by Elaine Breckenridge; Photo Credit: Randy OHC, CC BY 2.0 St. Aiden. Holy Cross Monastery Chapel, West Park, New York
Happy St. Aiden’s Day! My first introduction to St. Aiden was through reading A Holy Island Prayer Book by Ray Simpson. In the book, Simpson includes stories of some of the saints associated with Holy Island, Northumberland, England. As the founder of the monastery called Lindisfarne Priory and St. Mary’s Anglican Church on Holy Island, stories of St. Aiden figure prominently in the book.
St. Aiden was born in Ireland in the seventh century and spent his formative years as a monk in Iona, Scotland. In 635, he was called by King Oswald to bring Christianity to what was then Northumbria, England. Ordained as a Bishop, Aiden centered his ministry at first on the island but his mission extended as far south as London. He and his monks were faithful in corporate prayer and practiced solitude and seclusion, often praying on this small island opposite Holy Island and cut off twice daily by high tides.
He is credited for bringing Christianity to the English people. He also established the first school in England on Holy Island, training new monks who could carry on his ministry after his death. He died in the royal city of Bamburgh in 651.
Biographers agree that Aiden was both a humble and compassionate person. St. Bede in his book, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in 731, tells us that Aiden made an intentional effort to reach out to all the people he met, “whether rich or poor. If they were unbelievers, he encouraged them to embrace the mystery of the faith, or, if already Christians, he would strengthen them in the faith and stir them up, by words and actions, to alms and good works.”
Aiden preferred walking on his mission rather than riding a horse. Walking among the people Aiden could identify their exact needs and minister to them in specific ways. When he was given money, he gave it to the poor or often went to the slave market to purchase a slave’s freedom. And he was bold enough to rebuke kings.
There is a story that King Oswin, son of King Oswald once presented Aiden with a fine horse as a gift. Aiden immediately gave it away to the first person he met on the road. When the King heard about this, he chastised Aiden. In reply, Aiden said: “What are you saying, Your Majesty? Is this child of a mare more valuable to you than this child of God?” After that response, the King humbled himself before his Bishop and said, “I will not refer to this matter again, not will I enquire how much of our bounty you give away to God’s children.” As Ray Simpson says, Aiden had both the boldness and the gentleness to unlock the hearts of those he encountered.
After praying with and reading from this book, I decided to take a pilgrimage to Holy Island and the surrounding area in 2010. A highlight of my pilgrimage was to visit St. Aiden’s Church in Bamburgh.
As I entered the church there was a sign welcoming me which read: “Welcome to St. Aidan’s whoever you may be—a casual visitor, a tourist fascinated by this beautiful historic building, a believer seeking an oasis of silence and prayer, a pilgrim in search of truth, a traveler hoping for healing and consolation.” What a beautiful word of welcome and gesture of hospitality that was.
In the entryway, there were displays which detailed the church’s current ministries. In the back of the church there was an entire children’s corner, with blankets, books, toys, and a rocking chair. This place obviously cared about welcoming children.
Then, I noticed all the women. I found panels of stain glass dedicated to women saints, from Mary and Martha of Bethany, to Brigid, Hilda, Ebbe, all Celtic saints, and more contemporary saints like Florence Nightingale. In another corner their needlecrafters had created a huge and marvelous history quilt, depicting the centuries of the ministries of women in that congregation, including what their women’s guild was doing in real-time.
A large central and freestanding altar draped with contemporary fabrics, fresh flowers and candles beckoned me to come near. As I walked behind the altar, I saw that I was in the presence of St. Aiden’s Shrine which I did not know would be there.
St. Aiden had died leaning against one of the buttresses on the outside of the church. A beam from where Aiden rested had survived unscathed through two subsequent burnings of the church. At the church’s third rebuilding, the beam was brought inside the church and many reported miracles of healing by touching it. It was touched so often that a decision was made to attach it to the ceiling to protect it.
I sat down by the shrine. I was deeply moved to be there. After a period of silent meditation, I realized that it was St. Aiden himself who was embodied in the ministry of the church so many centuries later. The hospitality of St. Aiden was genuinely manifest in the things and symbols of this church building. Though I did not see a single person, I felt surrounded by the saints of God; both the living saints who were a part of that congregation and the love of the many saints who had followed Aiden and prayed at his shrine. Like Aiden, the members of that congregation were offering the hospitality of God, Christ and the Spirit to any stranger who crossed their threshold.
As a believer, I felt that here was a living and dynamic faith community, a place where I would have enjoyed worshiping and participating in their ministries. As a pilgrim, I was free to wander around the church, alone and at will. There were no ropes or rails that prevented me from exploring each nook and cranny. As a traveler, a side chapel, offered me an oasis of rest for prayer with soft cushions for meditation. As a tourist, I felt welcome indeed because another wonder was a sign which read,
“Looking for internet? Free access to the internet is available across the street, in the lobby of the Bamburgh Hotel. Just mention that you saw this sign at St. Aidan’s Church.” I went to the Hotel and the sign was correct. Gratefully, I was able to get online and connect with friends and family back home!
I experienced and learned that a church building can indeed be a sanctuary of divine, saintly and human hospitality. A stranger can grow nearer to the love of God in the fellowship of all the saints in any church that cares about the ministry of hospitality. And so, I offer this prayer for all of us by Ray Simpson from, A Holy Island Prayer Book.
“Lord Jesus, simplicity and a deep love for people shone out of your apostle Aidan. Grant that, like him, we may be gentle in our loving and bold in our speaking. May we inspire others to learn your ways, and so pass on the fire of faith. Amen.”
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