Your true face
Today is Aidan's feast day, a man and saint who could see a person's true face.
The 7th century in Britain was a time of changing fortunes, invasion, sharp religious differences, and murderous violence. In some ways it was quite different from our own times, in other ways, quite similar, and there is a vital current which connects people of the 7th and 21st centuries.
The people in what is now Northumbria and East Anglia lived in small settlements carved out of forests where wolves roamed. They fought and died in bloody battles that have been described as pitiless gang-warfare (Fletcher, Revenge in Anglo-Saxon England). A typical Anglo-Saxon hero was Weland the blacksmith who took bloodthirsty vengeance on his enemies. In one episode he offers a princess a cup to drink made from her brother's head.
A few people had great wealth due to plunder and trade. It was at this time that the Sutton Hoo treasures - silver bowls from the Mediterranean, a gold belt buckle, a gold and garnet cloisonné sword - were buried. (They were discovered in the 20th century.)
The island sanctuaryThere was at this time an island sanctuary off the west coast of Scotland. It was to this island that three young children fled after their father had been killed in battle. They travelled west to the one community they knew would give them sanctuary. Their names were Eanfrith, Oswald and Oswiu. Oswald, was twelve.
Gold buckle from the Sutton Hoo treasure ship. It probably belonged to the chief who killed Oswald's father. /Image: British Museum
The island community had been founded by Columba, who was known to the Gaelic speakers of the area as Colum Cille. Driven by his aisling - a dream of peace he had seen on an Irish battlefield - Columba went to sea with twelve companions. They washed ashore on an island of white sands, three miles long, and one-and-a-half miles wide. They called it Ì. Today it is called Iona. They were passionate about the teachings of Isu Mac De, the Gaelic name for Jesus, the Son of God. They started a monastic school, and drew young scholars from all over Britain.
Columba had been dead less than 20 years when the three children arrived in AD 616. They were given sanctuary by the monks of Ì even though hundreds of monks had been killed on the order of their father. On the island, Oswald met Aidan.
Though it's difficult for most people to tell whether a person is lying, research suggests it is not difficult for contemplatives. Some years ago a study with Buddhist monks investigated whether the monks could discern truth-tellers by looking at their faces as they spoke. Their ability to distinguish falsehood was 100 percent. Christian contemplatives have had similar experiences.
To this ability Aidan brought another quality. He could see not only who people were, but who they wished they could become.
Oswald returned to his father's old kingdoms (Bernicia and Deira) in what is now Northumbria to try to restore just rule. He gathered a small army and against overwhelming odds, regained his kingdom. He then asked the monks of Ì to bring the teachings of Isu Mac De to his people.
A Christian missionary had come to his kingdom from Canterbury six years earlier, but he made little impression outside the court. The first monk who arrived in Northumbria from Ì was also a failure. He returned with a bitter report.
At which Aidan asked whether Oswald's people had been fed the meat of Mac De's teachings or the milk. It was an interesting question - not did you treat them with patronizing arrogance, but what did you teach them?
The monks immediately understood what Aidan was driving at. Every person begins taking nourishment by drinking milk. Making things too spiritually difficult was not going to work. Around AD 635 they sent Aidan to Oswald.
Did Aidan want to travel miles through rough country to speak with people whose language he did not know in a kingdom where violence was endemic? He shrugged off these drawbacks, which would have given us pause, and set out for Northumbria.
Oswald expected that Aidan would live at his court, but Aidan refused his offer, and declined to ride the horse Oswald had given him. He had different ideas about Christ's teachings and how to communicate them. He and his companion monks went to live on an island just offshore.
The sun rising over the path to Holy Island, Lindisfarne. Aidan lived on Lindisfarne and walked to Northumbria when the retreating tide opened a path to shore.
Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, where Aidan chose to live, lay off the coast of Northumbria. As the tide ebbs and flows, Bede wrote, the place is surrounded twice daily by the waves of the sea. When the tide ebbed, a path of wet sand appeared, a pilgrim's track that Aidan walked to the mainland, and visitors walked to the island. When the tide flowed back, the path disappeared. Seals swam in the breakers.
Three miles long and one mile wide, it lay off the east coast of Britain. The island was close to Oswald's court, yet remote. The monastic community was protected by the king, but independent of his politics. In the island's peace they could practice the contemplative prayer of love that Jesus had practiced. On the windy island they built huts, an oratory, and a hall to teach students to read and write Latin, the language in which their books were written. Hand-bells rang through the roar of the surf. Retreat though it was, the island was also a place to leave, to meet the people of Oswald's kingdom on an equal footing.
According to legend, that is why Aidan refused Oswald's gift of a horse. He did not want to tower over men and women and intimidate them. He wanted to meet them face to face. He wanted to bring them what he had - faith and happiness.
