41. JOHN WHITERIG: HERMIT OF FARNE
John Whiterig was a hermit on the Inner Farne during the 14th century, at the time when the Benedictine monastery here was still in operation, though numbers had begun to decline. He died in 1371 probably still under 50 years old. He is interesting because he was the only one of the Farne hermits to have written a book which has survived. It can be read today under the title 'A Monk of Farne'.
John became a Benedictine monk at Durham in about 1350. Either before or soon after he entered he studied at Oxford. We know this because he mentioned that he nearly had a fatal accident in falling off a bridge into one of the Oxford rivers, but his guardian angel saved him! Durham monks were encouraged to take Oxford degrees if they had the ability. Later at Durham he was novice master for a time, but then visited Lindisfarne once and the Farnes twice, so clearly he had begun to feel a hermit vocation. He settled on the Inner Farne in 1363, and his book is a series of meditations addressed to Christ or one of the saints or angels. To write such a book was considered suitable work for a hermit, and many must have been written which have not survived. John wrote of course in Latin, still the language of the Church, though some writers were beginning to write in English.
John comes over as a most attractive man, indeed a happy hermit. He was writing at a time of great troubles in the world, of which the greatest no doubt was the Black Death, a plague which in some places killed up to half the people. There was trouble in the church, because for a number of years there were two claimants to the office of Pope. There was trouble for England, for the 100 Years' War with France went on interminably and in the north there were the Border Wars with the Scots. No doubt the hermits considered intercession as a big part of their vocation. John also suffered a little from one of the anxieties of the time: doubt about his personal salvation. But in this he was reassured by a vision of Christ, who seemed to him to be smiling or even laughing at him, but kindly. John was a great believer in keeping cheerful, even when it was difficult:he thought cheerfulness added much to the value of a dedicated life.
We are glad to add him to our list of saints of the north.
42. ST. WILFRID:
I hadn't really thought of St. Wilfrid as 'little-known' until some visitors to the Island wanted to know about him and couldn't find any information.
Wilfrid was the sort of person you either love or hate. Fortunately some people did love him, especially his monks and very especially the one who wrote his Life shortly after his death, a monk called Eddius Stephanus. For him the sun shone out of Wilfrid. For many others he was a problem.
He was born in 635, the same year as St. Cuthbert, and the same year St.Aidan founded the monastery on Lindisfarne. His father was a Northumbrian nobleman, and so Wilfrid was trained for a warrior's life. But at the age of 14 he left home, in part to escape from a wicked stepmother, and went to King Oswiu's court. Queen Eanflaed befriended him, and when a sick nobleman wished to go to Lindisfarne she encouraged Wilfrid to go as his attendant. There he joined St. Aidan's school.
So for four years he was trained as a future monk, but at the age of 18 he asked to leave in order to see the world. First he travelled to Rome, and what he saw there changed the course of his life. He loved the great stone buildings, the music and art, the majestic ceremonies of the church, the sense of power and order, the up-to-date ideas. He wanted to bring all these back to Northumbria. At some point he became a monk and then returned to England. There he made friends with a son of Oswiu, who gave him a monastery at Ripon.
But Wilfrid was made for the life of controversy, not of peaceful seclusion.
At the Synod of Whitby in 664 he was the main speaker against the Irish side, and his views prevailed. He was chosen as the next bishop of York and went abroad for a grand consecration. But he lingered too long, and when he came back found that the king had put Chad in his place. The archbishop restored Wilfrid to York, and then the really controversial part of his life began.
Wherever he went Wilfrid founded monasteries, attached them to himself, and so built up a personal monastic empire. But in Anglo-Saxon politics no-one could be more powerful a kingdom than the king. Wilfrid's life became a saga of building up power, quarrelling with a king, being turned out, going to the next kingdom and doing the same again. He made several journeys to Rome to assert his rights, but the pope's support counted for nothing in faraway England. He remained bishop of York, at least in his own mind, and found himself supplanted even there, for most of the time he was away from his diocese. Eventually, in his old age, his monasteries at Ripon and Hexham were restored to him and he became Bishop of Hexham. But it is a somewhat tragic story for a man who was so highly gifted and could have achieved so much.
For Wilfrid, we must say that he was personally austere, and generous to the poor. Where he formed friendships he was a loyal friend. His belief was that the Church and its representatives, including himself, must be honoured, cultured and impressive for the sake of proclaiming the gospel.
Many in the history of the church have agreed with him. Others, of whom St.Aidan is an obvious example but there are many others, thought that those who preach the gospel should live alongside those to whom they preach.
Each of us can decide where we stand!