18 February 2019

Holy Hierarchs Finan, Colmán and Æþelwold of Lindisfarne

This week, on which this very Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee happens to fall, is a particularly important one for the saints of Northumbria, and in particular for the saints of the holy isle of Lindisfarne, which is of such great importance both to those of us with Northumbrian heritage and to Christendom in general. Three saints of the holy isle had their feasts this week: Bishop Saint Æþelwold of Lindisfarne (12 February; not to be confused with the hermit of Inner Farne of the same name), Bishop Saint Finan of Lindisfarne (17 February) and Bishop Saint Colmán of Lindisfarne (18 February).

An example of the illumination from the Lindisfarne Gospels

One of the closest and most trusted assistants to Saint Cuðberht of the holy isle, relatively little else is known of Saint Æþelwold other than that he held the honour of the bishopric, and that he contributed materially to the production of the wondrously-beautiful Lindisfarne Gospels. (Æsthete that I am, I find that reason enough to glorify the man.) He had been, first the prior, and then the abbot, of the Abbey of Saint Aidan at Old Melrose during Cuðberht’s time; at the repose of Saint Éadfrið of Lindisfarne he succeeded to the bishopric and the abbacy at Lindisfarne, whereupon he took an active interest in the illumination work of the Venerable Billfrið and had commissioned a binding for the Gospels in gold and encrusted jewels (a binding which is now sadly lost). His relics were translated along with those of his beloved master Saint Cuðberht, along with a stone cross bearing his name which went from Lindisfarne to Durham when the Vikings invaded. In addition, he may have contributed the core hymnology (the ‘Ymnarius Edilwald’) found in the the prayer-book of Cerne.

Holy Hierarch Finan of Lindisfarne

Bishop Saint Finan of Lindisfarne, a proud and patriotic Irishman who was tonsured a monk at Iona, known also for his great discipline and holy life, was chosen as the successor to the Enlightener of Northumbria Saint Aidan of the holy isle upon the latter’s repose in the Lord. Saint Finan continued Saint Aidan’s work in bringing the Angles of the English North to Christ, including playing Nathan to Oswiu King of Berenice’s David, calling him to repentance for the murder of Oswine King of Dere and the annexation of his lands into the new kingdom of Northumbria. Saint Finan was the one who encouraged Oswiu to build and sponsor monasteries in honour of the slain prince (including the famous one at Hartlepool which would evolve into the cloister at Whitby), and lived on good terms with the repentant king thereafter. He also managed to convert two other English kings to Christianity: Sigeberht King of the East Saxons and Peada King of Mercia – this made the acceptance of Christianity in these two kingdoms that much easier in the long run. It was Saint Finan who called Saint Ceadda of Lichfield to Mercia to continue the work of spreading the Gospel among the common folk there. Saint Finan did not neglect his duties to his home parish and see, however, in his missionary work. He had built a cathedral upon the holy isle, entirely – as was the Celtic custom – in wrought wood, rather than in stone, and covered in bent (a tough and durable sea-grass that grows plentifully on the holy isle). Into this church he translated the relics of Saint Aidan, and his own relics would be lain, after his repose, alongside those of his beloved predecessor.

Saint Finan – as mentioned above, a patriotic Irishman – was an avid and zealous defender of the Celtic Christian tradition, including the method by which Pascha was calculated. For this, his hagiography in the history of Saint Bede is somewhat… shall we say, less than charitable. (Bede does, in fairness, fully acknowledge Saint Finan’s saintly disposition and holy way of life.) He famously got into a heated polemical exchange with his own countryman and fellow-monk Saint Ronan of Iona who advocated for the Roman calculation of Easter. Saint Finan apparently also had some dealings with Saint Wilfrið of York – who fell on the other side of the Paschal date dispute – in that he agreed to allow the Bishop of York to go on pilgrimage to Rome.
As Aidan's successor thou didst rule the See of Lindisfarne fearlessly,
Preaching the Orthodox Faith, O holy Hierarch Finan.
Boldly obeying the Gospel command, thou didst soften the stony heart
Of Mercia's pagan Prince Peada and win his soul for Christ.
Pray for us, O Saint, that Christ alone will rule in our hearts,
That He may save our souls.

