Our Island Saints – Saint Kentigern

The night was dark, and never a star shone in the blackness of the sky. The wind howled as it swept across the troubled waters of the Firth of Forth, and there was no light on sea or land to guide any belated fishing-boat to a safe haven. It would have been a difficult and dangerous task for any sailor to steer his boat on such a night, and yet the one frail little barque that was tossing about in the stormy waters made its way surely and steadily towards the land.

It was indeed but a frail little boat that so gallantly held its way. Over the framework of wooden laths was stretched a covering of hides, scarcely strong enough to withstand the lash of the waves. There were no oars and no rudder, and the boat seemed empty save for a dark form that crouched at the bottom with white upturned face.

But though there was no one to guide the boat, still it went steadily onward, rising like a cork over the crests of the threatening waves, so that scarce a drop of their spray fell upon the dark figure that clung there so desperately.

Presently there was a grating sound, and then a wild sweep upward, as the boat was lifted on the crest of a wave and dashed high and dry upon a sandy shore, while the sea sank sullenly back. Then the dark figure rose quickly, and tried to peer with her wild sad eyes into the blackness around. She was but a maiden yet, and very beautiful, but her beauty was dimmed by the look of suffering and weariness that had paled her cheek and dulled her eyes. A king’s daughter this, driven out by cruel hands, but carried by the pitiful waves to a safe haven.

All was very black and very still as the maiden gazed around, but presently a tiny glow of light showed through the darkness, and, stumbling as she went, she managed to reach the place where a few dying embers in a circle of rude stones marked the spot where some shepherds had left their fire to die out.

With a sob of thankfulness the tired traveller knelt and, with trembling breath, coaxed the ashes into a glow, and gathered some of the sticks that were scattered around to lay upon the embers. How good it was to feel the warmth stealing through her stiff frozen limbs; how comforting to see the merry little red tongues of flame lighting up the darkness that was so lonely and so terrible!

But another light had now begun to melt the darkness of the night. Far away in the east the long-looked-for dawn was lifting with its rosy finger the grey curtain of morning twilight. And with the light there came to the lonely maiden by the little fire, the light and joy of her lifeā€”her baby son, sent by God to comfort her. Poor little wailing child, he had but a cold welcome to this world of ours. There was no roof to cover him, no soft garments to enfold him; only his mother’s arms to wrap him round, only the little red fire to warm him and bid him welcome.

It was thus that another Baby had come to earth in the stable at Bethlehem long ago, and this little one too, like the King of Heaven, found friends among the kindly shepherd folk. Not far off from the sandy beach the shepherds had been herding their flocks, and as they looked seaward in the dim light of dawn, they saw a thin curl of blue smoke rising from the shore. Surely, then, their fire had not died out, and it would be good to warm themselves in the chill morning air. They were rough strong men these shepherds, accustomed to a rough rude life, but when they came to the sandy beach and saw the poor young mother with her little newborn son, like the shepherds of old they too knelt down in reverence and with tender hands wrapped their warm coats about the mother and child, and brought out their poor breakfast, offering all that they had.

“We must away and tell the good Saint Servanus,” said one. “He will care for these poor strangers.”

“Hasten, then,” cried another, “and we will follow on and gently bear the mother and her little one to the dwelling of the saint.”

So it was arranged, and two of the younger shepherds started in hot haste to tell the good saint of the adventure that had befallen them. They knew that they would find him ready to listen to their story, for he ever rose with the dawn to offer his daily service to God.

“Father, father,” they cried, as the old man came forth from the little church to meet them. “We have a strange thing to tell thee. On the shore of Culross we have but now found a fair young maiden with her newborn son. The child was born at dawn of day, and we would know if we may bring them both hither to thee.”

A wonderful light shone on the face of the old man as he listened to the words. A child born at the dawn of day! Why, that must have been the meaning of the angel’s song which had fallen on his wondering ears as he knelt before the altar! His heart had been lifted up in prayer when the song “Gloria in Excelsis” came floating down, and he waited for some sign to show what it all should mean.

Scarcely had the breathless shepherds finished their tale when the others followed on, one gently bearing the weary mother, while the other tenderly held the tiny babe in a fold of his cloak.

The old saint hurried forward with eager steps and held out his trembling hands to take the child.

“My dear one, my dear one,” he cried, “blessed art thou that hast come in the name of the Lord.”

So the old saint took the child to his heart. The echo of the heavenly voices still rang in his ears, and he felt sure that this little child sent to earth at the dawn of light would be one of the heralds of the True Light that had come into the world.

