Monday, September 24, 2012


St. H. in monastery garden

When in the Novitiate I used to say that the only things St.Hildegard and I had in common were headaches (not migraines but Connecticut sinus) and herbs. I had a huge herb garden with over 100 herbs, for kitchen and infirmary and loved concocting new remedies. My mentor was our Mother Jerome, who was born in Bavaria and raised in Italy.

St. Hildegard is considered the first German woman physician and is called the mother of German botany.

Her book Physica is an encyclopedic work describing the characteristics of elements, mammals, reptiles, fish, birds, trees, plants, metals, and precious stones and jewels. The longest and most comprehensive section contains information concerning the medicinal uses and harvesting of more than 200 herbs and other plants. Unlike many other medieval herbals, this one contains little description of the plants for identification purposes.
With its emphasis on balancing the humors, Physica has strong affinity with the Oriental medical approaches gaining great respect today. The modern reader interested in natural healing will recognize the enormous truth in the theories of this 12th century physician, many of which prove effective today, serving as a reminder that our cures for illness depend on our natural world and our place in it. As St. Hildegard writes, “With earth was the human being created. All the elements served mankind, and sensing that he was alive, they busied themselves in aiding his life in every way”.

Causae et Curae catalogs forty-seven diseases according to causes, symptoms, and treatments. St. Hildegard lists more than 300 plants here, emphasizing medical and physiological theory as well as herbal treatments.

While St. Hildegard’s sources are not known, it is likely that she used medieval herbals and older texts by Pliny and St. Isidore of Seville, augmenting published information about illnesses and treatments with local folk and medical lore, observation, and experimentation. Her monastery at Rupertsberg had a large herb garden, from which medicines were prepared to treat members of her order as well as people from the surrounding countryside. St. Hildegard knew these plants by both their Latin botanical names and their common German names. St. Hildegard gave physical events, moral truths, and spiritual experiences equal weight. Healing was both medical and miraculous, and God’s will was an important element in her remedies. 

One principle in the saints works is viriditas, usually translated as “greenness” or “greening power” and interpreted as meaning growth or life. St. Hildegard wrote that God transmits life into plants, animals, and gems. People eat plants and animals and acquire gems, thus obtaining viriditas. They, in turn, give that life out by practicing virtue, becoming an important link in the chain of being.

St. Hildegard’s use of herbs, diet, and natural remedies to achieve health resembles today’s holistic approaches, and she prescribed small doses, foreshadowing those of homeopathic medicine. In her medical works as well as in some of her other writings, she deals with diabetes, gynecological and obstetrical concerns, and psychological causes of illness.

Although her theoretical knowledge of medicine seems crude today, large numbers of sick and suffering persons were brought to her for cures.  While most people today view St. Hildegard’s medicine as folkloric, a few take her theories seriously. Dr. Gottfried Hertzka of Germany has practiced “Hildegard medicine” for forty years, using Causae et Curae as his guide. 

In the 1980s, he was joined by Dr. Wighard Strehlow, a research chemist, at the St. Hildegard Center on Richenau Island in Lake Constance. In 1993, he moved his practice to the Hildegard House in Allensbach, a small town in southern Germany. Diet, diagnosis, and herbal remedies based on St.Hildegard’s writings are available there.

In the final analysis, this medieval saint practiced in her life the wisdom of her founder, St. Benedict: the bottom line being BALANCE  in all things.

Sts. Benedict & Hildegard

1 comment:

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