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consider the oldest Church in the kingdom, as if it


were his Church. It is however much more recent
than even the ruined Church of Whithern ; it is a
plain oblong Chapel, with very thick walls, and one
narrow pointed window in each of the sides, with
niches, and the other recesses usual about the east
end : a lone deserted place without roof, which from
its thick walls and simple form, suggests the notion
of great antiquity ; but certainly is not connected with
St. Ninian.

At Whithern then he gave a visibility and local
habitation to the Church. The service of God would
here be daily celebrated with the simple dignity which
befits the image of heavenly things, and the unseen
presence of Saints and Angels. The rites which the
Roman Church had derived from her founders, or in-
troduced in after times, as the spontaneous expression
of the spiritual mind, the language, if we may say it,
the very bearing, and graceful movements of the Spouse
of Christ, would there be embodied, and form after the
like -model the minds of those who came to worship,
or abode continually in her courts. With the building
there was a society of religious persons formed, living
with their Bishop, consisting of Clergy to maintain the
unceasing services of the Church, to prepare for the
higher offices, or to teach the people, and of laymen,
who sought here to lead a devout life under the shadow,
and within the very walls of the sanctuary.

That St. Ninian should form such a society was an-
tecedently probable. The monastic life had been intro-
duced and sanctioned in the western Church by the
most revered men ; and the association of Bishops
with their Clergy or other religious people, had been
recently adopted by those whose judgment St. Ninian
would be most guided by. St. Siricius, it lias been


said, preferred to choose Clergy from monks ; what then
was more natural tlian that the Bishop shoukl himself
form, and rule such a society ? He had himself to
proljably lived in one at Rome, and would love its re-
ligious calm for the sake of his own improvement.

For the account of this indeed and the remaining
events of St. Ninian's life, and the institutions and
system which he adopted, we are chiefly indebted to
the accounts of his miracles, which form the rest of St.
Aelred's life. But this, for obvious reasons, will not
appear a valid reason for questioning their truth, con-
sidered as common facts. A long time, certainly, had
elapsed between St. Ninian and St. Aelred ; and though
we must put at a much higher date the composition of
the life, from which St. Aeked derived Ids history, still
some considerable time may have intervened, during
which we must trust to the traditions of his Church.
It may then be said we have little evidence for
these facts ; we have, however, all which the circum-
stances of the case admitted. Aiid we have this in
particular that they were believed by men, who had
much more means of judging than we possess. They
were believed, I mean on the whole, for it is very
possible that Alcuin, St. Aelred, and the Scottish
Church generally, received them as they were handed
down, not attempting to distinguish — to receive part
or to reject part, where they had little or no
grounds for making such distinction. To us however
they convey much real information as to the way of
life of the Saint. I do not mean by mentioning cir-
cumstances which miglit have been inserted by the
narrator ; but by the facts wldch form the very ground-
work of the story, so that if the miracle was believed,
which it must have been in very early times, it must


have been the case that these facts were also generally
believed. And a general and early belief in common
facts would be admitted as evidence by many who
would hesitate to receive it for uncommon ones, par-
ticularly if these common facts were what might other-
wise be expected. Nay, we may go further ; they who
consider that St, Ninian was a friend of St. Martin's,
engaged in the work of converting a barbarous people, '
and who are familiar with the authentic history of the
saints of that age, will look on miracles as things
be expected, as what under the circumstances were
natural ; and so they will, in the same way, give an
assent to the miraculous narration, as what may very
possibly, at least, be true ; though from the nature of
the evidence they would not positively affirm it in each
particular case ; and in the same spirit they may praise
God for His glories thus manifested, as they may for
those of His natural works, though they are in doubt
or error as to the physical facts. Hymns are not the
less religious because they are philosophically untrue ;
nor is the piety unacceptable which saw traces of the
deluge in the shells upon the mountain top, though
recent investigations have taught us to doubt of their

To return, then, to our history ; it appears that one
of St. Ninian's earliest works was the formation of a
religious community, where he and his Clergy might
live together, having all things in conunon. It is of
course most probable, that he adopted the plan from
those of St. Eusebius of Vercelli, St. Augustine, and
especially St. Martin, and that his society, as theirs
did, would consist of laymen as well as clergy.

