“Nothing human’s not a broth of false and true.”
—Frederick Buechner, Godric
In Frederick Buechner’s extraordinary novel, the hermit Godric experiences several visions of Aidan, the abbot of ‘Farne’ (The prefix ‘Lindis’ means ‘island’). In the novel, the old abbot gently tries prying Godric away from the deep shame and sense of personal sin that consumes him.
We commemorate Aidan—bishop, missionary, and real-life abbot of Lindisfarne—on the church calendar today. If people know anything about Lindisfarne, it is likely to be the gorgeous Gospel book produced there between 715 and 720 CE, some 65 years after Aidan’s death. But it is Aidan’s compassion, forbearance, and understanding of human nature as ‘a broth of false and true’ that best characterizes this beloved saint.
A tumultuous period followed King Edwin of Northumbria’s death in battle in 632. Edwin had converted to Christianity in 627, and his demise touched off a violent pagan reaction. Oswald of Northumbria, the king’s nephew, fled to the Isle of Iona where he lived in exile within the walls of St. Columba’s monastery. It was on this tiny island that Oswald converted to Christianity and was baptized. When Oswald regained the throne, he naturally looked to Iona for missionaries, rather than to the Archbishops of Canterbury or York.
The first missionary preacher to arrive from Iona was a monk named Corman, who made no headway amongst the Northumbrians, whom he called ‘a savage and unteachable race.’ Upon hearing this characterization, a young monk named Aidan—who seems to have been well acquainted with Corman’s methods—suggested, ‘Perhaps you were too harsh with them, and they might have responded better to a gentler approach.’
Piping up like this was, of course, the ideal way to find oneself on the next boat to Northumbria leading a second missionary expedition. Rather than choosing nearby York as his base of operations, Aidan chose the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne off the northeast coast of England, possibly in imitation of the island monastery of Iona.
Aidan and his fellow monks trained several young Englishmen in mission work, and with King Oswald himself often acting as interpreter, not only restored Christianity to Northumbria, where it had been lost following the death of King Edwin in 632, but extended the mission through the fruitful midlands as far south as London. His missionary work was characterized by his mildness and kindness. In a time when the mission field often resembled a battle field, Aidan converted the pagans of his country though patient gentleness.
The Venerable Bede wrote of Aidan, ‘He neither sought nor loved anything of this world, but delighted in distributing immediately to the poor whatever was given him by kings or rich men of the world. He traversed both town and country on foot, never on horseback, unless compelled by some urgent necessity. Wherever on his way he saw any, either rich or poor, he invited them, if pagans, to embrace the mystery of the faith; or if they were believers, he sought to strengthen them in their faith and stir them up by words and actions to alms and good works.’
What relationships in your life might benefit from gentleness and kindness rather than stubborness and force?