When a few days had passed and the poor mother had poured her sad tale into his kindly ears, Saint Servanus brought the maiden and her child to the font of the little church, and baptized the mother by the name of Thenew. Then he took the baby in his arms and poured the water over its little downy head, giving him the name of Kentigern. But there was another name by which the child was often called, Mungo, or “dear one,” the name used by the old man that early morning when he took the little one into his arms and into his heart.

Under the care of the good saint the child grew into a strong brave boy. He had no lack of companions, for many boys were gathered at the monastery to be taught and trained by the learned Saint Servanus. With them he learned his lessons and played his games, but, although he was kind and generous, the boys did not greatly love him. It was not so much that they envied his quickness at lessons, or his beautiful voice which soared above all the rest in the daily hymn of praise: this they might have suffered, but they felt sure that the master loved him best, and this was more than they could bear. They began to wish with all their hearts that Kentigern would be tempted to do some mean evil deed and thus lose favour in the eyes of the old man, who took such a pride in his goodness and cleverness.

The saints of God have always had a special love for His dumb creatures, and have treated both birds and beasts with tender care. The blessed Saint Francis was never so happy as when among his “little sisters the birds,” while all animals came to him at his call as if to a friend. Saint Servanus too had his favourite “little sister,” a tiny robin-redbreast, so tame that it would come and perch on the old man’s shoulder, hop upon his hand, and at matins would cheerfully chirp its little hymn of praise with the rest. It was so small and trustful, so sure of its welcome when it came hopping down, cocking its head on one side and looking at him with its bright eye, that the saint would smile and call it his spoilt child. Before eating his own meals the “little sister” had first her share.

Now the boys who were so jealous of Kentigern were inclined to hate the poor little robin too. Many a time had the master bade them take a lesson from his little favourite, mark its prompt obedience in coming at once when it was called, watch its busy ways, and note how cheerful was its song of praise. They answered never a word, but in their hearts they thought it was by no means pleasant to be sent to learn lessons from a silly little bird.

So the evil feeling grew until at last one night, when the saint had gone into the church alone, they found the redbreast chirping away on a branch outside the door, and, as it was so tame, they caught it with the greatest ease. At first they did not mean to harm it, only to frighten it a little, but their ways were rough, and ere long they took to quarrelling as to who should hold it, and began to snatch it from each other’s grasp. Then before they half realised what they had done, the poor little bird lay dead in their hands, its feathers all torn and ruffled, its bright eyes closed, its head hanging limp and still. A dreadful hush fell on the noisy throng as they looked at their work.

“Oh! what will the master say?” cried one.

“We dare not tell him,” said another.

“He will know without any telling,” said a third.

“Oh! how we shall be whipped,” wailed all the rest in chorus.

A shiver went round at the words. Each one knew exactly how that whipping would smart, and almost felt it already.

“Here comes the good boy Kentigern,” cried another; “he of course is safe from blame, just as he always is.”

The boys looked at one another. The same thought had struck them all. Why not put the blame on Kentigern and say that he had killed the bird? Would that not serve two good ends? They would be saved from the master’s wrath and that most certain whipping, and Kentigern would be humbled and cast out of favour.

Even as they hurriedly agreed to this plan, the church door opened and the saint came forth. His keen eye saw at once that something was wrong. The crowd of silent boys were all looking expectantly towards him, and in their midst stood Kentigern bending over something which he held in his hand.

“What mishap has befallen?” asked the old man, gazing at the eager faces.

“It is Kentigern,” they cried with one voice all together. “He has killed thy little bird.”

The master said nothing, but looked at the silent figure bending over the little bunch of ruffled feathers. Kentigern did not seem to hear or to heed the loud accusation. Very gently he stroked the feathers and laid his cheek against the tiny body that was still warm. Then he knelt down, and, raising one hand, made the sign of the cross over the bird.

“Lord Jesus Christ,” he prayed, “in whose hands is the breath of every creature, give back to this bird the breath of life, that Thy blessed name may be glorified for ever.” And as he prayed there was a faint stirring among the feathers, a ruffling of the wings, and the robin flew to its safe shelter on the shoulder of the master. Now the old chronicle which tells this tale does not add whether the boys received the whipping which they had feared, but we trust that their forebodings were smartly realised. If so, it may have taught them to treat God’s creatures more gently, but it certainly did not cure them of the sin of envy and jealousy, for Kentigern continued to have but a hard time amongst them.

