SAINT EDITH, NUN OF WILTON (+ 984)
By Vladimir Moss
Our holy Mother Edith was born in the tenth century in Kemsing, Kent, of an illicit union between King Edgar and the daughter of an earl of royal blood, Wulfrida. Edgar wished to make Wulfrida his queen, but she fled to the convent of Wilton, where she received the monastic tonsure from St. Ethelwold, bishop of Winchester.
Soon Wulfrida came to excel in virtue, and she was chosen to be the spiritual mother of the convent. Edith was brought up in the convent under her mother’s supervision, and at length she, too, was tonsured with her father’s consent. In the convent she learned writing, drawing, sewing and embroidery, and was taught by the two foreign chaplains, Radbod of Rheims and Benno of Trèves. She was also influenced by the holy example of her namesake and paternal aunt, Edith of Polesworth, and by her grandmother, St. Elgiva.
St. Edith was distinguished by her abstinence, even of feastdays, and by her love for the poor, the lepers, the blind and the maimed. She dressed in beautiful clothes, but wore a hairshirt next to her skin. Not realizing this secret asceticism, St. Ethelwold once said to her: “My daughter, it is not with such vestments that one goes to the bridal chamber of Christ. Nor does the Heavenly Bridegroom delight in the external beautifying of the body.” She replied: “Believe me, Father, with God’s help the mind is no worse under this covering than under a goatskin. I have my Lord Who looks not so much at my clothes as at my mind.” The man of God sensed the grace in her words, and did not further reproach her.
Now a serving-woman once left a half-extinguished candle in a chest full of the virgin’s clothes. Having bolted the chest, she went away. Soon the smouldering candle generated a dangerous fire in the bedroom, and the wall caught fire. It was night and everyone was asleep; but the unsleeping Providence of God roused the sisters, who came running and tried to break open the chest. They pulled out the burning clothes and extinguished the flames. But when they examined the clothes carefully, they were astonished to see that they were all completely untouched. All this time Edith had been tranquil, her mind fixed on Christ. The scorched chest was kept in the monastery as a witness to the miracle.
Wherever Edith went, the Cross of Christ was her companion. She made the sign of the Cross on her forehead and chest before every work and while travelling. Once, as she was giving food to the poor, as was her custom, a boy ran up from the side and asked for alms. She gave them to him, making the sign of the Cross at the same time. Immediately the boy vanished into thin air – a demonic phantom destroyed by the power of the Cross.
When King Edgar died in 975, and Edith’s half-brother Edward ascended the throne, she had a vision in which she saw the young king’s right eye fall out. Relating this to the sisters, she said: “It seems to me that this portends the death of my brother.” And so it turned out.
After the martyrdom of her brother, some nobles wanted to make her queen. But she refused…
Although she was the daughter of a king, St. Edith refused all honours, preferring to serve the sisters in the most humble capacities, like Martha. She was also noted for her familiarity with wild animals.
Edith had a great devotion to St. Dionysius the Areopagite, and had a wooden church built in his name adjoining the main church of the monastery. It had three entrances with the Cross inscribed over each. The interior was covered by multi-coloured frescoes painted by the chaplain Benno. When the church was completed, Edith invited St. Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury, to consecrate it. During his visit, he saw the holy virgin extend the thumb and two fingers of her right hand to make the sign of the Cross. Delighted by this, he took her right hand and said: “May this thumb never perish!”
A little later, during the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, the holy man broke into tears. When the deacon asked him why he was weeping, he said: “This soul beloved of God, this heavenly jewel, will be taken from this miserable life and earthly filth to the land of the saints. Nor is this shameful world worthy of such a great light. Forty-three days from now this brilliant star will depart from us. Behold how the lights of the saints are taken from this our prison while we sit in the darkness and shadow of death. Her immature age condemns our slothful senility, and while we sleep, she enters into the marriage with her lamp full of oil, and takes the beauty of the crown before us. Now you are going to a better age, O blessed citizen of the Heavenly Jerusalem Edith, and you are leaving thy father in sadness, O daughter.” Then he urged the deacon to keep silent about what he had said. After the service he told Edith to prepare to meet Christ with her lamp burning with oil and without looking at any worldly things; for Christ was calling her, and soon she would leave this world. At length, having given her his blessing, he left; and the appointed day drew near.
