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Of Abbesses and Ammonites

Today the Anglican Church of Canada remembers St Hilda of Whitby in our prayers and discussion. She is one of my favourite saints (You may have noticed that nearly all of the saints are favourites of mine!) because the example she gives us of what it means to be Christlike in life is not what many people think of when they call to mind images of exceptional Christian life.

Hilda was born in the early 600s into the Northumbrian royal family. (Northumbria was a kingdom that covered what is now northern England and southeastern Scotland.) Her life was a quiet one until, at 33 years old, she responded to God’s call to become a nun. Her wisdom, patience, and skill at managing large households was quickly noticed and she became a sought-after advisor to kings and bishops.

The ruins of the abbey of Whitby sit on a grassy plain, with a small river in the foreground, and a big blue sky with small clouds overhead.

When Hilda entered her first convent, Northumbrian Christians still followed the customs of the Celtic church. They had an extensive network of monasteries which had different patterns of life to those of Roman monasteries. In double monasteries, where monks and nuns live and work separately but worship together, the Celtic church allowed women to become abbesses with administrative control over the entire community. Most controversial, the Celtic church had a different method than Rome for calculating the date of Easter.

By 664 Hilda was abbess of Whitby, one of the most prominent double monasteries in Northumbria. Also by 664 there were rising tensions between the Celtic church in Northumbria and the increasing contact with the Roman church which was well-established farther south. Both sides agreed that they were Christians, in communion with one another, and legitimate churches, but details like the date of Easter made for real trouble in celebrating with one another appropriately.

A synod was called in Northumbria to debate and settle the issue. Hilda was so well-respected that Whitby was chosen to host the historic meeting. Her wisdom and hospitality during the synod were noted by many who had traveled far to be there, as was the good order of the community of Whitby and its adherence to sound monastic practices and ideals.

Hilda’s witness to a Christlike life is not one filled with the flash and drama of some other saints. There are no stories of great healings, changing the weather, or powerful visions. (There is one story about her turning a plague of snakes to stone, connected to the abundance of ammonite fossils near Whitby!) Instead, she is remembered as a holy woman of quiet devotion, wise counsel, a fosterer of good relationships, and a builder of healthy communities. This work and these qualities led people to recognize her as a saint in no less a way than those who worked healing miracles, rescued children from dreadful fates, or even slayed dragons.

St Hilda is one of my favourite saints because she reminds us that stability, companionship, devotion, wisdom, and quiet care for community are all holy traits needed by and given to the Body of Christ for its health and wellbeing. They may not be dramatic or even noticed by many on most days, but they are good, holy qualities which point to Christ’s presence and love.

Written for Holy Trinity Church, Winnipeg.

Photo by Abhishek Babaria on Unsplash

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