I’ve often talked about my love of Iona as both a place of pilgrimage and a centre for Celtic Christianity. The physical space – an abbey on a small island – has a holiness about it that is almost tangible. And the worship and work that the Iona Community does, as a faith community active both on the island and beyond, is inspiring and admirable. And Iona, of course, was the home of the monastic community of the monk St Aidan, our patron saint whom we celebrate today.
Having said that, it was the island of Lindisfarne that first drew me to St Aidan – the little holy island where St Aidan established his missionary monastery 14 hundred years ago. I went to Lindisfarne many times and many years before I ever visited Iona. As I learned about who St Aidan was and how he had rekindled the Christian faith in that part of the land after its invasion and settlement by the Angles, I felt drawn to his story and his example. The statue of him holding a flaming torch aloft and facing out from the island to the mainland became a symbol for me of what it means to carry the light of Christ into the world – rooted in a holy place set apart for prayer and worship, but reaching out to the needs of the wider world.
When our first child was born, Tom, we gave him the middle name Aidan, as a link to our Celtic roots and to that place and person. And now here I am, serving my final years in the parish of St Aidan in Canada. What a journey it’s been!
What does it mean to us as a faith community today to have St Aidan as our patron? I wonder if for you he feels like a remote historical figure, or something more significant? As I ponder the last 18 months we’ve been through together here, with the pandemic closing our church and then the major renovations keeping it off limits, I feel even more clearly how connected we are to the spirit of this man.
Aidan left everything he knew at least twice: he left his native Ireland to join the monastic community on Iona, and then he left Iona to found a monastery on Lindisfarne. Like the disciples in today’s gospel reading, he gave up family, friends, all things familiar and secure, and took a risk for the sake of the gospel. He followed where Christ and the gospel led.
There have been many times in the past year and a half where I’ve been like a whiny disciple saying to Jesus, “Look, we’ve lost so much: our church is closed, we can’t see our family and friends like we used to, we can’t travel, we can’t gather together like we used to, we can’t even sing hymns together!”
It’s been a painful time. We’ve lost members of this community and been unable to visit them as they were sick and dying, or hug their loved ones, or grieve at their funerals. Babies have been born and we haven’t been able to baptize them. Weddings have been planned then cancelled. Yes, we’ve persevered and survived, and this too shall pass. But let’s not pretend that it hasn’t been costly; it hasn’t been sacrificial.
I picture St Aidan cheering us on. He experienced loss and sacrifice, changes and leavings, and he stayed rooted and grounded in God. And the first thing he and his fellow monks did when they arrived in Northumberland was find a suitable place to clear the land and build a place of prayer. Prayer and worship are the bedrock, on which everything else is built. So as we’ve fumbled our way through Zoom services, videos, online meditation, prayer times and retreats, and now outdoor services too, I see Aidan smiling and applauding our efforts. We need to stay rooted and grounded in our relationship with God first.
Aidan also had to deal with issues of poverty and wealth, power and vulnerability, just as we do today. King Oswald had invited Aidan to live in the protection of the royal castle and fortress, and to go out in mission and ministry from there, but Aidan had turned him down and chosen Lindisfarne instead. He knew that the gospel isn’t preached and lived from on high, from a position of power and prestige, but from among the people, at their level. So as he and his monks went out from the island to the mainland day by day, they walked on foot and talked to everyone they met, rich or poor. They preached the gospel simply and invitationally, and they lived by its precepts. Aidan was known for buying slaves their freedom, and for caring for the poor and sick. He repeatedly refused to enrich himself or his monks with favours from the king. When they were given rich gifts, they passed them on.
As we live in a post-Christendom age, where churches don’t enjoy high stature and prestige in society, and where the social and economic injustices of our world cry out, Aidan is a patron saint we can emulate. We too need to be squarely focused on service to others, not power over them, and on working for justice, not benefitting from inequities. His priorities then can still be ours today.
Like us, Aidan also had to deal with a history of colonization. Britain had been invaded by the Angles a century earlier, and there was still a deep and hostile divide between the indigenous British and the Angles who had settled the land after conquering. As both the indigenous people and the Angles were drawn to the faith and became Christian, Aidan taught them that they were one in Christ, no longer enemies.
How would St Aidan look on our attempts to find reconciliation with Indigenous peoples today? What would he say about the need for churches to be humble, to be good listeners, to be peace-makers, to step down from positions of superiority? I think he’d be encouraging us in our efforts to unlearn the things that have been harmful to our communities, and to embrace a way that builds up the weak, sets the oppressed free, and brings peace where there was division.
Aidan worked for more than a decade as Bishop of Lindisfarne and founder of that monastery and several churches. According to legend he died while leaning against the wall outside a church, exhausted. (I can identify with that!) His story is history, but it’s so relevant to us today as well: his willingness to leave everything and take huge risks for the sake of the gospel; his commitment to prayer and a deep spiritual life; his work to bring justice and freedom to the poor and enslaved; his peacemaking and community building…. All as a follower of Jesus.
So we celebrate Aidan of Iona and Lindisfarne today, and we give thanks to God for a patron saint to inspire us, to be a role model, and to cheer us on. Amen.