Posted by: anna | November 30, 2009

Abbess Hilda of Whitby

Image of an icon made by Suzanne Schleck, an Episcopalian icon artist whose work, along with that of her teacher, is worth another look. Image pinched from here.

A rather fallow period for British saints is broken today (17 November) by the commemoration of perhaps the most familiar (if not best-known) female saint of England’s early Christian centuries, Abbess Hilda or Hild of Whitby. As the Russian calendar provides a summary of her life, I was going to quote it for a change, but it doesn’t mention the Synod of Whitby or quite a few other important things, so here is Miss Dunbar’s version:

St. Hilda or HILD, Nov. 17, 18, V. 614-680. Abbess and patron of Whitby. She was a descendant of Odin and Ella, being daughter of Hereric, nephew of Edwin, first Christian king of Northumbria, cousin of Queen EANFLEDA, the wife of St. Oswy. At the ago of thirteen, Hilda was baptized with her great-uncle, King Edwin, by St. Paulinus, on Easter Eve 627. Some time afterwards, about the year 647, desiring to devote herself to religion, she went into East Anglia, which was governed by her nephew, King AEdwulf. From there, in the following year, she went to the monastery of Chelles, near Paris, where her sister, ST. HERESWITHA, the mother of AEdwulf, had already taken the veil. Hilda remained for a year, being trained in sanctity and monastic devotion by the abbess ST. BERTILLA, and, like many of her countrywomen, she intended to go to one of the religious houses on the Marne, offshoots of the great monastery
of Luxeuil.

She was, however, recalled to Northumbria by St. Aidan, bishop of Lindisfarne, who had discovered her worth. He gave her a small piece of land – ‘the place of a single family’ – upon the north bank of the Wear, and here she lived with a few companions for about a year. Then the bishop placed her at the head of the monastery of Hereteu (Hartlepool), as successor to HEIU, its founder and first abbess. ‘Bishop Aidan,’ says Bede, ‘and all the religious men who knew her, visited her often, loved her devotedly, and instructed her diligently, on account of her innate wisdom and her delight in the service of God.’

When Hilda had been abbess there for nine years, and the peace of Northumbria had been secured by the great victory of King Oswy over the Mercians, Oswy, according to his vow, confided his infant daughter ST. ELFLEDA to the care of the Abbess Hilda, giving her at the same time a grant of land ‘sufficient for ten families’ at Streaneshalch, ‘the port of the beacon,’ now Whitby. Here Hilda built and organized her famous monastery. It was situated on a broad, grassy plateau, on a rocky headland three hundred feet above the sea, in a circular bay at the mouth of the Esk. Like the later religious houses of Barking and Coldingham, Whitby was a double monastery containing both monks and nuns, the latter taking precedence ; all were under the rule of the abbess. Here Hilda lived, and being one of those women born to command, her influence was soon felt beyond the monastery walls. She was beloved and called ‘Mother’ by all who knew her. Her help and advice were ever ready ; her wisdom, sagacity, and piety were such that, while the poorest came to her with confidence, kings and bishops sought her advice and wise counsels.

Her monastery became famous as a seat of learning and special training for the Church. Five of her monks rose to be bishops: St. Wilfrid II. of York, Hedda of Dorchester, Boza of York, Ostfor of Worcester, and John of Beverley, bishop of Hexham, and afterwards of York. The most famous of her monks was Caedmon, poet and cowherd, whose gift of song was miraculously bestowed. He was a menial in the service of the monastery ; and when the story of his powers of versification got abroad, Hilda sent for him, and, in the presence of learned men, examined him, and heard him recite his poems. Seeing that his talents were God-given, she received him in her monastery as a monk, and had him taught the whole series of sacred history.

She was not only an example to all who were in her own monastery, but she afforded occasion of salvation and amendment to many who lived at a distance, thus fulfilling the prophetic dream of her mother, Bregusuid, in which she found under her robe a splendid necklace, which lighted up the whole of Britain with its brilliancy.

At Hilda’s monastery, in 664, was held the great synod which settled whether Easter should be held according to the Celtic or the Roman rule. Hilda was an adherent of the Celtic tradition ; but she and her party yielded to the decision of the king, who, with many pious and reverend men, was on the Roman side. She was one of the opponents of St. Wilfrid, and took the part of his enemies. For the last six years of her life, Hilda suffered from a lingering illness, but, in spite of bodily infirmity, did not abate her labours in the service of her God, but continued exhorting and teaching until her death in 680. ST. BEGU, a nun of Hackness, a small monastery thirteen miles from Whitby, founded by Hilda, saw her soul carried to heaven by angels. She was buried in her own monastery ; but when it was destroyed by the Danes, in the 9th century, her body was moved to Glastonbury, and finally restored to Whitby when the monastery there was rebuilt for Benedictine monks in 1067.

The ammonites with which the Whitby rocks abound were thought by the country people to be snakes beheaded and turned into stone by the prayers of St. Hilda.

Troparion (tone 1)

Though thou wast of royal birth and lineage, O Hilda, thou didst spurn earthly riches and the allurements of the flesh. And cleaving with all thy heart unto Christ, thou didst take up the struggle of the monastic life. Wherefore, God endowed thee with such wisdom and prudence that all the people hastened unto thee for counsel and succour. O venerable one, entreat Him unceasingly, that He grant us great mercy.

Holy Mother Hilda, pray to God for us.

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