And so, on the third day after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, after receiving the Body and Blood of Christ from the hands of St. Dunstan, the holy Edith commended her soul into the hands of the Lord. She reposed in the church of St. Dionysius. Meanwhile, a certain sister ran into the main monastery from the church saying that she had heard what seemed to be great multitude chanting psalms. And as she was listening, someone with a beautiful face and shining clothes came up to her and said: “Don’t come closer, for the holy angels are about to take the girl Goda [a version of Edith’s Saxon name, ‘Ead-gythe’] to the eternal joys, so that, accompanied by this melody of the heavenly hosts, she may enter into the courts of eternal joy.”
Thus in the twenty-third year of her life, on September 16, 984, St. Edith went to Christ. And St. Dunstan buried her in the church of St. Dionysius, which she had herself constructed, and of which she had once said: “This is the place of my rest,” weeping all the while. Thousands of paupers were fed, and everywhere funeral liturgies were celebrated at the request of her mother. Moreover, she built a guest-house in the yard of the monastery where twelve paupers were fed daily, a custom initiated by Edith herself.
On the thirtieth day after her repose, the saint appeared to her mother, radiant and joyful, and said that she had been accepted by her King into everlasting glory. “Satan accused me in the presence of my Lord,” she said, “but by the prayers of the holy apostles I crushed his head, and by the Cross of the Lord Jesus I overthrew him and trampled on him.”
On that same day there was born a little girl, whose parents had asked Edith before her death to receive her from the holy font. She said: “I shall receive her in the manner that is pleasing to God.” But since Edith was born into the heavenly world before this girl into the earthly, she was brought into the church without a sponsor, and was baptized by St. Alphege, St. Ethelwold’s successor in the see of Winchester. Then, in accordance with the custom of the Church, he gave her a candle, saying: “Receive this light, with which you will enter into the marriage of the Lord.” Suddenly, as if Edith were holding her little hand, she took the candle and held it. The man of God understood this to be a prophecy of her election by God, and immediately asked the parents: “Bring this girl up as one who is betrothed to God alone, and after she has been weaned bring her to the monastery.” This girl was called Brihtgiva, and later became abbess of St. Edith’s monastery at Wilton, reposing in holiness in 1065.
Then St. Edith began to show by signs and wonders that she was a citizen of the heavens and was accessible to the prayers of supplicants.
Now her tomb was covered with a shining white pall. One day, a woman who had been left alone there took a small part of this pall, wrapped it round her shin-bone and stole away. But then a Divine shackle fettered the fugitive and fixed her leg to the ground so that she could not cross the threshold with her loot. She struggled for a long time in this condition until the sacristan came and ordered her to leave. But the guilty woman remained rooted to the spot, deathly white, trembling and groaning. Then, however, she took the pall from her leg and handed it back, saying: “This bound me.” Immediately she was able to walk again and left. Many witnessed this miracle and praised God. And Edith’s mother was comforted in her distress.
