St. Hildegard gives us a recipe for joy—even during a pandemic

Stained-glass depiction of St. Hildegard of Bingen (Wikimedia Commons)

I am sitting on my back porch with a plate of Hildegard cookies. Simple and spiced, the cookies are perfect with coffee, though St. Hildegard would have recommended wine infused with violets and honey or a simple lavender tisane. If one insisted on coffee, the saint might acquiesce—but only if it was brewed from roasted spelt.

Hildegard of Bingen loved spelt. Actually, St. Hildegard adored many things—the Blessed Mother, beer, midday naps—but in her encyclopedic treatise on the medicinal properties of the natural world, Physica, she expresses a special love for spelt, proclaiming it “the best of grains” and recommending it for “a happy mind and joyful outlook.” She similarly praised nutmeg and cloves for their warmth while lauding cinnamon’s ability to chase a bad mood away. Because Hildegard cookies are made with spelt flour and the aforementioned spices, they are the equivalent of a medieval happiness bomb.

Hildegardplätzchen, as they are called in German, are traditionally eaten on Sept. 17 in honor of the saint’s feast day. Cookies of joy some call them in English, because according to the 12th-century Benedictine abbess, the cookies remove hate from the heart and calm the nerves. As a lifelong cookie aficionado, I must confess that I find this true of most cookies. Still, Hildegard’s recipe provides a direct connection to the holy woman who recorded it nearly 900 years ago, and as I sit nibbling cookies while watching a cardinal dart in and out of a buckthorn tree, I feel a surge of joy.

I was not nearly so joyful when I had my first Hildegard cookies earlier this year. I had planned to visit the Monastery Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand, Ind., where the cookies are made by a dynamic group of Benedictine sisters. I had arranged a retreat, along with an interview and a bakery tour. Then Covid-19 struck. My university classes went online. The conferences and readings scheduled to promote my new book were canceled. Church doors were closed, as was the monastery in Indiana.

Hildegardplätzchen, as they are called in German, or cookies of joy in English, are traditionally eaten on Sept. 17 in honor of the saint’s feast day. (Photo provided by author)
Hildegardplätzchen, as they are called in German, or cookies of joy in English, are traditionally eaten on Sept. 17 in honor of the saint’s feast day. (Photo provided by author)

When my father-in-law died in May, there was no way for the family to get together to mark his passing, and I thought things could not get more difficult. But then George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, and ongoing divisions in the United States became an open wound. Meanwhile, the election season ramped up and the rhetoric launched from both sides of the political aisle left me feeling more isolated than the strictures surrounding the pandemic.

I did what I could. We found ways to memorialize my father-in-law. I started my own rituals, took walks and let book events go out the window. I even adjusted my expectations around St. Hildegard. While I could not visit the bakery where her namesake cookies are made, I could immerse myself in her life. I read biographies and cookbooks and translations of her works. I listened to Emma Kirkby’s voice soar in Hildegard’s sacred compositions, marveled over the lyrics and baked my own cookies of joy. Little by little, out of the darkness, a seedling began to emerge. Even as the culture continued to divide itself into rigid categories of black and white, Hildegard offered the life-giving greenness she referred to as veriditas.

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Which is how, in a season of profound loss and fear, an ancient mystic offered the cure, though not in a plate of cookies or even through her dazzling works. Instead, Hildegard von Bingen’s life itself provided the recipe for joy.

First Ingredient: Solitude

Hildegard was born in 1098 in an area of vineyards and forests in present-day Germany, not far from its borders with Luxembourg and France. The 10th child from a noble family, the girl was pledged to the church and entrusted to the anchoress Jutta at the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg at the age of 8. It is unclear whether Hildegard was cloistered at that time or a few years later.

Either way, Hildegard would likely have struggled with the sudden disconnection from family and the loss of her former life—not unlike our own struggle this past year. Once she was enclosed, her movements would have been greatly restricted and the rhythms of her life vastly simplified—like many of our own lives of late. But, more than anything else, Covid-19 taught me that isolation and solitude are not the same thing; one is like being locked behind a stone wall, while the other is like drinking from a holy well. Often they go hand in hand, and we must abide loneliness to cultivate solitude and arrive at the well.

Covid-19 taught me that isolation and solitude are not the same thing; one is like being locked behind a stone wall, while the other is like drinking from a holy well.

