Monday, 8 August 2011

Hilda - Abbess

Hilda was born in 614,  the daughter of Edwin, King of Northumbria. She was baptized at a young age through the preaching of St. Paulinus, one of the first missionaries sent from Rome to the British Isles.

At the age of thirty-three, she renounced the world and entered monastic life. At first, she sought to enter a monastery near Paris, but she was called back to her homeland by St. Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne, who, discerning her already-apparent spiritual gifts, assigned her as the Abbess of a small monastery. As her gifts of spiritual guidance became more widely-known, she led larger monasteries, finally establishing the Monastery of Whitby in 657. She spent the next thirty-three years directing the monastery, which became a beacon of Christian life throughout the British Isles and beyond. The monastery was unusual by modern standards in that it contained both a women’s and a men’s monastic house, with Mother Hilda as spiritual head of both. The community became a training-ground for priests and bishops who went on to spread the Gospel of Christ throughout Britain.

Commoners, kings and Bishop Aidan himself came regularly to Mother Hilda for spiritual counsel, and she was in her own lifetime regarded as the mother of her country. For the last six years of her life, she was afflicted with an unremitting burning fever, but continued her holy work undeterred until her repose in 680. At the moment of her death, St. Begu was awakened by a vision of Hilda’s soul being borne up to heaven by a company of angels.


On the surface of it what relevance has a seventh century abbess to do with us sophisticated people of the 21st century? They were very different times – dark ages – where life was not as technologically advanced and the average life expectancy was probably in the mid-thirties. England was divided into nine different kingdoms and large parts of the British Isles was pagan. What bearing then has Hilda on us today?

First, underneath the animal skins and the chain mail people were essentially the same as today and like us needed to hear the good news of the gospel that would set them free from sin, death and the prospect of an eternity without God. Hilda’s task was the same as ours – to win people for Christ.

Second, society was fragmented. Nine different kingdoms in a religious landscape that was a mixture of different faiths where Christianity was in the minority has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it.

Third, England was moving into a very uncertain period of history where it would have to withstand invasion after invasion of angles, jutes and Vikings. Uncertainty about the future is not something particular only to us.

Finally, the challenges that faced the Christian Church of the day was not only one of evangelization but preservation. For the message to retain it’s power to transform it had to be the same faith that was imparted to the apostles and handed down to each succeeding generation.

How did Hilda and her contemporaries face these challenges?

First, they recognized the importance of building communities of Christians who could pray and work with each other. Jesus set the precedent when he gathered around him twelve disciples and taught them all they needed to know and do. This community formed the ‘base camp’ from which they set out on their mission to evangelize the world “beginning in Jerusalem, then Judea, Samaria and the ends of the world” (see Acts 1). 

Second, they had a strong devotional life which was undergirded by a rule of life. A rule of life gave their lives a shape centred on prayer and bible meditation. They fasted on certain days (Wednesday and Friday) and at certain times of the year (Lent and Advent) and they lived lives of simplicity and generosity.

Third, they preserved the scriptures not only by copying them by committing them to memory and living them out in life.

Hilda, and the work she did, is as contemporary now as she was then. We need more people like her today, willing to give their all to Christ, his CHurch and His cause. Is God calling you?

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