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To mentor and foster: Hilda of Whitby

To mentor and foster: Hilda of Whitby

Once upon a time, a very very long time ago, a baby girl was born to a noble family in Northumbria. The baby was named Hilda but was most often called Hild. She had a very close relationship with her sister Hereswith, and when was about 33 years old she resolved to go to France to join her sister in becoming a nun. Just about this time, Hilda was summoned by Aidan, a dedicated missionary and bishop of Lindisfarne.  He sent her to the Wear river, gave her a bit of land, and asked her to build a monastery for women who would practice the traditions of Celtic Christianity as taught at Lindisfarne and Iona.  Needless to say, the venture was a success.

She was next asked to succeed the late abbess of the monastery at Hartlepool. Again, her humility, wisdom, patience, learning, and ability to work with all manner of folks ensured the continued success of the monastery.  About 2 years later, she was given a piece of land at a place called Streanaeshalch (later called Whitby by the Danes) to become the abbess over a mixed monastery, males and females living in the same community but in small houses of 2 or 3 males or females each who came together only for prayers and worship in the Celtic Fashion.

Hilda was known for her ability to appeal to, work with, and identify people of all stations in life, some more exceptional than others. She met a sheepherder who had a vision of writing poetry and singing hymns to God. Hilda fostered his talent and thus gave the world a poet named Caedmon, who wrote poetry dedicated to God, including the earliest known poem/prayer written to God in the English of the time.  Five other men of her community became bishops and two of them later were canonized as saints.

Her best-known achievement, however, was the hosting at her monastery of a gathering of both Celtic and Roman Christians.  While the two groups had many things in common, including many doctrines and traditions, the Celtic focused more power in the monasteries and wandering bishops while the Romans were more strict in observance and followed the bishops.  While the meeting of the two didn’t resolve every difference, it did resolve a major question which was the establishment of a way of accurately dating the observance of Easter in both groups.  It was a major achievement, and Hilda’s guidance, patience, and ability to foster agreement, even to the point of agreeing to follow the Roman fashion instead of the Celtic which had been her training and choice in the matter.

Mentoring is a word we hear a lot these days. It is a valued and valuable service that one person does for another or for a group of others. Simply put, a mentor is one who fosters the talents, abilities, and professional trajectory of another, in essence, showing them the ropes and how to succeed, not by lecture but by grooming them with exercises, practice, and gentle advice. It happens in business frequently, even if the word mentor is never mentioned.

In Education for Ministry (EfM), a mentor or mentors meet with a group of members of a class with the aim of developing not only their knowledge of church history, the Bible and theology, but fostering their spiritual lives by encouraging them to explore those spiritualities through reflection and use of tools like spiritual autobiographies. The great thing about being in EfM mentor is that they don’t have to have all the answers. In fact, it’s a blessing not to have to answer all the questions. Group members and even mentors practice a system of guidance that allows people to learn by investigation, with no answers at the back of the book, but rather with open eyes, minds, and hearts. It is a rewarding experience for a mentor to see the group began year one with lots and lots of questions and progress through all four years without the questions ever stopping. As one learns to answer or a reasonable answer, an opinion, or a belief, there is always something else a little further down the road that builds on that and encourages the person to take the next steps and to tackle the next questions that they need to explore. Watching this progress both in oneself as a mentor and in the members of the group shows the benefits of fostering faith and spiritual journeys and the blooming of ministers, both lay and clerical.

Hilda may not have been in EfM mentor, but she certainly was a mentor to those in her monasteries. She encouraged, and I believe she led others to find answers without relying on her to be the final arbiter. If she could successfully manage to groups as disparate and yet is similar as the Celtic and Roman churches in England, Scotland, and Ireland, then her talents must have been formidable. It is for those things that Hilda of Whitby is remembered and honored, because to mentor is to foster and Hilda was a master of both.

Who has mentored you? Who have you mentored? Who fostered you? Who have you fostered? What was the gain? What was the loss? Every person has the ability to foster someone else in some way, shape, or form. The mentor needs to be a good example, a guide rather than a book of rules, and the person with the great interest in watching another person become a skilled and well-rounded individual. I imagine Hilda got immense satisfaction out of watching all the different people that came out of her monasteries because of her recognition of their abilities, her guidance and wisdom.

Hilda makes an excellent example of Christianity in action as someone who was perhaps ahead of her time. She would probably have quite an adjustment if she came back in this time period,  but I feel she would recognize the role of the mentor and I think would fall right back into patterns of mentoring and fostering folks just as she did in her own lifetime. I think she deserves a bit more study than we might possibly give her. Just because someone came from far back in the distant past, it does not mean that there is nothing that can be learned from this person. After all, Jesus was born 2000 years ago, and we are still trying to learn from him about what it meant to be a Christian, a mentor, a guide, and a fosterer of others.

Time to take a deeper look at Hilda of Whitby. She’s a good example to follow.

God bless.



Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for two Education for Ministry groups, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and a homebody. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is also owned by three cats. She has been Episcopalian for over 50 years, and is grateful God led her to the Episcopal Church in various places.




Image: Whitby Abbey photograph from April 2010 by Illuminatusds,  via Wikimedia Commons


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Charles Kinnaird

Thank you for this. I have a deep appreciation for Hilda of Whitby. Back in my high school English Lit class, I felt a connection with Caedmon. Like Caedmon, I loved singing, but was too shy to do so in public. I also was drawn to writing poetry. I knew nothing of St. Hilda at that time. It was many years later that I happened upon an article about HIlda of Whitby (it was a photocopy I found on the floor in a hallway) and read how she encouraged Caedmon. In that same article, I was astounded to read that her feast day in on my birthday! I now consider her to be my patron saint, and have a feeling that she somehow sought me out.

Linda Ryan

Charles Kinnard,
Thank you for reading it and sharing what Hilda meant to you. Your story is an inspiration.

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