We met Hilda in the introduction to Celtic Christianity – one of the most noble, gracious, significant and intellectual leaders of her day. She lived AD614 to AD680 and, as abbess, she led a community of monks, nuns, lay persons and general workers at Whitby, chairing the Whitby Synod in AD664. 

As a girl looking at icons of saints, she was asked if she knew who the saints were. Rather than naming them, she answered generically: “Saints are people who let in the light.”

Hilda was encouraged by Aiden to set up a community in Northumbria, and she created a double one – for both monks and nuns. She was responsible for faith well-being and advancement; and for general livelihoods, health and education. Under her leadership, Whitby became a centre for arts and education and for theological study, and Hilda saw to it that all people – not just the ordained – could attend and learn. 

Bede wrote that, filled with the Holy Spirit and yearning for Jesus, she simply exuded peace and love, which only attracted more people to Whitby under her.

She could find giftings and use them to the Lord’s glory. A man, Caedmon, came to work at the monastery, the inference of the records being that he was not then a Christian. Hilda sought to engage all people and everyone took a turn singing in entertainment, but Caedmon always slipped away to his duties before he was called. One night he dreamt a man appeared and asked him to sing. Caedmon objected that he could not, only to be told, “But you shall sing to me.” Caedmon told Hilda who set him the task of setting Scripture to poetry and song. He became an ardent evangeliser and Hilda worked with him in using his poetry and song to reach out to villagers beyond the monastery.

Whitby grew under Hilda’s leadership but, importantly, the gospel message flourished under her care. She loved her people and gave of herself for their welfare. She had high standards, using them to measure herself not to condemn others. Her intelligent stewardship of available resources allowed her people to live and to live well, providing also for others in charity. And she was always available for counsel, whether as a listening ear or to pronounce and guide; and whether for kings and nobility or for ordinary folk. All served her and all loved her, just as she served and loved them.

The Whitby Synod decided against Celtic Christian ways, not against the Bible, so Hilda did not run but asked herself: “How do we love Jesus? How do we love each other?” and proceeded to answer them in her life and leadership.

Leaders are often said to ‘need’ a hard edge to them – making them admirable but perhaps not sought out in friendship. Hilda displayed a gentleness, nobility and intellectual prowess which made her not just respected as a leader, but loved.

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. (Hebrews 13:17)

In all her ways, Hilda did not just ‘let in the light’ but she positively reflected out the light that is Jesus.

[from Timothy Pitt]

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