Saint Aidan: The Northern Missionary

A statue of Saint Aidan

Feast Day: 31 August

The background

After the Romans had left Britain and the Saxons invaded (pushing the native Britons to what we now know as Wales, Cornwall and Cumberland), most of England was pagan and worshiped the Saxon gods rather than the Christian understanding of God. England was divided into several kingdoms and while several rose and fell, the notable ones were Wessex (the south), Mercia (the midlands), Northumbria (the north) and East Anglia.

Before vast swathes of England were taken by the Saxons, however, St. Patrick had been captured by Irish pirates – an event which, in the long run, would result in Ireland’s conversion and, subsequently, the incredible missionaries who came over from Ireland to England to bring the Saxon kingdoms into the Christian world. This is the story of one such missionary.

A bit about Aidan

Saint Aidan was born in Ireland and joined the monastery at Iona, which was the first monastery built by the Irish missionaries when they came to Britain. By the time he was born, the spread of Christianity in what we now know as Scotland had been very effective. However, far less effective had been the attempts to convert the Anglo-Saxons in England. Several monks had tried to establish a foothold in the most northern kingdom of Northumbria; however, most reported a sceptical and closed-minded response by the locals and several claimed they were not worth the effort.

Aidan disagreed. Once he received permission to establish a mission, he took several monks with him and established a monastery called Lindisfarne. Lindisfarne would prove crucial to the conversion of the English and would later become known as the cradle of English Christianity. In its early years, however, it would have appeared rather unremarkable, yet it was from here that St. Aidan and his monks began to spread the faith.

He followed the early apostolic model of conversion, first befriending and understanding where the locals were coming from and then relating Church doctrine to their life in a way that was both understandable and practical. He described it as by offering “them first the milk of gentle doctrine, to bring them by degrees, while nourishing them with the Divine Word, to the true understanding and practice of the more advanced precepts.”

A lasting legacy

Aidan was responsible for the construction of churches, monasteries and schools throughout Northumbria. At the same time, he earned a tremendous reputation for his pious charity and dedication to the less fortunate. He would provide room, board and education to orphans, and would regularly use contributions to the Church to pay for the freedom of slaves. By the end of his life he had made a significant mark on the kingdom of Northumbria and converted vast swathes of people to the faith. He died on the 31 August 651 after becoming ill while on one of his incessant missionary tours, and died leaning against the wall of the local church.

Perhaps Aidan’s greatest legacy is that from Lindisfarne (know known as the holy island), missionaries would continue to go forth and the whole of England would become Christian from the seeds that he sew.

Holy Island
Holy Island

Why Saint Aidan inspires me

A reflection from someone in our young Catholic community

Saint Aidan is awesome because of his simplicity. He simply loved God and loved the people who he worked with and, through this deep love, he converted a kingdom. As a missionary his example and teaching is perfect. He shows the importance, effect and joy of converting the whole person and helping them to build faith into their whole life, rather than just having it as a Sunday obligation with no further commitment. Lastly, the mammoth task he had and how he overcame it simply through dedication and love of God is both encouraging and challenging as it shows how we too are able to have such an impact if we let God lead us.

Prayer of Saint Aidan

Leave me alone with God as much as may be.
As the tide draws the waters close in upon the shore,
Make me an island, set apart,
alone with you, God, holy to you.

Then with the turning of the tide
prepare me to carry your presence to the busy world beyond,
the world that rushes in on me
till the waters come again and fold me back to you.

Amen.