It was the rule of Saint Servanus that each of the boys should in turn take charge of the lighting of the sanctuary lamps. Thus the boy whose turn it was to see that the lamps were trimmed and lighted was obliged to keep up the fires while all the rest were in bed, so that there should not fail to be a spark ready to kindle light for the early service. When it fell to Kentigern’s turn, the boys thought of a fresh plan to bring disgrace upon his head.

As soon as all the fires had been carefully made up, and Kentigern had gone to rest, the other boys crept silently out of bed and went the round of the monastery, raking out every fire. Not a spark did they leave that could light a single lamp, and then they went joyfully back to bed, feeling well satisfied with their work.

At cockcrow Kentigern rose as usual to go and make ready for the early service, but he found every fire black and dead. Search as he might, there was no means of kindling a light, although he had built up each fire carefully to last until morning.

Then the boy’s heart was full of anger. All the wrongs he had suffered patiently, all the unkind tricks of the other boys rose up in his memory, and he felt that he could bear it no longer. It was all so mean and underhand. They did not dare stand up and openly defy him, for they knew he was brave and fearless, but in the dark they plotted and planned how they might punish and disgrace him. No; he would stand it no longer; he would leave the monastery and make his own way in the world.

So forth he went, swinging along with great angry strides until he came to the hedge that bounded the monastery lands. By this time his anger had begun to cool and leave room for other thoughts. After all it was rather cowardly to run away, even from injustice and persecution, for it meant also running away from duty and the good old man who was like a father to him. What would the master say when he entered the church and found it in darkness, the altar lights unlit, the lamps untended?

Very slowly, then, Kentigern retraced his steps, holding in his hand the hazel twig which he had broken off from the hedge when he stood debating which road to take. He was thinking deeply as he walked, and it suddenly flashed across his mind that there was a way of obtaining the light he needed which as yet he had not tried. Surely God would not fail to help him. So, just as he had prayed in faith over the dead bird, he knelt down on the dewy grass and, making the holy sign over the little twig, prayed God to kindle in it a living spark that might light the lamps for His service. The legend tells us that as he prayed God did indeed send down fire that lit into a tiny torch the hazel twig, and that it burnt steadily until all the lamps in the church were lit, one by one.

Again there is no mention of the whipping which those boys deserved, but Kentigern was no tale-bearer, and this his enemies knew full well.

So time went on, and Kentigern grew into a tall lad, the comfort and joy of his master. He was almost a man now, and it was time that he should leave the monastery and his sheltered life there, and find his own work in the world.

Not in anger this time did he plan his departure, but with a humble heart, and he prayed to God for guidance. Not only was he the cause of much quarrelling and jealousy among the rest, but, what was even worse, people had begun to praise and flatter him and call him a wonderful boy, and he felt sure that it was time he should go. So he made up his mind to leave the monastery, and early one morning, after his work was done, he started forth.

It was to the river that Kentigern bent his steps, scarcely knowing which way to turn, but drawn to the place where the shepherds’ fire had warmed him as a tiny baby, where the cry of the sea-birds and the moan of the sea had drowned his first feeble wail. Journeying on and on by the side of the winding Forth, he reached at last a place where a bridge spanned the silver river. The water was flowing quietly beneath him as he crossed the bridge, but when he had reached the other side it rose higher and higher in a great spate until the bridge was entirely swamped. Then, as Kentigern stood and watched the furious torrent, he saw his old master on the opposite bank, leaning with one hand upon his staff and with the other beckoning him to return. The aged saint had followed him all the long way from the monastery, and his voice came sounding mournfully across the rushing waters.

“Alas, my son, light of my eyes, staff of my old age, wherefore dost thou leave me?”

“My father,” cried Kentigern, “it grieves me sorely, but I must go forth to my work. Thou knowest that as truly as I do.”

“Then let me come with thee, my son,” cried the old man. “Thou hast been mine since the day when the angels sang of thy birth, and the shepherds placed thee in my arms.”

“I know it,” said the boy, and he stretched out his arms with a loving gesture towards the old man, “but I must go forth, and my work lies yonder, while thy work lies behind. Fare thee well, and God guard and keep thee until the time when He shall take thee home.”

Saint Servanus knew that the boy was right, and that he must finish his life-work alone, while the strong young lad, the herald of the dawn, should carry the light into the dark places of the land. Sorrowfully, then, he returned to the monastery, and Kentigern journeyed on alone.

For a while Kentigern lived and worked at Camock, but as the years went by, the fame of his holy life and the good deeds which he did reached the ears of the king of that country.

The Church was then in evil plight, for although the people had been taught the true religion in days gone by, they had sadly lapsed, and many had learned to worship idols and believe in strange gods, as did the pagans who had invaded their land.

