A St. Aidan Story: Aidan's New Desert
Into this place of quiet poured visitors: kings and royal family, visiting cleric, courtiers, local leaders, seekers. The island was just off the main road, that is the sea road, so it was not far from the daily traffic. Countless people crossed the sands on foot or on horseback. This in itself worried the monks. Too often people did not understand the tide and were in danger of getting caught or even drowned. More than one had lost their life to the incoming tide. To the south of the usual crossing there were quicksands. So it was decided to place small cairns as markers, to allow people to come in a reasonably straight line but respecting the dangers. This is how we often have to go through life; we all need markers and guides. On leaving the island, the river near the mainland was always the danger point. The monks tried to make sure that leaving visitors knew how long it would take them and were aware of the danger. In this world we are all set amid dangers and we need to heed those who have learned the way. If we ignore the experience of the past, we run great risks with our lives.
As people came in their hundreds, the desert was in danger of becoming a city. Aidan was being sought out by more and more people. The busier he became, the more time he needed to spend with God. The more he poured out, the more he needed to get away from it all and be renewed and restored. The need became more serious as the numbers increased and the guesthouse filled, and more people learned to stay over the tide. There were times when it seemed there was no escaping people, no hiding place. They seemed to interrupt everything. Aidan accepted that such invasions were the very thing he was here for. But he needed his quiet. The north shore of the island provided a good escape, but even here he was sought out. So he started going to the little Hobthrush island that was also tidal. It was only a few hundred yards from the monastery on the south-west corner of the island, but it was cut off by the tide twice in twenty-four hours.
|Monastic beehive cells, circa 6th century, |
on the island of Skellig Michael, off the coast of Ireland
Here he built a beehive cell in the tradition of the Celtic hermits. He would share this place with the heron and eider duck, then in the autumn, with the godwits, oystercatchers, and other waders. The seals would come close to see what was occupying this little island which Aidan prepared by prayer and fasting. In the latter part of the year thousands of geese would also come around this small island.
Then the visitors started to come also. The little island was not far enough away to remain Aidan’s desert. People hailed him from the shore. Monks shouted to say an important guest had arrived and needed to see him urgently. Some even came out on horseback or by coracle. Aidan knew he had to find somewhere further off as his special desert. On mentioning this to Oswald, they both saw that the answer was simple. Another island.
The islands off Bamburgh were plentiful in number. Some were only small jagged rocks that disappeared at high tide. Some were full of sea birds and seals. None were thought to be habitable. It would seem that then nearest of the islands was the largest and most likely to sustain a tough way of living, but Oswald had his doubts. It was said that the island was inhabited by demons, small dark beings who put fear into any who had ventured there. Other members of the court swore that there were evil creatures there. They said that strange creatures lured ships to be stranded and the sailors drowned.
Aidan saw this as a challenge, and at the same time a witness to the power of God. He would go there and be alone. Through prayer he would ward off the demons and banish them from his desert in the ocean. This, he announced, was not a simple battle. It could not be done in a moment, it would take about six weeks. In one of the Lenten times, the Lent of Jesus, the Lent of Moses or the Lent of Elijah, Aidan would go and fight off all that would harm. Oswald was a soldier and used to battles but he feared for Aidan. He had heard too many stories of marsh hags and sea monsters. He knew that there were so many things that could destroy a man. He knew also that Aidan was determined to live out the words, ‘Be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.’
Aidan asked that he might have supplies. He would not need much, and he hoped that in time he would manage to grow all he needed there. It could only be his desert if he could remain without too much help. He needed a place where he could truly have no one to speak to but God, a place where he could be still and know that he was enfolded in love. . .
This island helped Aidan to keep a balanced life. Whenever time allowed, he escaped there to be alone with God. Each season he planned to have some time there. Only in this way could he give God the priority He is due. It was also a good witness to the importance of prayer. These were turbulent times. Aidan prayed often for peace and the spread of the gospel.
This extract is taken from 'Flame of the Heart' by David Adam and is reproduced by kind permission of SPCK. You can find the book here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Flame-Heart-St-Aidan-Today/dp/0281050333.