FATHER MATT'S SERMON DURING MASS AT SAINT NINIAN'S CAVE, WHITHORN ON 27 AUGUST 2006
In an age when we have twenty-four hour news, the Internet and digital broadcasting, and when almost everyone can read and write, it seems surprising that we know so little about Ninian of Galloway. But that is the truth: he lived so long ago.
Ninian could certainly read and write, but he and his immediate followers and co-workers wrote nothing about him that has survived. Aelred, who wrote a life of Ninian around 1140 AD, came so long after Ninian that his writing can often be mere speculation.
Ninian's journey to Rome crossed the paths of so many of the Spiritual Giants of the early Church that he is mentioned briefly in their lives and memories. But it is hardly enough to keep his memory alive.
Yet, sixteen hundred years after Ninian died, people of faith have gathered here to honour him as a Saint of our community by enduring a little hardship, hearing the Word of God and celebrating the Eucharist as he did. How can we explain that?
By an unbroken tradition, often nearly extinguished, people have kept alive their faith in Jesus - and this faith has always encouraged us to seek out the real heroes of our Community. Such searching has brought us to try to re-discover the Holy Man of Whithorn and the strength and gentleness of his faithfulness to the teachings of Jesus.
The person and teachings of Jesus so touched Ninian that the influence of his life became a beacon of light that has shone through dark and turbulent centuries, a light constantly calling people like us to follow the Lord. Today we have come to find Jesus in the place made holy by Ninian.
From the stories, the legends, the contemporaries, from writers of history and fiction what can we find about Ninian?
Born to the East and South of here in Roman-protected Britain in the fourth century, around the year 360 and heir to a local kingdom and probably educated by a Roman priest who came with the invading armies.
One story says that when the old bones of the priest could no longer take the dampness and cold - I am beginning to know how he felt - he returned to Rome but he left Ninian and his fellow-Christians bereft of the nourishment of the Sacraments and the Word of God. It is perhaps merely a story, but a good one. Whatever the facts, Ninian set out on an epic journey with an underlying purpose.
Ninian knew that by journeying to Rome to complete his education and seek ordination he could return to his people and lead them in faith. His own faith in Jesus was strong enough to urge him to undertake the journey.
We can only imagine his route through Roman settlements and along Roman roads, but we can tie him to some very famous names and places along the way.
York and London had Christian communities which would have given him lodging and help. Trier in France had the Roman Emperor of the West in residence at this time - and a strong Christian community. Along his way, Ninian encountered Ambrose, the saintly and very influential Bishop of Milan and he was befriended by Damasus the Bishop of Rome. Open persecution was over and the Empire was nominally Christian.
Ninian seems to have worked as a scribe in Rome making copies of the Holy Scriptures - for his employer and for his future work of teaching; and one tradition has it that he was a co-worker of the great St Jerome whose efforts gave us the Holy Scriptures in the form we have them today. Did Ninian travel to Jerusalem and Bethlehem with Jerome? He may have.
But he certainly was ordained priest and bishop in Rome. His intention was to return home, but he found the words of Jesus to go "to the ends of the earth" to preach the Gospel a call he could not easily resist. So, not simply a return to his own people - but a mission to spread the Gospel: a mission which Ninian is still undertaking today.
The journey home would be as hazardous as the journey to Rome, but the path a little more familiar. As a bishop Ninian would find a warm welcome in the various communities he visited.
We know he stayed with Martin, the converted soldier who was bishop of Tours. Ninian was influenced by Martin more than by any other Christian he met on his journeys. Martin famously gave half his cloak to a beggar, but he certainly gave his whole life to Jesus and to the people of Jesus, especially the poor and persecuted. He was a man of plain speaking and enormous charity, and he had a powerful influence on Ninian.
Ninian would have stayed with this living Saint, but he honoured the call to return home. A tradition says Martin gave him the materials for his own stone church which would be built in the Roman style but it more likely that Martin gave him stone masons who would build the church out of local material.
Travelling through colonies of Britons remaining in Gaul after Roman recruitment, Ninian at last came home and was reunited with family and friends. But he was soon to leave them to travel outside the protectorates of Rome to what he and the Romans considered "the ends of the earth" - places where the Christian message had not yet reached. His journeying westwards brought him to Whithorn, to an area he considered a place of great natural beauty. Here he would build his stone church and his City of God. This place was to become his home and his final resting place. His monks and the stonemasons from Tours built the church, covered it in limewash, built huts and classrooms and here Candida Casa - the White House - was born.
Ninian ministered here and sought refuge for prayer and contemplation in a cave on the seashore. Ninian suffered persecution here and was exiled: he is said never to have complained, but merely told his followers to await God's time. Through his gentle persuasion, his ministry of healing and his unshakable faith in God he returned to his beloved Candida Casa.
From this place Ninian and his companions evangelised the areas we now know as Ayrshire, the Lothians, the Borders, Nithsdale, Annandale and beyond. It seems he travelled to Inverness and even to Shetland. Tradition has it that he sent missionaries to Ireland. He seems not to have built churches, but to have built communities and marked out sacred areas to be kept for worship and the sacraments.
Finally, worn out by his travelling, sometimes tied to his horse to enable him to continue, he was persuaded that he had reached the "ends of the earth" though he never quite believed his companions, he came home.
Candida Casa became a place of pilgrimage. People came here seeking the Word, the Sacraments and education. Ninian's health returned and he continued his regime of prayer and service - welcoming all who came and speaking to them of Jesus.
Ninian died in Whithorn in 431 or 432 and was buried close to his stone church. His efforts in the service of the Gospel were superhuman, his patience and gentleness became the stuff of legend. His work was continued by faithful disciples and the Christian Faith was established in Scotland and continues to flourish.
Like the pilgrims of old we have come here to encounter Ninian and be led by him to the Lord he loved, served and worshipped. May our pilgrimage bring us our share in the joy Ninian knew in his faith.
Only a few facts about
Saint Ninian are known. Donna Brewster has taken the facts, added a few characters
and written a very interesting novel about Saint Ninian called 'My Ninian'.
It is available from www.Amazon.co.uk.