Origen vs. Hilda of Whitby

Today's Lent Madness action features a highly anticipated first round matchup as Origen faces Hilda of Whitby. 2nd century theologian vs. 7th century abbess. African vs. Brit.

Yesterday, in a battle of healers, José Gregorio Hernández got past Constance of Memphis 59% to 41% to secure a spot in the Saintly Sixteen.

If you filled out a bracket in advance, how are you doing so far? Are your saints proving victorious or are you tasting the agony of defeat? New this year, you can always fill out a new bracket in advance of the Saintly Sixteen. Now go vote.


Without Origen, the church as we know it may not exist.

A native of Egypt born circa 184 CE, Origen is one of the earliest African theologians in history. His father, Leonides, was a devout scholar and Christian who taught Origen philosophy, literature and doctrine, and sowed the seeds of Origen’s rise to church leadership. Leonides was arrested, beaten, and ultimately killed for being a Christian.

Early in his life, Origen moved to Alexandria, Egypt, to teach at the church’s catechetical training center. Origen was well-known for his zeal in preaching the word of God and for his intense biblical study. Origen is considered the father of  homiletics and Christian apologetics, and he developed one of the first Bibles with the Hebrew text together with Greek translations and commentary. He was a prolific writer, credited with more than 2,000 (and sometimes up to 6,000) publications related to Christian spirituality and theology. During a time when there was little consensus on what it meant to be a Christian, Origen composed the landmark treatise, On the First Principles, the first known work of systematic theology.

Origen focused his teachings on mirroring Christ’s example in our words and deeds. Origen was known for taking unrelated scriptural texts and drawing spiritual conclusions and synthesis, and he is responsible for much of the early church’s doctrine. He was a devout believer in Christ and spent much of his life developing the foundational understandings of the Trinity and universal salvation. For these teachings, he was considered both a heretic and a saint, depending on the winds blowing in the church at that time.

Under Emperor Decius, Christian persecution flourished, and Origen was arrested, beaten, and died from his injuries in about 253. Some 200 years later, Emperor Justinian I declared Origen a heretic and ordered his writings to be burned. This caused a great amount of discord as Origen had been considered one of the greatest minds of the church. Origen’s life and works call us to deeply ask and systematically study and respond to the question, “What do we believe?”

Collect for Origen

O God, by your Holy Spirit you give to some the word of wisdom, to others the word of knowledge, and to others the word of faith: We praise your Name for the gifts of grace manifested in thy servant Origen, and we pray that your Church may never be destitute of such gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the same Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Anna Fitch Courie

Hilda of Whitby

Hilda is not known for one spectacular moment, as some saints are. She is not known for a profound body of literature, as are other saints. In fact, nothing of her own writing exists. Instead, she is most commonly remembered for hosting a synod that had a significant impact on the Christian church.

Hilda (614-680) was the founding abbess of the monastery in Whitby, England. Much of the information about Hilda’s life is from the Venerable Bede’s The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. According to Bede, Hilda was born into the royal household of a region in Britain. After her father was poisoned, she found a home in the court of King Edwin of Northumbria, a relative. She was baptized along with King Edwin and his entire court in 627.

In 633, King Edwin was killed in battle, and his queen, along with Hilda and the queen’s companions fled to Kent, where the queen established a convent. Her sister implored Hilda to join her in Gaul (modern-day France). Hilda instead answered the call of Aidan, bishop of Lindisfarne, and returned to Northumbria to found a convent in the tradition of Celtic Christianity. She founded two monasteries before founding Whitby in 657.

Whitby, as all of Hilda’s monasteries, was a double monastery, where men and women lived and worshiped together. Property was held in common. Daily prayer and Bible study were required and works of peace and charity encouraged. Whitby became known, through Hilda, for its support of literature and culture.

Bede describes her as a woman of great wisdom and a skilled administrator. Many kings and princes sought her council, and it is no accident that the Synod of Whitby was held at her monastery in 664. At this synod, the church in England decided to follow the Roman rather than the Celtic path, a decision that would impact the course of Christianity in Great Britain.

Bede tells us that Hilda’s widowed mother, Breguswith, had a dream in which her daughter’s destiny was foretold. In this dream she suddenly became aware that her husband was missing and, after a frantic yet fruitless search, she found a valuable necklace under her dress. When she gazed upon the jewel, it brilliantly illuminated all of England. This vision was interpreted as foreshadowing the light Hilda was destined to shine on British Christianity.

