Sermon: Hilda, Abbess of Whitby

The Venerable Bede, a 7th century monk and historian, wrote, “All who knew her called her ‘Mother’, such were her wonderful godliness and grace.” He was speaking of Hilda, the grandniece of King Edwin of Northumbria, now northern England.

She was a nun and served as the Abbess of a large double monastery. [That is an odd term for us, but it refers to a monastery for both monks and nuns and was quite common at the time.] Later she would form the double monastery at Whitby where she would remain until she died. Bede wrote that not only was she the “Mother” of the monks, nuns, and others, but that “even kings and princes sometimes asked and accepted her advice. And she obliged those who were under her direction to attend much to reading the Holy Scriptures and to exercise themselves freely in works of righteousness in order that many there might be found fit for ecclesiastical duties and to minister at the altar.” Did she succeed in those efforts? Five of the monks went on to become bishops in the church, all of which now have the title “Saint” before their names.

Perhaps what she is best known for was the Synod of Whitby in 663 that took place at the monastery, which was a meeting between those who were practicing Celtic Christianity and those of the Roman Church. The Synod failed, but Hilda accepted the decrees of the Roman Church and remained at Whitby.

Following her death, each year on Trinity Sunday at the Abbey Church in Whitby, legend holds that the form of a nun can be seen passing by the windows: “The very form of Hilda fair, hovering upon the sunny air.”

Hardly anything remains of her work. All of the monasteries she established were destroyed by the vikings during the 9th century and her writings were lost, except for one small piece. In it, it would seem that we find the summary of her teachings:

Trade with the gifts God has given you.

Bend your minds to holy learning,
that you may escape the fretting moth of
littleness of mind that would wear out your souls.

Brace your wills to action
that they may not be the spoils of weak desires.

Train your hearts and lips to song
which gives courage to the soul.

Being buffeted by trials, learn to laugh.

Being reproved, give thanks.

Having failed, determine to succeed.

These fews words seem to reflect what the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Whether in the monasteries that Hilda and others established or in a church, Christianity is a community. Our practices are not only about our relationship with God, but also with one another. Just as Paul pointed out, “There is one body and one Spirit.” Paul, Hilda, and so many others teach us about our life together, how we can become and maintain this body if we will seek not just our own wellbeing, but that of the others God has placed us into communion with.

Allow the life and teachings of Hilda to be an example to those of us in community on what it is to be the Body of Christ and how we are to respond to one another.

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