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Snakes and Stones: The Facts and Legends of St. Hilda of Whitby
Welcome to Saint Spotlight, Quail Bell’s new column highlighting female saints. In case you don’t know who I am or what I like babbling about, my name is Gretchen. I’m the managing editor of Quail Bell. I like to babble about religion, feminism, and if I’m feeling particularly masochistic, politics. This column started as a desire for me to get to know other religious figures besides the male figures of the Bible and beyond. Hey, I grew up Protestant, we don’t focus on saints at all, let alone female saints.
Anyhow, the first saint is St. Hilda of Whitby, the patron saint of learning, culture, and poetry. Unbeknownst to me, Hilda was an intelligent and caring woman of God, but also a B.A. woman who could take charge. Whether you believe she is a saint or an extraordinary human, St. Hilda can be an inspiration for leaders everywhere!
What we know of Hilda can be accredited to the Venerable Bede (St. Bede), otherwise known as the greatest Anglo-Saxon scholar and author of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Bede regarded Hilda with high praise for her wisdom and “great energy.” Hilda was born into royalty, as she was the grandniece of Northumbria's ruler King Edwin. Her noble status exposed her to a life of great privilege, but also a life without a father. When Hilda was still a baby, her father was fatally poisoned. She was brought up in the King’s Court and baptised alongside her great uncle Edwin in 627, around the time Hilda was thirteen. Her early baptism may suggest that because of her exposure to Christianity, she became aware of the existence of convents and monastic tradition.
Twenty years later, she decided to become a nun and learned traditional Celtic monasticism from Aidan of Lindisfarne. Aidan appointed Hilda the second Abbess of Hartlepool just a year later. She later began her own monastery in Whitby was regarded for the rest of her life as a woman with impressive and immense wisdom sought out by kings and laymen alike. Hilda died on November 17th, 680, but her legacy lives on. In illustrations and other depictions of her, Hilda is seen with ammonites at her feet and a staff. The ammonites refer to a legend where Hilda turned a plague of snakes into stone (fossilized ammonites), leaving them behind on the shores of Whitby.
Here is the traditional prayer of St. Hilda:
O God, whose blessed Son became poor that we through his poverty Might be rich: deliver us from an inordinate love of this world, that, following the example of thy servant Hilda, we may serve thee with singleness of heart, and attain to the riches of the world to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
O God of peace, by whose grace the abbess Hilda was endowed with Gifts of justice, prudence, and strength to rule as a wise mother over the nuns and monks of her household, and to become a trusted and reconciling friend to leaders of the Church: Give us the grace to respect and love our fellow Christians with whom we disagree, that our common life may be enriched and thy gracious will be done, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Which saint should I highlight next? Leave suggestions in the comments. Otherwise, I’ll just pick the next one myself. I might just do that regardless of what you say. I’m a free woman who can vote.
St. Hilda Inspiration: