Saint Aidan, a firm defender of Celtic practices against the imposition of Roman usage, was born in Ireland (then called Scotland) in the seventh century. As a monk of the monastery founded by Saint Columba on the island of Iona, he was known for his strict asceticism.
When the holy King Oswald of Northumbria wanted to convert his people to Christianity, he turned to the Celtic monks of Iona, rather than the Roman clergy at Canterbury. The first bishop sent to lead the mission proved unsuitable, for he alienated many people by his harshness, and he blamed the hostile disposition of the English for his failure. Aidan said that the bishop was to blame, and not the English. Instead of being very severe with an ignorant people, he should have fed them with milk rather than solid food (1 Corinthians 3:2). The bishop was recalled, and an ideal candidate was found to replace him.
Aidan was consecrated bishop and sent to Northumbria to take charge of the mission. King Oswald gave him the island of Lindisfarne near the royal residence of Bamburg for his episcopal See. Aidan also founded the famous monastery on Lindisfarne in 635.
Saint Bede, in his Ecclesiatical History of the English People, praises Aidan for his humility and piety, recommending him as a model for other bishops and priests to follow. He was not attached to the things of this world, nor did he seek earthly treasures. Whenever he received gifts from the king or from rich men, he distributed them to the poor. On Wednesdays and Fridays he would fast from all food until the Ninth Hour (about 3pm), except during the Paschal season.
From Lindisfarne, Aidan traveled all over Northumbria, visiting his flock and establishing missions. Saint Oswald, who knew Gaelic from the time he and his family were exiled to Iona, acted as an interpreter for Bishop Aidan, who did not speak English. Thus, the king played an active role in the conversion of his people.
One year, after attending the services of Pascha, King Oswald sat down to a meal with Bishop Aidan. Just as the bishop was about to bless the food, a servant came in and informed the king that a great number of needy folk were outside begging for alms. The king ordered that his own food be served to the poor on silver platters, and that the silver serving dishes be broken up and distributed to them.
Aidan, deeply moved by Saint Oswald’s charity, took him by the right hand and said, “May this hand never perish.” According to Tradition, Saint Oswald’s hand remained incorrupt for centuries after his death. Saint Bede says that the hand was kept in the church of Saint Peter at Bamburgh, where it was venerated by all. The present location of the hand, if it still survives, is not known.
Saint Oswald was killed in battle against the superior forces of King Penda on August 5, 642 at a place called Maserfield. He was only thirty-eight years old. Aidan was deeply grieved by the king’s death, but his successor Saint Oswin was also very dear to him.
King Oswin once gave Aidan a horse and a cart for his journeys (the bishop usually traveled on foot). Soon after this, Bishop Aidan met a beggar and gave him the horse and cart. The king heard of this and was disturbed by it. He asked Aidan why he had given the royal gift away when there were ordinary horses in the stables which were more suitable for a beggar. Aidan rebuked him, asking if the king regarded the foal of a mare more highly than the Son of God. At first, he did not understand. Then he fell at the bishop’s feet, weeping tears of repentance. Asking for forgiveness, Oswin promised never again to judge Aidan’s charitable deeds.
Aidan raised the king to his feet, declaring that he had never seen a king who was so humble. He prophesied that Oswin would soon depart from this life, since the people did not deserve such a ruler. His prophecy was soon fulfilled, for Saint Oswin was murdered at Gilling on August 20, 651. Aidan departed to the Lord on August 31, less than two weeks later. He died at Bamburgh, by the west wall of the church. The beam on which he was leaning to support himself still survives, even though the church was twice destroyed by fire. The beam may still be seen in the ceiling of the present church, above the baptismal font.
On the day Saint Aidan died, Saint Cuthbert was a young man tending his master’s sheep. Looking up, Cuthbert saw a vision of angels bearing someone’s soul to heaven in a sphere of fire. Later, he learned that Bishop Aidan had died at the very hour that he had seen the vision.
At first, the holy bishop Aidan was buried at Lindisfarne on the right side of the altar in the church of Saint Peter. In 664 the Synod of Whitby declared that all the churches of Britain must follow Roman practices, and that Celtic customs were to be suppressed. Saint Colman, the third Bishop of Lindisfarne, was unable to accept this decision. Therefore, he decided to retire to Iona, taking the bones of Saint Aidan with him. Celtic customs survived on Iona until the eighth century.