St. Hilda and Maternal Grace

Readings for the Feast Day of Hilda, Abbess of Whitby

Proverbs 6:20-23

Psalm 113

Ephesians 4:1-6

Matthew 19:27-29

There is a rich spirituality of motherhood in the English tradition. In his prayers and meditations, Anselm of Canterbury fervently addresses Jesus and even St. Paul as “dear mothers” who hold him and pray for him in the midst of his inner conflicts. And Julian of Norwich experiences each person of the Trinity and the Trinity as a whole as her “loving Mother” who holds her through her fears and unanswered questions. And before Anselm and Julian, there was St. Hilda who embodied the sacred qualities of motherhood in her life and work as the abbess of the monastery at Whitby. According to Bede, “All who knew Hilda called her mother, because of her outstanding devotion and grace.”

Hilda, who never raised biological children of her own, exemplified motherhood, specifically in her ability to hold tension and conflict with patience and prayer.  This ability is profoundly maternal. Any mother, especially any mother of more than one child, learns to be an expert at this.  I know my mom had this gift of holding tension (or at least developed it very quickly) as she prayerfully and patiently held my brother and me through our many arguments and fights growing up.

When the English Christians of seventh-century Northumbria found themselves caught in a divisive and potentially disastrous feud, they needed a mother. The Celtic Christians (the spiritual heirs of the Irish missionaries to England, including St. Patrick, St. Columba and St. Aidan) were in conflict with the Roman Christians in England (those who traced their spiritual heritage to Augustine of Canterbury and the other missionaries sent by Pope Gregory the Great).[1] Those in favor of Celtic customs held strong and deep-seated attachments to their traditions while those in favor of the Roman practices felt similarly convicted that their traditions were the catholic and therefore correct customs. So when King Oswiu called the meeting to decide which customs the Northumbrian church would follow uniformly (a meeting that would be a source of anxiety, altercation and painful division), he made the wise decision of holding it in a place of deep prayer and grace. Hilda’s abbey had cultivated a sacred space of prayer, marked by maternal devotion, and was therefore up to the task of holding the disparate parties in a way that could maintain relative peace and harmony.

Although Hilda herself was partial to the Celtic customs, which did not win end up winning the day, she held her own preferences lightly in order to keep the meeting within a matrix of prayerful openness. The maternal devotion and grace that Hilda demonstrated at the synod of Whitby are at the foundation of the English church and are qualities that are not only maternal but also Anglican: holding diversity and even division in such a way that unity is maintained, unity in diversity. This is what the author of Ephesians is talking about when he describes the life to which we have been called, which involves “bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

And when Peter asks Jesus, “What are we going to get since we have given up so much?” Jesus does not say you will be given recliners so you can sit back and order others to do your bidding. No, Jesus says you will be given judgment seats: “You will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” And being a judge involves holding conflicting parties in love and prayer and maternal care just as Jesus longed to hold Israel as a mother hen holds her clutch of chicks. Hilda invites us to practice the maternal and Anglican qualities of devotion and grace which help us to hold prayerfully and patiently the conflicting tensions in our own personalities, in our own lives, and in this community; and to uphold the diversity that gives new fullness to our understanding of the one hope to which we have been called: one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Mother of all. Amen.


[1] The conflict revolved primarily around the dating of Easter, which differed significantly between the Celtic and Roman Christians. Although “there is always more beneath the surface of the topics discussed,” this was an important issue: Easter, the chief holy day of the church year, is the day when eternity and earthly time collide and there needed to be agreement about that day.

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