Aidan and his companion paused at the brow of a hill overlooking the beach. As he pulled his cloak tighter against the stiff wind, his eyes traveled in a wide arc, taking in the narrow isthmus that was slowly disappearing beneath the rising tide and then northward to the small islands, alive and dappled with gray seals. Their coughs and barks traveled to his ears, and then were swallowed by the roar of surf and the keening wind.
“This is God’s chosen place,” he said to Oswald. “Twice a day the tide comes in and we are an island, wrapped in solitary reflection. And twice a day the tide ebbs and we are joined to the world again.”
Aidan felt a chill envelop him, and a blaze of light reflected from the sea spun wildly toward him. The world was plunged into smoky gloom. Fire painted the night sky red and he saw burning buildings where none had ever stood. Violent men with the bloodlust of pagan gods contorting their faces were hurrying back to dragon-prowed boats, dragging screaming women and children. Others were carrying boxes and armfuls of cloth and leather and metal. The shrieks of the plundered dissolved into the cries of gulls, and he was standing again on a sun-drenched hill looking into Oswald’s concerned face.
“What is it?” Oswald asked.
“God has shown me the darkness against which we strive. It will not be in our lifetime, but we must build now. We need buildings, but even more we need books.”
“Books?” Oswald’s reply was as much an exclamation as a question.
Aidan looked his king in the eyes, remembering the first time he saw him, climbing cold and wet from the coracle in which he and his two brothers and sister had journeyed from Mull. Although the Saxon king Aethelfrith the Destroyer had been no friend to the church, having massacred twelve hundred Welsh priests for praying against his victory, after he was killed in battle the Irish priests on Iona were quick to take his children into their protection. Aidan marked the boy, who showed not fear, but the calculating caution of a man choosing to live and fight again.
He had grown strong on Iona, and quick to learn. He and his siblings matured under the watchful eyes of Aidan’s fellow priests and were baptized when they professed their allegiance to the heavenly King. When Oswald fought the battle at Heavenfield that won him his kingdom of Northumbria, he did it in the shadow of a wooden cross he himself placed on the overlooking hill. He had wanted the world to know that he was fighting as a Christian king against pagan warriors.
Now the king had summoned Aidan and shared his desire to see all in his kingdom won to Christ. “Find the place God has chosen, and the way He chooses to do it, and I will do all in my power to see it done,” the king had vowed.
“On Lindisfarne,” Aidan told Oswald, “We will light a torch of learning and the love of Christ that no darkness can ever extinguish.”
Although this vignette is imagined, the characters and place are real. It is unknown if Oswald and Aidan knew each other before Aidan was sent from Iona in response to the king’s request, but both had lived there at the same time.
The prophetic vision I allowed Aidan was fulfilled in the first significant raid on England by the Danish and Norse warriors known to history as the Vikings. The sacking and burning of Lindisfarne in 793 AD, 140 years after the monastery was founded by Aidan, brought to a close the “Golden Age of Lindisfarne.” The light of learning, the study of classics and Scripture, and the cultivation of literacy was offered to all classes and both sexes. That light could not be extinguished by barbarian raids.
Although there were Christians in the south of Great Britain when it was still Roman, the presence of a Christian king on the northern border with Scotland, and the energetic evangelism of the Irish priests he brought to his kingdom and supported are credited with bringing all England into obedience to the Gospel. In light of the part England and its children have played in Western civilization and world evangelism we truly recognize that from that fateful meeting of two men of God, “God did exceedingly, abundantly beyond what they could think or imagine.” Eph 3:20
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