Today, the 17th of November is marked out as a feast in honor of Hilda, in some records Hild, of Whitby.
She counts among my favorite Christian saints. Her feast is observed in the Roman, the Orthodox, and Anglican communions. The precise date of her birth is unknown, but she lived and flourished in the seventh century.
Hilda was the abbess of several monastic communities, most notably Whitby. She was a singular figure, leading a mixed community of women and men.
Among her charges was Caedmon, not originally a monk, but rather a shepherd whom she recognized as having a great gift for poetry, took him under her protection. With her support he became the first poet in what would come to be called England.
Also. Five of her disciples would become bishops, two of them, along with her, now celebrated as saints.
It is assumed her community was organized in the Celtic style, and it could be argued her unusual prominence as a leader was partially due to standing in that tradition rather than the more misogynist Roman. And at the same time the Synod of Whitby, held under her auspicious, led the English church into the Roman use.
Occasionally, I enjoy fantasizing of a Celtic church taking root in the British Isles a more open and generous church than what actually happened. Although in time through the vagaries of history something like that has emerged in contemporary Anglicanism. So, there’s that. She simply anticipates it by about fifteen hundred painful years.
All that noted, living into the reality rather than the dream, even if the two cannot in fact be completely disentangled, I, like many, find it intriguing that a woman was such a central figure in the development of the Christian church in England.
Hilda’s image in iconography always has her holding a crozier. That crozier is of course the symbol of episcopal authority, although it is also given to abbots, or at least, some. Certainly appropriate when we think of Hilda, the dove among the servants, wise and, well, in the things of this world, useful…
Here are two versions of her life, both worth spending a few minutes with.