Once upon a time there was a man who was alive.

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St. Cuthbert and Disciples in a Boat


St. Aidan: The Grace of Discretion

Thou didst teach and preserve Christ's doctrine and didst spread the faith throughout Northumbria, O holy Hierarch Aidan. Unceasingly pray to God for us for thou dost worship before His throne for ever.

It is said, that when King Oswald had asked a bishop of the Scots to administer the Word of faith to him and his nation, there was first sent to him another man of more harsh disposition,who, after preaching for some time to the English and meeting with no success, not being gladly heard by the people, returned home, and in an assembly of the elders reported, that he had not been able to do any good by his teaching to the nation to whom he had been sent, because they were intractable men, and of a stubborn and barbarous disposition. They then, it is said, held a council and seriously debated what was to be done, being desirous that the nation should obtain the salvation it demanded, but grieving that they had not received the preacher sent to them. Then said Aidan, who was also present in the council, to the priest in question, "Methinks, brother, that you were more severe to your unlearned hearers than you ought to have been, and did not at first, conformably to the Apostolic rule, give them the milk of more easy doctrine, till, being by degrees nourished with the Word of God, they should be capable of receiving that which is more perfect and of performing the higher precepts of God." Having heard these words, all present turned their attention to him and began diligently to weigh what he had said, and they decided that he was worthy to be made a bishop, and that he was the man who ought to be sent to instruct the unbelieving and unlearned; since he was found to be endued preeminently with the grace of discretion, which is the mother of the virtues. So they ordained him and sent him forth to preach; and, as time went on, his other virtues became apparent, as well as that temperate discretion which had marked him at first.

Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 3.5

I have a particular love for St. Aidan, since coming across him while journeying through the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by St. Bede the Venerable (another English saint dear to my history-loving heart). It is to St. Bede's tome that we must turn to, in fact, to learn of St. Aidan. Although his feast day is some time off- August 31- I would like to commemorate and contemplate, in a series of posts, this wonderful Bishop of Northumbria. He lived in mission for the people of Northumbria, and was thus part of the great spread of the Gospel over the West. In our increasingly post-Christian Western world, his example is particularly relevant.

He was a Scot, Bede tells us (in Bede's time this implied Irish extraction) dwelling at the famed holy island Iona in the Pictish nation. One may imagine that to many of these Celtic Catholics the lately arrived Anglo-Saxon barbarians to the south were a rather useless lot, savages all. If the first priest did not think this on the outset of his ill-fated mission, he thought it upon arriving back at Iona. St. Aidan, however, remained concerned for this barbaric people's salvation. He recognized that pastoral wisdom and care was absolutely necessary in reaching the people of Northumbria. The Gospel must be given gradually, keeping to the simplicity of the story: and it is a remarkably simple story in many ways, enough that it would appear as 'foolishness' to the Greeks, like the Jordan River to Namaan. Yet in the simplicity of the Gospel narrative is contained all the wisdom of the world. It is is recieved by faith like a seed, which gradually expands and grows with cultivation. But the unfortunate priest had tried to circumvent the proper development of the people's understanding, and had instead 'overloaded' them in some way or another. St. Aidan emphasized understanding and care in his mission: and this doubtlessly contributed to his success. He possessed discretion in speaking the Gospel: not to diminish it but to open it those who had not heard, so that in time they might recieve its fullness.

In keeping with this spirit of care, Bishop Aidan tended to walk while traveling the countryside:

He was wont to traverse both town and country on foot, never on horseback, unless compelled by some urgent necessity; to the end that, as he went, he might turn aside to any whomsoever he saw, whether rich or poor, and call upon them, if infidels, to receive the mystery of the faith, or, if they were believers, strengthen them in the faith, and stir them up by words and actions to giving of alms and the performance of good works.

Ecclesiastical History, 3.5

He did not seek to exalt his episcopal office or his good standing with the king- both of which, doubtlessly could have helped gain converts, though perhaps not the genuine sort. Instead, we have a picture of the monk-bishop traversing the countryside on his own two feet, down with the people of the nation, not thundering by on horseback, but simply walking and talking with people. This was, of course, the manner in which Jesus went about His ministry. Aidan imitated His example, and further followed it by engaging those he met along the way. How different this is from the frantic and enclosed manner I go about life! It is not my wont to 'turn aside to whomsoever' I see and say anything, much less talk about Christ with them. I would much rather be in my car anyway, comfortably insulated from the world without. I only rarely meet the eyes of those passing me by: it is much easier to simply ignore them and not be forced to regard them. But we gather that this was not St. Aidan's way. Instead, as he walked the woods and fields of Northumbria, he actively cared for those he met, calling them to Christ, encouraging and instructing, and meeting their needs spiritually, and, as we shall see, materially as well. He sought the salvation of the Northumbrian people, through discretion and pastoral care and love, seeking out those in need of Christ.

To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

I Corinthians 9.22-23


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