Collect for Hilda of Whitby

O God of peace, by whose grace the abbess Hilda was endowed with gifts of justice, prudence, and strength to rule as a wise mother over the nuns and monks of her household: Raise up these gifts in us, that we, following her example and prayers, may build up one another in love to the benefit of your church; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Laurie Brock


Origen: el:Εικόνα:Origen.jpg
Hilda of Whitby: James Clark, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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107 comments on “Origen vs. Hilda of Whitby”

  1. For Hilda, it must clearly have been odd
    To see Whitby the site of a synod
    Where Lindisfarne clerics
    Suffered mild hysterics
    When Oswy gave Romans the “in” nod.

    1. Love this limerick!! Well done, John.

  2. I'm pleased that credit is given to a Saint for her administrative skills. That is a marvelousgift. Go, Hilda!

  3. Origen was "cancelled". He seems like the right saint for a time when U.S. libraries are banning books, and voices at both ends of the political spectrum are eager to suppress opinions they don't agree with.

    1. Correction: U.S. libraries are NOT "banning books." Right-wing politicans ARE banning books, including Maus, Gender Queer, New Kid (which talks about--gasp!--being a black kid in a white school). Librarians are pro-book. But too many U.S. politicians are opposed to the human mind and to critical thinking, which is why combining the terms "critical" and "race" and "theory" sends them into mouth-foaming paroxysms. They really hate freedom. Fun fact: Origen defended free will.

      1. I wondered how long it would take for a political rant to show up in Lent Madness. How I wish we could focus on the lives of saints during Lent Madness. We have a lot to learn from them.

        1. I'm not going to engage. I didn't start this side topic, which began with a misstatement. But if you're interested in the very timely issue of "ranting" and Christian dogma, and the havoc it can wreak on human lives, I call your attention to an insightful article which just appeared and has current importance. It also touches on the use and misuse of the lives of the saints. "Learning from the saints" is never neutral. Bless your heart.

          1. Thanks so much for this link. An excellent article on the Russian Orthodox Church and what happens when religious faith becomes politicized and becomes literally the state religion.

        2. I do not view the comment as a “rant” though I take your point on the poisonous nature of political discussion in troubling times.
          I would ask you to consider in all charity, how few saints were head down, make no waves types. They were the innovators and instigators of social change. They weren’t afraid of lively debate. In their service to God they did not forget their duty to the”polis” of their era.
          They served the people, even when it brought them into conflict with the authorities.

      2. Yes, indeed. Librarians are in favor of thought, not book banning. My librarian aunt & namesake would be appalled if she could see what is happening to many libraries in the US today. I'm so thankful to live in a town with an independent library open to everyone. Among its various functions it is a meeting place where all opinions can be, and are, shared.

    2. Libraries are not banning books. People are attempting to have books banned from libraries.

    3. Libraries are not banning books; the politicians who control the purse strings are trying to, and librarians are resisting. As was once said, public libraries should have at least one book that every person can object to!

    4. Hello Barbara I really appreciate the truth of your statement. I am sorry for the extreme response of others. Clearly many books are being banned in schools (if not libraries) and not just by right-wingers. One of my favorite books has been banned.

      Clearly both right and left have not loved God with our whole hearts and not loved our neighbors as ourselves. Christ have mercy on our sectarian tribalism! God bless you!

  4. Origen is the original, the sine qua non, so he gets my vote. But my heart belongs to Hilda.

    1. I agree, Mother Mollie. That is exactly the reason for my vote. I wish I could vote for both of them.

  5. How can I not vote for Hild? I have spent time in the north, following in the steps of the northern saints. Hild nurtured the vocation of the first poet to write in English, Caedmon. Five of her monks became bishops. She had an influence that extended far beyond the Synod of Whitby.

  6. I'm surprised that you did not mention Hilda's encouragement of Caedmon, the laborer who became a Christian poet. Also, the fact that Hilda supported the Celtic way of worship, but when the Synod voted for the Latin way, she gracefully conceded.

  7. A vote for Hilda: what faith, determination, and management skills it took to establish 3 convents. What a difference it would have made if she could have convinced the synod to adopt Celtic Christianity, (Recommend Thomas Cahill's "How the Irish Saved Christianity)

    1. I think the title of the book is How the Irish Saved Civilization. A worthwhile read.

  8. I want to vote for Hilda. I have Hilda in my bracket. I deeply appreciate Hilda’s story. But I have a soft spot for “heretics” so Origen gets my vote today.

  9. I would like to vote for Hilda,a saintly person whom I admire for unisex institutions, but the world wide results of Origen's life is overwhelming

  10. How mean of you to pair two such profound influences on the church. It's like being asked to choose one's favourite child! However, as one who has climbed that long, long stairway to Hilda's abbey, and as one who has Celtic roots, my choice is Hilda, even though I'm pretty sure Origen will win the day.

