Sermon: In Honour of Aidan
Preached on 31st August 2008
(St Aidan's Day)
by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
The Rolling Stones famously got their kicks on Route 66. Well, I head straight for the A68, the royal route into Scotland over the Cheviots at Carter Bar and my favourite road of any, swinging and plunging magnificently over the ridges and vales of County Durham and Northumberland, the best landscapes in England. The Roman legions once trod the military road known as Dere Street as they headed through the windswept north Pennines for Hadrian's Wall and up Redesdale and over Carter Fell to gain the Antonine Wall on the Firth of Forth. Later the Scots marched south along it to engage the English in battle, and the Border Reivers wrought havoc along its flanks. In peaceful times the drovers used it to usher cattle to the town markets. This undeviating line across the marches of England encapsulates an entire political and social history. But it is not a road to be driven in a hurry: not only would you miss the views, but you risk shipwreck on the exhilarating but dangerous sudden crests and hidden dips the signs warn about.
Earlier this month, my wife and I drove along it up into Scotland to re-visit the Border Abbeys that cluster round it at Melrose, Jedburgh and Dryburgh. To Durham people, this countryside is honoured as the birthplace of Cuthbert in the days when Saxon Northumbria stretched right up to Edwin's Burg on the Forth. It was at Melrose, at the behest of King Oswald, that Eata and probably Aidan himself founded a community in the 7th century where Cuthbert would come to learn monastic life. So Melrose, like Lindisfarne, is a link between this Cathedral and the mission of the monks from Iona to convert the English. Two centuries later Cuthbert's body returned to Melrose on its long journey towards the Durham peninsula. The A68 is a pilgrim's way in Cuthbertsland.
The gaunt red ruins of the Cistercian Abbey in the town of Melrose don't mark the site of Aidan's monastery, for that is at Old Melrose to the east in a loop of the River Tweed. It reminds you of the Durham peninsula; you see it best across the river at the famous vantage point known as Scott's View (after Sir Walter Scott). The interpretation boards have a lot to say about romantic novels and border ballads but nothing about Aidan or Cuthbert. It's true that there is not much to see, only a beautiful view of skies and trees and river, with the Eildon Hills as a reredos, and a patch of grass by the brown waters where the community lived. You have to use your imagination. Yet it's poignant to think of the holiness and devotion of Aidan and the monks who settled there all those centuries ago, whose Christian vision changed for ever the history of our island.
We honour Aidan for many things: his pioneering missionary vision, his gentleness and patience, his native kindness, humility and care for the poor, his courage, love of truth and his holy perseverance. If Christianity is caught rather than taught, then Aidan was one of those rare people with the gift to make faith attractive to others. Among the ‘others' was Cuthbert himself whom he never knew, whose vision of Aidan's soul being taken up by angels into heaven brought his own vocation to birth, first as a monk and later as prior and bishop. And that suggests how important it is for all of us to cultivate naturalness in our Christian witness. I mean the gift to be what we are, say what we say and do what we do not out of some falsely conceived heroic effort to become what we ought to be but out of the God-shaped character that is being formed in us over time by the work of God's Spirit within us. This is always where authentic mission begins.
But Old Melrose, like Iona and Lindisfarne, tells us something else about Aidan and those who worked and prayed with him for the conversion of Saxon England. These places, inspired by Irish monasticism, embodied two principles of mission. One was the need to settle a community in a well-protected place where prayer could be nurtured in a sustained, disciplined way, and where an intense focus on God's purposes could be maintained, and not dissipated by exposure to extraneous demands or distractions. The Irish knew that offshore islands and rocky peninsulae were good for these things: in such places they found wilderness, and they had learned from the desert fathers of Egypt that wilderness mattered for spiritual growth.
The other principle of mission was the need to be able to travel in order to bring Christianity to as many as possible. In this, Aidan looked back to portrayal of Jesus in the gospels as the itinerant evangelist proclaiming the kingdom of God, feeding the hungry and healing those who were damaged and hurt. ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head' - this memory powerfully influenced the Irish missions and the Saxon communities that followed where they had led. So the fact that Lindisfarne is so close to the Great North Road, and Old Melrose to Dere Street, is no accident. These land arteries were as vital to mission as the seas and rivers. And those who today walk St Cuthbert's Way from Melrose to Lindisfarne, or who motor up and down the A68 or the A1, are following ancient paths that, like the ways to Canterbury or Jerusalem or Compostela, are the prayer-lines and mission-lines of Christendom. Mission means to pray and to travel: to be centered in your community of faith yet to face the risky new horizons each journey opens up.
Our gospel reading captures the spirit of those first missioners who came out of the north into England not brandishing a sword but proffering good news. In the risky venture of prayer (because we never know what God intends) and in the hazardous adventure of travel (because we never know what lies over the horizon), the gospel says: ‘do not worry. Your heavenly Father knows what you need. Trust him. Seek first his kingdom'. This is so evidently how Aidan lived. Not for him the futile, febrile activity of trying to build or grow the kingdom of God himself. Rather, we see him taking the time it takes to discern God's purposes and aligning himself to them through the disciplines of the spiritual life: stillness, study, reflection, prayer. And then with courage and devotion to make long journeys and undergo many hardships to win hearts and minds for Jesus Christ in every place, knowing whose work it ultimately was.
I don't pretend that it is easy to be a faith-sharer. But there is a delicate and beautiful interlacing of what we do and what God does through us, always more than we could ever ask or think. What matters is that we are open to God's opportunity and have the imagination and courage to grasp it. Baptism commits us to nothing less than this. And who knows how many lives have been touched by our prayers, our acts of service, and our willingness to speak, however falteringly, about the hope that is within us? We should learn not to worry; rather, face the fear and do it anyway, for Christ's sake. For [as today's epistle reading warns,] woe to us if we do not preach the gospel!
Michael Sadgrove, Durham Cathedral on St Aidan's Day, 31 August 2008
1 Corinthians 9.16-19; Matthew 6.31-34