The evident advantages of such an institution led to
its general adoption in the missions of the following


age. It was a home where sympathy, support, and
counsel, might be had from men like minded, and en-
gaged in labouring the same great ends. Hither men
were gathered, who desired to serve God more entirely
than they could do in the world, to lead a heavenly
life, in contemplation, prayer, and praise. It became
a very school of sanctity, where men earnestly desiring
virtue associated round one of known sanctity, to be
guided by him in their way to heaven, to copy the
traits of holiness in him and in their brethren. Thus
was a body formed which gave light to others, so that
men were drawn out of the contaminating and lower-
inf^ influence of the world, and brought together under
a strict rule and with a professed aim after holiness.

And this must have been of singular importance at a
time when Christianity was now becoming the religion
of the many, and whole nations were being converted.
It presented a difficult problem to the heathen pliiloso-
pher, how the mass of society could be renewed, when
the few in whom the principle of goodiiess was im-
planted were scattered, unseen, and lost among the
numbers who surrounded them, and by whose way of
life, as they possessed no higher visible standard, they
were lowered and corrupted. The Gospel undertakes
to effect it by gathering out these scattered instances of
goodness, and uniting them in one visible society, by
the tie of a professed standard of practice ; to be a city
set on a hill, a light put upon a candlestick ; providing,
moreover, for training up, and forming the characters
of others, by instruction in the truth, and a life regu-
lated by holy discipline. Such was the Church itself,
in its first ages, when the few Christians were closely
bound together, and broadly distinguished from the un-
believers who surrounded them. At the time, however.


when this was no longer possible, when the world
came into the Church, and all were members of that
society, it pleased God gradually to introduce into the
Church itself minor combinations of its holiest mem-
bers, who, without the danger of individual profession,
and bound by obligations which humbled them in the
thought of their shortcomings, might continue as me-
morials of what had existed in a former age, and
schools and models of practical religion. We have
schools for all other arts, for all those acquirements
which need rules and practice, and, above all, imitation,
seeing how others do what we wish to learn. In
secular matters we recognize the advantage of an ex-
perienced teacher and corrector, of being united with
others engaged in the same pm-suits, and of the improve-
ment derived from observing how they attain to excel-
lence, or how they fail in the minute details of their
daily work ; surely it is only reasonable to have some
similar institutions for learning the most important and
the most difficult of all acquirements, that of a holy
life, and the practice of the varied graces of the Chris-
tian character. How many a practical diificulty might
thus be solved ! How many a soul which had en-
tangled its course, and rendered its perceptions of
duty obscure and uncertain, might here be relieved !
The cliief part of Christians have duties in the Avorld,
and they have, amongst the Saints, patterns and guides
for leading a devout life in the discharge of those
duties : but some are ever called to a life where they
may serve God more directly, and these are especial
means of keeping up the general tone of religion,
and supply helps and encouragements, as well as a true
standard, for those who are in the world.

Such may the Saints of Wliithern have been, pre-


seating by their purity, meekness, heavenly minded-
ness, and peace, a specimen of what the fruit of Gospel
righteousness is ; a contrast to the pride, and world-
liness, and violence, which reigned among the heathen ;
and a special means of attracting to the Church, all in
whom the elements of purity and goodness had life
and activity. Devotion was the end of their asso-
ciation and their rules — to imitate on earth an angelic
life ; to this all was subordinate ; for this they rose
betimes, they fasted, they watched, they kept a con-
stant guard on their senses and their thoughts. Thus
to please God they cultivated all Christian graces,
humility, obedience, and love ; they were silent to
converse with God, turning their eyes from the ob-
jects of earth, that the mind might see those of
heaven, and seeking in this life to be cheerful, re-
signed, and happy. The system of the monks would
necessarily have its modifications when adopted by
clergy, whose office called them to be accessible to
their people, to go out on journeys and to preach and
to administer the Sacraments to a scattered people.
But even then they carried with them in silence,
recollection, and prayei", and the devout sa^ang of their
Psalter, the spirit and the practices of their holy home,
and by their gentleness and humility would win over
the poor and simple people among whom they la-

