Yesterday was the feast of St. Hilda of Whitby and tomorrow is the feast of Christ the King. I find myself musing on Christian leadership and the predicament our world is in. It’s often hard to see where the effective leaders are – locally or nationally or internationally. There seems to be little regard for real community much less for the Reign of God. But St. Hilda offers us a vision of Christian leadership and Christian community that can give us hope for our church and our world.
Hilda was a strong leader who understood her role in helping her monastic community of the seventh century to be a sign, an icon, of the Reign of God in the midst of a world like ours that was either fighting over God or denying God. She was an effective diplomat who governed a double monastery of men and women and was highly respected by both. She had an influence in the wider church as well – she hosted the famous Synod of Whitby in 664 that tried to find a compromise between Roman and Celtic church traditions. She was a compassionate and discerning woman who cared for the whole household of God in the monastery – not just the sisters and brothers, but the servants too – what we would call today employees.
One of the most famous stories about her has to do with Caedmon, a servant who cared for the monastery’s animals. He did not think he was capable or worthy to sing about God in the way the troubadours did, but one night he had a dream that he was singing a beautiful hymn of praise to God. Hilda encouraged him to learn to sing, to play the lute, and to compose poems of praise. Her care for that one person who had a previously unrecognised gift shows her discernment and her gift of encouragement for her community as a whole.
Hilda was baptised into the Roman church which had given birth to the Rule of Benedict, but after she met Aidan of Lindesfarne, and answered his call to come to Northumbria to establish a monastery there, she was also nurtured in the tradition of Celtic monasticism. And so she brought to her leadership the moderation and regularity of life of Benedict, as well as that interesting combination of asceticism and passionate love of nature that is so characteristic of the Celtic monastics.
But above all Hilda’s life is about Christian community and the Reign of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven, as Matthew calls it):
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in her joy he went and sold all that she had and bought that field. And the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. “ (Matthew 13.44-45)
There is another beautiful story of Hilda that illustrates this image of a jewel hidden away out of sight – like the jewel of Caedmon’s music. The historian Bede, who lived a century after Hilda, tells the story this way:
Her life was the fulfilment of a dream which her mother . . . had when Hilda was an infant, during the time that her husband . . . was living in banishment under the protection of the British king . . . , where he died of poison. In this dream [Hilda’s mother] fancied that [her husband] 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 Hilda, whose life afforded a shining example not only to herself but to all who wished to live a good life. (Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, p. 245)
Just before her death in the year 680, Hilda spoke to her sisters and brothers about the importance of unity in community and, in the words of Bede, ”to maintain the gospel peace among themselves and with others.”
Hilda had found the pearl of great price, and that pearl was the truth of the Reign of God. It’s a message we need to hear today. Those of us living in intentional Christian communities in the midst of our secular society are also called to share the peace of Christ, to model what the Reign of God can be just by being willing to live together working for harmony in a world that has no harmony.
Sr. Constance Joanna Gefvert, Companions Coordinator