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

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6745 votes


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. I chose Origen for his fortitude in the face of condemnation. I like Hilda and admired her work to spread Christianity in Britain, but I'm sorry she conceded gracefully to the dominance of Rome over the more native Celtic style of worship.

    1. Yes, my one reservation is her nod to the Roman church. I suspect it was to prevent fighting and bloodshed.

      1. As one brought up in the RC church, I can attest to its general aversion to recognizing women's gifts & their strong role in the early church. Although things are better now, it still forbids women's ordination.

  2. Oooh, another reasin I voted for Hilda is due to the good people of St. Hilda of Whitby parish in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, who cared for my partner and I while our son was in a coma in the hospital. We were visitors from the USA and they and their priest fed us and prayed for us for two weeks. Amazing people!

  3. For those interested in literary takes on the life of the saints, Hild features in the first of the series of novels about Cuthbert of Farne. Katharine Tiernan has written a trilogy based on the life of seventh-century saint Cuthbert: 'Cuthbert of Farne', 'Place of Repose', and 'A New Heaven and a New Earth'. I have enjoyed all three. The author is a historian. the final novel suggests that the influence of the Celtic church was significant until the Norman conquest.

    1. Thank you for the recommendation! *pulls up the library catalog to put the first one on hold*

  4. King Edwin of Northumbria - now there is a namesake. (I probably would have voted for Hilda in any case.)

  5. Hilda is the patron saint of schools and colleges throughout the world. She is also a patron saint of culture and poetry. She worked in the Celtic Church, which embraced the leadership of women.

    It is said that, when sea birds fly over the abbey, they dip their wings in honor of St. Hilda. Legend has it that she turned snakes to stone and that is why ammonite fossils were found on the Abbey site. The ammonite genus Hildoceras is named for St. Hilda.

  6. I am going to choose Hilda today, for her home in my parents’ land, for her nurture of Caedmon, for her grace among those with whom she disagreed. I’ve been on the losing end, here, of that battle through most of the last two years, and I could wish for her grace, though no one was likely to die for choosing Rome over Celts, I suppose….

  7. I voted for Origen, because he seems as important to the church as Paul. But I would have loved to vote for Hilda as the founder of a Celtic convent. Origen seems to show up "everywhere" as a source of multiple strands of Christian thought. Though he was deprecated (if not condemned) for believing in the pre-existence of human souls, that thought seems to found Calvin's doctrine of prelapsarianism. If those human souls aren't pre-existent, then God can't damn or save them. St. Patrick's day is coming up, and Patrick says God foreknew everything from the beginning, which means all human "souls" must somehow be "existent" in some manner, "which human tongue cannot express" as Patrick says, in Irish and faulty Latin. I take no stand on the question of how long our souls have existed, but I do like the little diagram of the trinity, which you can find on wikipedia, which shows The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit linked with IS NOT among each other but linked with IS to "God." I'm sure this is provocation for yet another heresy, as some emperor will cry Tetraty!, but I find the diagram useful. One could "teach cats and dogs with it," as Marianne Moore would say. And I see no danger of us all being retermed "tetratarians" and our cathedrals being renamed "Tetraty Cathedral." And for those who object to using analogies to teach and think, well . . . good luck with all that literalism. Origen was truly the origin of much Christian thinking. And I'm partial to scholars.

  8. Being that my family hails from North Yorkshire and had many members "hatched, matched and dispatched" from Whitby (albeit the 12th century St Mary's parish church) I really must cast my vote for St Hilda. I was very happy to learn about Origen, however, whom I knew nothing about. That's what I love about Lent Madness. Such a shame that his writings were destroyed!

    The Synod of Whitby outcome and the rivalry between the two factions of Christianity, Roman and Celtic, was intriguing and thought provoking. My direct ancestors included several vicars in the Church of England and I remember as a child my grandfather telling me "Remember we are Catholic....we are NOT Roman Catholic". I have always puzzled over those words and now wonder if it has to do with that rivalry.

  9. Origen's influence on the Church and its theology is priceless, but his severe asceticism -- even if the most severe rumors are unfounded -- is simply not a healthy example of how to live out one's faith. Was he overly influenced by the Gnostics of his day, eschewing healthy eating and self-care in favor of the "spiritual?" One the things I appreciate most about Anglican ethos and tradition over the centuries is how very incarnational our approach to life in Christ is -- lived out in the real world of our daily lives and our families and communities.

