Irish Missionaries Convert England
It is important to remember that just as Britons, Picts and Scots all belonged to the Celtic race in the Dark Ages, so Franks, Germans, Angles and Saxons were descendants of the pagan Teutonic invaders whose hungry surge westwards smashed through the defences of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the fifth century. So thoroughly was the Teutonic conquest of this island that only in Cornwall, Wales and the Highlands of Scotland is the Celtic language remembered. You and I speak and write a language descended from that of the Anglo-Saxons.
You will be quite wrong if you imagine seventh-century Anglo-Saxons to be lawless savages. I have before remarked that history can be a grand teacher of humility, and certainly few could turn the pages of Bede’s history of the Church in these islands (written early in the eighth century) without recognizing that the first English converts of the Scots were the spiritual equals of the finest Christians alive to-day.
But when the Irish (or Scots) missionaries from Iona came to England in 635, they came to teach a strange pagan race speaking a strange language. The fair, stalwart Anglo-Saxons looking far more like the Celts than the dark Romans did. But in contrast to Celtic wit, hot temper and charm, they showed the qualities of good humour, simplicity and perseverance. Pre-Christian Celts sang of sunlit islands where, after death, the good remained for ever young. Not so our pagan fore-fathers. They thought of this life as a warmly lit room through which our souls fly like helpless birds driven by a gale from one vast cold darkness to another. They were naturally brave, loyal and honest, despite this gloomy belief. Not till they had thought hard and long were they convinced that the Christian message was not mere wishful thinking. Then the Anglo-Saxons blossomed into the Christian nation of the English.
Scots from Iona
Something of this joy shines down at us like the light from a distant star as we study the lives of the seventh-century kings, princes, princesses, abbots, abbesses, monks and nuns who led the way to a new life. We owe it to that most attractive English scholar-monk, Bede, that we are able to catch such touching glimpses of our delightful forbears. He knows that the first chapter of the history of Christianity in England was lived by men and women who were tender-hearted, sensitive, generous, often noble in the true sense of the word, and almost always devoted to the Irish monks who came from Iona carrying with them the Good News that the rule of love leads to life everlasting.
The Scots who came from the tiny island of Iona in 635, proved far better missionaries than the Italians who arrived in 597 from the greatest city in the world. But though the Roman Catholic Church took surprisingly long to influence English minds, it was she who called together the first national Church Councils in England. For unlike the Celtic Church, she regarded, perhaps rightly, both unity and organization as extremely important. (the Roman Catholic Church was created in 1054 when the Church in Rome which until them Western Rite Orthodox Church broke away from Orthodoxy and declared war on Christians who would not bow their heads to Rome which declared itself head of the Christian Faith).
In charge of this organization in 597 was Pope Gregory, and he it was who ordered the monk Augustine to lead a party of missionaries from Rome to the rescue of the ‘unknown, fierce and unbelieving nation’ of the English. They had not gone far before he had to write to them quite fiercely to prevent them retuning in panic. Compared with the Scots and Britons who had been working fearlessly and tirelessly in Brittany and France for the past fifty years, these missionaries were hopelessly ignorant of conditions abroad. But God was with them.
Arrival of St. Augustine
obediently they carried their precious books north across France, where they picked up the interpreters ordered by the Pope to help them in England. These Frankish men would naturally advise landing in Kent, where the king happened to have married a Frankish wife. Better still, they said, Bertha was a Christian and her Frankish bishop had restored for worship the old British church of St. Martin in Canterbury. It must have been encouraging to hear of an educated Christian who could speak Latin, the language of the Church. No wonder the Roman missionaries took heart and went to meet the pagan king with holy songs and prayers and ‘bearing a silver cross for their banner’.
No sooner had the king approved the building of a church and monastery than Augustine set off for Arles to be consecrated archbishop of the English. Here he was surprised to find the service different from the Roman. But when he wrote doubtfully to ask Pope Gregory why this should be allowed when there was but one Faith, he was told the Pope like the variety. Augustine was advised to take the best from the French, Roman and British church services, so that the new English prayer book might contain as beautiful a liturgy as possible. In reply to another question, the Pope told Augustine that he had no authority over the Frankish bishops. ‘But as for all British bishops, we commend them to your care that the unlearned may be taught, the weak strengthened by persuasion and the stubborn corrected by authority.’
