Monday, 17 November 2008

Excellent Women: St Hilda of Whitby

After her husband's murder, Bregusuit used to dream about searching for him everywhere and not being able to find him. Instead, she found a precious jewel under her dress which "cast such a light as spread itself throughout all Britain". This dream was fulfilled in her little daughter Hilda who became the Abbess Hilda, of whom Bede says

" All that knew her called her Mother, for her singular piety and grace, was not only an example of good life, to those that lived in her monastery but afforded occasion of amendment and salvation to many who lived at a distance, to whom the fame was brought of her industry and virtue."

Hilda went to live at the court of her great uncle King Edwin where she was converted by the preaching of St Paulinus and decided to enter religious life. At first she resolved to join her sister at Chelles Abbey in France, but St Aidan of Lindesfarne gave her a piece of land by the river Wear where she started to live a monastic life with a few companions. Aidan then appointed her abbess of Hartlepool Abbey where she organised and established a rule of life according to his instruction. When she became the founding abbess of the monastery at Whitby, Bede mentions that she did exactly the same there:

"She taught there the strict observance of justice, piety, chastity, and other virtues and particularly of peace and charity; so that after the example of the primitive church, no person was there rich, and none poor, all being in common to all and none having any property. Her prudence was so great, that not only indifferent persons, but even kings and princes, as occasion offered asked and received her advice; she obliged those who were under her direction to attend so much to reading of the Holy Scriptures, and to exercise themselves so much in works of justice that many might be there found fit for ecclesiastical duties and to serve at the altar."

Both Hartlepool and Whitby were double monasteries where men and women worshipped together in church but otherwise lived in separate buildings. Whitby alone produced five bishops: Bosa, Hedda, Oftfor, St John of Beverley, Bishop of Hexham and St Wilfrid, Bishop of York. She was also a patron to the poet Caedmon who was a herder at the monastery.

Despite suffering from a recurring fever for the last six years of her life, Hilda refused to give up any of her work. In the year before she died, she established another monastery at Hackness. One night, a nun there called Begu heard the bell that was used to wake the sisters every morning, to call them to prayer and if there was a death. When she opened her eyes, instead of the room filled with sleeping nuns, she could see Hilda being led to heaven by angels. She woke the others and they spent the night in church praying for the repose of their abbess's soul. In the morning, a messenger came from Whitby with news of her death, but the nuns announced that they already knew.

St Hilda must have been stubborn, fierce and bloody minded, as well as extremely capable and intelligent, which endears her to me. But she was clearly very much loved and shows that, even in the 7th century, women did a lot more than just look decorative! Perhaps this is why she is now considered to be the patron in particular of women's education, as well as learning and culture.

So, as her feast falls this week (on either the 17th or 19th), may I ask your prayers for all university students, for those women who are still denied the opportunity of education, for St Hilda's College, Oxford, and for the church of St Hilda, Cross Green in Leeds whose Comper banner illustrates this post.

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