Hilda and Caedmon

Hilda of Whitby

Hilda of Whitby

We have come to the feast day of Abess Hilda of Whitby. Saint Hilda was great leader of the Church in England and the first patron of English Christian poetry. She also presided at the crucial and controversial Synod of Whitby and brought that Synod to a fruitful and peaceful conclusion. When I posted this sonnet on her feast day some years ago it happened that the church’s General Synod was meeting and I had that in mind as part of my prayerful remembrance of Hilda, as you will hear in the preamble to the recording of the poem.

This year its another aspect of her story I’d like to highlight, to which I also allude in my poem. This is the story of Caedmon, the earliest English poet whose name is known. Bede tells the story of how he came to his vocation as a poet:

According to Bede, Cædmon was a lay brother who cared for the animals at the monastery Streonæshalch (now known as Whitby Abbey). One evening, while the monks were feasting, singing, and playing a harp, Cædmon left early to sleep with the animals because he knew no songs. The impression clearly given by St. Bede is that he lacked the knowledge of how to compose the lyrics to songs. While asleep, he had a dream in which “someone” (quidam) approached him and asked him to sing principium creaturarum, “the beginning of created things.” After first refusing to sing, Cædmon subsequently produced a short eulogistic poem praising God, the Creator of heaven and earth.

Upon awakening the next morning, Cædmon remembered everything he had sung and added additional lines to his poem. He told his foreman about his dream and gift and was taken immediately to see the abbess. The abbess and her counsellors asked Cædmon about his vision and, satisfied that it was a gift from God, gave him a new commission, this time for a poem based on “a passage of sacred history or doctrine”, (account taken from this Wiki article )

So as I remember Hilda with thanksgiving I also give thanks for all the churches and church leaders who have been patrons of the arts and especially those who have found a space and place for poetry in liturgy. I give thanks too for all those churches who have chosen to weave my own poems into liturgy and sermons and pray that those words have been fruitful

The icon of Hilda above is from the St. Albans Parish website The Daily Cup

The sonnet also appears in my second poetry book with Canterbury Press, The Singing Bowl

As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking on its title or on the play button

Hilda of Whitby

Called to a conflict and a clash of cultures,

Where insults flew whilst synod was in session,

You had the gift to find the gift in others,

A woman’s wisdom, deftness and discretion.

You made a space and place for poetry

When outcast Caedmon, crouching in the byre,

Was called by grace into community

And local language joined the Latin choir.

Abbess we need your help, we need your wisdom,

Your strong recourse to reconciliation,

Your power tempered by God’s hidden kingdom,

Your exercise of true imagination.

Pray for our synods now, princess of peace,

That every fettered gift may find release.

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Filed under christianity, Poems

7 responses to “Hilda and Caedmon

  1. Diann Sherwin

    Beautiful! And How appropriate for this time in the American Catholic Church!!

  2. Marcia Smith

    “ Abbess we need your help, we need your wisdom,

    Your strong recourse to reconciliation,

    Your power tempered by God’s hidden kingdom,

    Your exercise of true imagination…”

    Just beautiful, sir. These lines woke my weary heart to imagine once again what Christ will and is tempering deep within my soul even now. A wise woman who cultivates peace, who allows the Spirit to be the true channel for her own strong spirit, who sees and calls out the beautiful and sacred in the ordinary through the disciplines of wonder and creativity—this is my desire.

    It calls to mind the tale of Sarah Smith of Golders Green, painted by Lewis in his book The Great Divorce, which you no doubt are quite familiar with: a queenly woman surrounded by hosts of dancing angels, girls and boys and animals, whom the narrator assumes was nobility on earth, but in fact was relatively unknown, except by the many she drew into her love through acts of kindness and hospitality.
    …“In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.”
    I looked at my Teacher in amazement.
    “Yes,” he said. “It is like when you throw a stone into a pool, and the concentric waves spread out further and further. Who knows where it will end? Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength. But already there is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.”

    • malcolmguite

      Yes indeed and that is one of my favourite passages in all of Lewis!

      • Marcia Smith

        Oh, well I love hearing this! Several of the stories from The Great Divorce, but that one in particular, are fixed in my imagination for the rest of my life, I believe. Yes, an easy favorite. 🙂

  3. MICHAEL Tan Creti

    It is good to remind ourselves that clash of cultures is not a new thing. I particularly like the line: “And local language joined the Latin choir.” I would argue that the vernacular, the result of Babel, is the language of story, and without the story we not only lose the past, but have no future. Michael in Omaha

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