Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Feast of Hild, Abbess of Whitby

The following is an edited version of a sermon I gave about Hild about four years ago.

Today is the feast of Hilda, or Hild, Abbess of Whitby. Hild was the grandniece of King Edwin, a Celt, and king of Northumbria. She was born in the year 614 in Elmite, near Yorkshire. As was the tradition back then, her family was baptized together at the Easter Vigil in the year 627. They were converted by Paulinus, who had come to the British Isles with St. Augustin, the first Bishop of Canterbury, in the year 597, and Paulinus served as the family chaplain and teacher. He educated both Hild and her sister Hereswith. There had been Christians in the British Isles since the third of fourth century, but they were not Roman; Celtic Christianity was cut-off from developments in the Patriarchates, and evolved differently, using different and more ancient formulas for Easter than were used by the Romans. The monastic ideal took root in the Celtic church just as it did in the Palestinian and Syriac Churches, long before monasticism spread through Europe. The Celtic island of Iona was the center of Celtic Christianity, as was Lindesfarne, the Holy Island on which Bishop Adian set up his monastery. Hild and Hereswith were inspired by the teachings of Adian and his conversions of the Pagan Celts. Another great influence upon Hild was her aunt, Queen Ethelburga. Hild lived with her during her youth at Ethelburga's estate in Kent. Queen Ethelburga founded a convent at Liming and Hild and the Queen Abbess developed their spiritual lives under monastic rule. While Hild and Ethelburga were in Liming, Mercians had taken over Northumbria, their homeland, and it had lapsed into paganism. A few of the remaining Christians sent a missionary appeal to Iona for help, and Bishop Aiden sent missionaries who re-established Christianity in the area.

Hild had renounced all she possessed, including her entitled homes, and was staying at her nephew, King Adwulf's court, as she prepared to leave everything for a religious life. She decided to to enter a famous religious house of women in Cales, France, with her sister Hereswith, but Bishop Aiden asked Hild to return to Northumbria and organize the religious life of the women there, to establish convents. So, instead of going to France, Hild was put in charge of a group of women in a small religious house on the River Wear. She was given one hide of land to found a monastery. A hide was an indefinite measure of land, said to be enough land to support one household; modern scholars estimate a hide to be about 120 acres. So that is where she established the monastic community on the River Wear. Bishop Aiden realized that Hild was doing well and was ready for further responsibilities, and he soon placed her as the Mother Superior in the convent at Hartlepool. She established a rule of life which she had learned from Bishops Paulinus and Aiden, and as the years went by, she became renowned for her wisdom, her love of and eagerness for learning, and her devotion to God's service.

In the year 657, Hild founded the Abbey at Whitby, and she became the Abbess. She was granted ten hides of land to form a monastery, approximately 1200 acres, and she chose a a very windy and exposed area, high on the cliffs of of the East of the town for the monastery. This monastic community was different from other communities, because it had a house of nuns and a house of monks, and they shared a chapel between the two houses. The original buildings were made of wood with thatched straw roofs. She was a good steward of the land and it was also used for raising sheep and cattle, and for farming and woodcutting. The monastery grew in size and in reputation, and Hild became known as one who brought the Gospel message not only to common people, but to kings and noblemen, who came from far and wide to seek her counsel. She was a patron of the art and was known as a kind hearted missionary, teacher, and educationalist, as well as one who cared for her own people. One of her herdsman was a certain Caedmon, who, while at Whitby, received in a vision the gift of composing verses in praise of God. Hild encouraged Caedmon in his gift, and he became a monk. Caedmon studied the scriptures, which he turned into verse, and he was the first Anglo-Saxon writer of religious poetry.

Hild was very devoted to the education and training of clergy, and, as a result of her efforts in this area, Whitby produced five bishops (kind of like St. Christopher's!) There was still much tension between the Celtic and Roman churches. They did not disagree on doctrine; both strains of Christianity held to the Nicene Creed, but they did disagree upon certain traditions, such as the proper formula for calculating the date of Easter, and the proper style of haircut and dress for a monk. It became clear that the English Church should be in agreement on such matters, and a council was called to decide these questions. Because of its great renown as a place of piety and learning, the Council met at the Abbey of Whitby. Now, Hild preferred the Celtic ways to the Roman traditions, but once the decision had been made to accept the Roman formula for Easter, she didn't fight the decision and started using that formula. Actually, she was quite instrumental in reconciling the two traditions.

She suffered with illness, a fever, for the last six years of her life, but she continued to work that entire time. She died in 680, at Whitby, surrounded by her monastic sisters and brothers. Her last words were "have gospel peace among yourselves."
I've always enjoyed this description of Hild from the Venerable Bede's history: So great was her prudence that not only ordinary folk, but kings and princes used to come and ask her advice in their difficulties. Those under her direction were required to make a thorough study of the holy scriptures and occupy themselves in good works, to such good effect hat many were found fitted for holy orders and the service of God's altar. All who knew Abbess Hilda, the handmaid of Christ, called her mother because of her wonderful devotion and grace. She was not only an example of holy life to members of her own community; she also brought about an opportunity for salvation and repentance to many living at a distance, who heard the inspiring story of her industry and goodness.

Hild came from a noble, royal family, and she could have lived a life of luxury and idleness. But she gave up everything, her landed estates and her riches, because she wanted to devote her life to God. In the gospel we heard this morning, Peter said to Jesus, "We left everything and followed you. What do we get out of it?" Jesus said, "...anyone who sacrifices home, family, fields, -whatever- because of me will get it all back a hundred times over, not to mention the considerable bonus of eternal life. This is the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first." Hild gave up a lot, but she also received a lot: the love and respect of the common people and kings and noblemen. I don't think she thought about getting it all back a hundred times over, she just wanted to serve God in the way God called her to do. She was a servant to others, and, as a result, became a great model for all of us, even some thirteen hundred years later. And that is why we remember Hild, Abbess of Whitby, today.

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.


Matty Boy said...

So many people asked her advice about so many things, and she was so generous and kind with her wisdom, eventually they sent letters to her in care of the building where she labored with the standard greeting,

"Dear Abbey".

(Yes, I am a little ashamed.)

Anonymous said...

I live not far from Whitby which is worth a visit. There's a nearby convent of Anglican nuns who keep up the tradition

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