Baking Cookies with St. Hildegard of Bingen

This year, the Vincent Library will celebrate the four female Doctors of the Church. A book display of their work as well as secondary resources will be put up before their feast day. A sweet, creative treat and prayer cards will also be available.

The first Doctor is Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). Hildegard was a twelfth-century German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, healer, scholar of natural science, Christian mystic, and visionary. Pope Benedict XVI recognized her as a saint on May 10, 2012, and named her a Doctor of the Church on October 7, 2012. Sarah, our library director, reflects on this multi-talented saint below:

Baking Cookies with St. Hildegard of Bingen

O greenest branch, I greet you,
you who budded in the winds of the
questioning of the saints…

My earbuds are in and I close my eyes, letting the pulses of St. Hildegard’s O Viridissima Virga—delicate and rich—surround me before I begin. Her feast day is soon, and to help the STM community celebrate, I am baking her “cookies of joy” in the STM kitchen. In Physica, Hildegard proclaims that these small baked cakes will “calm all bitterness of the heart and mind, open your heart and impaired senses, and make you cheerful”—all due to the presence of nutmeg, which Medieval herbalists believed would make a person happy and open.

…The time came
for you to blossom in your branches,
I salute you!
The sun’s heat distilled in you
the fragrance of balsam…

Perhaps my choice of soundtrack is a little out of sync with the season. There are currently leaves changing color on the trees rather than blossoms in their branches, but I still love listening to Hildegard when I cook or bake. Like the act of preparing good food, her theology draws on many different ingredients whose final compilation absorbs the entire senses. To understand Hildegard’s theology, you must taste, touch, smell and see the world God created. You must experience the “green power” that flows through the natural world and glorifies the Creator in its seasons. In O Viridissima Virga, Hildegard compares Mary to a fertile branch. From her, blossoms Christ who perfumes the world with his salvation.

No. I take back my doubt of earlier. This is right. There are blossoms in this kitchen.

I am not alone. There are others, placing flowers in vases. The blossoms call out in vibrant yellows, reds and pinks at the ends of green, green stems. And in the bowl in front of me, blossoms a dense dough. The mixing bowl swirls with flour, butter, eggs and baking soda. Brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves turn the dough a dark brown—a fertile loam of its own, from which the heat of the oven will distill cookies.

…For in you bloomed the beautiful flower
which gave fragrance to all the spices,
which were dried out.
And they all burgeoned
in their strength and greenness…

As the cookies bake, the spices release an intoxicating, calming smell. Maybe Hildegard and her fellow herbalists were onto something. The smell is so enticing, as it floats out of the kitchen and through the Golden Center, that a few people stop into the kitchen to see what is baking. There are smiles on their faces as they ask me what is in the oven.

…And because of this, the heavens dropped their dew upon the grass,
And all the earth was made glad…

The cookies are done and I share them with the flower arrangers and the wanderers. There are so many smiles.

O Viridissima Virga is also finished. I close my eyes again and let the taste of the cookie surround me. I am grateful to Mary. I am grateful to St. Hildegard. I am grateful to the “green power” that made wheat and milk and spices. May I celebrate the work of the Creator. May Jesus perfume my life just as fragrantly as these spices perfume this cookie.

~Sarah L. Woodford