This last sentence shows that the Pope knew little or nothing about the Celts and the Church they had built up by themselves during the last century and a half. In their isolation, the Celts had grown equally ignorant for most of them thought of the Pope, not as he thought of himself – as head of the western Church, but simply as the extremely important abbot of Rome. No wonder they were bewildered to hear that their English enemies now had a Roman archbishop who claimed authority over all Celtic bishops. They consulted a wise man, who warned them against trusting Augustine unless he behaved humbly when he met them. Unfortunately, when Augustine arrived at Bangor on Dee in 603, he still knew little about the Celtic Church except that many of its customs were horrifyingly different. Easter was kept on what was for him the wrong day, because Celtic priests still used an old method from Rome. The Celtic tongue worried Augustine too. And when he saw the British abbot-bishops approaching his chair, proudly wearing their eastern crowns instead of Roman mitres, he seems to have been too upset to get up and greet them as true brothers in Christ.
It was a bad beginning. The Britons refused to change their Easter or help to preach to the English. Augustine was not used to disobedience. He prophesied a great calamity. And sure enough, no sooner had he returned to Canterbury than the English marched to Chester. During the battle over a thousand British monks from Bangor stood unarmed to pray for British victory. They were all killed and their monastery burnt to the ground. So ended the first of many clashes between two great branches of Christ’s Church. On both sides there was too much ignorance, too much fear, too much pride, to allow for real understanding.
That same year Augustine died, leaving the growing Church in Kent under the care of more missionaries sent from Rome and under the protection of the converted king of Kent. The next archbishop wrote a letter to the bishops and abbots of Ireland, complaining of their unfriendliness and their mistaken customs. It was not answered. Nor did the people of Kent show any real love or loyalty to their Church as the years rolled on. They had become Christians either ‘for favour or through fear of the king’. When the king died in 616, and a pagan king took his place, they went happily back to their idols. Some of the despairing Roman priests fled to France for a year, but the second Archbishop of Canterbury bravely remained at his post.
An Archbishop for York
In 625, Edwin, who had fought his way onto the throne of Northumbria, (He was exiled into East Anglia under the protection of King Redwald the Bretwalda who later fought with Edwin to win back his throne) married Bertha’s Christian daughter, Ethelburga. The fourth Archbishop of Canterbury rejoiced that this gave him the chance at last to carry out Pope Gregory’s wish that there should be an Archbishop of York, a s second in command to the head of the English Church at Canterbury. He consecrated Paulinus and sent him north as the young queen’s bishop, with orders to found a new branch of the English Church among the wild Northumbrians.
The pagan king, Edwin, was impressed by the letter written to his wife by the Pope, who sent her also a ‘silver looking-glass’ as a present. He listened carefully to Paulinus. ‘Being a man of extraordinary wisdom he often sat alone, silently, trying to make up his mind which religion he should belong to’. When he had decided for Christianity, and begun to build churches, it looked as though the Roman Church had returned permanently to York.
Only nine years later, however, Paulinus had to escort Ethelburga and her little girl, Eanfleda, back to Kent. Edwin was dead, killed in battle by a British rebel (and Penda of Mercia), who took his place (as Bede remarks with horror) as ruler of Northumbria. The young Church, left in charge of a deacon, James, whose singing was famous, was almost swamped in a wave of paganism. And as for the Roman Church in Kent, the royal family were certainly practising Christians but the people had still to be urged to keep Lent and to smash their idols. The Roman priests seem neither to have learnt the language nor to have ordained any English missionaries. There were no schools for the girls. But probably the little Saxon princesses did not mind this. They liked the adventure of crossing the channel to be educated at a convent school near Paris, run by a Celtic-trained abbess who told them stories about St. Columbanus’ adventures in France. No doubt their brothers learnt their Latin at St. Augustine’s monastery school at Canterbury.