I have weathered these past months by starting each day with a few minutes of contemplative prayer followed by coffee and quiet on my back porch. My mind is forever wandering and my porch is rickety and small—the size of Hildegard’s cell, perhaps—but despite these limitations, the simple routine has become the most nourishing part of my day.

Hildegard also took to solitude. Monastic life allowed her to sink her roots deep. Even when, in the second half of her life, she began to turn her gaze outward and to travel beyond the monastery walls, she remained immersed in the Benedictine way of life. It is easy to imagine her as a young woman at Disibodenberg—and later in her communities near the Rhine—the grounds lush with gardens and vineyards, the air filled with the fragrance of linden and the sound of monastics singing their daily prayers. Such an early experience of solitude anchored Hildegard as she grew into the saint she became. And whether you pray or knit or sit with a purring cat in your lap, solitude is the first ingredient in the recipe for joy, transforming us into golden bowls waiting to be filled.

Second Ingredient: Faith

Hildegard may have been composing songs and treatises in her head for years, but her writing did not begin until midlife. In the introduction to the Scivias, she describes the vision that began her writing life: “When I was forty-two and seven months old, the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain.”

“I am the Living Light,” a voice in the vision said. “Proclaim and write thus.” Though she did not feel entirely up to it, Hildegard listened to the voice and began to write. She complied with the voice and started to make use of her own—and once she did, Hildegard never stopped.

“Become a flowering orchard,” Hildegard later instructed, and clearly she took her own advice. Known as a mystic and seer, Hildegard was, in fact, a medieval powerhouse. Her published work includes three volumes of visionary theology, several hagiographies, commentaries on the Gospels, books on the natural world and healing, and she composed some of the best-known liturgical music surviving to this day. She composed a musical morality play, invented her own alphabet and wrote hundreds of letters in which she provided counsel to the most powerful rulers of her time, including the pope. Hildegard also undertook several preaching tours and spoke in cathedrals and public squares.

“Become a flowering orchard,” Hildegard later instructed, and clearly she took her own advice. Known as a mystic and seer, Hildegard was, in fact, a medieval powerhouse.

Once Pope Eugenius III read a portion of Hildegard’s work and declared it divinely inspired, the nun’s reputation began to grow. In 1150, she moved her flourishing community to Rupertsburg, near Bingen on the Rhine, and in 1165 founded a second community across the river at Ebingen, where she lived the remainder of her years, dying at age 81 in 1179. Hildegard was long-celebrated as a saint and was beatified in 1326; but she was not officially canonized until 2012, when Pope Benedict XVI also named her a doctor of the church—one of only four women to be so honored.

Like many of us today, Hildegard lived in a time of turbulence and uncertainty. She must have felt at times unmoored, frightened and overwhelmed. She had no clue where she was headed when she first heard God’s voice, for instance; but despite her insecurities and the very real challenges of the larger world, this 12th-century woman stayed true to her call. She continued to push forward in faith and became not a single tree but an entire orchard in bloom.

Third Ingredient: Greenness

I have a St. Francis birdbath in my backyard. This is not unusual. St. Francis birdbaths populate thousands of lawns. But as I sit here on my porch, I wonder why I have never seen a St. Hildegard birdbath. It is true that Francis preached to the birds, but a century before he sang his praises to Brother Sun and Sister Moon in Assisi, a little nun was studying the healing properties of bay leaves and delighting in the creatures of the field 700 miles to the north.

“All of creation is a symphony of joy and jubilation,” Hildegard wrote. “Every creature is a glittering, glistening mirror of Divinity.”

Known for her concept of veriditas or “greenness,” which Hildegard viewed as life-giving and inseparable from divinity, she did not simply make a study of rivers and trees for her volumes on healing. All of her compositions drip with flowers and stems, honeycombs and gemstones, streams and fountains and rivers.

“O hail, greenest branch,” Hildegard writes in her song for the Virgin. In another sequence, she praises St. Rupert as “sweet sap of the apple, harvest without pith.” Hildegard understood the healing power of nature, and her connection with the living greenness fed her deeply. She viewed humanity as both a magnificent expression of and a necessary steward for nature, writing: “Gaze at the beauty of Earth’s greenings. What delight God gives to humankind with all these things. All nature is at the disposal of humankind. We are to work with it. For without it we cannot survive.”

It is easy to forget the splendor of nature when we are worried about our loved ones and our futures.