Holy Hierarch Colmán of Inishbofin

When Saint Finan reposed he was succeeded in office by Bishop Saint Colmán of Lindisfarne. Colmán, born in Connaught, too was a monk of Iona. A staid and worthy successor to Saint Finan, he shared with his predecessor the zeal for defending the Celtic Christian customs and practices including the method for calculating the date of Pascha. Under the sway of Saint Colmán the issue came to a head, and this was when the Synod of Whitby was called by Saint Hilda (who herself, along with Saint Cedd of Lastingham, favoured the Celtic rule) to broach the subject and find a solution.

The main disputants at the Synod were Saint Colmán with Saints Hilda and Cedd on the Celtic side, and Saint Wilfrið of York with Saint Ægilberht of Wessex (later of Paris) on the Roman; however, there was a political tone to it as well. Oswiu King of Northumbria was a champion of the Celtic rule, while his wife Eanflæd and son Ealdferð (who was the second in line to succeed him as king, after his son Ecgfrið) was a proponent of the Roman rule. All of these sæcular nobles came to the Synod to hear the proceedings.

Both Saint Wilfrið and Saint Colmán disputed eloquently – and often, as was the style at the time, polemically – over the method of calculating Paschaltide. Saint Colmán appealed in his case to the authority of Saint John the Theologian, from whom Saint Columba of Iona had received the apostolic tradition through Bishop Saint Anatolius of Laodicea. This usage Wilfrið disputed, saying that Saint John changed his custom to accord with that handed down from Saints Peter and Paul and which were followed by the entirety of the Christian Church after Chalcedon – with the exception of a few small islands at the extremities of the known world. According to Saint Bede, it was Wilfrið’s rousing appeal to Peter that managed to convince Oswiu King to adopt the Roman rite – though more cynical historians contend that it was instead his wife Eanflæd who swayed her husband thus to decide. Whatever the true reason, Saint Colmán departed the Synod unconvinced and continued to uphold the Celtic rite in Iona, along with the Scots there and a few Englishmen from the holy isle. Saint Colmán took with him thither the relics of Saint Aidan, and had them translated at Iona.

In his later years, Saint Colmán established a humble monastery at Inishbofin (the ‘Isle of the White Heifer’) ayooff the coast of Connaught for the Irish and English monks who had followed him. This monastery was troubled, however, by the custom held by the Irish monks of leaving the abbey every summer on mission work when the harvest came in. The English monks complained that they were left to do all the hard work of bringing in the harvest, but that when the Irish monks came back they expected an equal share. In the end, Saint Colmán resolved the dispute by founding a separate monastery for the English monks on the mainland at Magh Eó, sold to Colmán by a pious lord on condition that the monks pray for his soul. Saint Bede praises the English monastery founded by Saint Colmán at Mayo for having a devout and austere way of life ‘after the tradition of the venerable Fathers’, and an abbot who is ‘canonically elected’ rather than appointed by the previous abbot.

Although Bishop Saint Colmán comes in for some censure by Bede the Venerable for his stubborn persistence in the Celtic rule (which Saint Bede holds erroneous), Bede nonetheless praises the Hiberno-Scottish bishop for his frugality and simple way of life, and by the single-mindedness of his devotion to God and to his brothers. Holy Hierarchs Finan, Colmán and Æþelwold of the holy isle, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!
As an upholder of Orthodox discipline, thou didst show forth in thy life
The pre-eminence of holy Tradition, O all-praised Hierarch Colmán.
With great personal sacrifice, thou wast true to thy teachers,
Wherefore we pray that we may unhesitatingly follow
Our fathers in the Faith with loyalty and devotion
And thereby be guided into the way of salvation.

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