The Herbalist Trained by Heaven (Saint Hildegard von Bingen)

herbal medicine Jun 30, 2024
The Herbalist Trained by Heaven (Saint Hildegard von Bingen)

The writings of Saint Hildegard von Bingen, 12th century Doctor of the Church, contain unparalleled knowledge and insight into human health, the universe, and the natural and spiritual worldsknowledge not learned through study and practice, but bestowed upon her mystically by God Himself. Judson Carroll explains in this excerpt from Christian Herbal Medicine: History and Practice (headings and emphasis added).

The Greatest Herbalist Who Ever Lived? 

Saint Hildegard, in my opinion, is very likely the greatest herbalist who ever lived.

She was born in 1098. She was a sickly child, who was given to the care of the Benedictines at the age of eight. Because of her illness, she received very little education. She was often blind and unable to walk well through her teens. She would continue to suffer from severe illnesses throughout her life.

From childhood, she received visions and divine messages. She saw and heard what she described as, "The voice of the Living Light." She wrote:

St Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)

From my early childhood, before my bones, nerves, and veins were fully strengthened, I have always seen this vision in my soul, even to the present time when I am more than seventy years old.

In this vision my soul, as God would have it, rises up high into the vault of heaven and into the changing sky and spreads itself out among different peoples, although they are far away from me in distant lands and places. And because I see them this way in my soul, I observe them in accord with the shifting of clouds and other created things.

I do not hear them with my outward ears, nor do I perceive them by the thoughts of my own heart or by any combination of my five senses, but in my soul alone, while my outward eyes are open. So, I have never fallen prey to ecstasy in the visions, but I see them wide awake, day and night. And I am constantly fettered by sickness, and often in the grip of pain so intense that it threatens to kill me, but God has sustained me until now.

The light which I see thus is not spatial, but it is far, far brighter than a cloud which carries the sun. I can measure neither height, nor length, nor breadth in it; and I call it "the reflection of the living Light." And as the sun, the moon, and the stars appear in water, so writings, sermons, virtues, and certain human actions take form for me and gleam.

Saint Hildegard was very hesitant to tell others of her visions, writing:

But I, though I saw and heard these things, refused to write for a long time through doubt and bad opinion and the diversity of human words, not with stubbornness but in the exercise of humility, until, laid low by the scourge of God, I fell upon a bed of sickness; then, compelled at last by many illnesses, and by the witness of a certain noble maiden of good conduct [the nun Richardis von Stade] and of that man whom I had secretly sought and found, as mentioned above, I set my hand to the writing.

While I was doing it, I sensed, as I mentioned before, the deep profundity of scriptural exposition; and, raising myself from illness by the strength I received, I brought this work to a close – though just barely – in ten years. […]

And I spoke and wrote these things not by the invention of my heart or that of any other person, but as by the secret mysteries of God I heard and received them in the heavenly places. And again, I heard a voice from Heaven saying to me, 'Cry out, therefore, and write thus!'

St Hildegard recording her visions, assisted by the monk Volmar and the nun Richardis

Saint Hildegard was approximately forty years of age when she began to write about her visions. Given modern skepticism of religion in general, and that my book is written for all people (not just for Christians), I decided to turn to the most secular source I could find for information on my favorite saint.

I certainly do not claim to be unbiased toward Saint Hildegard - she is one of my favorite saints and I ask her patronage for all my work. What could be a more modernist and secular encyclopedic reference than Wikipedia?

Hildegard's Visionary Works

Wikipedia states:

Hildegard's works include three great volumes of visionary theology; a variety of musical compositions for use in the liturgy, as well as the musical morality play Ordo Virtutum; one of the largest bodies of letters (nearly 400) to survive from the Middle Ages, addressed to correspondents ranging from popes to emperors to abbots and abbesses, and including records of many of the sermons she preached in the 1160s and 1170s; two volumes of material on natural medicine and cures; an invented language called the Lingua ignota ("unknown language"); and various minor works, including a gospel commentary and two works of hagiography.