It is easy to forget the splendor of nature when we are worried about our loved ones and our futures. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, I spent so much energy just trying to get through the day that I hardly had time for the outside world. Once everything shuttered, I spent more time at home than ever before. Ours is a modest house with a tiny yard, but rather than seeing this as a limitation, I have learned to embrace it. I bring my laptop outside to work and take the daylilies as my colleagues. I look up into the treetops in the neighbor’s yard and find myself in a light-filled dome. I pay more attention to our tiny garden, celebrating the sage as it rises in purple stalks, delighting in the autumn clematis as it winds its tendrils around the trellis and even the mint as it sprawls willy-nilly into the pink prairie mallow.

There may not be a St. Hildegard birdbath in our yard, but with her example, I have learned to sustain myself in the sweet greenness that can be found in even the smallest pockets of the Earth.

Fourth Ingredient: Commitment

When I first returned to church several years ago after two decades of lapse, I met with a priest. He asked me about prayer, and I mentioned that writing can sometimes be like prayer. He nodded but cocked an eyebrow, saying, “That’s fine—as long as your writing glorifies God.”

I did not know how to respond. I was just getting reacquainted with the word “God,” and “glorifying” felt a little beyond my reach. But his words stayed with me. “Glorifying God” was a lofty charge; but what would I write, I began to wonder, if I did not worry about what others thought?

Hildegard was clear from the beginning. Her work belonged to God. In fact, her understanding was that the writing itself was commanded by God. As Sabina Flanagan writes in her translation of Hildegard’s works, in her writing the abbess adopted the role of “God’s mouthpiece—a prophet for her times.”

She was both wild and obedient, frail and unstoppable, a simple nun and a human dynamo, the likes of which the world had rarely seen. 

Like any good prophet, Hildegard defied convention and pushed the limits of what anyone could have imagined for the scrawny child who arrived at Disibodenberg at the beginning of the 12th century. She was critical of corruption in Rome, for instance, and later she became embroiled in a skirmish over an unsanctioned burial on convent grounds. But for all her life, Hildegard remained wholly devoted to the church. This may seem a paradox. She was both wild and obedient, frail and unstoppable, a simple nun and a human dynamo, the likes of which the world had rarely seen.

The inability to fit Hildegard into any one category can be frustrating but reflects the complex reality of our humanity and inspires me as I continue to navigate my way through the choppy waters of American culture and my own life. You can love something with your whole heart, Hildegard shows, and still want to improve it. Our collective and personal wounds must be tended, Hildegard says with the actions of her life, but neither should they keep us from our joys and commitments—what she called “the festive service of God.”

Fifth Ingredient: A Measuring Cup

It is difficult for Catholics to know what to make of Hildegard. Unlike for other saints, statues and prayer cards do not abound. Part of the problem is that she is so much at once: folk-healer, mystic, composer, visionary, poet, doctor of the church. Do a Google search and you will find Hildegard claimed by alternative medicine practitioners, eco-poets, musical scholars and others.

Of course, she belongs to these groups, but to view her through any single lens misses the wondrous fact that Hildegard’s wide-ranging works were integrated expressions of a dynamic life. Her great genius was her ability to bear such fruit and transform the variety into a singular vocation. Whether she was recording the healing properties of gentian, composing an antiphon to St. Ursula or responding to a letter from a troubled bishop, she made use of her extraordinary gifts while staying anchored in the Spirit. Hildegard clearly loved this life and found evidence of the divine almost everywhere she looked.

How to Live Abundantly is the one book Hildegard did not write. Instead, the recipe is found in the very pattern and movement of her life and in the way that everything—working, eating, prayer—was done in balance. Just as Hildegard tended and interlaced each aspect of her life with the others, I have found that each of the “ingredients” of my own life must be nurtured and balanced to sustain the larger calling. Any one thing to the exclusion of the others does not work.

I have been fortunate to visit many beautiful places. I love nothing more than launching journeys that connect me with people and traditions that help guide me along the spiritual path. I thought I would be writing this article about a trip to the dynamic community of Benedictine sisters in Indiana and learning about St. Hildegard through their devotion and good works. I see now that it took these days of forced grounding to truly open myself to Hildegard, which, in turn, has made one of the most difficult years the most fruitful of all.

I cannot know what the next season will bring. Nor can I dramatically change what happens in the politics and health of the larger world. But through Hildegard’s example, I have learned to make a sanctuary wherever I find myself and will continue to look to her for the recipe to sweetness, gratitude and joy.

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