Three years after her repose, St. Edith appeared to St. Dunstan and said: “The Lord in remembrance of His mercies has taken me up, and it has pleased His ineffable goodness that for the salvation of the faithful I should be honoured among men on earth in the same way that He has caused me to be honoured among the angels in heaven. So go to Wilton in obedience to the Divine command, and take up my body from the earth. Doubt not, and do not think that you are being deluded by some phantom; for this will be a sign of the truth of my words: except for those members of my body which I abused through childish frivolity, such as my eyes, hands and feet, you will find the rest of my body incorrupt. For I never knew lust or gluttony. And the thumb of my right hand, with which I used to make the sign of the Cross assiduously, you will also find incorrupt, so that the mercy of the Lord may appear in the part that has been preserved, and His Fatherly correction in the part that has been consumed.” Dunstan set off for Wilton, and when he was spending the night nearby at Sarum, he was taken in a vision to the tomb of the holy virgin, where lo! He clearly saw St. Dionysius standing at the altar together with the virgin Edith, resplendent in dazzling light. She then said to Dionysius: “You know, O father, what is pleasing to God in regard to me. Therefore, as the interpreter of the Divine counsel, and legate of the Divine will, tell this man who has come by what faith and authority I have invited him here.” St. Dionysius said: “Give heed, brother, to the vision you have just seen. What this beloved lady has just said is true. For she who deserved to be crowned among the citizens of heaven is worthy of the veneration of those on earth. Worthy of honour is this body, this temple of virginal chastity, in which the Lord and King of glory, the Lover of chastity, reigned. Such veneration which is pleasing to Christ is necessary for mortals.” Therefore the holy body was raised from the earth on November 3, 987, and everything was found as had been foretold.
Once a certain Glastonbury monk named Edulph was cutting away from the holy body a piece of cloth which had been carelessly wrinkled. At the same time he struck the holy body with his scissors. Immediately blood gushed out as if from a cut vein, and poured onto the clothes and pavement. The rash brother was terrified, and, abandoning the scissors as well as the holy body, he fell on his face confessing his crime and weeping tears of repentance. When he rose the blood had completely disappeared…
Again, a sister was trying to cut away a part of the ribbon which was on the holy head. But she was prevented from doing this in a wonderful way. For the head raised itself as if alive and gave her a threatening look.
Some clerics from Brittany came to Wilton bearing with them the relics of St. Iwi, the hierodeacon and disciple of St. Cuthbert, who had spent the last years of his life in Brittany. They placed them with honour on the monastery’s altar. But when they wanted to leave, the holy relics stuck to the altar and could not be moved by any means. The foreigners wept, cried, rent their clothes and tore their hair, but to no avail. At length, Abbess Wulfrid consoled them with a gift of 2000 solidi, and they went sadly home.
A certain man who had stolen a piece of land belonging to St. Edith was apparently taken by sudden death without repentance. A little later he sat up in his coffin and said: “Help me, my friends, help me, all of you God’s faithful. Behold the intolerable wrath of St. Edith prevents this unhappy soul of mine from entering any part of heaven or earth. Nowhere does she allow the invader of her property to abide, neither to remain in this body nor to die.” But when the land that he had stolen was restored, he immediately breathed out his spirit.
Once King Canute was at Wilton for the feast of Pentecost. As he was eating, he kept laughing, declaring that he did not believe that Edith was a saint in view of the lustful habits of her father. Archbishop Ethelnoth contradicted him, and immediately opened the tomb of the holy virgin. And she, sitting up in the coffin, was seen to attack the abusive king. Then he, petrified, fell to the earth as if dead. At length, recovering his breath, he blushed and asked forgiveness for his rudeness; and from that moment he held the saint in great honour.
Once the same king was in trouble at sea. When he called on the name of St. Edith, the storm was suddenly stilled and he arrived safely at his chosen port. A similar miracle happened to Archbishop Aldred of York when he was sailing on the Adriatic Sea. Having called upon her name, she appeared to him visibly and said: “I am Edith”. Immediately the sea became calm.
St. Edith is commemorated on September 16 and November 3.
Holy Mother Edith, pray to God for us!
(Sources: Goscelin, Life of St. Edith, Patrologia Latina, Paris, 1850, vol. 155, pp. 111-116; A. Wilmart, “La Légende de Ste. Edith en Prose et Vers pars le Moine Goscelin”, Analecta Bollandiana, 1938, LVI, pp. 5-101, 265-307; Donald Attwater, The Penguin Dictionary of Saints, London: Penguin, 1965, p. 109; David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978, p. 120)