Several manuscripts of her works were produced during her lifetime, including the illustrated Rupertsberg manuscript of her first major work, Scivias (lost since 1945); the Dendermonde Codex, which contains one version of her musical works; and the Ghent manuscript, which was the first fair-copy made for editing of her final theological work, the Liber Divinorum Operum. At the end of her life, and probably under her initial guidance, all of her works were edited and gathered into the single Riesenkodex manuscript.

Visionary Theology

Hildegard's most significant works were her three volumes of visionary theology: Scivias ("Know the Ways", composed 1142–1151), Liber Vitae Meritorum ("Book of Life's Merits" or "Book of the Rewards of Life", composed 1158–1163); and Liber Divinorum Operum ("Book of Divine Works", also known as De operatione Dei, "On God's Activity", composed 1163/4 to 1172 or 1174). In these volumes, the last of which was completed when she was well into her seventies, Hildegard first describes each vision, whose details are often strange and enigmatic, and then interprets their theological contents in the words of the "voice of the Living Light."

Scivias

St Hildegard recording her visions with the help of Volmar

With permission from Abbot Kuno of Disibodenberg, she began journaling visions she had (which is the basis for Scivias). Scivias is a contraction of Sci vias Domini (Know the Ways of the Lord), and it was Hildegard's first major visionary work, and one of the biggest milestones in her life. Perceiving a divine command to "write down what you see and hear," Hildegard began to record and interpret her visionary experiences. In total, 26 visionary experiences were captured in this compilation.

Scivias is structured into three parts of unequal length. The first part (six visions) chronicles the order of God's creation: the Creation and Fall of Adam and Eve, the structure of the universe (famously described as the shape of an "egg"), the relationship between body and soul, God's relationship to his people through the Synagogue, and the choirs of angels. The second part (seven visions) describes the order of redemption: the coming of Christ the Redeemer, the Trinity, the church as the Bride of Christ and the Mother of the Faithful in baptism and confirmation, the orders of the church, Christ's sacrifice on the cross and the Eucharist, and the fight against the devil. Finally, the third part (thirteen visions) recapitulates the history of salvation told in the first two parts, symbolized as a building adorned with various allegorical figures and virtues. It concludes with the Symphony of Heaven, an early version of Hildegard's musical compositions.

In early 1148, a commission was sent by the Pope to Disibodenberg to find out more about Hildegard and her writings. The commission found that the visions were authentic and returned to the Pope, with a portion of the Scivias. Portions of the uncompleted work were read aloud to Pope Eugenius III at the Synod of Trier in 1148, after which he sent Hildegard a letter with his blessing. This blessing was later construed as papal approval for all of Hildegard's wide-ranging theological activities. Towards the end of her life, Hildegard commissioned a richly decorated manuscript of Scivias (the Rupertsberg Codex); although the original has been lost since its evacuation to Dresden for safekeeping in 1945, its images are preserved in a hand-painted facsimile from the 1920s.

Liber Vitae Meritorum

In her second volume of visionary theology, composed between 1158 and 1163, after she had moved her community of nuns into independence at the Rupertsberg in Bingen, Hildegard tackled the moral life in the form of dramatic confrontations between the virtues and the vices. She had already explored this area in her musical morality play, Ordo Virtutum, and the "Book of the Rewards of Life" takes up that play's characteristic themes. Each vice, although ultimately depicted as ugly and grotesque, nevertheless offers alluring, seductive speeches that attempt to entice the unwary soul into their clutches. Standing in our defence, however, are the sober voices of the Virtues, powerfully confronting every vicious deception.

Amongst the work's innovations is one of the earliest descriptions of purgatory as the place where each soul would have to work off its debts after death before entering heaven. Hildegard's descriptions of the possible punishments there are often gruesome and grotesque, which emphasize the work's moral and pastoral purpose as a practical guide to the life of true penance and proper virtue.

Liber Divinorum Operum

Theophany of Divine Love (Liber Divinorum Operum, Part I, Vision 1)

Hildegard's last and grandest visionary work had its genesis in one of the few times she experienced something like an ecstatic loss of consciousness. As she described it in an autobiographical passage included in her Vita, sometime in about 1163, she received "an extraordinary mystical vision" in which was revealed the "sprinkling drops of sweet rain" that John the Evangelist experienced when he wrote, "In the beginning was the Word" (John 1:1). Hildegard perceived that this Word was the key to the "Work of God", of which humankind is the pinnacle. The Book of Divine Works, therefore, became in many ways an extended explication of the Prologue to John's Gospel.

