St Aidan story: Preparing the Ground
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The island was larger than Aidan had expected, though he was not quite sure where it began. Some of it was great sand dunes. The main part of the island seemed to be at its southern end. It felt about the size of Iona, though there was no hill like Dun-I. Two rocky outcrops, exposed to the sea, made the only hills on the island, on the north-eastern shore there were some caves. It was near these caves he heard the seals singing and it reminded him of Iona. God had blessed him and his companions with a good land. There was much hazel wood and a quantity of stunted trees, more trees than on Iona. But the trees had to survive the winds and the salt spray. In the sea there were ducks and many gulls, there were musses, oysters and winkles. The seals suggested there were fish in abundance. There was a good deal of machair (grassy plains) that would be ideal for pasture for their cattle. Cattle were essential to the community, not only for meat and milk, but for providing skins for parchments for the making of books. The soil was light and sandy, no doubt it would be good for growing grain. There was a small freshwater lough that reminded Aidan again of Iona. His heart was nearly bursting for joy. God had truly brought him into a good and pleasant land.
From the southern end of the island Aidan could see the smoke rising at Bamburgh. He could see the great rock on which the fortress stood. The king was near at hand. Here on the island Aidan could follow the Rule of Columba which said, ‘Be alone in a separate place near a chief city, if your conscience is not prepared to be in common with the crowd.’ Here they were far enough away from the palace to be free from its own activity and demands, yet near enough to be of use to the king and the leaders of the people. Here you could feel the silence. Here would be a place of solitude, stillness and sanctity, essentials for growth in the Spirit. There is need for us all to get away from the business of life and stand at the edge of things. Yes, this island would be their home.
There was a great deal to do. Land had to be cleared, and a vallum built (earth ramparts). There was need for a church, though a standing cross of wood could serve for awhile, until they could put up a building and a stone cross. Each of the brothers needed a cell as a place of retreat and for shelter. The farm needed to be in action as soon as possible. Then the primary reasons for which they came: they would have to start a school, and they would need to reach out in mission to the people of the land, both the English and the British.
It was important at this stage to get their priorities right; there was so much to do that they had to decide carefully and lay a firm foundation. So a course of action was decided on, one that amazed the king when he heard of it. No land would be cleared, nothing done, until they had hallowed the land and cast out any evil. The area for the monastic community within the vallum was marked out and then the next forty days were a time of prayer and fasting. The brothers had to be sure of their priority and let others see it. Their priority was to give themselves in adoration to God; everything else could wait. It was only by doing this that they could enrich the lives of those who came to them. It was no use talking about God if they did not talk to Him. God was not a theory to be handed on to others, He is a person to be met and His presence enjoyed. Here the love of God was to burn within them. They did not try to make this happen, for it was a fact: they tried to become more aware of the reality that ‘we dwell in Him and He in us’.
The period set aside for this preparation was forty days. As our Lord spent forty days in the wilderness, Aidan and his brothers spent forty days in prayer and fasting. As Jesus spent the time sorting out His priorities and putting His faith in the Father, so these men from Iona wrestled with their future. It was a time of depth, dedication and discipline, not of impoverishment but of enrichment, extension and vision. Without this awareness their world would be destroyed: we need to know the great mysteries that are about us, and within us.
More than this, here was land to win back for God. Here on this island was a desire for Paradise regained. From the land within the enclosure all violence would be excluded, along with all demons and darkness. All hostile elements had to be banished, this has to be a place to reveal the presence, the power and the peace of God.
From Flame in my Heart by David Adam, pgs 50-52