The King and the clergy, therefore, of the Cambrian region sought to strengthen and fortify the Church, and what better weapon could they find for their purpose than this wonderful young man, whose influence over people was so marvellous and who lived such a pure and blameless life?

But when they came to tell Kentigern that they had decided to make him a bishop, he was amazed and dismayed.

“I am too young,” he said.

“Thy ways are staid, and thou hast much learning,” they answered.

“It would take me from my prayers and meditations,” urged Kentigern.

“There are other souls to be saved besides thine own,” they gravely answered.

Then Kentigern bowed his head, and said sadly, “But I am not worthy”; and they answered, “Because thou thinkest thyself unworthy, we are all the more certain that thou art the one man we seek.”

There was more talk after this, and at last Kentigern saw that there was no other way but to accept the post of honour and difficulty. A bishop from Ireland was ready to consecrate him to his high office, and he was made Bishop of Glesgu, a little place on the banks of the Clyde. There a wattled church was built and a fortified monastery, and there, in the midst of a wild country and a still wilder people, Kentigern began his rule. Little by little, houses were built close around the church and monastery until a village was formed. Then the village became a town, and as the years rolled by the town grew into the great city of Glasgow.

But in the days of Saint Kentigern Glesgu meant only “the dear family,” for so the saint named the little gathering of God’s servants who dwelt together under one rule and had all things in common, seeking only to do God’s service.

There was no jealousy or ill-feeling now for Kentigern to fight against, for the brethren all loved their bishop and obeyed him as their master. But it was no life of ease to which he was called, but one of difficulty, hardship, and strenuous work. Early in the morning he rose from his bed, which boasted no soft pillow nor warm covering, and however cold the morning, he plunged into the river close by to brace his body for his day’s work. The clothes he wore were rough and coarse below, but above he wore a pure white alb or cloak and the stole of his office over his shoulder. And well might the white folds of his mantle be to men a sign of the pure childlike soul that dwelt in the strong man’s body.

It is said that, as he knelt before the altar, the prayers which rose from “the golden censer of his heart” seemed to reach to the very gates of heaven, for often as the faithful people knelt around him they saw a white dove with a golden beak descend and hover above his head, overshadowing with its snowy wings the altar and the kneeling bishop.

There was little rest for the servants of God in those days. Far and near they journeyed among the people scattered around the wild countryside. However far the journey, Kentigern always went on foot, and there was no hardship which he shrank from enduring if he could but bring one lost sheep back into the fold. Preaching, teaching, building churches, strengthening and leading back those that had wandered from the True Light, his work went on from day to day.

But once in the year, when the season of Lent came round, Kentigern left his brethren and went to dwell alone in a far-off cave. It was the time when our Lord had gone into the wilderness to wrestle with the tempter, and well did Kentigern know how blessed it was to be alone with God.

In the lonely cave there was nothing to chain his thoughts to earth and men. The song of the birds, the rippling laughter of the burns unlocked from their winter bonds of ice, the little grey furry caps of the willow buds, the soft green of the sprouting grass, everything fitted in with the praise and prayer which filled his days.

Then when Good Friday came he returned to his brethren, wan and wasted indeed with fasting, but with a face that seemed to reflect the light of heaven, so near to its gates had he dwelt.

But although Kentigern fasted and endured many hardships, he had always a happy cheerful face, and he had no belief in gloomy looks. Often he would tell his brethren that what he disliked above all was a hypocrite who went about sighing with eyes cast down and a long face. They seemed, he said, to think they were walking after the manner of turtle-doves, whereas in reality it was the peacock they resembled. And what was the use of looking down on the dust when eyes might be lifted to heaven? No, hypocrisy was one of the little foxes that spoiled the grapes, and God loved those who did their work with a cheerful countenance and simplicity of heart.

So many years passed away and then evil times befell the “dear family” at Glesgu. Another king now reigned, one who hated the Church and talked with scornful contempt of the bishop and his workers. The seasons, too, had been bad and the harvest poor, and Kentigern found that there was no corn to feed the brethren nor to give to the poor who came to him for aid.

It was surely the duty of the King to help his people, so the bishop went boldly to the court and asked that out of his abundance the King would spare corn for his hungry people.

The King laughed aloud at the request and answered with mocking words.

“Thou who teachest others to cast their burden upon the Lord, should surely practise thyself the same. How is it that thou who fearest God art poor and hungry, while I, who have never sought the kingdom of heaven, have all things I can desire, and Plenty smileth upon me? Therefore what thou preachest is a lie.”

