Wilfrid went to Lindisfarne as a fourteen-year old pageboy, attending a sick nobleman. He joined the school there, learned to read and write, learned Latin, and indeed, the foundations of his faith. Aidan (see August 31st) was still alive then, though he died two or three years later. Nevertheless, Wilfrid resented the years he spent on Lindisfarne and, when he could, set out for Rome. He fell in love with the city and longed for its ways and the wealth it had to offer. Power, prestige and recognition were his goals – but only so that the Church would be taken more seriously as a force for good.
When the Synod of Whitby was held to resolve differences over the date of Easter and the monks’ tonsure, Wilfrid was Bishop of York. By then he had spent many years in Italy and Gaul, and he stood on the Roman side of the argument. Unfortunately he won in such a way that the missionaries from Iona felt slighted. He sneered at the Celtic Christians’ ‘ignorance’ and ‘awkwardness’ and misrepresented the issues involved, effectively betraying those who had nurtured him on Lindisfarne. Far from arguing for some kind of united practice, Wilfrid spoke rudely of Columba (see June 9th) and deprecatingly of the entire Celtic tradition. As a result, the Iona missionaries withdrew from England, taking many English monks with them. Much of what Oswald (see August 5th) and Aidan had built was now to be devastated. Many leading figures in the church in Northumbria opposed Wilfrid from this time on.
At various times he was deposed from his office as bishop, exiled and imprisoned, but these troubles were mostly of his own making. Shipwrecked in Frisia (now in the north of the Netherlands), he won the love of the local people by his knowledge of fishing, gained on Lindisfarne, and he was able to evangelise them effectively. Once, in exile, he also evangelised the fierce South Saxons, a farming people whose crops had failed. He taught them to harvest the sea, and also baptised large numbers of them. By the grace of God, his time at Lindisfarne had not been wasted!
Lord, give us a heart for those who have not yet put their trust in you. Make us fearless, but let us share Your good news with humility and graciousness. Show us that sometimes it is better to take a middle way, rather than destroying what has already been done in Your name. Weave all our life’s experiences into Your good purposes – even our failures – gracious Lord. Amen.