In Search of St. Hilda
Sneaton Castle, Whitby

15-19 November, 2006

This was a programme devised by Sister Pam of OHP and Alan Beaumont - one of several events arranged at the Sneaton Castle Centre.
   

The St. Hilda Pictures in the St. Hilda Room

On Thursday 16th we gathered in the St. Hilda Room to attend a talk by Sister Pam on the life of St. Hilda as portrayed in 5 large paintings by Juliet Macmichael which had been commissioned by the OHP. Juliet consulted the late Sister Hilary on the content. The St. Hilda room was formerly the art classroom of the girls school and and Juliet MacMichael was the former Art Mistress

Note all photographs are Copyright [Order of the Holy Paraclete]. All rights reserved

St. Hilda's Priory, Sneaton Castle, Whitby, Yorks.

Not to be reproduced without their permission

 

Hilda being baptised with king Edwin and his court by Paulinus in 627 when Hilda was just 13 years old.
Hilda with the princess Elfleda under her charge. Sister Pam emphasised how depicting this scene on the moor emphasises the openness of the Abbess who was known as 'mother' by all. Lila's cross can be seen in the background and it was discussed whether this could indicate that another person in this grouping is the widowed queen Eanfled  (mother of Elfleda who also came to live at Whitby Abbey when her husband king Oswiu died). Eanfled was daughter of king Edwin and born on the night that the thane Lilla saved Edwin from a  poisoned sword by forming a shield with his own body.
Hilda with brother Caedmon the cowherd who Hilda asked to join her house and  encouraged to develop his poetic talents for setting verse to music in the native tongue rather than Latin. Hilda recognised the powerful tool for putting across the Christian message this could be for people who could not read or write.
Hilda hosting the Synod of Whitby in 664. The 'Roman' and 'Celtic' sides can be distinguished by their form of tonsure.
Begu's vision at the Hackness monastery on the night that Hilda was dying in the Whitby abbey of Hilda's soul being carried to heaven by angels .
   

On Thursday after coffee there was an opportunity to visit the Centre's "Learning Zone" and learn a lot more about Anglo -Saxon activities - including dyeing, spinning, weaving, working in the scriptorium (writing with quills and reed pens, illuminating texts) to name a few!

The activity room is named the Hilary room after Sr. Hilary who sadly died last year and who was a guiding inspiration to the formation of the Centre. It was Sr. Hilary who was also of enormous help to me on earlier visits on Celtic saints, discussions on such aspects as The Synod of Whitby Easter calculations and the Hilda Room paintings by Juliet Macmichael

Below is Sister Pam showing us how wool was used to make a 'God's Eye'

 

   

St. Hilda's Well, Hinderwell

On Thursday afternoon it was off to Hinderwell (map reference) just a few miles north of Whitby to visit a well in St. Hilda's churchyard which tradition has it was used by  St. Hilda during her travels around the country.

The OHP Chaplain Fr. David  was in attendance and carried out a simple service at the well where we were invited to be marked with the sign of the cross using the well water, to take a drink and also receive in our cupped hands more of the well water.

The simple service was extremely moving, particularly as we were joined by several of the sisters, some of whom could not have found it easy to go down the slippery and steep pathway but were not in the least deterred by this. One sister had been in the OHP for well over 40 years and yet this was the first time that she had visited the well.

The Revd Barry Pyke, rector of Hinderwell (and another 5 churches at  Roxby and Staithes with Lythe, Ugthorpe and Sandsend!) and some of his congregation made us very welcome and provided refreshments afterwards. The vicar told us how in September this year the Archbishop of York, Dr. John Santamu, visited the well and surprised everyone by conducting an impromptu baptism.

   

On the way back, the Revd Barry Pyke also showed us his church of St. Oswald at Lythe which he thought might be interesting in view of the Danish artefacts discovered in the walls of the church.

The church had a major refurbishment in 1910 when the very short steeple was added to the tower and which gives the church a very unusual appearance. This is a church I had greatly admired from the car window on frequent trips between Staithes and Whitby on a holiday in May of this year and was very grateful for the opportunity to look inside!
This is the first church I have ever visited which is dedicated to St. Oswald. When Oswald defeated Cadwallon in 633 after the death of king Edwin in 632, he returned from exile in Scotland to rule Northumbria. In 635 he summoned bishop Aidan from Iona to Lindisfarne to help him convert his subjects to Christianity and a great partnership of king and bishop set about this process. Unfortunately his reign was brief as in 642 he was killed in battle by Penda. This is a period when we know very little about what was happening to Hilda but we do know that it was bishop Aidan that made the request for Hilda to return from Kent and form a monastery north of the Wear in 648
During the refurbishment in 1910, relics were found in the church walls of carved stones from a 10th century Danish burial ground. The artefacts prove a Christian church had been here since at least 950AD
 

17th November - St. Hilda's Day

After breakfast it was in the coach and and over to the East headland to visit the Whitby Abbey Visitors Centre where we again met many of the sisters of OHP to share with them this very special day. We processed, led by a cross, right into the chancel of the  abbey ruins for a service conducted by the chaplain Fr. David.

