Monday in the Second Full Week of Lent
March 6, 2023
Today’s reflection focuses on the life and witness of Saint Hilda, or Hild, of Whitby (d. 680). Hilda is known as a Mother of the Church in Britain, and she is popularly referred to as the “Jewel in the Darkness” for her role in the Christianization of Anglo-Saxon England. A niece of King Edwin (and therefore a member of the Northumbrian royal court), she was baptized with him and many others at York on Easter in 627. Her spirituality was shaped, however, by Saint Aidan of Iona and the Irish tradition that had been imported there by Saint Columba, and she therefore represents an amalgamation of the “Celtic” and “Anglo-Saxon” Christian traditions of her time. When at the age of 33 she decided to become a nun, it was Saint Aidan who persuaded her to pioneer a new monastic foundation in her native Northumbria. She became abbess of a small community by the river Wear, then of a larger one at Hartlepool, and finally of the large double monastery for men and women at Whitby. There she trained six missionary bishops and encouraged an illiterate young Northumbrian cow herd, Caedmon, to become a lay monk and the first popular poet and singer in the English language. For the last six years of her life, she suffered illness, but she never ceased to give thanks to God publicly. She maintained her spirituality under two systems, the Roman system replacing the Irish system after the Synod of Whitby that was held at her monastery in 664. She is considered one of the patron saints of learning and culture, due to her patronage of Caedmon, and local legend says that when sea birds fly over her abbey, they dip their wings in honor of Saint Hilda. Another legend tells of a plague of snakes which Hilda turned to stone, supposedly explaining the presence of ammonite fossils on the shore. It was not unknown for local artisans to carve snakes’ heads onto ammonites and sell these “relics” as proof of her miracle. In fact, the ammonite genus Hildoceras takes its scientific name from Saint Hilda. The coat of arms of nearby Whitby includes three such “snakestones”, and depictions of ammonites appear in the shield of the University of Durham’s College of St Hild and St Bede.
O God our vision,
In our mother’s womb you formed us for your glory.
As your servant Hilda shone like a jewel in the church
So now we ask for that wisdom and light,
That we may nurture souls like a mother,
And grow the church to be a place for learning and the arts.