Perhaps the most gallant of all the young English princes of that time was Oswald, the rightful heir to the throne of Northumbria. He was only a small boy when his uncle Edwin banished him. With his brother, Oswy, and a few followers, he took refuge on the enchanting island of Iona. There the English boys learnt to speak the Celtic language of the Irish monks, who told them stories of St. Columba, taught them their lessons in Latin and converted them to the Celtic form of Christianity.
By the year 635, Oswald had grown up. Loyal followers arrived from Northumbria to tell him of Edwin’s death and all that had followed it. Bede tells us that he set off, followed by ‘an army, small indeed in numbers but strengthened with the faith of Christ’. Before the battle that changed the history of Northumbria, young Oswald planted a cross and spoke to his men. ‘Let us kneel,’ he said, ‘and together ask the true and living God Almighty in His mercy to defend us from the haughty and fierce enemy’ for He knows that we have undertaken a just war for the safety of our people.
Aidan Settles in Lindisfarne
‘That same Oswald, as soon as he ascended the throne, longing that his nation should receive the Christian faith . . . sent to the elders of the Scots . . . desiring that they would send him a bishop, by whose instruction and ministry the English nation, which he governed, might be taught the advantages and receive the sacraments of the Christian faith. Nor were they slow in granting him his request, but sent him Bishop Aidan, a man of singular meekness, piety and moderation. . . . On the arrival of the bishop the king appointed him his Episcopal see [that is, gave him land on which to build a monastery] in the isle of Lindisfarne, as he desired. . . . The king also humbly and willingly in all cases listened to his advice, set about building and extending the Church of Christ in his kingdom. Wherein, when the bishop, who was not skilful in the English tongue, preached the Gospel, it was most delightful to see the king himself interpreting the word of God to his commanders and ministers, for he had perfectly learned the language of the Scots during his long banishment.
‘From that time many of the Scots [or Irish] came daily into Britain and, with great devotion, preached the word to those parts of England over which Oswald reigned. . . . Churches were built in several places; the people flocked together to hear the word; money and lands were given by the king to build monasteries; the English great and small were, by their Scots masters, taught the rules of regular discipline; for most of them that came to preach were monks.’
Oswald shared Aidan’s love of the sea, as you will find if ever you visit the site of his strong castle at Bamborough. Lindisfarne, now called Holy Island, lies only a short way up the coast, and there the abbot-bishop, Aidan, spent seventeen years showing the people, by the way he lived, the true meaning of Chrsitianity. ‘There were very few houses beside the church . . .; the monks had also no money, but cattle; for if they got any money from the rich people, they at once gave it to the poor. . . . There was no need to provide for the entertainment of the great men of the world; for they only visited the church to pray and hear the word of God. The king himself, would come only with five or six servants ,and having said his prayers in the Church, he went away. . . .
‘For the whole care of the teachers was to serve God, not the world – to feed the soul, and not the belly. . . . For this reason a monk was joyfully received by everyone, as God’s servant; and if they chanced to meet him upon the way, they ran to him, and bowing were glad to be signed with his hand, or blessed with his mouth . . . and on Sundays they flocked eagerly to church or monasteries . . . to hear the word of God. . . . Priests and clergy went into a village on no other business but to preach, baptize, visit the sick and, in few words, to take care of souls.
Though Aidan had so many Scots among his helpers, he wisely trained English boys to be his Twelve Apostles of England. With these student missionaries at his side he tramped the length and breadth of wild Northumbria, learning the language, founding new monasteries, visiting those already in charge of his Irish helpers, and preaching to English and British alike. He preferred to walk, as Christ had done before him, and this Oswald understood.
