Passing Down a Tradition of Wisdom

Hilda of Whitby (by Peter Levenstrong)

Peter replied to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to his disciples, “…Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.”

During my last year in college, just as I was beginning my own faith journey, I learned about the Episcopal Service Corps (ESC). It became a transformational yearlong journey of community living, reflection, prayer, and work in service of the city I had been transplanted to: St. Louis, MO. There were seven of us. living and praying together, sharing meals. Each of us, though, went out individually into the world to the nonprofits to which we had been assigned. We followed a Benedictine rule of life, and you wouldn’t be mistaken for noticing the parallels between the communal living arrangements of our service corps program and the ancient monastic traditions of the church.

Today’s saint, Hilda of Whitby, had a profound impact on these very traditions. She was abbess at several monastic communities throughout her life, and was instrumental in the Christianisation of Anglo-Saxon England during her life in the 7th Century. Until her death on November 18, 680 AD, she was consulted frequently by kings and other powerful figures, seeking her for her renowned wisdom. 

Today, one of the Episcopal Service Corps program houses is named after Hilda of Whitby – St. Hilda’s House in New Haven, CT. Although I was not part of that program, I’ve since gotten to know that program well, admiring St. Hilda through the lens of her ongoing legacy in the Episcopal Church. Every year, a new group of young adults joins the Episcopal Service Corps seeking wisdom and experience in service, prayer, and community. 

The connection between wisdom and monasticism is one that endures, and is worth exploring. For as long as there’s been a tradition of monasticism in Christianity, Christians have revered monastics as people with a particular access to wisdom that eludes the rest of us worldly folk. Many would say that this wisdom is at least partially what Jesus is talking about in the above quote from Matthew chapter 19, which commemorates St. Hilda. 

This hundredfold reward does not come easily, but by way of renouncing siblings, parents, children, and property. Yet, the reward is greater: heavenly wisdom, which cannot be bought and has been with God since the beginning of time. Such wisdom comes only through hard-won experience. 

Perhaps the point is that we must be free of worldly trappings in order to clear our mind & desires; perhaps it refers to the way that wisdom must be accumulated slowly, through prayer and deep focus. Perhaps again it simply is a fact that one must remove themselves from the drama of the worldly existence in order to perceive it more clearly. An outsider’s perspective is often the most accurate. 

Today, we venerate St. Hilda for her wisdom, and the way in which she shared it with those of us non-monastics who seek it. May it help us all to find a deeper, more lasting peace.

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