The ten visions of this work's three parts are cosmic in scale, to illustrate various ways of understanding the relationship between God and his creation. Often, that relationship is established by grand allegorical female figures representing Divine Love (Caritas) or Wisdom (Sapientia). The first vision opens the work with a salvo of poetic and visionary images, swirling about to characterize God's dynamic activity within the scope of his work within the history of salvation. The remaining three visions of the first part introduce the famous image of a human being standing astride the spheres that make up the universe and detail the intricate relationships between the human as microcosm and the universe as macrocosm. This culminates in the final chapter of Part One, Vision Four with Hildegard's commentary on the Prologue to John's Gospel (John 1:1–14), a direct rumination on the meaning of "In the beginning was the Word" The single vision that constitutes the whole of Part Two stretches that rumination back to the opening of Genesis, and forms an extended commentary on the seven days of the creation of the world told in Genesis 1–2:3. This commentary interprets each day of creation in three ways: literal or cosmological; allegorical or ecclesiological (i.e. related to the church's history); and moral or tropological (i.e. related to the soul's growth in virtue). Finally, the five visions of the third part take up again the building imagery of Scivias to describe the course of salvation history. The final vision (3.5) contains Hildegard's longest and most detailed prophetic program of the life of the church from her own days of "womanish weakness" through to the coming and ultimate downfall of the Antichrist.

Music

Attention in recent decades to women of the medieval Catholic Church has led to a great deal of popular interest in Hildegard's music. In addition to the Ordo Virtutum, sixty-nine musical compositions, each with its own original poetic text, survive, and at least four other texts are known, though their musical notation has been lost. This is one of the largest repertoires among medieval composers.

One of her better-known works, Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues), is a morality play. It is uncertain when some of Hildegard's compositions were composed, though the Ordo Virtutum is thought to have been composed as early as 1151. It is an independent Latin morality play with music (82 songs); it does not supplement or pay homage to the Mass or the Office of a certain feast. It is, in fact, the earliest known surviving musical drama that is not attached to a liturgy.

The Ordo virtutum would have been performed within Hildegard's monastery by and for her select community of noblewomen and nuns. It was probably performed as a manifestation of the theology Hildegard delineated in the Scivias. The play serves as an allegory of the Christian story of sin, confession, repentance, and forgiveness. Notably, it is the female Virtues who restore the fallen to the community of the faithful, not the male Patriarchs or Prophets. This would have been a significant message to the nuns in Hildegard's convent. [M.F.: this statement is an example of liberal bias, attempting to portray St. Hildegard as a feminist icon, despite the conflict between feminist ideologies and Catholic doctrine, and the lack of such ideologies in her play or other works.] Scholars assert that the role of the Devil would have been played by Volmar, while Hildegard's nuns would have played the parts of Anima (the human souls) and the Virtues. The devil's part is entirely spoken or shouted, with no musical setting. All other characters sing in monophonic plainchant. This includes Patriarchs, Prophets, A Happy Soul, A Unhappy Soul, and A Penitent Soul along with 16 female Virtues (including Mercy, Innocence, Chasity, Obedience, Hope, and Faith).

In addition to the Ordo Virtutum, Hildegard composed many liturgical songs that were collected into a cycle called the Symphonia armoniae celestium revelationum. The songs from the Symphonia are set to Hildegard's own text and range from antiphons, hymns, and sequences, to responsories. Her music is monophonic, that is, consisting of exactly one melodic line. Its style has been said to be characterized by soaring melodies that can push the boundaries of traditional Gregorian chant and to stand outside the normal practices of monophonic monastic chant. Researchers are also exploring ways in which it may be viewed in comparison with her contemporaries, such as Hermannus Contractus. Another feature of Hildegard's music that both reflects the twelfth-century evolution of chant, and pushes that evolution further, is that it is highly melismatic, often with recurrent melodic units. Scholars such as Margot Fassler, Marianne Richert Pfau, and Beverly Lomer also note the intimate relationship between music and text in Hildegard's compositions, whose rhetorical features are often more distinct than is common in twelfth-century chant. As with all medieval chant notation, Hildegard's music lacks any indication of tempo or rhythm; the surviving manuscripts employ late German style notation, which uses very ornamental neumes. The reverence for the Virgin Mary reflected in music shows how deeply influenced and inspired Hildegard of Bingen and her community were by the Virgin Mary and the saints.