They probably supported themselves by tlieir own
labour, and sucli voluntary offerings as might be made
to the Church. The former belonged to their life as
monks, the latter as clergy. Their chief food was
vegetables ; leeks are especially mentioned ; these were
the produce of a garden of their own, which was under
the care of one of the bretliren, whose business it was


thence to provide the supply necessary for their daily
repasts. It was a simple life deriving support from
the grateful earth ; a condition which maintained in
them a continual dependence on Him who feeds the
young ravens, and enabled them to sympathize with
the poor ; as being themselves without provision from
day to day, and having really made themselves poor for
the sake of Christ. Nor should it sui'prise us that at
times they were almost in want of the necessaries of
life ; since, for some time, St. Ninian had to struggle
against much opposition, and his labours seemed to
produce scarcely any fruit. :i,! VMi, j .;

It was in such a time of need ithat the traditions
of Galloway re^jresent the Saint as receiving a sup-
ply of food by miracle. And before we allow our
selves to judge lightly of the simple tale, let us recall
the numerous instances in Holy Writ in which mira-
cles were wrought for supplying bodily wants ; per-
haps there is no class of which the cases are so
many. The Bishop and his brethren went one day
into the Refectory, but their usual meal of leeks and
other herbs did not appear. The brother who should
have provided them was called. He had only the
disappointing tale to tell, that they had no provisions
left, all the leeks had been put into the ground for
seed, and none remained for them to eat. Perhaps
it had been a bad season and their garden ci'ops had
failed. The Saint bid him go to the garden and bring
what he found. He was astonished at the command,
knowing there was nothing there, but habitual obe-
dience and the thought that the Bishop could not
command any thing without good reason prevailed.
He went, and behold, the process of nature was antici-
pated, and the herbs were found not grown up only


but in seed. There is a very useful lesson at least
taught here, to obey though it seems useless ; diffi-
culties vanish from the path of the determined.

And by this simple way of life, and the exercise of
useful arts, as the Egyptian monks made mats or
baskets, and the cultivation of their garden, and after-
wards by keeping flocks and hei'ds, they would suggest
many a useful lesson to the uncivilized people around
them, and introduce among them improvements which
were otherwise unknown. This has ever been a part
of the work of missionaries in bai'barous nations, tend-
ing to the real improvement of the people, winning a
way to their good will, and teaching them to look up,
in things spiritual, to those who were so willing and
able to help them in earthly concerns.

But there was one other object to which St. Ninian
made his monastery especially subservient. His own
religious history, the wants he had felt, and the privi-
leges he had enjoyed, and the very design for which he
had returned to Britain, would lead him to regard
sound theological training as of the utmost importance
for liis clergy. He had himself sought in vain for those
who could teach him the truth ; he had seen the evils
which resulted from the want of a steady holding to
the right faith, in the unsettledness and spiritual dead-
ness which prevailed. He had come to remedy those
evils. "Wliere could it be better eifected than in his
college ? This was healing the fountain, it was pro-
viding that those who, each in his own sphere, was to
teach others, should himself be in doctrine as well as
life a model for them to imitate. The advantages he
had enjoyed at Rome he came to impart to Britain ;
and the monastery at Whithern was the place where


the system of theological teaching he has known there
would be adopted for his own clergy.