The weather was, fittingly, truly awful and added poignancy to the opening words 'For over thirteen hundred years on this windswept, storm tossed headland God has been worshiped; psalms have been sung, prayers have been offered and the Eucharist celebrated - in honour of the God who is creator and Lord of all'.

We read the psalm 121 'I lift my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come?' , we sang hymns about Hilda, a sister read a passage from Bede that records the death of Hilda in 680 and we all as pilgrims laid flowers in honour of St. Hilda.

One of the course members was invited to read the the passage from Bede that records when Hilda formed her monastery at Streaneschalch [Whitby] and I know that doing this - right in the very place which Bede was talking about, and the chapter in Bede that Reinfrid, a Norman knight read as a history book and gave him the inspiration to seek out Hilda's monastery ruins [Mission to the North] and build the present abbey in 1073-4 - will be something that the reader (and I) will just never forget.

 

Services at St. Hilda's Priory

For the whole duration of the course we were very warmly invited to join with the sisters OHP the services held in the Priory church - typically 07:15 Lauds, noon Mid-Day Office and Eucharist, 18:00 Vespers and around 21:00 Compline.

The services and the singing at them were very highly praised by all who attended them.

On Thursday evening at 6:00pm there was the First Vespers of St. Hilda when a statue of St. Hilda was brought into the Priory chapel in a most moving service.

On Friday, St. Hilda's day, there was a Sung Eucharist for the Feast of St. Hilda and many of the sisters joined the course party for the evening meal.

 

Postscript

Very sadly for me, by Friday morning I was very under the weather with a streaming cold and sore throat and therefore very reluctantly decided it was time to end the possibility of passing this on to others and return home without finishing the course.

It had been a most heartening and rewarding course and I would like to extend my thanks to Sister Pam, Alan Beaumont and the Centre Marketing Manager Tony Holden for making all the arrangements and providing all of us who attended a very special insight into the work of this wonderful Christian Centre and into the life and work of our Saint.

I have to confess the course was not what I expected - after years compiling the information about the life and times of St. Wilfrid I was hoping for a lot more historical 'meat on the bone' around Hilda's lifetime  - but with the very sad loss of research historian Sister Hilary this wasn't possible. However, with the indomitable energy, drive and enthusiasm of Sister Pam we were treated to spiritual delights such as the Abbey visit on St. Hilda's Day and an insight into the character of St. Hilda, that more than made up for this and made the visit most rewarding and memorable.

I also have to record that St. Wilfrid was not a popular subject with any of the course members or sisters of OHP that I met on the course and clearly the effects of 664 and the outrage of Colman and his Celtic followers seems to continue to the present time! It became clear that part of the bad feeling was that (unlike the Celtic way of doing things that held women in high esteem and where an abbess more often than not ruled mixed monasteries)  the Roman way did not have such a high regard for women in ecclesiastical high office. Oh dear nothing has changed has it!

This does make me wonder whether it was the role of women or another reason which threw Hilda into the Celtic camp at the Synod - something must have triggered this because otherwise her feelings would surely veer to the Roman way of doing things - for she was baptised by Paulinus in the Roman tradition and fled with Ethelburger and Paulinus back to the safety of Kent and another Roman stronghold.

One possibility discussed was that she actually married and her husband's religion had an influence.  We know that after the death of king Edwin in 632 right up to 648 when aged 34 Aidan called her to form a monastery North of the Wear, in that 16 year gap we know nothing of what happened to Hilda in Bede's book. Sister Pam thinks it is unrealistic that she, a royal princess, remained unmarried and perhaps in this 16 years there was  a marriage and widowhood and other contact with Celtic minded people that made her Celtic leanings likely?

What we do know though was that Hilda was a quite remarkable lady - 'mother' to all who met her, someone who whatever their station could be made to feel welcome and important,  and who developed her monastery to be a centre of excellence in learning  throughout Europe and the training ground of five future bishops.

In the words of the hymn we sang on the windswept, storm tossed headland on St. Hilda's Day -

Peace was the rock on which she built
for rich and poor an equal place,
here all who came to learn to pray
might grow in wisdom by God's grace

I have to accept that our confrontational Wilfrid, despite all his other great qualities and the convincing way he won the argument at the Synod of Whitby that changed the way the church was heading, does not engender the same warm feelings that we can so easily feel for the wonderful  Saint Hilda.

 

Peter Green
18th November, 2006

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