St. Eata of Hexham, Bishop

26 October

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Died c. 686. It is impossible to write about Eata, the 7th century English saint, without going back to Saint Aidan (f.d. August 31), and from Saint Aidan to Saint Paulinus of York (f.d. October 10), and from Saint Paulinus to Saint Augustine (Austin) of Canterbury (f.d. May 28), and from Saint Augustine to Saint Gregory the Great (f.d. March 12) who began this chain reaction. Nor should we forget the Venerable Bede (f.d. May 25) without whose "Ecclesiastical History" we would never have heard of Saint Eata, nor Saint Cuthbert (f.d. March 20), who was Eata's close friend.

In the 7th century, England was divided into the Heptarchy, seven independent kingdoms in none of which was Christianity firmly established. At the request of Saint Oswald (f.d. August 9), king of Northumbria, Saint Aidan had gone from Iona to Lindisfarne--the Holy Island--and from there had begun to evangelize the northern parts of England. Aidan himself and many of his monks came originally from Ireland and therefore followed the Celtic usages which differed in some ways from those of Rome.

Pope Saint Gregory's plan was to send a properly organised group to England, rather than rely on the isolated efforts of the northern missionaries. The man he chose was the prior of a monastery that he had founded in Rome, Saint Augustine of Canterbury. In 596, he landed in Kent with a group of 40 monks.

They had to start from nothing, but fortunately they quickly enlisted the support of Bertha, the wife of King Saint Ethelbert (f.d. February 24) --just as Saint Paulinus won the support of Saint Ethelburga (f.d. April 5), sister of Eadbald, and Saint Remigius (f.d. October 1) won that of Saint Clotilde (f.d. June 3), wife of Clovis. Augustine received the 'pallium' and became the first archbishop of England, establishing his see at Canterbury.

At the time of Augustine's death, which took place shortly after that of Gregory the Great, relations between the Roman and Celtic churches were still strained. Apart from their differences over usage and organisation, the situation was complicated by the resentment felt by some of the Celts towards the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who only a relatively short while before had driven them out of their own country and persecuted their religion. So it was left to a number of saints, among them Eata, to effect a union between the Celtic and Roman Christians, their personal saintliness persuading the ones to abate their racial pride and the others to make concessions.

The first saint who went to Northumbria was a Roman one, Saint Paulinus, who had been sent by Gregory the Great to assist Saint Augustine of Canterbury. The next one was the Celtic Saint Aidan, who had established his monastery at Lindisfarne and who also founded a monastery at Ripon. It was at Ripon that Eata, who had been born an Anglo-Saxon and was one of the 12 English boys brought to Northumbria by Saint Aidan, was educated in the Celtic observance. When Saint Wilfrid (f.d. October 12) arrived at Ripon, Eata left it to become abbot at Melrose, which was attached to Lindisfarne.

As a result of the Synod of Whitby, which was held in 664, the Roman usage was extended throughout England and the Celtic practices were, sadly, gradually suppressed. Eata accepted the Roman liturgical observances.

Saint Colman (f.d. February 18), who had succeeded Saint Aidan as abbot of Lindisfarne refused to accept the decision and withdrew from his position. Reportedly he requested that Saint Eata take his place. At the same time Saint Cuthbert became prior, and they both fully accepted the Roman usage and liturgy.

In 678 Theodore, who had been consecrated in Rome as the new archbishop of Canterbury by Pope Saint Vitalian (f.d. January 27), met Eata in York and at once consecrated him as bishop of Bernicia. It was a wise choice, for Eata quickly showed himself to be worthy of his office. He and Saint Cuthbert were often together, travelling from Melrose to Ripon and to Lindisfarne. Later Eata and Cuthbert exchanged sees, and Eata became bishop of Hexham, where he remained until his death.

Eata seems to have been a kind and gentle man, more so even than Cuthbert, and vastly more so than Colman or that other saint, Wilfrid, who quarrelled so violently with Theodore. He died in 686 and was buried in the Abbey of Hexham. It is said that when, in 1113, plans were made to disinter his body and take it to York, he appeared in a dream to the archbishop of York and told him to leave his mortal remains in peace (Benedictines).

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