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Monday, July 13, 2015

A Bio-Sketch of Hilda of Whitby: Literacy & Love In Pre-England ( And an Ode To My Grandmother)

When I first stumbled upon the story of Hilda of Whitby the thing I noted was that she had the same name as my grandmother, my father’s mother. As I read more of her life though what really struck me were the similarities she shared with my own Hilda – my grandma. Hilda of Whitby is the patron saint of learning and culture and especially poetry. My grandma is one of the most gifted poets I know. Hilda of Whitby was known for her wisdom and peacemaking. Those qualities resound in my grandma as well. Oh and, of course, Hilda of Whitby was English, something my grandma is also quite proud of. So as I write up this little historical devotional (as I like to call them) it seems clear to me that it must be dedicated to my own grandmother and the influence she has had on me and our extended family. 

St. Hilda was born in the year 614 A.D. into the Deiran Royal family in what is now England. Despite her royal birth her life was quite difficult. Born to Hereric and Breguswith, her father was exiled and poisoned while she was still in infancy. Hilda was then raised in the court of her great uncle Edwin, King of Northumbria (a land that is now covered by northern England and south-east Scotland). 

When Edwin married princess Aethelburh of Kent, Christianity entered the household. Paulinus of York was a Roman monk who was sent to assist the famous missionary Augustine of Canterbury and it was he who was the chaplain for the new Queen. He eventually baptized King Edwin and his household – including the thirteen year old Hilda. 

It is important to understand that in the 7th century there were two main churches in the British Isles – The Celtic Church and the Catholic Church.  The Celtic Church had been around since well before 300 A.D. but had been pushed north and west by the invading Germanic tribes of Angles and Saxons. So while the Celtic Church evangelized the Angles and Saxons from the north and west, the Catholic Church and other churches sent missionaries to the south and east. They eventually begin to intermingle in the middle. At this point in time these churches did not differ in doctrine but rather in practice. One of the main differences was the dates on which they celebrated Easter. 

Now King Edwin eventually fell in battle and Hilda was moved to the Queen’s home in Kent. After this event the historian, Bede, does not mention Hilda again until she is 33 and about to join a nunnery on the European continent. Except she doesn’t.  A Bishop of the Celtic church named Aidan persuaded Hilda to return to Northumbria and help establish convents and monasteries there. Her first convent was located on the River Wear and she was later made Abbess of Hartlepool Abbey.  But it was her appointment as founding Abbess of Whitby Abbey (in what is now North Yorkshire) in 657 that cemented her legacy amongst the heroes of the Faith. 

Remains of Whitby Abbey

The Whitby Monastery was a “double monastery” where the men and women lived in separate quarters but worshiped together. Hilda was the governor of the entire community. The Whitby monastery was known far and wide as a center for English learning and literacy.  All things were held in common ownership and peace and charity were among the most practiced virtues.  Hilda was an adept leader and administrator of the community and always prioritized the study of the Scriptures there.  Her reputation for wisdom spread among the Isles so that many kings and princes, as well as the common folks, would come to her for wisdom. 

Although born into royalty and already a highly respected Abbess, Hilda was never above giving her time and attention to any person of any rank. This was displayed especially when a young herder named Caedmon claimed to have a vision from God that he was to write hymns and poetry. He was brought before Hilda and she asked him to prove the vision by writing a poem of sacred history or doctrine. He succeeded and went on to become the first known vernacular poet in English History. Bede writes “ By his verse the minds of many were often excited to despise the world, and to aspire to heaven.”  If not for Hilda’s attention and encouragement this may never have come to pass. 

As a sign of the respect that the Church had for Hilda and Whitby, King Oswiu chose the monastery for the English Church’s very first synod. Many came there to discuss and decide whether the Celtic or Catholic customs should take precedent in the English Church. In the end, the Catholic customs would prevail. Hilda was obviously in favour of the Celtic customs which she practiced but once it had been decided she used her considerable influence to make peace throughout the Church. 

For the last 7 years of her life Hilda suffered much with a fever but pressed on in her labours for the Lord. She died at Whitby in November of 680 A.D. at the age of sixty-six. Among her last words she exhorted the Whitby community

“to preserve the Gospel peace amongst themselves and toward all others…”

Hilda of Whitby was later canonized as a Saint in the Roman Catholic Church.  But how comforting to know that, in light of the Bible, all of us who have believed on the name of the Lord Jesus are made saints by Him. Not according to our good works but by His mighty work on the cross. My Grandmother, Hilda, is a saint by this latter definition and has always encouraged her family to follow in the steps of her Saviour, the Lord Jesus. Like Hilda of Whitby she is a peacemaker, a lover of poetry, a wise woman and as Bede described St. Hilda, “ All who knew her, called her mother, because of her outstanding devotion and grace.” 

So I’m thankful for the testimony of St. Hilda of Whitby but even more so for that of my grandmother. 

"To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ..." Ephesians 3:8 

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