The Holy Mother of the North

August 31, 2019 Length: 13:59

Father Emmanuel Kahn speaks about the translation of the relics of St Hilda of Whitby.


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In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. God is one. Amen.

We remember today the translation of the relics of St Hilda of Whitby. In the 7th century she came to the Lord Jesus Christ at the age of 13 and was baptised by St Paulinus of York. Hilda was a close relative, probably a niece, of King Edwin of Northumbria; and her decision to become a Christian was a remarkable decision. A life of privilege and luxury stretched before her, but she chose to follow the Lord, for twenty years as single woman in the royal court. Then, at the age of 33, St Aidan of Lindisfarne consecrated her as a nun and set her at the head of various monasteries.

The Synaxaxion: The Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church tells us that “during the [next] 33 years [St Hilda] exercised a wonderful talent in directing not only communities of nuns but a community of monks also…. Kings, princes from neighbouring lands, Bishop Aidan and crowds of ordinary folk used to come to her for spiritual counsel. Everyone regarded her as the Mother of the country” [The Synaxarion, 17 November]. She guided “no less than five of the monastics [at Whitby] to become bishops” [Orthodox Wiki, entry for “Hilda”]. The Synaxarion concludes that St Hilda is “a rare example of a spiritual mother, who received from God the gift of directing not only nuns but monks and bishops as well: for [as set out in St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, chapter 3, verse 28] “in the Lord Jesus there is neither male nor female, but a new creation.”

In The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, St Bede tells of a striking example of St Hilda’s ability to support and guide others in their own journeys to the Lord. For many years, a man named Cædmon had looked after the cattle at the Monastery of Whitby.  Cædmon could not sing and knew nothing about music. An illiterate and shy person, he had politely withdrawn from a feast to look after the animals and sleep himself for the night. In the middle of the night, he had a dream and composed and sang a beautiful song in this dream. The next morning he remembered the words of the song and how to sing it. Cædmon told the manager of the monastery what had happened and was immediately taken to St Hilda. Cædmon sang the song to her and the senior monks. The words of the Northumbrian dialect have been translated into English as: “Praise the One who made the universe/ Using the material of heaven./ Glory be to His power and His wisdom./ He is the worker of all wonders./ He is the sustainer of the world./ He fashioned the human race,/ Making heaven their roof and Earth their mansion” [St Bede, as translated by Robert Van de Weyer in Bede: Celtic and Roman Christianity in Britain, pp. 63]. Quite a song for a farmhand who could not read or write or sing! St Hilda and her senior monks were awed and then “explained to [Cædmon] a passage of Scripture and asked him to render it into verse; and the next morning he returned with another excellent poem, in which the spirit of the Scripture was expressed perfectly. Hilda was delighted that God had [given] this gift [to] so humble a man. She urged him to give up his present occupation and become a monk [in the monastery she led, which he did]…. And during the rest of his life Cædman sang … songs [that he composed] to thousands of people” [St Bede, as translated by Robert Van de Weyer, pp. 63-64]. Cædman’s song became the first English poem to survive; and Cædman is sometimes called “The father of English poetry.”

St Hilda had a profound impact not only on many individuals but on the future of Orthodox Christianity in these isles. St Bede tells of how “there was growing conflict concerning the two sets of Christian customs that flourished on this island. Those Christian bishops who had trained in Kent and Gaul favoured the [Roman] Catholic customs, introduced into Britain by [St] Augustine. Those who had trained at … Iona and Lindisfarne followed the Irish customs, introduced into Britain by [St] Columba… The main focus of the controversy was the way in which the date of Easter was calculated. This led to particular confusion in the Northumbrian royal castle, where King Oswy celebrated Easter on the Irish date, while his wife Gueen Eanfled, who was the daughter of the King of Kent, celebrated Easter on the Catholic date. So … Oswy had finished Lent and was enjoying Easter, while Eanfled was still fasting” [Van de Weyer, Bede…, pp. 57-58]. Furthermore, King Oswy’s son, Alchfrid, who had founded a monastery at Ripon, also followed the Catholic tradition opposed by his father, the king. This was not a happy family! St Bede tells how “eventually the tension in the Northumbrian royal castle over this matter became unbearable and [King] Oswy decided that the dispute must be resolved…. Thus, in the year of our Lord 604, it was decided to hold a synod at Whitby in which a final judgement could be made,” concluded St Bede. [Van de Weyer, pp. 58-59].

Now, there were strong arguments in favour of both sides, with those in favour of the Roman Catholic tradition citing St Peter and St Paul, while those in favour of the Celtic tradition cited St John the Evangelist. Let me give you only the opening   speech of King Oswy who was genuinely seeking a calm and peaceful resolution of this dispute. St Bede tells how the King began: “All of us worship a single God, and we all hope to go to the same heaven. They do not have different ways of worship in heaven, but everyone praises God in the same way at the same time. We must do the same on earth. Therefore, we must decide which of the two traditions is correct; and when a decision has been made, all of us must loyally abide by it,” concluded the king in opening the synod [van de Weyer, p. 59].

Ultimately, it was the authority of St Peter that most impressed King Oswy and the majority of those present. Therefore, the Roman resolution was adopted. Throughout the synod, St Hilda had supported the Celtic tradition. However, now she agreed to the decision of the synod. St. Hilda’s actions were not decisive, but were quite significant, because she led one of the most important monasteries in Northumbria. Her willingness to seek unity and to modify her earlier views is a model that many politicians today in many countries do not follow.

St Bede relates how: “About ten years after the synod, Hilda was struck down [during the final seven years of her life] with a terrible illness which caused her great pain within her stomach, and which also forced her to retire frequently to her cell with a high fever. She took this illness as a sign from God that she should devote herself more fully to prayer, leaving the administration of the monastery in the hands of others…. [Yet] she frequently gathered the entire community together, in order to expound the Scriptures to them [that is, to explain the Scriptures in depth]; and she also invited individual monks and nuns to her cell for counsel. Despite her physical suffering, [for seven years] she radiated great joy. As she herself frequently said, ‘It is through suffering that we are made perfect; therefore, we must give thanks to God, both in health and in sickness’” [van de Weyer, pp. 62-63].

So today, what is the legacy that St Hilda has left us as Orthodox Christians? Certainly, she related to everyone around her—rich and poor, Celtic and Roman, English and European—with charity and vision. She learned to see the Lord’s vision not only for her own life, but for many others who sought her wisdom. Perhaps her greatest contribution as a teenager and as an adult, in the world and in the monastery, was to live out those words from Galatians, chapter 3, verse 28, cited by The Synaxarion: “In the Lord Jesus there is neither male nor female, but a new creation.” St Jerome reminds us that: “When [we have] put on Christ and [have] been sent into the [challenging] flame [of living with Christ] we glow with [the] ardour of the Holy Spirit [that is, we burn with] … one fiery colour, and all diversity of race, condition [that is, wealth and health] and body [that is, female and male] is taken away by the garment [of Christ that we wear together], concluded St Jerome [Epistle to the Galatians 2.3.27-28].

St John Chrysostom cites the full verses from St Paul which offer a fitting conclusion to this sermon: “You [who] were baptised into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” concluded St Paul and St John. Let us remember those words today throughout our lives and throughout the world, as we too “have put on Christ.”

Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, One in essence and undivided. Amen.