Scientific and Medicinal Writings

St Hildegard in Monastery Garden

Hildegard's medicinal and scientific writings, although thematically complementary to her ideas about nature expressed in her visionary works, are different in focus and scope. Neither claim to be rooted in her visionary experience and its divine authority. Rather, they spring from her experience helping in and then leading the monastery's herbal garden and infirmary, as well as the theoretical information she likely gained through her wide-ranging reading in the monastery's library. [J.C.: I take extreme exception with these statements; see comments below this Wikipedia excerpt.] As she gained practical skills in diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment, she combined physical treatment of physical diseases with holistic methods centered on "spiritual healing". She became well known for her healing powers involving the practical application of tinctures, herbs, and precious stones. She combined these elements with a theological notion ultimately derived from Genesis: all things put on earth are for the use of humans. In addition to her hands-on experience, she also gained medical knowledge, including elements of her humoral theory, from traditional Latin texts.

Hildegard catalogued both her theory and practice in two works. The first, Physica, contains nine books that describe the scientific and medicinal properties of various plants, stones, fish, reptiles, and animals. This document is also thought to contain the first recorded reference of the use of hops in beer as a preservative. The second, Causae et Curae, is an exploration of the human body, its connections to the rest of the natural world, and the causes and cures of various diseases. Hildegard documented various medical practices in these books, including the use of bleeding and home remedies for many common ailments. She also explains remedies for common agricultural injuries such as burns, fractures, dislocations, and cuts. Hildegard may have used the books to teach assistants at the monastery. These books are historically significant because they show areas of medieval medicine that were not well documented because their practitioners, mainly women, rarely wrote in Latin. Her writings were commentated on by Mélanie Lipinska, a Polish scientist.

In addition to its wealth of practical evidence, Causae et Curae is also noteworthy for its organizational scheme. Its first part sets the work within the context of the creation of the cosmos and then humanity as its summit, and the constant interplay of the human person as microcosm both physically and spiritually with the macrocosm of the universe informs all of Hildegard's approach. Her hallmark is to emphasize the vital connection between the "green" health of the natural world and the holistic health of the human person. Viriditas, or greening power, was thought to sustain human beings and could be manipulated by adjusting the balance of elements within a person. Thus, when she approached medicine as a type of gardening, it was not just as an analogy. Rather, Hildegard understood the plants and elements of the garden as direct counterparts to the humors and elements within the human body, whose imbalance led to illness and disease.

Thus, the nearly three hundred chapters of the second book of Causae et Curae "explore the etiology, or causes, of disease as well as human sexuality, psychology, and physiology." In this section, she gives specific instructions for bleeding based on various factors, including gender, the phase of the moon (bleeding is best done when the moon is waning), the place of disease (use veins near diseased organ or body part) or prevention (big veins in arms), and how much blood to take (described in imprecise measurements, like "the amount that a thirsty person can swallow in one gulp"). She even includes bleeding instructions for animals to keep them healthy. In the third and fourth sections, Hildegard describes treatments for malignant and minor problems and diseases according to the humoral theory, again including information on animal health. The fifth section is about diagnosis and prognosis, which includes instructions to check the patient's blood, pulse, urine, and stool. Finally, the sixth section documents a lunar horoscope to provide an additional means of prognosis for both disease and other medical conditions, such as conception and the outcome of pregnancy. For example, she indicates that a waxing moon is good for human conception and is also good for sowing seeds for plants (sowing seeds is the plant equivalent of conception). Elsewhere, Hildegard is even said to have stressed the value of boiling drinking water in an attempt to prevent infection.