St. Hilda at Whitby
But after Oswald’s death in 642, the young king Oswin longed to shorten his beloved bishop’s tiring journeys. So he presented him with ‘an extraordinarily fine horse’. To his horror, however, Bishop Aidan very soon gave the precious animal to a crippled beggar. The king was hurt, and angrily told him so. ‘To whom the bishop instantly answered, “What did you say, O King? Is that horse dearer to you than a son of God?” ‘ Upon this they went into dinner, and the bishop sat in his place; but the king, who had come from hunting, stood warming himself, with his attendants, at the fire. Then, while he warmed himself, he remembered what the bishop had said to him and suddenly took off his sword and gave it to his servant. Then, falling down hastily at the bishop’s feet, he implored him to forgive him. ‘For from now on,’ he said, ‘I will speak no more of this, nor will I judge what, or how much, money you shall give to the sons of God.’
St. Hilda loved St. Aidan as much as Oswin did. She was related to Edwin and the rest of the royal family of Northumbria, and was baptized at the age of thirty, when the monks first arrived from Iona. When she heard that, in France, she too could live their monastic life, she prepared at once to go. But St. Aidan had a far better plan. He went to see her and explained that what St. Brigid had done for Ireland she, Hilda might do for Northumbria if she founded the first double monastery in England to be rules by a woman. St. Hilda did not fail her people. Hartlepool (where you can see the names of her nuns cut in their stone pillows) inspired other Anglo-Saxon princesses to become abbesses. But St. Hilda most famous foundation was Whitby. For she was not only a great organizer but became one of the most brilliant teachers of her age. At Whitby, she educated no fewer than five of England’s best-known abbot-bishops in the true Celtic tradition of learning and holiness, at a time when there were only fourteen bishops throughout the land. it was a splendid way to repay St. Aidan who had ‘loved her and carefully taught her because of her natural wisdom and talent for the service of God’.
St. Hilda was often visited by kings, princes and bishops who wanted her advice. And yet she found time to discover and encourage the genius of Caedmon, one of her stable boys who, without her help, could never written the first English religious poetry. No wonder Bede writes that ‘she was a woman devoted to God’ and that ‘all who knew her called her Mother’.
So much was she respected, that it was in her monastery that the famous Church Council known as the Synod of Whitby was held on 664. The Roman representative wished to discuss the question of the date of Easter with the leaders of the Celtic Church, who were by now hard at work among the West Saxons, the East Saxons (of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex) and the Mercians (of the Midlands), having completely converted the Anglo-Saxons of the vast kingdom of Northumbria. The Romans would have insisted on a discussion long before 664, but for their respect for the Christ-like ways of the first bishop of Lindisfarne. So the Easter question ‘was patiently tolerated while Aidan lived’, though it did lead to some very awkward situations.
For instance, it often happened that Oswy, king of Northumbria (who had been brought up with his brother, Oswald, in Iona), was joyfully feasting and singing Easter hymns while his Kentish queen, Eanfleda, was mournfully celebrating Palm Sunday. For, like her mother, Ethelburga, she had brought her Roman priest north with her when she came to live in Northumbria.
Celt versus Roman at Whitby
At the Synod of Whitby St. Colman, third abbot-bishop of Lindisfarne, led the pro-Celtic party. Leader of the pro-Romans was a brilliant, ambitious young priest called Wilfred. He had been educated first at Lindisfarne and then by St. Hilda at Whitby. But, since visiting the continent, he had become zealous for all things Roman. Supporting Bishop Colman was his English friend, King Oswy, brother of Oswald, and his Scots monks, all of them educated in Iona. Also on his side were St. Hilda, abbess of Whitby, and St. Cedd, bishop of the East Angles. St. Hilda was a pupil of St. Aidan, and St. Cedd was one of his twelve Apostles of England. St. Wilfrid’s two chief supporters were Agilbert, bishop of Paris, and Alfrid, whose Kentish mother had been trained in the Roman tradition, was fascinated by St. Wilfrid and by the powerful arguments he had learnt abroad.
The object of the synod was excellent: ‘To find which was the truest tradition of Easter that the same might be followed by all.’ The Celtic party were so sure of their tradition that they were quite undaunted by St. Wilfrid’s taunts about ‘Picts and Britons, who foolishly, in these two remote islands of the world. . . oppose all the rest of the universe.’
