By Shanon Sterringer ~ WRHS Member
It is hard to believe it has been almost a year since I had the privilege of presenting Hildegard the Medieval Herbalist at one of the monthly WRHS meetings. Many of you are familiar with this amazing woman who practiced healing, not only through the use of foods and herbs, but precious gemstones. Her work Physica serves as an encyclopedia for the use of many natural elements for holistic health and well-being. She sees their healing properties existing through her theological understanding of viriditas (greening power) which she believed was the life-source that came from our Creator Source. Viriditas animates and sustains all that is alive.
St. Hildegard of Bingen describes amethyst in her work, Physica in the following way: “Amethyst develops when the sun shows its circle, as though it was crowned, which it does when it prefigures some change in the vestment of the Lord, in the Church. Amethyst grows as a gum, and so there are many of them. It is hot and fiery and a bit airy, since the air is a bit cool when the sun shows its circle.” She goes on to describe how to use it medicinally. For Hildegard, God’s providence permeates every particle of the created world and therefore everything in nature has an ordered purposed. Human beings are a part of the divine order and therefore will find benefit in mind, body and spirit from the natural world.
One herb that is of particular interest to Hildegard, and Hildegard followers today, is fennel. In her work she recorded almost two full pages on fennel including the following: “In whatever way it is eaten, it makes a person happy and brings a gentle heat and good perspiration, and make for good digestion… Eating fennel or its seeds every day diminishes bad phlegm and decaying matter, keeps bad breath in check and makes one’s eyes see clearly, by its good heat and beneficial powers.” Fennel tea and seeds are often consumed today following meals to aid in the digestive process.
This is a photo from the back of the Hildegard Haus in Fairport Harbor (where I live and pastor a community of faith). Growing alongside of the church building is a beautiful crop of fennel. Last year I worked in the dye garden and in the fall, I was invited to take a handful of fennel seeds from one of the plants. This small handful of seeds produced an abundant crop here in Fairport Harbor. It is so beautiful, in part because it captures Hildegard’s charism and the spirit of the Western Reserve Herb Society. While I have truly missed being at the WRHS garden this year, I feel gratitude each day as I walk out into the courtyard at the Hildegard Haus to visit the fennel plants.
Another popular Hildegard themed treat is her recipe for “Cookies of Joy” or sometimes referred to as “Nerve Cookies” because they are meant to calm one’s nerves by bringing joy. These cookies are often made from spelt flour (one of Hildegard’s preferred grains) and include her “Spices of Joy” mixture – cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. In Physica, she wrote: “Take some nutmeg and an equal weight of cinnamon and a bit of cloves and pulverize them. Then make small cakes with this and fine whole wheat flour (or spelt) and water. Eat them often. It will calm all bitterness of the heart and mind, open your heart and impaired senses, and make your mind cheerful.” There are many recipes circulating for these cookies and when I have hosted retreats or events, many different versions often appear on the buffet table. Some very unique, and all delicious! A recipe is included at the end of this blog post, but I encourage you to play with it and make it your own!
Hildegard of Bingen died on September 17, 1179 and so her feast day is celebrated each year in her memory and honor. We not only celebrate to remember who she was and what she did in 12th century Germany, but to be inspired to bring some of the charism of this remarkable woman, a German Benedictine Nun and Mystic, into our world today. She has much to teach us about the created world, including the rich treasures of plants, trees, herbs, precious stones and foods. Her wisdom reaches far beyond this blog post, but for now we can start by kicking back with a cup of fennel tea and a cookie of joy - actually in her book, Hildegard says to eat five or six of them each day!
Above is a photo of me from our Hildegard “feast” we celebrated as the culmination of a 12-day international virtual pilgrimage with participants from all over the world. We started in Fairport Harbor each day and then traveled to Germany and experienced the viriditas (greening power) of Hildegard’s homeland through her art, music, preaching and of course, her use of herbs, plants and precious stones. As you can see on the table in front of me, I celebrated with spelt, chestnuts, fennel tea and cookies of joy! May this season of harvest be overflowing with viridity!
In her book, From Saint Hildegard’s Kitchen: Foods of Health, Foods of Joy, Jany Fournier-Rosset includes the following recipe:
Cookies That Bring Joy
12 Tbsps+1tsp butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup honey
4 egg yolks
2 ½ cups spelt flour
1 tsp salt
2 rounded tbsps “Spices of Joy”
Melt the butter under low heat, add the sugar, honey, and egg yolks, beating lightly. Add the flour and salt, combine gently. Refrigerate this cookie dough after mixing, for at least one hour. Remove from refrigerator. Roll out onto a floured surface, cut with a cookie cutter. Bake on a baking sheet at 400 F for 10-15 minutes until golden, watching closely.