Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, 680

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About the Commemoration

“Hilda’s career falls into two equal parts,” says the Venerable Bede, “for she spent thirty-three years nobly in secular habit, while she dedicated an equal number of years still more nobly to the Lord, in the monastic life.”

Hilda, born in 614, was the grandniece of King Edwin. She was instructed by Paulinus (one of the companions of Augustine of Canterbury) in the doctrines of Christianity in preparation for her baptism at the age of thirteen. She lived, chaste and respected, at the King’s court for twenty years, and then decided to enter the monastic life. She had hoped to join the convent of Chelles in Gaul, but Bishop Aidan was so impressed by her holiness of life that he recalled her to her home country, in East Anglia, to live in a small monastic settlement.

One year after her return, Aidan appointed her Abbess of Hartlepool. There, Hilda established the rule of life that she had been taught by Paulinus and Aidan. She became renowned for her wisdom, eagerness for learning, and devotion to God’s service.

Some years later, she founded the abbey at Whitby, where both nuns and monks lived in strict obedience to Hilda’s rule of justice, devotion, chastity, peace, and charity. Known for her prudence and good sense, Hilda was sought out by kings and other public men for advice and counsel. Those living under her rule devoted so much time to the study of Scripture and to works of righteousness that many were found qualified for ordination. Several of her monks became bishops; at least one pursued further studies in Rome. She encouraged the poet Caedmon, a servant at Whitby, to become a monk and to continue his inspired writing. All who were her subjects or knew her, Bede remarks, called her “mother.”

In 663, Whitby was the site of the famous synod convened to decide divisive questions involved in the differing traditions of Celtic Christians and the followers of Roman order. Hilda favored the Celtic position, but when the Roman position prevailed she was obedient to the synod’s decision. Hilda died on November 17, 680, surrounded by her monastics, whom, in her last hour, she urged to preserve the gospel of peace.

Collects

I.O God of peace, by whose grace the abbess Hilda was endowed with gifts of justice, prudence, and strength to rule as a wise mother over the nuns and monks of her household, and to become a trusted and reconciling friend to leaders of the Church: Give us the grace to recognize and accept the varied gifts thou dost bestow on men and women, that our common life may be enriched and thy gracious will be done; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

II. O God of peace, by whose grace the abbess Hilda was endowed with gifts of justice, prudence, and strength to rule as a wise mother over the nuns and monks of her household, and to become a trusted and reconciling friend to leaders of the Church: Give us the grace to recognize and accept the varied gifts you bestow on men and women, that our common life may be enriched and your gracious will be done; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Psalm  113

Lessons

Proverbs 6:20–23

Ephesians 4:1–6

Matthew 19:27–29

Preface of a Saint (1)

16 Responses to Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, 680

  1. Michael Hartney says:

    Readings. The new Psalm mentions a woman (verse 8) so I suppose that commends it over the Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006 option of Psalm 122. However, I vote to retain Psalm 122.

    New Hebrew reading: When only 4 verses of Scripture are assigned it is too short. As the collect this Sunday encouraged … there is hardly enough to ‘read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.’

    • Michael Hartney says:

      That should be verse 8. How an emoticon with shades appeared I do not know.😦

      • John LaVoe says:

        I’ll vote for Psalm 134 (or a combination of 133 and 134).

        I know they called her “Mother” but that last verse of 113 still feels awkward for Hilda. [NRSV 113:9 “He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the LORD!”]

  2. Philip Wainwright says:

    ‘The differing traditions of Celtic Christians and the followers of Roman order’: if we’re going to emphasise the orderliness of the Roman tradition, perhaps we should emphasise the fluidity of the Celtic. It might be better just to say ‘differing traditions of Celtic and Roman Christians’.

    In the collect, ‘reconciling friend’ doesn’t seem to refer to anything in the bio. It’s also not clear to me what is meant in this context by ‘the varied gifts you bestow on men and women’. I think it’s a mistake in any case to refer to too many details in the collect.

    What I want to pray for most after reading her story is the same ability to accept it graciously when a decision goes against my judgement, but that would be a different collect, not a revised one.

