Serf, short for ‘Servanus’, lived from about 485 to 550. He appears to have come from Canaan and travelled to Rome where some records note him as having been elected Pope and serving for 7 years. At this time popes did not necessarily serve until death (an option recently revived). His term of office coincided with an upturn in theological study and teaching.
After demitting office, Serf can be traced as travelling through Europe before arriving in what was to become Scotland. We encountered him previously when looking at the Celtic Christians who were led to seek a place of seclusion where, free of distraction, they could be at peace with God. They modelled this on the Desert Mothers and Fathers of the Scetes Desert, and thus a hermitage became known in Gaelic as a dìseart from the Latin ‘desertum’ for desert or deserted place. Serf it was who came to the Fife coast and had a holy retreat at what is now the town of Dysart.
Eventually Serf moved on and founded a monastic establishment on an island (now known as St Serf’s Inch) in Loch Leven, from where he evangelised and taught the surrounding Picts, taking forward some of Ninian’s earlier missional work. Serf stayed there for a while and it is interesting that he seems to have had a rhythm, again reaching 7 years, the Biblical number of completion, before moving on. The establishment had long-since disappeared when David I founded an Augustinian priory on St Serf’s Inch in 1150. After Serf left the island, he came to Culross where he established a place of holy education: part monastery, part school.
Serf was leader of this community at Culross when, in 528, a coracle came ashore having started its journey on the Edinburgh side of the Forth and carrying only one person – the fleeing, and heavily pregnant, Princess Teneu. After landing at Culross, Teneu gave birth to a boy. St Serf took in both mother and son and then oversaw the boy’s upbringing and education. We will meet the boy, and discover the importance of his mother, Teneu, next time.
Taking this knowledge – both self-taught and gleaned from his fruitful time in Rome – Serf could have stepped straight out of 2 Timothy, for it was of great significance that he was led to show to compassion to Teneu when she was washed ashore, and then to teach her son:
What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. (2 Timothy 1: 13-14)
Not much else is known about Serf. He is said to have died at Dunning with his body then being taken back to be buried at Culross. But he learned about God; he knew God. He studied, contemplated and walked with God – and he taught what he knew, not keeping it as ‘secret knowledge’ but seeing his very relationship with God as something to teach, to show and thus to inspire others.
You do not need a classroom setting or a church pulpit to teach like this; you just need a willingness to walk with God, find His joy and be vulnerable enough to share it with others.
[from Timothy Pitt]