Harrowing Of Hell
November 18, 2015

Evening Prayer Homily: Hilda of Whitby

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

“I therefore beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Ephesians 4:1).

These are the words chosen in the lectionary today to remember Hilda of Whitby who I will talk about more in a minute, but for now I want to tell you a story. I was walking across campus the other day with several members of our Choristers-in-Training when one of them said to me, “You are a priest.”

“You’re right.” I answered. “I am. And you know what? I have known that God was calling me to be a priest since I was your age, since I was 4 or 5. It’s true.” His eyes widened. The other two children walking with him stopped and looked at me quizzically. So I explained further.

“When I was your age,” I told them, “I remember standing on the kneeler and looking over the pews at the priest standing behind the altar. I don’t remember the sermons or really anything else in the service, but I do remember the priest celebrating the Eucharist. I remember watching the priest stand behind the altar, hands outstretched praying the Eucharistic prayer, and I knew. I knew that that’s what God was calling me to do. That’s what I was meant to do with my life. And here I am. You’re right. I’m a priest.”

The first child who had said “You’re a priest” looked at me and said, “I want to be a priest!”

“And you can,” I replied.

The other children ran off down the hall laughing, a mother hurried a child along, and life continued. But it was a moment, perhaps a moment of calling, or perhaps just a moment of storytelling and sharing, but that’s what we do in community.

We lead lives worthy of the calling to which we have been called whatever that may be and another fine example is Hilda of Whitby whom we remember this day.

Hilda of Whitby, Abbess and Peacemaker, was a Celt of the 7th Century. “Hild” as she was called in her day, was baptized at the age of 13, and became a nun at 33. At a place and time in history when women were virtually powerless, Hilda became a great leader and authority figure in the Celtic church. She established several monasteries, the last one being a holy center for both men and women. Hilda served as governor of both and developed it as a great center of learning in the Church.

At this point, mounting conflict was rising between the Roman and Celtic church, mostly around two primary issues: how to calculate the date of Easter and the proper way for monks to cut and style their hair. Seriously.

Hilda met the unpleasantness head on and worked towards reconciliation. The collect that remembers her states she was endowed with gifts of justice, prudence, and strength to rule as a wise mother over the nuns and monks of her household.

And she did this by not only offering leadership in the midst of these arguments that seem silly and trite to us, but by backing down and “letting the other side win.” Because she knew that it wasn’t important. She knew that what was truly important was Jesus and the Gospel of peace as she called it.

Hilda was a strong and effective leader who above all else, advocated for keeping the peace of the Gospel, even on her death bed. The story goes that Hilda died mid-sentence, still preaching the gospel of peace she so deeply and passionately believed. I imagine Hilda to have been a prolific writer, the academic and student that she was, but almost nothing survives.

In fact, the only surviving words of Hilda are these:

Trade with gifts God has given you.
Bend your minds to holy learning that you may escape the fretting moth of littleness of mind that would wear out your souls.
Brace your wills to action that they may not be the spoil of weak desires.
Train your hearts and lips to song which gives courage to the soul.
Being buffeted by trials, learn to laugh.
Being reproved, give thanks.
Having failed, determine to succeed.