  3. Steve Lusk says:

    Hilda founder her abbey at Streanaeshalch. It wouldn’t become Whiby for another two centuries, when the Danes mercifully renamed it. The land was donated by the same King Oswy who presided at the synod held there in 663. Both Hartlepool and Streanaeshalch were double abbeys, with nuns and monks living separately under the abbess’ rule, as seems to have been the general Irish practice.
    Five of her monks — not just “some” — became bishops, including John of Beverly (of Agincourt fame) and Wilfrid of York (who presented the Roman argument in 663). Her role in help Caedmon find his voice deserves some more ink, or Caedmon deserves his own date. Hilda had more than a little something to do with establishing the climate of scholarly evangelism that in the following generations produced Bede, Alcuin, Willibrord, Boniface, and Leoba. And you don’t even mention the snakes . . .

  4. Cynthia Gilliatt says:

    I would enjoy more about how Caedmon found his voice – in a dream. According to Bede, Hilda ordered him to leave off being a lay employee [cowherd] and become a monk and write more poetry. What about the snakes? iI’s been a while since I’ve read Bede.

  5. Cole Gruberth says:

    Does anyone know whether there is extant text of St. Hilda’s Rule?
    The most intriguing bit of the bio text, to me, is the rule of “justice, devotion, chastity, peace, and charity.”

  6. Nigel Renton says:

    Here again we have someone whose commemoration has been “bumped” to a nearby day. Under the new rules, she could be honored on November 17. Consistency might be better than the apparently haphazard usage of the new rules.

    I suggest “Abbess and Peacemaker” as a subtitle.

    • John LaVoe says:

      Nigel, Why peacemaker? Do you see the Synod as basically about peacemaking?

      • Nigel Renton says:

        If at all possible, I believe that the sub-title should encapsulate the essence of the reason for selecting the Holy Person for our sanctoral calendar. This is not always easy!

        In the case of Hilda, her Rule included “peace”. The bio indicates that in her last hour “she urged to preserve the gospel of peace”.She had enormous influence for her wisdom. Although herself a supporter of the Celtic position, she accepted the decision of the Synod, rather than cause an impasse.

        Perhaps “reconciler” would be more appropriate.

    • Steve Lusk says:

      Although she died before Hugh of Lincoln, she was added to the calendar later. As her proper date was already taken, she got the next available date.