    Hilda's life in faith is all about balance. With wisdom, skill, and flexibility, she led a monastic community of both women and men which featured animal and crop farming, woodworking, celebration and support of the arts, hospitality, and of course, worship and study. What a robust and healthy example for us all!

    Finding and maintaining a healthy balance in our lives, faith, and various callings is a perennial challenge -- perhaps harder than ever in our complex modern times. My vote goes to Hilda.

    1. "his severe asceticism ... is simply not a healthy example of how to live out one's faith. Was he overly influenced by the Gnostics of his day, eschewing healthy eating and self-care in favor of the "spiritual?"
      - oh no, he had plenty of heart, and was not anti-body either. It's not mentioned, but he was a fierce opponent of his Gnostic contemporaries. And, he had a very profound sense that the sensual is an important gateway to a love relationship with God - read his Commentary on the Songs of Songs, which is itself a seduction. He's my favorite.

  10. While I was impressed by Hilda's story and have visited Northumbria and Whitby, I had to vote for Origen for two reasons. First, he produced one of the first Bibles with Hebrew text together with Greek translation and commentary, making the Bible more widely accessible. Second, he produced the first known work of systematic theology,outlining the basis of faith in Christ. Without such scholarship, the church would look very different today.

  11. "Take me often from the tumult of things
    into Thy presence.
    There show me what I am,
    and what Thou has purposed me to be...

    ...My soul's desire is to study the Scriptures
    and to learn the ways of God.
    My soul's desire is to be freed from
    all fear and sadness, and to share Christ's risen life.
    My soul's desire is to imitate my King,
    and to sing His purposes always.
    My soul's desire is to enter the gates
    of heaven
    and to gaze upon the light
    that shines forever."

    Excerpts from "Hild—In The Right Place" a prayer for wrestling with the call of God found in the book Celtic Daily Prayers (from the Northumbria Community)

  12. So if his writings were burned, were there other, secret copies that survived, or are we going off memory of others reiterating Origen’s thoughts?

  13. I'm not sure what would have sparked me to choose Origen over Hilda (if anything), but processing as much as my foggy brain will allow while reading the write ups as well as the comments, I had a new thought...

    What if I'm not voting for which saint I think deserves to win but for which one I'm most eager to learn more about as they proceed to the next rounds and we get to hear more from them and about them?

    I mean, I recall both fondly and warily much on Origen in my various theological and historical studies in college and seminary and I'm kinda burnt out on it. (And that only intensifies this not-fully-understood connection I have with Hilda and my desire to see her more.)

  14. Universal Salvation has my vote. I love Hilda, it was a hard call, but Origen it is!

  15. As a sister in the Anachara Fellowship, my vote must go to Hilda, but they are both worthy.

  16. One question: If Origen's writings were burned how do we know what he wrote?Anyway, he seemed to have had a lot of influence on Christianity and endured a lot to stay true to his beliefs. He gets my vote.

  17. I like Hilda, especially that her monasteries mingled men and women. But I'm voting for Origen. Scholars often get short shrift among Lent Madness voters, but where would the world be without them? Moreover, I can't resist a scholar who throughout the centuries was sometimes considered a heretic. That speaks deeply to me about the nature of scholarship, intellectual inquiry, and "truth."

  18. You rally made choosing very difficult today. Thanks for the fun but mostly for the knowledge we wouldn't be getting otherwise.

  19. I just retired after eight years as parish administrator at our church. Who knew there was a saint all those years that had my back.

  20. Hilda is one of my favorites, admittedly because she obviously had the gift of discerning the gifts of others: I love Bede's story of how the cowherd Caedmon, who had no songs, was visited by an angel, who awakened poetry in him--and how it was Abbess Hilda who told him he had a gift and needed to leave the monastery cows to others while he nurtured his gift. Encouraging the first known English poet seems to me a saintly thing to do!

  21. Well, the fact that Whitby Abbey is the inspiration of the location for Bram Stoker's Dracula did not influence my vote. Actually, I had heard of Hilda. BUT, all that aside, I voted for Origen - the man suffered for his faith, and being a librarian, I had too vote for a guy who had such great literary output.