Faith and Happiness
Jesus said, Look, I'm at the door, knocking. If you hear me calling and open the door, I'll come in and share your meal, side by side with you (Revelation 3:20).
Aidan shared meals with the people he met. He was happy to sit down with those who didn't make the cut at other tables. He incarnated one of Christ's most radical ideas - the children of God are equals - 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus', wrote Paul in a letter to the Celtic Galatians.
This great idea of equality would become the beating heart of the American Revolution. More personally it is the feeling we have when we are treated with dignity and respect. It touched the hearts of the people who met Aidan.
Jesus said, Love God and love your neighbour as yourself (Mathew 22:37-40). Be compassionate as God is compassionate (Luke 6:36). The idea of a loving God was completely new to them.
To understand what Aidan meant, the people of Northumbria wanted to see a man actually incarnate the command to act justly, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). They had no use for a man who talked about the Gospel but was not himself 'the living book'. They believed the words because Aidan lived them. As they felt cherished by him, the words breathed inside them.
Aidan said that Jesus was their friend, and he offered his own hand in friendship to men and women. When Hilda first came to him he saw a young woman whose eyes were still seared by the death of her uncle, whose hacked-off head had been displayed on the battlements of York.
When Hilda was thirty-three, Aidan saw her true face - the woman she was and the woman she would be - and encouraged her to establish a double monastery where orphans were cared for, students were taught, and poets sang.
Helmet found at Sutton Hoo. / Image: British Museum
At a time when 'bloodfeud, murder and revenge' were rampant, and when free men and women could be turned into slaves by kidnapping or invasion, Aidan modelled a different way of living. He saw deep inside each individual. The golden treasures of Sutton Hoo could not compare with the beauty he saw inside all people.
In turn they saw 'the sign and incarnation of the spiritual essence' in his face.
The fourth gift
Aidan had offered them the gifts of faith and love and happiness. The fourth gift was hope -
'A man's life is like a sparrow's flight', an old Ealdorman told the king. 'It flies through the hall when you are sitting at meat in winter-tide, with the warm fire lighted on the hearth, but the icy rain-storm without. The sparrow flies in at one door and tarries for a moment in the light and heat of the hearth-fire, and then flying forth from the other door vanishes into the wintry darkness whence it came. So tarries for a moment the life of man in our sight, but what is before it, what after it, we know not. If this new teaching about the Son of God tells us what happens after, let us follow it'.
That is Bede's account of the first Northumbrian encounter with a Christian from Canterbury. Ten years later, Aidan made 'what happens after' real to Northumbrians, and showed them the pathway to eternal life.
Sustaining creativity and goodness
On the island, simplicity of life contributed to freedom, culture, and pleasure. The monks made the sweet wine called mead from honey, ate frugally but well - beef stews, bread, salads, and summer puddings - and had time to study and pray, write books and teach, listen to music, and experience what St Benedict called 're-creation'.
Their community was one of many Christian communities in Britain. These Christian communities invented a plough strong enough Northern Europe's heavy soils, improved breeds of animals, copied books, and established universities, hospices, and hospitals.
They tried to hold kings to a covenant with their people. In exchange for their support, a king promised to give his people fair play, equity, justice, and mercy. This idea is still of vital importance to us today when we ask presidents and prime ministers to represent us by speaking truly and acting wisely and justly.
Oswald became known for his generosity to the poor and to strangers. He seemed to embody the ideal described in the Psalm - Mercy and truth are met together: righteousness and peace have kissed each other (Psalm 85).
Oswald had ruled for eight years when the hopes of his people were shattered. Rumours of war, plunder and slaughter reached Holy Island. A 'heathen' host under Penda was marching in Middle England.
Whether Oswald was defending his people, or had decided to challenge Penda is not clear. On the 5th of August 542, Oswald was killed at the Battle of Maserfield. Penda had Oswald's body dismembered, and offered up as a sacrifice to his gods.
Northumbrian resistance stopped Penda a few miles from Holy Island after Aidan prayed for help. But less than ten years later, Aidan's friend Oswine, the peaceful ruler of Deira, was murdered. Despite this violence and misery Aidan continued to bear witness to a different way of life.
He did not teach that believing in Jesus Christ would make a man or woman safe. He taught that men and women could reach their highest good in community by following Christ: loving themselves and others, speaking the truth and keeping their promises, practicing forgiveness and living with faith.
Future invasions would come close to destroying what they created, but love is stronger than death, and survived.
You can see the sign and incarnation of the spiritual essence in the faces of the people who followed them and did everything in their power to build a better place for children to live. You can see that spiritual essence in faces today. Those who look in your face may see that sign.
The sign and incarnation of the spiritual essence is a quote from Roger Scruton's book England, An Elegy.