by James Morley.
For a recent sabbatical I went back to Whitby, somewhere that is a spiritual ‘thin place’ for me. The context of COVID-19, as well as my reading about Hild and her ‘spirituality in a hard place’ (Simpson, 2014, p. 18) gave me this question: “What, if anything, might the ‘spirituality in a hard place’ of Hild say to us in our ‘hard place’ today?”
Hild (c. 614-680 CE) was a princess in Deira in what would become the Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. After her father was killed and her uncle hunted as threats to the throne, Hilda entered exile (not for the last time) in East Anglia with her sister and her widowed mother. Perhaps these early experiences began Hild’s ‘spirituality in a hard place’:
‘In our story we have three royal pagan women, battered and bowed in a fractious kingdom … Some of us are born into a hard place; all of us at times find ourselves in a hard place … Hilda’s story gives us hope that nothing is too hard for God.’ (Simpson, 2014, p. 18)
Eventually, it was safe enough to return her home. Hild’s uncle, Edwin, was now ruler and converted to Christianity (at least in part for political reasons to form an alliance with Kent) and, as was the custom, the whole family therefore converted.
At age 33, perhaps having been married at least once, possibly to a Pagan (Bede likes to call the female saints ‘virgins’ whereas he refers to Hild as a “devoted woman of God” – 1999,p, 154), Hild seeks to become a nun. Discerning Hild’s gifts as a spiritual leader and as a literal ‘God mother’, the Celtic missionary Aidan takes responsibility for her training as there was nowhere for women to train at the time. This was a pragmatic response by Aidan to present need and gifting and is perhaps not too dissimilar to John Wesley ordaining people himself for mission in America.
A key part of the ministries of Aidan and Hild were the creating of community based on the example of the first followers of Jesus in Acts 2:42-47 as ‘colonies of heaven’ where all were equal and everything was held in common. All those involved in community life – from royalty to shepherds; monastics to blacksmiths – would gather around the fire of an evening to share food, stories and songs. Rather than the Roman model of being ‘in church’, the Celtic Christians went outdoors, alongside people and seem to have had a more ‘earthy’ quality about their way of being church and their involvement in God’s work:
‘The elements, for the Irish Christians, were expressions of God.’ (Simpson, 2014, p. 46)
Having completed her training, Hild became abbess of Hartlepool in 649 CE before going on to establish the double monastery (for women and men) at Whitby in 657 CE. As with her exile experiences, Hild seems to have sought to make the best out of whatever context she found herself in:
‘Hild did not choose to go there [Whitby] – she was appointed – but she bloomed where she was planted.’ (Simpson, 2014, p. 58)
It was at the ‘colony of heaven’ at Whitby – with the royal visitors, blacksmiths, scholars and the monastics she would send out into the villages – that a cowherd, Caedmon, ran away from the evening gatherings around the fire because he couldn’t sing. The next day he was sent by his boss to tell the abbess Hild about a song that had come to him in a dream.
‘Hilda, joyfully recognising the grace of God in him, instructed him to leave his farm work and take monastic vows, but as a lay brother who would not be weighed down with Latin and the theological studies that would distract from his unique calling.’ (Simpson, 2014, p. 92)
The encouragement of Hild nurtured Caedmon’s creative ministry so that, as Bede observes (1999, pp. 216-217), he enabled others to hear about God in their native tongue through his songs.
Hild for today
Today, as we have discovered and continue to discover new ways of being church and joining in with the missio Dei as we do so, not because we have chosen to, but because of the COVID-19 context we find ourselves in.
Perhaps the example of Hild can encourage us to be open to God even in hard times and places.
Like Hild, perhaps we might seek to go out, to be alongside and to create ‘colonies of heaven’ where we are – online, in cafes, in the park, on the green…
Like Aidan, perhaps we might feel nudged by the Spirit to break with our conventions and constructs in order to respond in a pragmatic way to the present need and giftings we find. In doing so, who knows if we might discover God at work in and through the twenty-first century equivalent of another ‘pagan’ who really shouldn’t have anything to do with church and certainly should not be in charge of anything because of their gender and life experience…
when we are in a hard place,
remind us that you can break through our brittle shells,
our false conditioning and group mindsets that have no place for you.
You reveal yourself through visions and visitors;
you come in dreams and intimations of the heart;
and we will respond.
(Simpson, 2014, p. 19)
Bede (1999). The ecclesiastical history of the English people. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Connelly, Roland. Saint Hilda and her abbey at Whitby. Middlesbrough: Quoin Publishing
English Heritage (2020). St Hild of Whitby (Online). Available at: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/whitby-abbey/history-and-stories/st-hild/ [Accessed on 16.08.2020]
Simpson, Ray (2014). Hilda of Whitby: a spirituality for today. Abingdon: BRF