– 28.viii.10 –
PREACHED AT VESPERS OF THE PATRONAL FESTIVAL OF S. AIDAN’S NEW PARKS, LEICESTER
It is fair to say that, of late, Celtic Christianity has been all the rage – with its ‘Wild Goose liturgy’ tear-and-share Eucharists, gazing into water, plenty of pebble-rubbing, and thinly-disguised nature-worship and a touchy-feely approach to the Christian faith which perhaps taps into the emotional side of the British which has been repressed by the stiff upper-lip approach.
If, however, such an understanding is allowed to go unchallenged, it will only serve to perpetuate a misunderstanding which does a great service to the life and witness of saints such as Aidan. These Celtic saints were serious, hard-working men, who took their inspiration from the first monastic communities founded in Egypt, whose leading lights were the Desert Fathers and whose lives and sayings are recorded by John Cassian and others. What we are dealing with are people, above all else, seeking to love God and their neighbour in thought, word and deed, living out the heart of the Gospel in their life and example. It is far too easy to engage in a superficial reading of them which fails to do justice to their lives of Christian service, but this will not do.
A salutary example can be found in the life of S. Aidan. A mission from the Celtic Church to the people of Northumbria had failed and it is Aidan who identifies correctly the reason why it failed. At a conference convened to discuss the failure of the mission, Aidan sets his colleagues straight: ‘Brothers, it seems to me that you were too severe on your ignorant hearers. You should have followed the practice of the apostles … and gradually nourished them with the word of God until they were … able to follow the loftier precepts of Christ’. In other words, Aidan saw clearly the need to meet people half-way, even when one is in the right, which is exactly what our Lord did.
In meeting people where they are, and bringing them to faith gradually, nourishing them first on the milk of human kindness before moving on to the more solid food of the Gospel, we see in Aidan a Christ-like gentleness combined with a zeal that the Good News of Christ will take root in the hearts and in the minds and in the lives of those to whom he is ministering. Aidan is sincere and serious, as Paul advises Titus to be, but he is, above all else, not overbearing, lording it over his brethren, or those whom he is seeking to convert. Rather, in patience and humility, which flow from the love of God and neighbour, his life and example speak of Christian charity lived out in a way which is infectious, to which people cannot fail to be attracted.
This, then, is the challenge to all of us here today – all the baptised people of God need to follow the example of Aidan in gentleness and love, aware of our sins and shortcomings and deeply penitent for them, yet firmly resolved to bear witness to the truth of the Gospel in our own lives. This is a demanding undertaking, one which needs to be grounded in prayer, in waiting on God, in letting him form us. It needs the comfort and strength of the Sacraments where Christ is truly present. We need to be nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ, fed in our minds, in our souls, and in our bodies, to have strength for the journey, for the task which Christ calls us to do in His name and for His glory.
This, then, is the true teaching which Aidan embodies and lives out. It stands in stark contrast to the error of touchy-feely liberalism, of a wishy-washy perversion of Christianity: the dangerous nonsense of Paul’s letter, which damages the Gospel with its laxity just like the harshness which Aidan opposed.
Aidan’s message and example, however, can be trusted as it is rooted in the example and doctrine of Christ and the Apostles – touchstones to which the Church must cling, lest it fall into error. We need then to be sincere and serious, as Paul advises Titus, since the commission to preach the Gospel by word and deed is a serious business for all Christians. We need to be sincere, as anything false or hypocritical damages the Church and the message which it proclaims. We also need to be serious, as it is our compassion, gentleness and humility, which make us truly Christ-like and our proclamation authentic. But for our doing the work of God to bear fruit, we need above else to pray for patience and perseverance. Only if we keep going can the good news of Christ flourish in our own lives and in those whom we seek to bring to new life in Christ, Such an undertaking takes time, and just as Aidan was prepared to live and preach in a way which would win out in the long run, so we too have to be prepared to be willing to taking our time and persevere in the service of Christ.