St. Lioba – An Extraordinary Woman in the History of German Christianity
Saint Lioba (aka Leoba) was born in Wessex, England in approximately 710. Her given name was Thrutgeba and her surname was Lioba, a name meaning Beloved. According to her biographer, Rudolf of Fulda, her birth to aged and formerly barren parents was foretold to her mother in a dream. Her mother promised that her child would be dedicated to the service of God and so Lioba entered the abbey at Wimborne as a child. In a delightful biography, Rudolf provides details about the abbess Tetta who was responsible for the monastery and the women who lived within its walls, as well as of the sources for his narrative of Lioba’s life. He then goes on to tell of Lioba: her life and accomplishments.
Lioba took full advantage of the opportunity to study and learn within the monastery. Girls were not generally given the opportunity to study in the 8th Century. Nevertheless, within the monastery, Lioba learned to read and study Scripture, as well as learning through observation and practice how to get along with others and manage a large enterprise/household such as an abbey.
A relative of St. Boniface, Apostle to the Germans, as a young woman, Lioba wrote to him, expressing interest in his missionary work in Germany: “To the most reverend Boniface, bearer of the highest dignity and well-beloved in Christ, Lioba, to whom he is related by blood, the least of Christ’s handmaids, sends greetings for eternal salvation.”
Lioba and Boniface corresponded with each other for twenty years before he invited her to come to Germany and establish monasteries for women there. She became abbess of the monastery at Bischofsheim, leading a large number of women in the spiritual life as well as the practical details of earning a living as a community. She never stopped studying and deepening her knowledge of Scripture and the faith. According to Rudolf, “She read with attention all the books of the Old and New Testaments and learned by heart all the commandments of God. To these she added by way of completion the writings of the church Fathers, the decrees of the Councils and the whole of ecclesiastical law.” In addition to her education, she was known for her wisdom and kindness, moderation and compassion, hospitality and humility; she welcomed and gave advice to visitors including bishops who came to seek her counsel. In turn, she was the only woman allowed to enter the monasteries for men to participate in consultations with church leaders on issues related to the rule of monasteries.
Under the advice and guidance of Lioba, nuns from her abbey became leaders of other monasteries as well, continuing the work of evangelization begun by Boniface. Lioba was a friend of Charlemagne’s wife, Hildegard, and a welcome visitor in the court of Pippin III. She was known for her learning and for the depth of her faith. Miracles were attributed to her during her lifetime and following her death. In fact, her remains were moved at least twice to protect them when miracles were reported at the grave sites. Eventually, they were buried in a church in Fulda.
Lioba lived approximately 72 years. She died September 28, 782, so her feast is celebrated to this day on September 28. While not one of the more broadly known saints in today’s church, she is certainly a woman worthy of note and imitation. She was not afraid to read, study, and learn of “holy” topics, nor to share her insights with powerful men (not all of whom would have appreciated her position of leadership and equality in terms of education and influence). Yet she did not neglect the practical necessities of life in community or of the administration of large enterprises. She was well-loved by the women whom she led and respected by both ordinary folks and the powerful leaders of her time. Not a bad role model for us today.
Image by Kandschwar – GNU Free Documentation License