‘It is strange,’ said Colman, ‘that you will call our labours foolish, when we follow the example of so great an apostle, who was thought worthy to lay his head on our Lord’s bosom, because all the world knows him to have lived most wisely.’ He meant, of course, that his Church had St. John for her patron saint; and he seems to have thought that the Celtic method of calculating Easter came from Ephesus. Later, when St. Wilfrid accused him of being stupid and ignorant, he answered: ‘Do you believe that our most revered Father Columba and his successors, men beloved by God, who kept Easter in the same way, thought or acted contrary to the Divine writings? On the contrary, there were many among them, whose holiness id proved by heavenly signs and the working of miracles, whose life, customs and discipline I never cease to follow, not questioning their being saints in heaven.’
During the debate, St. Wilfrid dismayed his pro-Celtic listeners by hinting that he doubted whether Celtic saints had indeed ever reached heaven. But, for the most part, he tried to explain and describe how the rest of the Catholic Church calculated the date of Easter. Then he compared ‘that Columba of yours’ with the great St. Peter. At last he drove poor Colman to admit that Christ gave the keys of heaven neither to St. John nor to St. Columba, but to St. Peter, the rock on whom rested all the might and majesty of the Roman Church. The unhappy King Oswy had to agree to keep Easter on the date chosen by St. Peter’s successors, ‘in case, when I come to the gates of the kingdom of heaven there should be none to open them, he being my enemy who is proved to have the keys.’ But here are St. Colman’s final words on Easter. ‘We dare not change it, for our father’s sake, nor do we wish to do so. Our fathers and those before them, plainly inspired by the Holy Spirit, as was Columba, followed the friend of our Lord John. . . . And we, his disciple Polycarp, and others, celebrate it like this on John’s authority.’
Defeat of the Celts
And so Bishop Colman and his Irish monks went back to Iona. It is tragic that Theodore only became Archbishop of Canterbury five years later in 669, for it is certain that he would have found some way to stop their retreat. During the thirty years the Scots had spent labouring for Christ in England both races had learnt to appreciate the good qualities of the other. A large party of English monks followed Colman to Ireland where he founded a monastery for them. As for poor King Oswy, he too ‘greatly loved Bishop Colman for the wisdom that was in him’. Before their sad parting, he promised that Eata, one of St. Aidan’s twelve disciples, should be the fourth abbot of Lindisfarne.
St. Wilfrid banished the Scots, but he could not banish their customs or their influence. Nothing was changed at Lindisfarne for the next fifty years but the tonsure and the date of Easter. St. Hilda also remained loyal to the Celtic traditions. St. Wilfrid had grown to think it scandalous that women should have authority over men in the double monasteries. But St. Hilda knew that her bishop and her monks were devoted to her and shared her sorrow that St. Wilfrid, one of the cleverest of her pupils, should prefer power and riches rather than the wisdom she had loved in St. Aidan. The next abbes of Whitby was Oswy’s daughter, Elfleda, who had been brought up by St. Hilda. Her greatest friend was the English monk St. Cuthbert, whose pleasant manners and great patience made him much loved at Lindisfarne where he helped to show the monks that changing the date of Easter did not prevent them living lives like the Celtic saints they loved. Elfleda’s Whitby had so strong an Irish flavour they you might have thought you were at Kildare.
The English monks and nuns were horrified when Oswy’s younger son, King Ecgfrith of Northumbria, crossed over to Ireland in 683 to burn down some churches in a mistaken effort to further the Roman cause. For it had become the custom for Celtic-trained abbots to send their most promising boys to finish their education in the Isle of Saints. The Scots always welcomed them and provided free books, board and lodging.
It is because of these young students that seventh-and-eighth-century art in England owes so much to Irish script, painting and carving. And, of course, the eighth-century learning, which made England the envy of Frankish kings, was mostly derived from Ireland too.