Cosmos, Body, and Soul (Liber Divinorum Operum, Part I, Vision 4)

As Hildegard elaborates the medical and scientific relationship between the human microcosm and the macrocosm of the universe, she often focuses on interrelated patterns of four: "the four elements (fire, air, water, and earth), the four seasons, the four humors, the four zones of the earth, and the four major winds." Although she inherited the basic framework of humoral theory from ancient medicine, Hildegard's conception of the hierarchical inter-balance of the four humors (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile) was unique, based on their correspondence to "superior" and "inferior" elements – blood and phlegm corresponding to the "celestial" elements of fire and air, and the two biles corresponding to the "terrestrial" elements of water and earth. Hildegard understood the disease-causing imbalance of these humors to result from the improper dominance of the subordinate humors. This disharmony reflects that introduced by Adam and Eve in the Fall, which for Hildegard marked the indelible entrance of disease and humoral imbalance into humankind. As she writes in Causae et Curae c. 42:

"It happens that certain men suffer diverse illnesses. This comes from the phlegm which is superabundant within them. For if man had remained in paradise, he would not have had the flegmata within his body, from which many evils proceed, but his flesh would have been whole and without dark humor [livor]. However, because he consented to evil and relinquished good, he was made into a likeness of the earth, which produces good and useful herbs, as well as bad and useless ones, and which has in itself both good and evil moistures. From tasting evil, the blood of the sons of Adam was turned into the poison of semen, out of which the sons of man are begotten. And therefore their flesh is ulcerated and permeable [to disease]. These sores and openings create a certain storm and smoky moisture in men, from which the flegmata arise and coagulate, which then introduce diverse infirmities to the human body. All this arose from the first evil, which man began at the start, because if Adam had remained in paradise, he would have had the sweetest health, and the best dwelling-place, just as the strongest balsam emits the best odor; but on the contrary, man now has within himself poison and phlegm and diverse illnesses."

Lingua ignota and Litterae ignotae

St Hildegard's 23 litterae ignotae

Hildegard also invented an alternative alphabet. Litterae ignotae (Alternate Alphabet) was another work and was more or less a secret code, or even an intellectual code – much like a modern crossword puzzle today.

Hildegard's Lingua ignota (Unknown Language) consisted of a series of invented words that corresponded to an eclectic list of nouns. The list is approximately 1000 nouns; there are no other parts of speech. The two most important sources for the Lingua ignota are the Wiesbaden, Hessische Landesbibliothek 2 (nicknamed the Riesenkodex) and the Berlin MS. In both manuscripts, medieval German and Latin glosses are written above Hildegard's invented words. The Berlin MS contains additional Latin and German glosses not found in the Riesenkodex. The first two words of the Lingua as copied in the Berlin MS are: Aigonz (German, goth; Latin, deus; [English God) and Aleganz (German engel; Latin angelus; [English angel]).

Barbara Newman believes that Hildegard used her Lingua Ignota to increase solidarity among her nuns. Sarah Higley disagrees and notes that there is no evidence of Hildegard teaching the language to her nuns. She suggests that the language was not intended to remain a secret; rather, the presence of words for mundane things may indicate that the language was for the whole abbey and perhaps the larger monastic world. Higley believes that "the Lingua is a linguistic distillation of the philosophy expressed in her three prophetic books: it represents the cosmos of divine and human creation and the sins that flesh is heir to."

The text of her writing and compositions reveals Hildegard's use of this form of modified medieval Latin, encompassing many invented, conflated, and abridged words. Because of her inventions of words for her lyrics and use of a constructed script, many conlangers look upon her as a medieval precursor.

During Her Lifetime

Maddocks claims that it is likely Hildegard learned simple Latin and the tenets of the Christian faith, but was not instructed in the Seven Liberal Arts, which formed the basis of all education for the learned classes in the Middle Ages: the Trivium of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric plus the Quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The correspondence she kept with the outside world, both spiritual and social, transcended the cloister as a space of spiritual confinement and served to document Hildegard's grand style and strict formatting of medieval letter writing.

St Bernard of Clairvaux was instrumental in the advancement of St Hildegard's work (art by Antonio Palomino, 1655-1726)

Contributing to Christian European rhetorical traditions, Hildegard "authorized herself as a theologian" through alternative rhetorical arts. Hildegard was creative in her interpretation of theology. She believed that her monastery should exclude novices who were not from the nobility because she did not want her community to be divided on the basis of social status. She also stated that "woman may be made from man, but no man can be made without a woman."