  7. John LaVoe says:

    Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, 680
    .
    Hilda’s is a wonderful commemoration, and the way it is presented is very good, the following opinions notwithstanding. Thank you to those who prepared it.
    .
    1. The opening sentence is good but I’d like to have just a bit (Michael’s famous “who she is and why she is important statement) before the math on how much she lived as secular and how much monastic. Could it begin with the first sentence from paragraph two? (“Hilda, born in 614, was the grandniece of King Edwin.”)
    .
    2. King Edwin of Where? (Even if everyone should know, everyone won’t know.)
    .
    3. I’m a bit thrown by the math: 33 years secular but only 20 at the King’s court. Why the move to court? Where/when/what about the other 13?
    .
    4. (“Bishop Aidan … recalled her to her home country, in East Anglia, to live in a small monastic settlement. One year after her return, Aidan appointed her Abbess of Hartlepool.”) Her return TO East Anglia? She became Abbess of Hartlepool after only one year as a monastic? Or did she return TO someplace else, FROM East Anglia? After how long as a monastic?
    .
    5. The reference to “some years later” – wouldn’t it be more direct to say “x years later”?
    .
    6. What exactly are “other public men?” (I won’t ask what they are when not in public.)
    .
    7. Re: the section from “so much time to study Scripture,” including the references to ordination, studying in Rome, and alumni bishops. This is the only problem area for me, really. (The other points are merely about clarification.) This section makes it sound as if ordination is a criterion of a successful monastic, which is untrue, that studying in Rome is better than staying at your monastery, which seems like a violation of the vow of stability, and that becoming a bishop is a grade or two above the other possibilities in terms of merit, Christian status, and successful monk-y business. All wrong. Historic data is one thing, but leading into it with “Those living under her rule devoted so much time to the study of Scripture and to works of righteousness that many were found qualified for …” puts it in the wrong light. Nor is ordination indicated simply because someone, monastic or not, knows a bunch about Scripture and does righteous deeds.
    .
    8. Nigel suggested Hilda be listed as peacemaker, which makes me second guess myself on this, but if it’s because of the Synod of Whitby, I think of the Synod as being a choosing between two acceptable options, the Celtic and the Roman, rather than a conflict, per se. I will defer to his wisdom, but the phrase, “decide divisive questions” makes me think of the “homoi-ousia vs homo-ousia” kind of debate (heresy vs orthodox belief) rather than a “choosing between legitimate options” kind of decision. Celtic spirituality and practices were rooted in a different sociology in the British Isles from those that shaped the church on the European Continent. Celtic practices have had a lot of “good press” in recent years. (I expect they likely had a dark side we haven’t been as aware of lately, as well.) But “Roman order” wasn’t free of all problems or excesses, either. One person’s version of “order” can be another person’s idea of “control issues.” They decided, for the sake of unity, to opt for the Roman norms. Whether it was fought like a trial or embraced like a grace, I’ll let you tell me. If it’s a grace, I wish you’d reconsider the phrase, “decide divisive questions.”
    .
    9. I like the good “she died” statement at the end, but the last clause sounds as if she was worried about quarrelling in the community. Can you put it in context?
    .
    ABOUT THE COLLECT: That she was a “trusted and reconciling friend to leaders of the church” sounds like she wasn’t a trusted or reconciling friend for people who weren’t leaders of the church.
    .
    Too many verbs can be placed, like concentric rows of hedges, separating the subject from what matters. “Give us grace … to recognize … and accept …gifts.” Can we get there more directly? “Give your people the gifts…” etc. (?)
    .
    (“The varied gifts thou dost bestow on men and women.”) This is probably meant to underline Hilda’s prominence as a female in an often all too paternalistic social milieu. What occurred to me on first hearing, however, was to wonder, “does the author of this prayer think God has two sets of gifts, one distinctly for males and a completely different set for females, and that people should keep in their place accordingly?” (That would be pretty offensive, and the opposite of what I take to be the true meaning intended.) The male/female specification almost guarantees overlap into the second interpretation. I’d recommend a re-wording here.
    .
    AND FINALLY, STEVE, WHAT SNAKES?

    • Steve Lusk says:

      It is said that the site of her abbey was infested with snakes. Hilda prayed for the safety of her monks and nuns, and the snakes were turned to stone. The resulting snakestones were sold into Victorian times to pilgrims and tourists to the site.
      Our ever-skeptical scientific friends insist the snakestones are actually fossilized ammonites of the genus hildoceras, but (to steal a line from Gibbon) some indulgence must be granted to a legend which inspired the pen of Sir Walter Scott (Marmion II.8):
      Then Whitby’s nuns exulting told, . . .
      . . . how, of thousand snakes, each one
      Was changed into a coil of stone,
      When holy Hilda pray’d;
      Themselves, within their holy bound,
      Their stony folds had often found.
      They told, how sea-fowls’ pinions fail,
      As over Whitby’s towers they sail,
      And, sinking down, with flutterings faint,
      They do their homage to the saint.

  8. Cynthia Gilliatt says:

    My thanks too. HIlda as a prraying Medusa? LOL

  9. Charles Fogarty says:

    Hilda the peacemaker is a lovely attribute. I take it to mean that by her everyday life Hilda reconciled warring traditions of Celtic and Roman Christianity by seeking the mind of Christ that permeates both visions of the Christian life; as an abbess of a religious house of both men and women she brought about a unity of anima and animus (to get a little Jungian here); finally, Hilda, a woman, ruled men, which was quite extraordinary for that time, I would imagine. In all of these Hilda lived the lifestyle of the peacemaker. I don’t know if any context is needed for dying words about peace in the community. That seems to be good advice for every community made up of very flawed human beings. All in all, I thought the biography was well done and I am proud to claim Hilda as one of ours.

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