But it is high time we said something good about the Roman Church. St. Wilfrid’s tactlessness made him too unpopular in the monasteries for the abbots to see that much of what he said was only common sense. You could not have two differently run branches of the same Church in one small island. They were more in sympathy with what he did. From his many visits to Rome to appeal to the Pope for his rights (for St. Wilfrid quarrelled with king after king) he brought back books and other treasures to enrich the English Church. God, he told the astonished abbots, was not housed at Rome as He was at Lindisfarne, in a low wattle building thatched with reeds. Italian masons helped him to build a grand stone church at Hexham. With its glass windows and beautiful fittings, it soon became one of the wonders of the Far Western world.
Paulinus’ friend, James, the deacon, was not the only Roman singer who had endless invitations from the Celtic-trained abbots whose monks longed to learn the Gregorian chant. Later the trained singer, john, came from St. Peter’s itself and soon had many monastery choirs singing as the Romans sang.
Theodore the Great Archbishop
But the man who did more than any other to show the Churches of St. Peter and St. John that they were really one and the same, was a Greek. Theodore is one of the greatest of all the Archbishops of Canterbury. Unlike the Romans before him he realized at once what marvellous work the Scots had accomplished in their swift transformation of England to Celtic Christianity. He saw also how miraculously the Celtic Church had guarded the true Faith, and so was tolerant about the strange customs of the abbots. Because monasteries founded by the Scots missionaries and the men they had trained studded the whole land when he began his task in 669, Theodore determined to understand and make friends with the English abbots and abbot-bishops. Boldly he divided the country into dioceses, most of which he put under the care of bishops chosen from his new friends. Wilfrid, by now a bishop, asked if he could rule all Northumbria. But to the relief of the Anglo-Saxon monks, who found that St. Wilfrid’s visits sadly ruffled their tempers, Theodore sensibly divided the great kingdom into four parts. Three of these dioceses he put in charge of popular Celtic-trained bishops after he had laid his hands on them.
There are lovely stories about St. Chad, first English bishop of York. He was one of the younger of St. Aidan’s twelve disciples and had converted the Middle Angles, travelling like his master, on foot. When St. Wilfrid got permission from Rome to oust St. Chad from the diocese of York, he was quite happy to work as a monk at Lastingham. But Theodore could not spare him. He persuaded St. Chad that for the good of Christ’s Church, he should be reconsecrated in Roman way. He then made him bishop of the Middle Angles, who loved him, with his church and monastery at Lichfield. ‘Theodore commanded him to ride whenever he had a long journey to make, and finding him very unwilling, he himself . . . . lifted him onto the horse, for he thought him a holy man.’
The English saint, Cuthbert, formed another strong bond between the two churches. Born about 635 when the magic of St. Aidan’s gospel began to change the people of Northumbria, he was brought up a Christian. In the hills near Melrose he shepherded sheep till he was seventeen. The night St. Aidan died in a tent, he too was out of doors guarding his sheep when ‘he suddenly saw a stream of light from the sky breaking in upon the darkness of the long night. In the midst of this, the choir of the heavenly host descended to the earth and quickly taking with them a soul of exceeding brightness, they returned to their heavenly home’.
Hearing next morning that the soul he had seen was that of St. Aidan, St. Cuthbert left his sheep and set off for the monastery of Melrose, a daughter house of Lindisfarne. At that time the abbot was Eata, one of St. Aidan’s Twelve Apostles of England, and St. Cuthbert was taught by Boisil, a monk famed for his learning and holiness. When, later, king Oswy sent Eata south to start a monastic settlement at Ripon, the abbot took St. Cuthbert with him because of his friendly way with guests.
At Ripon, St. Cuthbert first learnt what the Roman Catholics (not the Roman Catholic Church that came about in 1054) thought of his Church. For no sooner had Eata and his followers made Ripon into a flourishing missionary base than Oswy’s pro-Roman son, Alfrid, who was king of south Northumbria, drove them out and made a present of the place to his friend, St. Wilfrid. Till the coming of Theodore, if monks of the Celtic Church were driven out of their homes they had no choice but to retreat. This injustice must have struck St. Cuthbert a second time when he attended the Synod of Whitby in 664.
