St Hilda of Whitby
For all the Saints: Hilda of Whitby
A little girl stood in church and was asked if she knew who the saints were. She looked at the icons on the walls and screen and said, “The saints are people who let in the light.”
When a significant moment occurs in church history, those caught up in it may not see it as a hinge of history. In the 7th Century the Roman Church was expanding its influence westward toward the Islands known today as Great Britain. St Patrick, St Aidan, St David, St Ninian, St Ita, and many more illuminated those islands.
Born of noble parents in 614, Hilda grew up firm in the faith. When St Aidan came to Northumbria, Hilda left her inheritance and became a nun, and eventually Abbot of Whitby in 657. She was a great administrator who developed a rule for the community, which included both men and women. Under her leadership Whitby became a center for learning, literature, and the arts, a university before the rise of such academies. In those days all the people attended these schools for study and learning, not only clergy or monastics.
In 664, an ecclesiastical gathering (“synod”) was held at Whitby. Hilda hosted this gathering, which was called to chart future development of the Church in the British Isles. Colman, Abbot of Lindisfarne; Cedd, bishop of Anglia, and Hilda argued that the Celtic Church should maintain mutual respect with, but autonomy from, Rome. Wilfrid, bishop of Ripon, argued that it would be better to go with Roman administration for the sake of the unity of the Church. His view won the day. Unity’s cause was nobly served.
It was a hinge of history. After the Synod of Whitby, the Celtic Church began to wane across the British Isles and, eventually, its witness was subsumed under that of Rome. Practically, this meant the end of independent monasteries (such as Whitby) as the Roman Rule, which made monastic life less flexible and spontaneous than it had been previously, came into place. Faith became more intellectual, less earthy, and the loss has not yet been overcome in the West.
St Hilda was one of those who let in the Light of Christ. In these days when people think there is tension, even hostility, between learning and faith, the witness of St Hilda is a shining beacon for a deeply intellectual faith that satisfies the soul by art and writing. Her day is November 17.
Published 19 Nov 2005