17 November 2018

Venerable Hilda, Abbess of Whitby

Our mother among the saints Hilda of Whitby

Today we celebrate another Yorkshire saint and one of the great Orthodox holy women of England, Saint Hilda of Whitby. Her life is admirably recounted in Venerable Bede’s History of the English Church and People. I’m sure I could not do her any greater justice than the great and holy Benedictine chronicler has done already, so I shall recount Bede’s hagiography here:
In the following year, that is the year of our Lord 680, Hilda, abbess of the monastery of Whitby, a most religious servant of Christ, passed away to receive the reward of æternal life on the seventeenth of November at the age of sixty-six, after a life full of heavenly deeds.

Her life fell into two equal parts, for she spent thirty-three years most nobly in sæcular occupations, and dedicated the remainder of her life even more nobly to our Lord in the monastic life. She was nobly born, the daughter of Hereric, nephew to King Éadwine, with whom she received the Faith and sacraments of Christ through the preaching of Paulinus of blessed memory, first bishop of the Northumbrians, and she preserved this Faith inviolate until she was found worthy to see him in Heaven.

When she decided to abandon the sæcular life and serve God alone, she returned to the province of the East Angles, whose king was her kinsman; for having renounced her home and all that she possessed, she wished if possible to travel on from there into Gaul, and to live an exile for our Lord’s sake in the monastery of Cale. In this maner she hoped the more easily to attain her æternal heavenly home, for her sister Hǽreswíth, wife of Ealdwulf, King of the East Angles, was living there as a professed nun and awaiting her æternal crown. Inspired by her example, Hilda remained in the province a full year, intending to join her overseas; but when Bishop Aidan was recalled home, he granted her one hide of land on the north bank of the River Wear, where she observed the monastic rule with a handful of companions.

After this, Hilda was made abbess of the monastery of Heruteu, founded not long previously by Heiu, a devout servant of Christ who is said to have been the first woman in the province of Northumbria to take vows and be clothed as a nun, which she did with the blessing of Bishop Aidan. But soon after establishing the monastery she left for the town of Calcaria, which the English call Calcacæstir, and settled there. Then Christ’s servant Hilda was appointed to rule this monastery, and quickly set herself to establish a regular observance as she had been instructed by learned men; for Bishop Aidan and other devout men, who knew her and admired her innate wisdom and love of God, often used to visit and advise her.

When she had ruled this monastery for some years, constantly occupied in establishing the regular life, she further undertook to found or organize a monastery at a place known as Streaneshalch, and carried out this appointed task with great energy. She established the same regular life as in her former monastery, and taught the observance of justice, devotion, purity and other virtues, but especially in peace and charity. After the example of the primitive Church, no one there was rich or poor, for everything was held in common, and none possessed any personal property. So great was her prudence that not only ordinary folk, but kings and princes used to come and ask her advice in their difficulties. Those under her direction were required to make a thorough study of the Scriptures and occupy themselves in good works, in order that many might be found fitted for Holy Orders and the service of God’s altar.

Subsequently, five bishops were chosen from this monastery – Bosa, Hedda, Oftfor, John and Wilfrid – all of them men of outstanding merit and holiness. As already mentioned, Bosa was consecrated Bishop of York; Hedda became Bishop of Dorchester; and I shall tell in due course how John became Bishop of Hexham, and Wilfrid Bishop of York. Meanwhile I wish to speak of Oftfor, who having devoted himself to reading and studying the scriptures in both Hilda’s monasteries, wished to win greater perfection, and travelled to Kent in order to visit Archbishop Theodore, of blessed memory. When he had continued his studies under him for some while, he decided to visit Rome, which in those days was considered an act of great merit. On his return to Britain he visited the province of the Hwiccas, then ruled by King Osric, where he remained a long time, preaching the word of faith and setting an example of holy life to all who met and heard him. At this time Bosel, bishop of the province, was in such ill health that he was unable to carry out his duties, and Oftfor was therefore unanimously elected bishop in his place. At the request of King Æthelræd, he was consecrated by Bishop Wilfrid of blessed memory, who was acting as Bishop of the Middle Angles, since Theodore had died, and as yet no bishop had been appointed to succeed him. Tatfrid, predecessor of the man of God Bosel, an energetic and very learned man of great ability, had been elected bishop while a monk in Hilda’s monastery, but met an untimely death before he could be consecrated.

