Monday, 19 November 2007

Saint Hilda on Her Feast Day.

Whitby Abbey, founded by St Hilda.
Whitby High Street.
Whitby Harbour. St Marys Church in the background.
The inside of St Mary's , Whitby. Note the famous 3 deck pulpit.
I bet she never got this in Hartlepool!

We are all entitled to a little fuss on our birthdays, I think. Here is our statue of Saint Hilda looking resplendent on Her day, surrounded by the tall silver candles which we usually use for Requiem Masses, but nobody told her so she won't know. There was also a fine reception afterwards, one of the busiest we have ever had. It is a long way from Hartlepool where she was born and further to her Abbey in Whitby but I hope that we remembered her well and gave the Patron of our Church due honour. Whitby Abbey is now ruined, of course, and the town more famous for Dracula than Hilda, but it is a beautiful, if slightly bleak town, one of my favourite places in the world.
Hilda was born in 614, great-niece of Edwin, king of the Northumbrians, and converted with him to Christianity when she was eleven. Our knowledge of her comes from the Venerable Bede, whose History of the English Church and People devotes a chapter to her life and death as well as discussing her role in the Synod of Whitby, and also in persuading Caedmon the stable-hand to become a monk at Whitby after the miracle which turned him into the earliest author of vernacular Christian poetry. She spent her first thirty-three years in the world, of which Bede says little; he simply records that she spent them ‘most nobly in secular occupations’ - which can perhaps be re-translated as ‘had a very enjoyable time’. For the second thirty-three she was a nun, beginning her monastic life in Gaul, and returning to be abbess of the monasteries first at Hartlepool and then Tadcaster before founding and presiding over the abbey of Whitby. The last six years of her life were rendered hideous with a continual burning fever which she bore with immense courage and acceptance; her death was serene and moving.
Thus far we might see her, as Bede depicts her, simply as a role-model for religious women, the archetypal holy woman, whose example brought people to God and with whom miracles were associated as evidence of her especial piety; the ammonites on our coat of arms represent the serpents she turned to stone. And of course that was in part what Bede wanted to depict, and that is what she was. But there is far more to her; this was no holy cloistered nun. Bede rightly singled her out because she was the greatest of the royal-aristocratic abbesses of her day, and her influence on the 7th-century English church was profound; she was a national religious figure of immense spiritual power. It is a telling reminder that history is not a matter of linear progress and improvement that this was a great age for well-born religious women, in a position to operate with a vigour and an impact which was theirs by right. These were no second-class citizens. Men listened to them, often, clearly, in awe; kings and bishops consulted them, male saints and leading churchmen kept up correspondence with them. It was no accident, therefore, that it was at Hilda’s Whitby that the great synod called in 664 to resolve the conflict over the dating of Easter, which had divided the church in the British Isles, was held, in the presence of two kings, Oswy and Alchfrid, with kings and abbess presiding over the dispute between Colman bishop of Lindisfarne and Wilfrid abbot and later bishop of Ripon. And we may envisage Hilda not as the retiring, silent and deferential nun but as the woman in the full confidence of her power and authority, taking part in the debate along with other members of her community - and decked out in jewels (for jewels were found in the excavations at Whitby). It was not her only great public appearance. It was she, along with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who were the two accusers of the notoriously tough Wilfrid who got him dismissed from his bishopric in 678. I have already mentioned Caedmon, stable-hand turned author. And Caedmon exemplifies two other things about St Hilda and her fellow abbesses. First, Whitby was a community of highly educated women. Hilda had spent the first year of her monastic life at Chelles; and Chelles had a wonderful library. And it was not, of course, alone in that, alone in seeing the huge importance of a prestigious collection of books. Men might hunt, fish and fight. Women advanced the cause of learning; and that was what Hilda would do for the rest of her life. Second, Hilda persuaded Caedmon to become a monk in her abbey. So Whitby was not just a women’s community. Like other monasteries presided over by these impressive abbesses, it was a mixed one. Whitby’s religious and educational glory produced not only Caedmon, but no fewer than five bishops of the English church, men, Bede tells us, ‘of outstanding merit and holiness’. So Bede’s Hilda is not only the holy woman of great and enduring faith, marked out by miracles and ultimate suffering, though that is impressive enough. Bede’s Hilda is also one of the great educational forces, for women and for men, in early-medieval England. And it is that combination of her particular style of the holy woman and her particular style of the woman of and for education that marks her out as one of the great figures in English history - and more than just English history.