan, writes of Aidan and his community that they ‘lived as they taught’. They were completely genuine. Aidan cared nothing at all for worldly possessions; he gave away whatever money was given to him. He did not care at all about worldly position; he was outspoken in criticising the powerful when necessary. He was a man “of peace and love, purity and humility”. He knew how to be friends with the mighty, without compromising his own standard, but he particularly cared for the sick and the poor.
Corman had not been right! The Northumbrians could respond to the good news brought by Aidan and his team, though they did not live to see the immense expansion of missionary work from Lindisfarne which would take place in the next generation.