Because of church limitation on public, discursive rhetoric, the medieval rhetorical arts included preaching, letter writing, poetry, and the encyclopedic tradition. Hildegard's participation in these arts speaks to her significance as a female rhetorician, transcending bans on women's social participation and interpretation of scripture. The acceptance of public preaching by a woman, even a well-connected abbess and acknowledged prophet, does not fit the stereotype of this time. Her preaching was not limited to the monasteries; she preached publicly in 1160 in Germany. (New York: Routledge, 2001, 9). She conducted four preaching tours throughout Germany, speaking to both clergy and laity in chapter houses and in public, mainly denouncing clerical corruption and calling for reform.

Many abbots and abbesses asked her for prayers and opinions on various matters. She traveled widely during her four preaching tours. She had several devoted followers, including Guibert of Gembloux, who wrote to her frequently and became her secretary after Volmar's death in 1173. Hildegard also influenced several monastic women, exchanging letters with Elisabeth of Schönau, a nearby visionary.

Hildegard corresponded with popes such as Eugene III and Anastasius IV, statesmen such as Abbot Suger, German emperors such as Frederick I Barbarossa, and other notable figures such as Bernard of Clairvaux, who advanced her work, at the behest of her abbot, Kuno, at the Synod of Trier in 1147 and 1148. Hildegard of Bingen's correspondence is an important component of her literary output.

Veneration

Hildegard was one of the first persons for whom the Roman canonization process was officially applied, but the process took so long that four attempts at canonization were not completed and she remained at the level of her beatification. Her name was nonetheless taken up in the Roman Martyrology at the end of the 16th century. Her feast is 17 September. Numerous popes have referred to Hildegard as a saint, including Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Hildegard's parish and pilgrimage church in Eibingen near Rüdesheim houses her relics.

On 10 May 2012, Pope Benedict XVI extended the veneration of Saint Hildegard to the entire Catholic Church in a process known as "equivalent canonization," thus laying the groundwork for naming her a Doctor of the Church. On 7 October 2012, the feast of the Holy Rosary, the pope named her a Doctor of the Church. He called Hildegard "perennially relevant" and "an authentic teacher of theology and a profound scholar of natural science and music."

Hildegard of Bingen also appears in the calendar of saints of various Anglican churches, such as that of the Church of England, in which she is commemorated on 17 September.

[End of Wikipedia excerpt]

Saint Hildegard's Medical Works: from God, Not Man

I have to take extreme exception with the statement above that Saint Hildegard's medical works were based on the monastic medicine of the time and not from Divine revelation. Frankly, I have read the medical works to which the monks and nuns of the era would have had access. Saint Hildegard's medical advice does not come from those sources. Although the concept of humours is similar, as is much of her language for describing disease, her vision and philosophy of health and healing, as well as the specific indications for the herbs and other substances she recommended for healing are decidedly different.

Saint Hildegard's medicine is a great, comprehensive system that has similarities to all the major healing traditions of the world, including those absolutely unknown to medieval Europe (similarities to traditional Chinese, Ayurvedic and the shamanic traditions of various native indigenous tribes of the far east, North and South America, etc). If we accept that God made man to steward nature and nature for man's good, and that all peoples at all times, everywhere have within them the divine spark, Saint Hildegard's work makes synergistic coherence of all traditional healing traditions... perhaps as language was before the Tower of Babel.

We read in the Bible that king Solomon was given all knowledge of nature. I believe that Saint Hildegard was blessed with the wisdom of Solomon. That is merely my opinion, but she certainly had more knowledge and insight into man, the universe, the natural and spiritual world, in relation to health, than anyone whose knowledge has ever been recorded. In no way do I believe that a barely educated, or even the best educated, person of either sex could come to this knowledge through the books and wisdom of the day. Frankly, few people... if anyone, can grasp and understand the full meaning of her writings on medicine today, much less her theological works. Daily, I ask for the prayers of Saint Hildegard (and many other Saints) for help in understanding the vast depth and breadth of Herbal Medicine.