He would himself first, as they were able to bear it,
lead them into a full and exact knowledge of the truths
of religion, by such a course of oral and catechetical
instruction, as would transfuse into their minds the
great ideas with which his own was impressed. He
would accustom them by rule and instance to an accu-
rate literal exposition of Scripture, and still more to
that wonderful system of mystical interpretation, which
the spiritual mind spontaneously suggests, and, when
duly instructed in it, carries through the whole of
Scripture. And in both he would aid them by the
study of the works of the earlier fathers, and of the
living lights of the Church, the great masters of dog-
matical and interpretative Theology, St, Augustine and
St. Jerome. Nay, it will appear that he perpetuated
his teaching by composing works, probably for their
benefit. In consequence Whithern became a school
from which the teachers of the northern Church were
sent out.

Another very important part of his institution was
a school for the young, rising up, as in some of our
Sees, under the shadow of the Cathedral, as in olden
times it formed an essential part of the Capitular esta-
blishment. It was most important to rescue, as far as
might be, the children of heathen or evil-minded
parents from the contaminating influence of their
homes, and both with them and others to keep the
young mind from losing the innocency of its regenera-
tion, and to train it in habits of virtue, and the know-
ledge of the truth. It was indeed sowing seeds, which
might for a long time seem buried, but would at last
grow up to noble trees. And from among the breth-


ren, as in after times, there would be found those who
teach the little ones, and themselves be both refreshed
and improved by it. Refreshed by the sweetness and
simplicity of their innocent minds, naturally thinking no
evil, without anxiety, ambition, or guile ; which is to
the harassed mind what a garden of flowers is to the
weary, where they may repose amid fair objects, and
where all is peace. Improved, because their own
ideas Avould be cleared, and made more real by having
to impart their knowledge to the unsophisticated minds
of children. Nor -was the Bishop without his own
share in the work. He taught the children himself,
not unmindful of the precept to feed the lambs, just as
Gerson, the great Chancellor of Paris, is said through
life to have maintained the practice of weekly cate-
chising little children. It was a mark of the sweetness
of St. Ninian's character that he was loved and reve-
renced by his little ones ; and this circumstance was
so prominent among his works that the characteristic
which one historian gives him is, that he was a dis-
tinguished trainer of cliildren.

Connected -svith this, there was a story for which
people could, in St. Aelred's time, point to what were
held to be living evidences, which brings out the
Bishop as the father of these little ones. But it is
best to adopt or paraphrase the words of St. Ael-
red. " Many, both of the more noble and the mid-
dle rank, placed their children under the care of the
Saint, to be taught the knowledge of religion. These
he instructed with learning, and formed to habits of
virtue, restraining by wholesome discipline the faults
to which their age is liable, and implanting virtues
by which they might live in sobriety, justice, and piety."
It happened on a time that one of the boys offended,


and preparations were made to punish him. The boy,
in alarm, ran away ; but knowing the power and good-
ness of the Saint, and thinking he should find a solace
in his flight if he did but take with him anything be-
longing to the good Bishop, he took off the staff on
which St. Ninian used to support himself. In his
eagerness to escape he looked out for a boat which
might carry him away. The boats of the country St.
Aelred then describes. They were of wicker work,
large enough to hold three men ; over this wicker
work a hide Avas stretched, and the boat would float
and be impervious to the waves. They are the same
boats which Pliny and Csesar describe, and in which
the Britons would cross the sea to France or Ireland,
or even go voyages of many days. They are called
currachs or coracles ; they were long in use in the
Western Isles, and still are among the fishermen on the

There happened just then to be many large ones
making ready on the shore. The Avicker work was
finished, but the hides not put on. He very incau-
tiously got in, and the light boat at first kept on the
top of the waves, the water not at once making its
way through ; soon however it did so, and there
seemed no prospect but that it must fill and go down.
He loiew not whether to run the risk of leaping out or
staying and sinking. In the moment of his distress,
however, he thought of the holiness and power of St.
Ninian ; contrite for his fault, as though weeping at
his feet, he confesses his guilt, entreats pardon, and by
the most holy merit of the Saint begs the aid of
Heaven. Trusting, with childlike simplicity, that the
staff was not without its virtue, as belonging to the
Saint, he fixed it in one of the openings. The water


retreated, and, as if in fear, presumed not to pour in."
" These," says the saintly Aelred, " these are the works
of Christ, "VVlio did say to His disciples, he that be-
lieveth in Me the works that I do, shall he do also,
and greater things than these shall he do."