Earlier that year, he was terribly ill at Melrose. Indeed, he owed his life to the prayers of the monks. By the time he was able to walk, his Soul Friend, St. Boisil, lay dying of the plague and was much comforted to have St. Cuthbert read with him Gospel of St. John. Though St. Cuthbert was never physically strong again, he had grown strong in love and wisdom. Instead of following St. Colman to Ireland, he went with Eata to help him to calm the bitterness of the monks whose king had chosen to keep the Roman Easter and Roman tonsure. The Church had need of St. Cuthbert’s patience. For ‘very often during debates . . . . concerning the rule when he was insulted by his enemies, he would rise up suddenly and with calm mind and face would go out. . . . But none the less on the following day . . . had gradually converted them to the things he wanted.’ It was no easy task to act as a bridge between old Celtic traditions and the foreign ways of the Roman party. But St. Cuthbert longed for unity between the churches, being ‘of a happy disposition and very freindly’.
Bede had many friends who had known and loved St. Cuthbert. So his stories ring true. They show him to have been one of Northumbria’s greatest missionaries. Whether he was working at Melrose, Ripon or Lindisfarne, he would leave his monastery on foot or on horseback for as long as a month at a time to carry the Word of God to the most remote and barbarous villages. Many were the bodies and souls he healed through the holiness that showed in ‘the light of his angelic face’.
Living the life of a Celtic saint, it is perhaps natural that he should fall in love with the sea. He first discovered it as a young man when he went to stay with King Oswy’s sister, Ebba, at her double monastery at Coldingham, built on the site of a Roman fort. Here, after preaching to some of the many nuns who loved him, he would clamber down the rocks near St. Abb’s Head to sing his psalms to the sound of the waves. Like the Celtic saints before him, he stood in the water to pray, hidden by the darkness of night. ‘When day-break came, he went up on the shore. While he was doing this, there came forth the depths of the sea two . . . otters. These, lying in front of him on the sand, began to warm his feet with their breath and tried to dry him with their fur, and when they had finished . . . they received his blessing and slipped away into their native waters.’
St. Cuthbert and the Birds
After working at Lindisfarne for twelve years for the unity of the Church, St. Cuthbert could resist the call of the sea no longer. To the dismay of his friends, he sailed seven miles to the tiny island of Farne to live for the next nine years as a Celtic hermit alone with God. And if you think this sounds a peaceful, lazy life for a man of forty you are much mistaken. St. Cuthbert told a friend how the devil refused to leave him to his prayers, but persistently persecuted his mind and body to the last. Then he had his little house to keep warm and dry , and his fishing and crops to attend to. The birds ate up his corn; and later he had to scold a pair of nesting ravens who tore the thatch from the roof of a shelter he had built for visitors. They understood; but continued to disobey. Then St. Cuthbert banished them. ‘Now when three days had passed one of the pair returned and found the servant of Christ digging. With its feathers sadly ruffled and its head drooping to its feet and with humble cries it prayed for pardon, using such signs as it could.’ The story ends with the forgiven birds flying to greet St. Cuthbert, carrying between them ‘a bit of pig’s fat’ as a present.
He was seldom alone in the summer, so often did this friends row out to see him. But towards the end of the nine years, the world beyond had grown so vivid to St. Cuthbert that he no longer came down to the shore to welcome the Lindisfarne monks. Silently he stretched his hand out of the little window to bless them.
Bishop Cuthbert on Lindisfarne
Meanwhile Oswy’s younger son, Ecgfrith, a keen Roman like his mother, ruled all Northumbria. With his help, St. Wilfrid built churches at York and Ripon to rival that of Hexham. His love of splendid and beautiful things enriched the Church. But when he took to living comfortably and dressed grandly, the people murmured. They respected the poverty and simplicity of St. Aidan’s followers. So did Theodore. At the national councils he made things as easy for them as he could, shutting his eyes to their different liturgy, their stricter monastic rules and their curious way of keeping monasteries in one family by nephews succeeding uncles. He approved the double monasteries and, until the Norman conquest, it was the custom for women such as Hilda, Ebba and Elfleda, to attend and speak at all important Church synods. When in 684 a bishop was needed at Lindisfarne. Theodore persuaded Ecgfrith that St. Cuthbert was the right man. ‘And when he could by no means be dragged from his place by the many messengers and letters that were sent to him, at last the king . . . . as well as many other religious and powerful men, sailed to the island; they all knelt down and implored him in the name of the Lord, with tears and prayers, until at last they took him, also weeping, from his happy retirement and led him to the synod.’
