Today we celebrate a great leader of the Church in England, Abbess Hilda of Whitby. Born into the royal house of Northumbria in 657 she founded the Abbey at Whitby which followed the Celtic tradition, and was a great centre of learning. This was the location of the controversial Synod of Whitby, held in 664 at which it was decided to adopt Roman custom, rather than remain with Celtic.
Hilda’s feast day, as a great Synod person, coincidentally occurs while General Synod is meeting in York this week, the place where she was baptised. Rather wonderful legends surround St Hilda, such as sea birds dipping their wings in her honour when they flew over the abbey, and her turning snakes into stones, a story which is used to explain the many ammonite fossils which turn up on the shore at Whitby.
But perhaps one of the nicest stories about her is concerning brother Caedmon, recounted by the historian Bede. Caedmon was a lay brother who cared for the animals at Whitby Abbey. One evening, while the monks were singing and playing a harp, Caedmon left early to sleep with the animals because he knew no songs. While asleep, he had a dream in which someone approached him and asked him to sing. Initially refusing, he subsequently produced a poem, praising God, the Creator of heaven and earth.
Upon awakening the next morning, Caedmon remembered everything and added additional lines. He told his foreman what had happened and was taken to see Abbess Hilda. She and her counsellors asked Caedmon about the dream and the poem and agreed that it was a gift from God. She gave him a new commission to write another poem.
Caedmon was to be the earliest English poet, whose name is known to historians. Through St Hilda’s patronage and encouragement Caedmon the cow herder became a zealous monk and an accomplished Christian poet.
Very much in the spirit of today’s gospel. When you give a banquet, invite the poor, Jesus says. ‘And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.’
May we, like St Hilda, encourage, support and help to draw out the gifts of others. Especially those who cannot repay us. For that will be a blessing.
St Hilda, pray for us
Isaiah 61:10-62.5, Psalm 131, Luke 14:7-14