A o-entle wind arose and forced on the little boat, the
staff supplied the place of sail, and rudder, and anchor
to stay his course. The people crowding on the shore
saw the little ship, like some bird swimming along the
waves, without either oar or sail. The boy comes to
shore, and to spread moi-e widely the fame of the holy
Bishop, he in strong faith, fixed the staff in the ground,
and prayed that as a testimony to the miracle, it might
take root, send forth branches, flowers, and fruit. Pre-
sently the dry wood shot out roots, was clothed with
fresh bark, produced leaves and branches, and grew
into a considerable tree. Nay, to add miracle to mi-
racle, at the root of a tree a spring of the clearest
water burst forth, and poured out a glassy stream,
which wound its way with gentle murmurs, grateful
to the eye, and, from the merits of the Saint, useful
and health-giving to the sick.

With what interest would this tale be told to the
pilgrim strangers, and the tree and fountain shewn as
the evidences of its truth in those days of simple faith !
And with hearts lifted up to God, and trusting in the
aid of St. Ninian's prayers, many a poor sick man
would drink of the clear stream.

Men of this day may smile at their simplicity ; but
better surely is the mind which receives as no in-
credible thing, the unusual interposition of Him who
worketh all things according to the counsel of His own
will ; better the spirit which \dews the properties of a
salubrious spring as the gift of God, granted to a faith-


ful and holy servant, than that which would habitually
exclude the thought of the Great Doer of all, by resting
on the Laws of Nature as something independent of
Him, not, as they ai"e, the way in which He usually
works ; or thanklessly, and as a matter of course re-
ceive the benefit of some mineral waters.

However, we were speaking of St. Ninian's school,
and we have seen the aged Bishop, for the event is
related near the close of his life, leaning on his staff",
and ordering the boys to be punished ; and we see
too what kind of scholars he had, and how deep was their
veneration for him, even when they were doing wrong ;
how simple their faith in the presence and power of
the Almighty.

Another narrative brings more before us the per-
sonal habits and religious life of St. Ninian, and this
we should much wish to know. We have followed him
through his holy childhood, and his pure and humble
youth, have seen in opening manhood his deep and
reverend love of Divine knowledge — his relinquishing
the world — his progress in piety and perception of
the Truth. And one characteristic which had been
formed and strengthened by his obedient love of Him,
who is unseen, was now brought out, the fixedness
of his thoughts amid the distractions of the world,
and his attention to Divine things. This indeed is the
state in which reason shows us we ought to be ; for it
is to have our thoughts dwelling on what is true, per-
manent, and most concerning, instead of what is tran-
sient and unreal. And to him its effects were most
blessed, enabling him to sustain a calm and tranquil
mind amid the hurry and trials of his toilsome work ;
leading an angel's life, diligent and laborious, and doing
all things perfectly, as the angels unceasingly minister


for US ; but without excitement and huny, even as they,
by retaining the contemplation of the Divine glory, and
a simple union with the Divine Avill, are undisturbed.
It had doubtless ever been his practice from the time
that as a child he turned his thoughts and loving
affections towards his Heavenly Father, and afterwards
dwelt in pious meditation on the truths he laboured so
earnestly to learn. And he sustained it by keeping a
constant guard against wandering, dissipated thoughts ;
by occupying his mind in holy things, that the house
which had been swept and garnished, might yet never
be found empty ; by not seeking to know anything
which did not concern him. He was assisted by a
practice which we often read of in the lives of Saints,
that of reading or saying the Psalms, or earnest medi-
tation, at times when circumstances would most tend
to dissipate the thoughts ; which probably every one
feels to be the case in those seemingly unoccupied
times, when one has to walk or travel alone. Then it
is for most people, perhaps, impossible to keep the

Online LibraryJohn Henry NewmanLives of the English saints (Volume 2) → online text (page 8 of 33)