    1. This pairing is as frustrating as yesterdays!!
      two great choices in the same 'sub section' of saints .Tough choice

  11. After visiting the ruins of Whitby Abbey, I have to vote for Hilda. It is an awesome place in the true sense of the word.
    It was great learning about a founder of the church doctrine in Origen.

    Side note- the ruins are said to have inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

  12. This years' Lent Madness has brought some wonderfully challenging matchups, and today was no exception. But having participated in a Holy Week walking pilgrimage to Lindisfarne a few years back, just got to go with St. Hilda!

    1. I also had the privilege to visit Holy Island. Loved the meade and all the history portrayed. Plus the road across from mainland is flooded part of the time. Our ladies's guild is St. Hilda's Guild. Vote went that way.

      1. Yes, we had to time our walk across the sands to the island by the tide. An amazing place to experience, for sure.

  13. Read Peter Tremayne's Absolution by Murder, the first Sister Fidelma mystery, for a fictionalized view of Hilda and her abbey during the Synod.

    1. I Love the Sister Fidelma books - its great to have an Irish scholar writing mysteries set in the Irish church!

    2. After hearing about the Sister Fidelma mysteries from several Lent Madness posters over the years, I finally borrowed Absolution by Murder" from my library and read it last week. Although fictionalized, it takes place during the Synod of Whitby, which pretty much echoed the Columbanos vs. bishops of Gaul disagreement.
      I'm looking forward to reading more of the series.

    3. Thank you for telling us the title of the first Tremayne book. I had wanted to choose one to read.
      Do know which book we might meet up with Columbanus?

  14. Both saints today are worthy of my vote. I’m going with Hilda. Origen’s massive contribution is well known, Hilda’s not so much until now. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy Lent Madness.

  15. Hilda of Whitby won my vote because she did so very many things (an overachiever?) including establishing double monasteries. She seems like she was a quiet leader, but I suspect she would be very inspirational, to say nothing of fearless!

  16. If Origen is grid enough for EfM, he’s good enough for me! I do however love Hilda’s vision of monastic life.

  17. This is a toughie. Without Hilda we might be Catholics with a capital C. On the other hand, if Origen had not been the scholar he was, would we even have the creeds?

  18. Tough choice - greatly admired Origen, but eventually cast my vote for Hilda, one because she’s a fellow Brit and I’ve been to the ruins of Whitby Abbey, but mostly because of Bede’s description of her as a “woman of great wisdom and a skilled administrator” - an example for me to follow too.

    1. You make an excellent point about Bede's admiration for Hilda. He isn't sometimes called "The Venomous Bede" for nothing!

  19. Come on Ladies it’s time for recognition!
    Mother Hilda surely deserves a vote for her skills in organization, administration & contemplation.

  20. Really bad bracketology at work. Two final four caliber saints in the first round.
    That said, Hilda even made into Sir Walter Scott's Marmion (Canto II.8):
    Then Whitby’s nuns exulting told, . . .
    . . . how, of thousand snakes, each one
    Was changed into a coil of stone,
    When holy Hilda pray’d;
    Themselves, within their holy bound,
    Their stony folds had often found.
    They told, how sea-fowls’ pinions fail,
    As over Whitby’s towers they sail,
    And, sinking down, with flutterings faint,
    They do their homage to the saint.

  21. Hilda is remarkable but Origen's thesis of the limitlessness of God's love with respect to salvation does it for me.

  22. I have to vote for Hilda, because my church has a window dedicated to her. She is depicted with miter and crozier, as she was a mitred abbess with quasi-episcopal powers. It is a constant reminder of the often-overlooked roles of women in the church's history. (and also a credit to a past rector who insisted on a balance of male and female saints in the windows)

  23. I'm headed to Iona, Scotland today. Hilda of Whitby showed how to live with defeat. Her side lost the vote at the Synod, but she did not lead a violent dissent. Who would have benefitted from that? She serves as an example of how to accept defeat.

  24. We apparently know more about Origen than we do about Hilda, but both seem to have been important influencers of modern Christianity. I am saddened to hear that both Origen and his father lost their lives because of their faith. I am afraid we as human beings haven't learned much about getting along with people we deem as "others" over the centuries, but I keep praying.
    But I think I will vote for Hilda, simply because she is like me! We both have British genes. I also love her mother's name, Breguswith. That's a name for someone who has prophetic dreams!

  25. And my losing streak continues unabated! Unless Hilda pulls it from under her veil, my record is near perfect except for two wins. But she did a lot to turn the tide in Britain. Origen is too mysterious to get my vote.