St Ninian

An early mention of St Ninian appears in the famous book by Bede called Ecclesiastical History of the English People. In it he records that in the year 565 St Columba travelled from Ireland to Scotland, to the land of the Picts, in order to preach the Gospel. He also notes that the northern Picts and southern Picts were separated by the Grampian mountains, and that the southern Picts had already been brought to the Faith by the preaching of St Ninian. He described Ninian as

“a most reverend and holy man of British race, who had been regularly instructed in the mysteries of the Christian Faith in Rome.” [1]

It is also from Bede that we hear of the church Ninian had built from stone, called Candida Casa, the White (or shining) House, hence Whithorn.

Much later, in the twelfth century St Aelred, who was a monk in the Cistercian Order, at Rievaulx, in Yorkshire, wrote the Life of St Ninian. In this work he shows Ninian to be a man who could be seen as being in the image of Christ (imitatio Christi). At this stage it is worth making the point that the style of writing which was used in depicting the lives of the saints was known as hagiography. This really just means ‘writing about holy people’. However, the important thing to remember when considering this form of writing is that it is not completely objective; that is to say, it aims to show the person always in a good light.

The historian Marsha Dutton has said that Aelred saw St Ninian as a person who expressed in the one person both the contemplative and active ways of living the Christian life [2]. The ‘contemplative’ would mean the person given over to prayer and reflection. The ‘active’ would be the person engaged in doing good works. For a long time these two ways of presenting the Christian life have been viewed as completely separate from each other; however, these days a few people are starting to talk about both aspects being found in the same person. St Aelred was already doing that in the twelfth century. Aelred presents Ninian as a man who was prayerful, was a missionary, built a church building, and built up the Church community. [3]

[1] Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People (London: Penguin Books, 1990), Bk 3, Ch. 4, p.148
[2]  Marsha Dutton, ‘A Mirror for Christian England’, in Aelred of Rievaulx: The Lives of the Northern Saints (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2006), pp. 1-32
[3] Ibid

He was born around the year 365. He left his homeland for Rome, to study for the priesthood. It was around that time that the great St Ambrose was not far away as bishop of Milan. The same Ambrose had baptised St Augustine, who was to become one of the most influential figures in the history of the Church. What a time to be in Rome. In due course he was ordained as a bishop by the Pope. According to St Aelred the Holy Father, realising that some people where Ninian had come from, had not received the Gospel message, he decided to ordain him himself. The Holy Father knew that even among those who had received the Faith, it had come from people who either were wrong in some of their teachings, or just did not know enough. Therefore, he was confident that Ninian would be the man to send, like an apostle, to carry sound teaching, supported by prayer [4]. He left Rome to return to Scotland. However, on the way he decided to visit St Martin, the bishop of Tours (France). St Aelred tells us that Ninian

filled with the Spirit of God turned his steps toward the city of Tours.
Who can easily say with what joy, what devotion, what affection Martin received him?
By the grace of a prophetic illumination, the new bishop’s virtue
was not hidden from him. By God’s revelation he recognized a
man sanctified by the Spirit and sure to benefit the salvation of many. [5]

Furthermore, Ninian asked Martin if he would allow him to take some of Martin’s stonemasons with him. If he were to make sure that the Faith of the Catholic Church, as expounded in Rome, were to take hold in Scotland, then it would help if the architecture was also influenced by Rome. [6]

[4] Aelred of Rievaulx, The Life of St Ninian, in Aelred of Rievaulx: The Lives of the Northern Saints (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2006), ch.2, p.42
[5] Ibid
[6] Aelred of Rievaulx, The Life of St Ninian, ch.2, p.43

When Ninian landed in Scotland he chose for his episcopal see (diocese) the place now called Whithorn. There he had a stone church built. This was the first such structure in Scotland. Hearing that the great Martin had died, and, that he and many assumed, had gone to heaven, he dedicated the church to Martin. He knew that the Church was the people who were baptised; however, his strong sense of wanting to call others to share in that life led him to see that the church building might also have a part to play. It was as if the building could proclaim the Gospel night and day, even when there was not something going on inside it. Indeed, what would be the point of such a building if it were a closed monument?

And so the lamp set upon a stand began to illumine those in the house
of God with heavenly signs and the radiant flames of the virtues, to
enlighten darkened minds with the lucid and fiery word of the Lord [7]

This love for proclaiming the Gospel came from Ninian’s firm conviction that he walked always in God’s presence, and that the Lord was directing all his actions [8]. St Aelred also recounts that many miracles were worked through St Ninian. This was, it has to be said, fairly customary when writing the lives of saints. In a sense it is an expression of the way in which people noticed Ninian walking in God’s presence. An example for us in this respect might be that for Ninian every situation was an opportunity for prayer. This did not necessarily entail the saying of particular prayers. What it meant was that his meditation, that is the way in which he chewed over in his mind the mystery of God, was something he carried with him. Moreover, his contemplation, that is his awareness of being in God’s presence, overflowed into the lives of those around him.

A crowd did not disturb his quiet or a journey hinder his meditation;
nor did his prayer grow lukewarm through weariness. [9]

The Life of St Ninian tells us that when the time came for him to ascend to heaven his body was buried in the church which he had dedicated to St Martin of Tours [10]. Indeed, such was the influence Ninian had on the people around, that after his death they came to revere his relics.

Approaching the relics of the holy man, they offered the
sacrifice of a contrite heart with floods of tears, and they
persisted in their prayers faithfully… [11]

[7] Ibid. ch.4, p.44
[8] Ibid. ch.4, p.46
[9] Ibid. ch.9, p.53
[10] Ibid. ch.11, p.59
[11] Ibid. ch.12, p.60

Let St Ninian be our continuing example too. May Our Lady, St Ninian, and all the saints pray for us.

Icon artwork by permission of Aidan Hart Icons

 Text from ‘We are Cuthbert, We are Ninian’ written by Fr. Gerard Bogan (Former parish priest of St. Ninian’s and St. Cuthbert’s Parish)