Calmly then did Kentigern make answer that God has often seen fit to afflict the just and allow the wicked to flourish like a green bay tree.

This enraged the King still further, and he bade Kentigern work a miracle if he could.

“If, without the aid of human hands and trusting only in thy God, thou canst transfer to thy house all the grain that is in my barns, I will yield it to thee as a gift,” he said, with a mocking laugh.

Kentigern left the King, carrying with him an anxious heavy heart. There were so many hungry mouths to fill and all depended upon him. But not for a moment did he lose his faith in the goodness of God, and he prayed earnestly to Him that the daily bread might be provided.

That very night a great storm came sweeping down the river and the waters began to rise. Higher and higher swelled the torrent until it overflowed the river bank, and swirling round the King’s barns, it lifted them bodily from the ground and carried them out on to the river. There the current caught them and swept them along till they reached the place where Kentigern dwelt, where it left them high and dry, with not so much as a grain of corn spoilt by the water. So God took the King’s gift to feed His people.

The mocking King was filled with fury when he learned what had happened, and so cruel became his persecution of Kentigern and his brethren, that they at last determined to leave the monastery and to seek afar off some place where they might dwell in peace.

Travelling southward, Kentigern dwelt some time in Cumberland, where, as was his custom wherever he rested, he erected a stone cross, as a sign of his faith, at a little place still known as Crossfell. Then, travelling on by the seashore, he sought in the wild country for some convenient place where he might found another home.

There is a legend that tells of a white boar that guided him, but it was more likely a kindly stream like his own river Clyde which led him by its silver thread to a place which seemed all that he could wish.

They were no mere dreamers these monks of old, and they did not look for miracles to work for them when the work could be done with their own hands. The wilderness was soon humming as with a hive of bees, and in a wonderfully short space of time trees were cut down, fashioned into beams, fitted together, and a great wooden church and monastery was built to the glory of God.

But it seemed as if Kentigern was never to be free from persecution, for scarcely was the monastery finished when the prince of North Britain came riding through the forest with his followers, and demanded what these strangers meant by settling on his land.

In vain did Kentigern answer peaceably. The prince would not be appeased, and in his anger be threatened to pull down the church and chase the builders off the land.

Then a strange thing happened, for suddenly the light of day faded from the eyes of the angry man and black darkness came swiftly over him.

“What is this?” he cried, staggering forward, stretching out helpless groping hands. “The light is gone. I can see nothing.”

In haste his men came crowding round and lifted him up, but they saw at once that he was blind and they knew not what to do.

“Bring him hither to me,” said Kentigern, and the men led him forward, guiding his stumbling steps.

The heart of the good bishop was touched by the sight of the helpless man, and he earnestly prayed to God that He would lighten the darkness and restore sight to those dull eyes. Even as he prayed the light returned, and the grateful prince knelt at the feet of the saint and kissed the hem of his robe in reverence and thankfulness.

There was no more talk of pulling down the church or chasing the brethren, but the prince humbly sat at Kentigern’s feet to be taught to know the True Light which alone could lighten the darkness of his mind.

So things prospered greatly at the new monastery, which grew even greater and more powerful than the old home at Glesgu. But just as Kentigern was beginning to dream of a rest in his old age and thought to end his days in his peaceful new home, he was called once again to fresh labours.

A new king had come to reign over the Cambrian kingdom; one who loved the Church, and strove to establish it once more in his kingdom. Surely, then, the first thing to be done was to send for the good bishop and bid the shepherd return to gather together his flock once more in the old home at Glesgu.

It was hard to leave the home he had made and begin all over again the old work and struggle, but Kentigern never hesitated. The new monastery was left under the care of a faithful brother, Saint Asaph, and Kentigern once more turned his face northwards and returned to his native land.

Many years he laboured, and with him returned peace and prosperity, for the brethren were busy skilled workers, and they taught the people to work the land to the best advantage. The King, too, put all things in his kingdom under the rule of the wise bishop, so that his word was law throughout the country. And it is said that the holy Saint Columba journeyed from his island home to greet the saint whose fame had spread even as far as Iona.

So the herald of the dawn did indeed bring light into the dark places of his beloved land, and when his work was done on the morn of the Epiphany, when the silver lamp of the morning star was paling in the light of the coming dawn, the angels came to carry home the soul of him at whose birth they had sung their “Gloria in Excelsis.” And surely now their song must have risen in still higher triumph, for his warfare was accomplished, the work of the weary old man was finished, and behold, his soul was still as the soul of a little child!

-from Our Island Saints, by Amy Steedman