Christ’s servant Abbess Hilda, whom all her acquaintances called Mother because of her wonderful devotion and grace, was not only an example of holy life to members of her own community, for she also brought about the amendment and salvation of many living far distant, who heard the inspiring story of her industry and goodness. Her life was the fulfilment of a dream which her mother Breguswíth had when Hilda was an infant, during the time that her husband Hereric was living in banishment under the protection of the British king Cerdic, when he was poisoned. In this dream she fancied that he was suddenly taken away, and although she searched everywhere, she could find no trace of him. When all her efforts had failed, she discovered a most valuable jewel under her garments, and as she looked closely, it emitted such a brilliant light that all Britain was lit by its splendour. This dream was fulfilled in her daughter, whose life afforded a shining example not only to herself, but to all who wished to live a good life.

When Hilda had ruled this monastery for many years, it pleased the Author of our salvation to try her holy soul by a long sickness, in order that, like the Apostle, her strength might be perfected in weakness. She was attacked by a burning fever that racked her continually for six years; but during all this time she never ceased to give thanks to her Maker, or to instruct the floc committed to her both privately and publicly. For her own example taught them all to serve God rightly when in health, and to render thanks to him faithfully when in trouble or bodily weakness. In the seventh year of her illness she suffered interior pains, and her last day came.

About dawn she received the
Viaticum of the holy Communion, and when she had summoned all the servants of Christ in the monastery, she urged them to maintain the Gospel peace among themselves and with others. And while she was still speaking, she joyfully welcomed death, and, in the words of our Lord, passed from death to life.

That same night it pleased Almighty God to make her death known by means of a vision in a monastery some considerable distance away, which she had founded that year at Hackness. In this place there was a devout nun named Begu, who had vowed herself to God in virginity in the monastic life over thirty years previously. As she was resting in the sisters’ dormitory, she suddenly heard the well-known note of the bell that used to wake and call them to prayer when any of the sisters had died. Opening her eyes, as she thought, she saw the roof open and a great light pour in from above. While she gazed into this light, she saw the soul of God’s servant Hilda borne up to Heaven in the midst of the light accompanied and guided by angels. Then she awoke, and seeing the other sisters around her, realized that what she had seen was either a dream or a vision. Rising at once in alarm, she ran to Frigyth, who was Prioress at the time, and with many sighs and tears told her that their Mother the Abbess Hilda had departed this life, and that she had seen her surrounded by angels in a great light, and ascending to the abode of æternal light to join the company of the saints in Heaven. When she had heard the nun’s story Frigyth roused all the sisters, and when she had gathered them into the church, she enjoined them to pray and recite the
Psalter for the soul of their Mother.

They did this for the remainder of the night, and at daybreak some brothers arrived from the monastery where she had died with the news of her passing. The sisters replied that they already knew, and when they explained how and when they had heard it, it was evident that her death had been revealed to them by means of the vision at the very hour that the brothers said she had died. In this way the mercy of Heaven ordained that while some of her Community attended her death-bed, the others were made aware of her soul’s entry into æternal life, although these monasteries are about thirteen miles apart.

It is also said that Hilda’s death was revealed in a vision to one of the sisters of the same monastery where the servant of God passed away. This sister, who loved her dearly, saw her soul ascend to Heaven in the company of angels, and immediately awoke the servants of Christ with her and told them to pray for her soul: this was even before the rest of the Community knew of her death, which was only made known to them early in the morning. At this time the nun was with certain other servants of Christ in a remote part of the monastery, where novices were admitted to test their vocation until they were fully instructed and admitted to membership in the Community.
Holy Mother Hilda the Venerable of Whitby, pray to God for us sinners!

Today also, my wife (Jessie) and son (Albert) were baptised, chrismated and churched into the Orthodox Church, by the names of Elizabeth and Ethelbert, respectively. It’s been a day of great joy for all of us, and the people of St Herman’s of Minneapolis have been superlatively supportive, welcoming, understanding and loving to our family, which – it now feels to me – is now complete in Christ. I feel sure that Holy Mother Hilda was indeed smiling on us today as two more were gathered into the Church.
Though thou wast of royal birth and lineage, O Hilda,
Thou didst spurn earthly riches and the allurements of the flesh.
And cleaving with all thy heart unto Christ,
Thou didst take up the struggle of the monastic life.
Wherefore, God endowed thee with such wisdom and prudence,
That all the people hastened unto thee for counsel and succour.
O venerable one, entreat Him unceasingly, that He grant us great mercy.

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