The Original Perfection of the Created Universe & Sin as the Origin of All Disease

The Cosmic Spheres and Human Being (Liber Divinorum Operum, Part 1, Vision 2)

To understand Saint Hildegard's medicine, one first has to start with her concept of man as a microcosm. To view her medicinal writings separately from her theological and mystical writings is, frankly, absurd. If I were to say that aspirin lowers fevers and reduces pain, without providing any evidence, reason or studies supporting the efficacy of aspirin... and no one had ever used or heard of aspirin before, no one would understand why I recommended aspirin. To try to understand Saint Hildegard's medicinal writings out of context is not possible and given her prolific writing, is willful ignorance.

If I may be so bold as to try to explain Saint Hildegard's philosophy of medicine, I can only do so through my own limitations. Saint Hildegard spoke directly with angels and perhaps, even God Himself. That said, my understanding of her view of disease is that it is a consequence of the fall of man. That is the Biblical and traditional Christian understanding of disease and death, and in accord with her writings.

In modern terms, we can compare this philosophy with the laws of physics. Physics tells us that at the most basic, subatomic level, everything is energy. All matter, living or inanimate, is composed of energy differentiated by the frequency at which energy vibrates. That energy can neither be created nor destroyed by anything in the known universe - nothing created can truly create. Energy merely changes form. Life on earth is dependent on energy from the sun, the energy of the sun comes from the burning gasses which compose it, those gasses were created from other sources, which were created by other sources... etc, all we know being "reflected" from another source. At the very end of that chain of creation is something outside of time and space, that can neither be created nor destroyed. The source from which all things originate cannot, itself be created. While science points to the Creator, science is limited by the human mind and cannot in itself identify the source... as the Buddhists say, "a wise word is merely a finger pointing to the moon." The mind of man can conceive of the existence of God through the study of the creation of God, much as a detective follows clues. Only God can reveal Himself, and a mystic such as Saint Hildegard has a revealed understanding of God and His creation that surpasses human understanding.

Creation is order. Every atom exists only because it is perfectly ordered. We can see the patterns of order in everything from the cells of the smallest plant or animal to the fractal patterns of the stars and galaxies throughout the universe.

Disease is disorder - it is the unraveling of the patterns. Death is degeneration, when the pattern has degraded and the order stops. We can see this in the destruction of tissue due to infection, the abnormal growth patterns of cancer or simply the cessation of the rhythms of the heart and breath that signal the end of life.

The Bible tells us that death entered the world through sin. Sin is defined as disordered passions - an action based on the desire to do what is wrong. Very simply put, the difference between right and wrong is that right is in accord with the order created by God and wrong is in discord. Man is the only element of creation that has free will and a conscience. It is hard for the human mind to grasp that one element of disharmony introduced into the timeline of creation, "the fall", the first conscience choice of our ancestors to willfully sin, introduced disorder into an ordered creation. This disrupted the symmetry of the pattern and continues to ripple like a stone dropped into a still pond, throughout all of human history. Through the actions of one man and one woman, sin and death entered the world, like one damaged gear in a perfectly made clock.

To continue with the clock analogy, while God could replace or fix that damaged gear, to do so would be to violate the free will He gave to man. The grace of Jesus is the active action of God in human affairs in the only way that allows for free will. God will heal the body and soul of man, adjusting that gear so to speak, so that we may have eternal life... but only with the conscious act of acceptance.... in this flawed analogy, the clock has to agree. The hand of the creator will reach in and repair what is broken for the individual, but only if the individual accepts the help and only if that is what is best. Another hard teaching of Christianity is that suffering is redemptive. Through suffering we atone for sin. While the sufferings of Christ were for all, only through uniting our suffering to His do we participate in His sacrifice - saint Paul urged, "continue to work out your salvation" either "in pain and suffering" or "fear and trembling" depending on the translation you prefer.

The Church teaches that only at the end, when all people who are willing have found salvation through Christ and all evil has been absolutely defeated will disease and death end, not just for man, but for all creation. The entire universe and everything in it will once again live in eternity - through the fall of man, death entered the world and through the salvation of man, all will be restored.