When Theodore consecrated him, St. Cuthbert was a sick man. It is therefore amazing to read of all the accomplished in his wide diocese in the one year before he was allowed a last winter on Farne. He even went to Carlisle. And when Elfleda wrote to ask him to consecrate a new church, he always forgot Theodore’s rule against trespassing into other dioceses, as she did herself. The archbishop might well have punished them had he not learnt to tolerate the disorderly ways of the Celtic Church.
After Ecgfrith’s death that year in battle against the Picts, Northumbria was ruled by Alfrid, a half-Irish son of Oswy’s who had been brought up in that country. He made as brave a leader as his uncle Oswald, pleasing almost everyone but Wilfrid with his love of Celtic Christianity. St. Cuthbert could return to Farne with no fear that Aldrid would burn down the churches of Rome or Ireland. In 687 St. Cuthbert died, just three years before the death of Theodore. ‘Before this the bishops of Canterbury had been Roman, but from this time on they were English.’
All through the eighth century the English Church continued, especially in Northumbria, to show many signs of Celtic origin. The learned bishop of Aldhelm of Malmesbury, and the English missionaries to the Continent, St. Willibrord and St. Boniface, owed much of their learning to the Irish monks who were still teaching at Malmesbury and Glastonbury long after the Norse invasion. St. Alcuin of York, with one of the best libraries in Europe, was also in debt to the Scots who had done so much to make the Church the guardian of scholarship and art.
The Celtic Chain
It ha been said that St. Augustine was the apostle of Kent but St. Aidan was the apostle of England. The reason for St. Aidan’s success is to be found in the earlier chapters of this book. For he was the last link in a chain of missionary saints stretching back two hundred and fifty years – a chain made of the lives of St. Columba, St. Finnian, St. David, St. Ninian and St. Martin. He lived as they lived, balancing a life of prayer with a life of action. Like their earlier monasteries, Lindisfarne was a training school where priests, farmers, scholars, smiths, scribes, cooks, poets and carpenters, learnt how they could help to spread Christ’s Kingdom on earth. Very few of the Celtic missionaries were ordained. Almost all of them were ordinary men and women who dedicated their usual job to God. That was one reason for their success which is being rediscovered by the Church to-day. The second reason was their discovery of the strength that is born of working with people who share your faith. Living in a community, men learn the importance of each person in it. For no new settlement can hope to flourish unless the cook cooks aswell as the scribe writes. There are many missionary communities to be studied in the Roman Catholic Church of to-day, and the Church of England has lately rediscovered the need for monastic orders. In Scotland, the Iona Community flourishes as part of the Church, with summer camps on that wonderful island to give young Christians of to-day an opportunity to worship and work together where St. Aidan and St. Columba lived long ago.
In 793, Lindisfarne was destroyed by Norse sailors. From then on, for over a hundred years, the English were constantly at war with armies of pirates so ruthless that monastery after monastery flamed to heaven. Even Alfred the Great had to divide the country with them; for, by the end of the ninth century, so many man and cattle had died in the struggle that it was a wonder that ‘the army had not utterly broken down the English nation’. But with the help of St. David, St. Petroc, St. Oswald, St. Aidan and St. Cuthbert, Alfred and the remains of his nation were able to convert to the creative discipline of Christianity Noresmen so lawless and fearless that they very nearly wrecked Western Christendom.
Alfred the Great was linked to Celtic Christianity by his brother, St. Neot, who studied at Glastonbury and about whom you jhave already read. Alfred himself was a great scholar. He wrote the history of the terrible times he lived in. and he translated into English all Bede’s stories of the seventh-century Scots and English saints you have met in this chapter.