29 September 2009

'O Godly Boast of Cumberland'—St Ninian of Whithorn

Today, 16 September on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Ninian (Nynia), Bishop of Whithorn, in Scotland. It is uncertain when he lived, but it may have been the fifth or sixth century. The earliest reference to St Ninian, of whom Aelred of Rievaulx writes that ‘the sanctity of his ways and his distinguished miracles commend to us’, is a brief passage in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History III.4. After stating that St Columba went to Britain to preach to the northern Picts, St Bede writes (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Bertram Colgrave, ed. Judith McClure and Roger Collins [Oxford: Oxford U, 1994], p. 114-5):

The southern Picts who live on this side of the mountains had, so it is said, long ago given up the errors of idolatry and received the true faith through the preaching of the Word by that reverend and holy man Bishop Ninian, a Briton who had received orthodox instruction at Rome in the faith and the mysteries of the truth. His episcopal see is celebrated for its church, dedicated to St Martin where his body rests, together with those of many other saints. The see is now under English rule. This place which is in the kingdom of Bernicia is commonly called Whithorn, the White House [Candida Casa], because Ninian built a church of stone there, using a method unusual among the Britons.

Fortunately, however, there is a fuller account of St Ninian’s life (available here) which Aelred of Rievaulx, the 12th-c. English Cistercian abbot, claims to have taken from a ‘barbarous’ original. According to Aelred’s Vita Sancti Niniani, St Ninian was born in the region near the Solway Firth, near the borders of Scotland and England, and his father was a Christian king of that region. The young boy assiduously preserved the grace of his baptism, did what was pleasing to God, and delighted ‘in the law of the Lord day and night, who like a tree planted by the water-side brought forth his fruit in due season, seeing that in the vigour of manhood he strenuously fulfilled that which he had learnt with the greatest devotion.’ The Vita (Chapt. I) continues:

He was sparing in food, reticent in speech, assiduous in study, agreeable in manners, averse from jesting, and in everything subjecting the flesh to the spirit. Wherefore bending his mind to the sacred Scriptures, when he had learnt according to their way the rules of the faith from the more learned of his race, the young man came by the exercise of his penetrating genius to see, what by the divine inspiration he had gathered from the Scriptures, that much was wanting to their perfection. . . . His heart was hot within him, and at last in meditation the fire kindled. ‘And what,’ said he, ‘shall I do? I have sought in mine own land Him whom my soul loveth. I sought Him, but I have found Him not. I will arise now, and I will compass sea and land. I will seek the truth which my soul loveth. Surely needeth it such toil as this. Was it not said to Peter, “Thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it?” Therefore in the faith of Peter there is naught inferior, naught obscure, naught imperfect, naught gainst which false doctrine and perverse opinions, like the gates of hell, can prevail. And where is the faith of Peter but in the See of Peter? Thither certainly, thither I must betake me, that, going forth from my land and from my kinsfolk, and from the house of my father, I may be deemed meet in the land of vision to behold the fair beauty of the Lord, and to visit His temple. The false prosperity of the age smileth on me, the vanity of the world allureth me, the love of earthly relationship softeneth my soul, toil and the weariness of the flesh deter me, but the Lord hath said, “He that loveth father or mother more than me is unworthy of me, and he that taketh not up his cross and followeth me is unworthy of me.” I have learnt moreover that they who despise the royal court shall attain to the heavenly kingdom.’

So, the Vita tells us, St Ninian went on pilgrimage to Rome, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. There, he venerated the relics of the Apostles and presented himself to the Pope, explaining the purpose of his journey. Then we read in Chapt. II:

Presently [the latter] handed him over to the teachers of truth to be imbued with the disciplines of faith and the sound meanings of Scripture. . . . Therefore with the greatest eagerness, with enlarged mouth, receiving the word of God, like a bee he formed for himself the honeycombs of wisdom by arguments from the different opinions of doctors, as of various kinds of flowers. And hiding them within his inmost heart, he preserved them to be inwardly digested and brought forward for the refreshment of his inward man and for the consolation of many others. . . . Wherefore, after living in a praiseworthy manner for many years in the city and having been sufficiently instructed in the sacred Scripture he attained to the height of virtue, and, sustained on the wings of love, he rose to the contemplation of spiritual things.