Why did St. Hildegard Recommend Gems, Colors & Music for Healing?

For this reason, all of Saint Hildegard's medicine has a deeply spiritual context. As man is a microcosm of everything in the physical and spiritual universe and well beyond the physical universe, the spiritual realm, all things have the ability to affect the body and soul of man.

For this reason, while she uses herbs as did the ancient Greeks, she also recommends metals, stones, gems and crystals, eating various meats and fish, wearing the fur of specific animals and even viewing certain colors. This makes Saint Hildegard's medicine incomprehensible to modern medicine and can cause it to be viewed with suspicion by those who observe certain of her cures to be similar to those used by non-Christian healers.

However, it is essential to remember that Saint Hildegard is a Doctor of the Church, that her canonization as a saint is evidence that she died in a state of grace and that her writings are approved by the very Church that compiled, wrote and published the Bible - it is of this Church that our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ promised, "the gates of hell will not prevail against." Only with sincere faith in God and earnest prayer will the remedies prescribed by Saint Hildegard bring healing unless, as she wrote, "God does not will it for the person."

In Genesis, we are told that God looked at all He created and said, "it is good." No object or plant is bad. A New Age hippie may trust in crystals, and a witch may use the same herbs as a Christian herbalist. It is the belief and intent of the individual that makes the use of anything created by God either moral or immoral. One man may use a gun in self-defense, another to commit murder - it is the intention of the man that makes the use of the object good or bad.

A good illustration of this energetic view of healing is Saint Hildegard's concept of "Veriditas". This is a Latin derived term meaning both green and vibrantly full of life. She described it as "the greening power of God."

Many people who study both modern medicine and herbal medicine cannot understand why she would recommend simply gazing at a verdant, spring pasture to help eyesight. However, all color is reflected energy. We see a color in the color spectrum because that is what the object, plant or the feather of a bird, etc. reflects. This color enters our eyes as a specific frequency of light energy. We know that people's moods can be affected by color - brain activity is affected by color, some colors being calming and some invigorating. Saint Hildegard believed that the many shades of green to be found in nature were healing not only to the eyes, but supportive of health in general.

She believed that man could not live a healthy and sane life separated from nature and the incredible beauty of creation. She believed that disorder, ugliness, degeneration and sin negatively affected every aspect of the human being, much as we read in Philippians, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." Other translations state, "look upon these things."

It is a great sacrifice, and act of penance to care for the sick and to bury the dead, so the Christian must not avoid such duties... a blind eye cannot be turned to all ugliness. But, beauty in music, nature, writing and art is indeed healing to the body and soul. Recently, it has been found that laughter and music support the immune system.

Healing with herbs and other medicine then, is an act of cooperation with God's will for order, health, happiness and beauty when in accord with His will. Saint Hildegard often cautioned that illnesses can only be healed if that is God's will - sometimes suffering is necessary for salvation. As Saint Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, "Not only that, but we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope." In the philosophy of Saint Hildegard's medicine, to heal the body and not the soul, would not be healing at all.

As this book is focused on Herbal Medicine, I will focus on the herbs of Saint Hildegard. Most of her remedies were either dietary recommendations or formulas made of a combination of herbs. She recommended a simple diet and moderation, with regular fasting, but it was by no means overly restrictive. She recommended meat eating, beer drinking and even cookies! The plants she recommended for health and healing included many vegetables, spices and herbs. I will include a brief description of use.

… and those plants will be discussed in part 2 of this article - stay tuned!

Judson Carroll is a Certified Master Herbalist from the blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, who began his herbal apprenticeship at age 15. He is the author of 7 books on Herbal Medicine and Gardening and he hosts the Southern Appalachian Herbs Podcast. His weekly articles on herbal medicine are available through his Substack. Judson is a convert to Catholicism, who is orthodox in doctrine and very traditional… but still struggling to learn Latin, and the only guy in his parish with a southern accent! He may be contacted at southernappalachianherbs at gmail.com.

I'm Mary Fernandez, a Catholic mom of five with a passion for history and ancient remedies. Here at Humble Housewives, I dive into the world of holy saints and healing plants. Want to stay in the loop about new blog posts?

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