If you turn your attention to the east side of the church and focus on the second window from the front, you will see our patron saint Aidan portrayed. As would be expected of a bishop, he’s holding a crozier—the long shepherd’s staff—in his left hand, while his right hand is raised ready to offer a blessing. But if you look closely in the lower right of the window, beside Aidian is a deer. A certain legend is that one day Aidan was walking through the forest. He came upon hunters who were pursuing a deer. Aidan miraculously made the deer invisible to the hunters and thereby saved the deer’s life. That is why Aidan is often portrayed alongside a deer. The deer is a symbol of Aidan’s own spirituality of solitude, devotion and prayer.
Today we celebrate Aidan our patron saint. Those who helped to bring about this congregation over a century ago felt a deep connection to St. Aidan, which is why to this day we are called the Church of St. Aidan. Aidan is the saint we strive to learn from and look to for insight and inspiration. Who was Aidan? Much of what we know is dependent on St. Bede, an 8th century English monk and historian. Aidan was a 7th century Irish monk. We don’t know much about Aidan’s childhood, but from a relatively young age he lived at the monastery of Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland. At this time, the presence of Christianity in Northumbria (northern England) was giving way to a form of so-called Anglo-Saxon paganism. King Oswald of Northumbria, a devout Christian, did not want to see Christianity die out. So he requested that the Iona monastery send missionaries to help spread the Good News of Jesus throughout the land.
Iona responded by sending Bishop Corman, who turned out to be a disaster. Corman engaged the people of Northumbria in a condescending, antagonistic and inflexible manner. It didn’t take him long to conclude that they were a lost cause, too steeped in paganism to be redeemed. He gave up and returned to Iona. It was Aidan who spoke up and told Corman that his approach was all wrongheaded. We don’t know if Aidan criticized Corman in order to volunteer himself to be sent or if he had already been chosen to go. In any case, Aidan was identified by the monastery as the one to accomplish what Corman had failed to do.
Aidan and his small team made the arduous trek from Iona to Northumbria, and he based himself on the island of Lindisfarne, where he built a monastery and was made bishop. He was very intentional about distancing himself from his predecessor, Bishop Corman. Aidan wanted simply to walk about among the people, engaging them as they are. He embodied St. Paul’s words in today’s first reading: “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” He became much loved, especially among the poor, and this allowed him to establish churches, monasteries and schools, even though Northumbria never became completely Christianized.
When Aidan had been in Northumbria for about seven years, King Oswald was killed in battle. His successor was King Oswin, also a Christian who had developed considerable admiration for Aidan. Oswin presented Aidan with a royal horse so that he didn’t have to travel everywhere on foot. No sooner had Aidan been given the horse that he encountered a poor man begging. Aidan gave the man the royal horse. King Oswin wasn’t pleased. When he asked Aidan about it, Aidan replied: “Do you value a horse more than a child of God outside your gates?” King Oswin was convicted by this response and was moved to pursue greater humility in his interactions with people. Aidan served as bishop for 16 years and then retired to Lindisfarne, where he died in 651.
We can learn much from Aidan’s legacy, but let me suggest a couple of things for us to contemplate—and I’m using the word “contemplate” intentionally. First, I think we would do well to consider how the symbolism of the deer reflects Aidan’s spirituality. Like the deer, Aidan valued quiet and solitude. How many of us are caught up in the frenzy of our daily work? Commuting here and there, long hours in the office, hectic business trips, extracurricular activities for kids, struggling to squeeze in any leisure pleasure. Some of us are consumed with caring for aging and ill family members, which can take an exhausting toll. Perhaps adult children have become a cause of extra anxiety. If you relate to any of this, I think Aidan’s legacy is a recommendation that we cultivate practices of silence and contemplation, to connect more deeply with God our grounding source. One opportunity for this is our Wednesday evening meditation sessions that will be resuming this fall. But our liturgy here on Sunday morning can help. As we enter the fall, you may notice some subtle changes as we practice silence at various places in the service. In his book titled Silence, Thich Nhat Hanh, the late Buddhist master, writes that many people find silence “scary and unsettling. The silence doesn’t feel safe or comfortable because they are used to a background of constant noise.” We can become a church that resists the noise that is everywhere around us. Aidan’s own spirituality invites us to embrace quietness together, to connect with God in the stillness.
A second thing we can learn from Aidan’s legacy is his total commitment to following the Way of Jesus. He was all in. He didn’t set off to Northumbria to satisfy a craving for personal fame. He went, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “for my name’s sake,” as a disciple of Jesus. I don’t know what Aidan would think about certain churches today, like our church, being named after him. I suspect he’d be rather ambivalent. That’s because Aidan would be concerned to see us follow the Way of Jesus, not simply claim the saint name of a church as the basis of our faith. If we’re going to leave everything and follow Jesus, as Peter says he’s done in today’s Gospel, then we need to remember that our faith transcends the name St. Aidan’s Anglican Church. The mission of this church, which you’ll find clearly stated on our website, is “to know Christ and make Christ known.” That’s why we’re here: to learn about Jesus, and then to embody everything about him so that our neighborhood and our city might be transformed.
He might not rank among the most well known saints, but Aidan is a remarkable figure in Christian history. Today we celebrate him, and we give thanks for his life, his faith, his love of all creation, his steadfast commitment to Jesus’ liberating Good News, and the challenge he poses to all of us to find time to be still and quiet.