The Pope himself took notice of St Ninian’s virtues and learning in the Holy Scriptures, and for this reason consecrated him a bishop and sent him back to Britain. On the way, the holy man stopped to visit St Martin of Tours, and to ask him to send with him some masons for the building of churches. The Vita continues, ‘so, satiated with mutual conversations as with heavenly feasts, after embraces, kisses, and tears shed by both, they parted, holy Martin remaining in his own See, and Ninian hastening forth under the guidance of Christ to the work whereunto the Holy Ghost had called him.’ He was received as a Prophet in Britain, and immediately set to work fulfilling his apostolic calling—‘Having purged the minds of the faithful from all their errors, he began to lay in them the foundations of faith unfeigned; building thereon the gold of wisdom, the silver of knowledge, and the stones of good works: and all the things to be done by the faithful he both taught by word and illustrated by example, confirming it by many and great signs following.’ Even amidst all of the cares and troubles of his apostolic work, the Vita speaks in Chapter 9 of ‘the most blessed Ninian, . . . whose repose no crowd disturbed, whose meditation no journey hindered, whose prayer never grew lukewarm through fatigue. For whithersoever he went forth he raised his soul to heavenly things, either by prayer or by contemplation.’

St Ninian put the masons to work near the southwestern tip of Scotland on what was traditionally held to be the first stone church in Britain, called Candida Casa—‘White [or Shining] House’, or, today, ‘Whithorn’. Having learned that St Martin had meanwhile reposed, ‘he was careful to dedicate the church itself in his honour.’ Of course, we mustn’t pass over the mission to the southern Picts, which St Bede mentioned. Aelred’s Vita relates St Ninian’s activities among them in starkly biblical, spiritual terms. It speaks of the holy bishop putting on the full ‘armour of God’ to fight the evil one, and then:

Fortified by such arms, and surrounded by the society of his holy brethren as by a heavenly host, he invaded the empire of the strong man armed, with the purpose or rescuing from his power innumerable victims of his captivity: wherefore, attacking the Southern Picts, whom still the Gentile error which clung to them induced to reverence and worship deaf and dumb idols, he taught them the truth of the Gospel and the purity of the Christian faith, God working with him, and confirming the word with signs following. The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, those oppressed of the devil are set free. A door is opened for the Word of God by the grace of the Holy Spirit: the faith is received, error renounced, temples cast down, churches erected.

The Vita also specifically relates St Ninian’s many known miracles. Of these, I will include just two here, from Chapters 7 and 8. In 7, we are told that on one occasion, St Ninian noticed there were no vegetables prepared for supper, and asking the gardener the reason for this, was told that all of the edible vegetables had been used up. ‘Then said the saint, “Go, and whatsoever thy hand findeth, gather andbring to me.” Wondering, he stood trembling, hesitating what to do; but knowing that Ninian could order nothing in vain, he slowly entered the garden.’ There the gardener was astonished to find leeks and other herbs ‘not only grown, but bearing seed’. When he served them up joyfully, realising the great virtue of the bishop, ‘The guests looked at each other, and with heart and voice magnified God working in his saints; and so retired much better refreshed in mind than in body.’

In Chapter 8, we learn that St Ninian kept flocks and herds of animals ‘which he had gathered together for the use of the brethren, the poor and the pilgrims’. He used to bless them, commending them to God’s protection, and on one occasion, he used his staff to draw a circle around a herd of cattle, praying that all within would be kept safe. That night, a band of cattle-rustlers came, and seeing no fence or any guard, crossed the boundary drawn by the Saint.

But the Divine power was present resisting the ungodly, nay, casting them down, using against those, who, as brute beasts, minded their bellies and not their reason, the instrumentality of an irrational animal. For the bull of the herd rushed upon the men in fury, and striking at the leader of the thieves, threw him down, pierced his belly with his horns, sending forth his life and his entrails together. Then tearing up the earth with his hoofs, he smote with mighty strength a stone which happened to be under his foot, and in a wonderful way, in testimony of the miracle, the foot sunk into it as if into soft wax, leaving a footmark in the rock, and by the footmark giving a name to the place. For to this day the place in the English tongue is named Farres Last, that is, the Footprint of the Bull.

Soon, the holy bishop, having finished his prayers, returned to find the dead man laying on the ground, and the other thieves rushing around in a demonic frenzy. St Ninian, however, had compassion upon them, and besought God to give them another chance. Thus, the dead man was resurrected! ‘For, verily, the power of Christ, for the merit of the saint, smote him and healed him, killed and restored him to life, cast him down to hell and raised him again.’ The others, when they saw the Saint, fell at his feet imploring forgiveness. ‘And he, benignantly chiding them and impressing upon them the fear of God and the judgement prepared for the rapacious, giving them his benediction, granted them permission to depart.’

But eventually the holy bishop came to the end of his days.

Wherefore blessed Ninian, perfect in life and full of years, passed from this world in happiness, and was carried into heaven, accompanied by the angelic spirits, to receive an eternal reward, where, associated with the company of the apostles, joined to the ranks of the martyrs, enlisted in the hosts of the holy confessors, adorned also with the flowers of the virgins, he faileth not to succour those who hope in him, who cry to him, who praise him.

Accompanied by ‘celestial hymns’, he was buried in the Church of St Martin he had founded at Whithorn, in a stone sarcophagus near the altar. There many pilgrims used to journey to venerate his holy relics and to receive healing. Among others, the Vita tells of a young girl named Deisuit who had gone blind as a result of a painful disease. As the physicians could do nothing for her, she was led to the tomb of St Ninian.

Therefore to that girl before mentioned the grace which she sought appeared; the door of pity at which she knocked was opened; the health which she sought was vouchsafed; for the darkness was taken away and light was restored. All pain disappeared, and she who had come, led by another to the sacred tomb, returned home guided by her own sight, with great joy of her parents.

The Vita concludes, ‘But now this is the end of this book, though not the end of the miracles of S. Ninian, which do not cease to shine forth even unto our own times to the laud and glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, who with the Father and the Holy Ghost liveth and reigneth for ever and ever. Amen.’

Here are the Troparion and Kontakion for St Ninian from The Great Horologion or Book of Hours, trans. HTM (Boston: HTM, 1997), pp. 252-3:

Dismissal Hymn of the Hierarch
Third Tone. Thy confession

As the equal of the Lord’s Apostles, thou didst bring the grace of the good tidings to the lands of the Scots, O wise Ninian. Thou art a lamp to our feet, who enlightenest our souls to walk in the path of our God’s commandments. Hence, we honour thee and cry unto thee with fervent faith: Entreat Christ God to grant great mercy unto us.

Kontakion of the Hierarch. Plagal of Fourth Tone
To thee, the Champion Leader

To thee, our father, guide, and teacher in the Christian Faith, do we now offer fitting hymns of praise and gratitude, and, O godly boast of Cumberland, we extol thee. But since thou hast grace and boldness at the throne of God, do thou shelter and protect all who acclaim thy name, for we cry to thee: Rejoice, O Father Ninian.


Anonymous said...

I'd be interested in seeing a map (old one, preferably) of the area where St. Ninian lived and ministered. The northwestern area of what is now England is where our Taylor line originates--the area around city Carlisle, county Cumberland, in what is now England. Perhaps St. Ninian planted the faith in that very area!

Aaron Taylor said...

I imagine he did. Aelred says he originated in 'the western part of the island (where the ocean stretching as an arm, and making as it were on either side two angles, divideth at this day the realms of the Scots and the Angles)', which would be right around Carlisle. Whithorn of course is on the northern, Scottish side of the 'arm', but when he returned to Britain from Rome Aelred says it was 'to his own land', where people seemed to know him already (so probably around Carlisle), and that he began to plant the faith there. In his missionary travels I'm sure he ranged all over the area.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating! It makes me feel a true kinship with him, and an even stronger connection to that part of England/Scotland.