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Monk Medicine (a love note from your online Abbess)

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Coole_park_310a20aDearest monks and artists,

The poem above has been shimmering for me, and at first I hesitated to share it here because we are entering the depths of winter in the northern hemisphere. But then I remembered my brother and sister monks in the southern hemisphere, who are experiencing this embrace of light and warmth.  I love that we have a global community and at any moment there is full spectrum of experience.

This poem in praise of rose’s gifts shimmered because I have also been praying with Thomas Merton’s words for our Community Lectio Divina practice this month where he considers the lake, the hills, the trees, the mountains, and the sea to all be saints, because they each live out their divine call so perfectly.

In my personal practice I have been deepening into the path of herbalism. Merton’s quote has invited me to ponder the wisdom of St. Rose and St. Elderberry, St. Clover and St. Dandelion, among many others.

For those of us with northern European roots, we might often find ourselves looking to eastern medicine or native American indigenous paths of healing, when we have our own rich tradition of healing practices which sustained and fortified our ancestors. Even more exciting for me is the way herbalism has a distinctly monastic lineage.  For hundreds of years, monasteries were places of both physical and spiritual healing.  The monks cultivated herbs and crafted medicines to offer to those who were suffering. They were the repositories of this sacred knowledge.

St. Hildegard of Bingen, the patron saint of our contemplative and creative work here at Abbey of the Arts, was also a great healing practitioner.  She wrote a manual of herbs and their healing qualities and her principle of viriditas, or greening power of God, was applied both to the spiritual dimension of life as well as to the body.  She would look at a person with illness and ask where this life force has been blocked. Victoria Sweet describes her own re-imagining of this process in her wonderful book God’s Hotel, where she brings Hildegard’s practice of medicine to her modern context as a doctor.  This leads her to name “slow medicine” as one of the gifts herbalism has for us.

Slow medicine means not seeking the pill that offers the quick fix, but embracing illness as a journey of healing where nourishment of the body and all its systems play a central role. It means I have to ask myself how the rush and pace of my life, and ways I have neglected my own nourishment, play a part in discernment of what will bring vitality again. In Hildegard’s own life, many of her illnesses were the result of her actively resisting the call of God in her life. And while I do not believe we are to blame for our physical ailments, there is still an invitation to deepen into our own healing.  Illness can be its own kind of pilgrimage.

In my exploration of herbalism as a path of healing for both body and soul, I find a kinship to those ancient monks who preserved the wisdom. I find myself contemplating the gifts of “Monk Medicine” on many layers of our lives. I ask myself, How do the practices of these wise monks offer us a path back to alignment with both body and soul?

For Hildegard, she considered the rose to have special virtues, and recommended adding her to all medicines: “Rose is also good to add to potions, unguents, and all medications. If even a little rose is added, they are so much better, because of the good virtues of the rose”.

In these darkening days I have been making elderberry syrups, nettle and oat straw infusions, thyme and oregano tinctures, crafting my own herbal tea blends and oils for anointing, and other explorations. In the process I have grown more intimate with these green saints who offer me the gift of nourishment, of moving always toward myself again. I am finding empowerment and intimacy by becoming familiar with these gifts offered to us.

Even herbalism can be practiced from a modern medicine mindset, where we seek the quick fix in a pill, we look for standardized extracts rather than taking in the gifts of the whole plant. We do this in our spiritual practice as well, seeking the one way of praying that will alleviate our unease and anxiety, rather than embracing a whole system and way of being that brings a lifetime of deepening.  In monastic spirituality lectio divina is intimately connected to centering prayer and sitting in silence and solitude, which are also deepened by praying the Hours and gathering in community. Our bodies and our souls hunger for this kind of slow integration.

What if, when your body presents its ache and pain, instead of seizing upon the quick relief, you slowed down, softened into this place of vulnerability, listened for the wisdom beneath the rush of life and fear of growing older. What might that conversation sound like?

Herbalism and modern medicine are not mutually exclusive, as someone with a serious autoimmune disorder, I am grateful for the drugs which have given me quality of life.  And yet those great saints of the green world invite me into another way of being as well. As I listen I hear the call to wholeness, to honor the sacredness of all things, to celebrate the abundance of healing poured forth by the world. Becoming a monk in the world means embracing the many-layered gifts of healing, to know that body and soul are one, to let the greening life force of viriditas flow freely once again.

With great and growing love,


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5 Responses

  1. What a beautiful post -integrating so many of the paths I have found myself walking . I was delighted by the Merton quote and the idea of honoring the plants as saints! I have often felt that way about the trees! And I can personally attest to the healing powers of Saint Elderberry and Saint Nettles! Rosemary Gladstar has been one of my go-to authors for many years. Another excellent book especially for caregivers is called ‘Laurel’s Kitchen.” It has many recipes which are useful when cooking for someone who is ill and convalescing. It incorporates healing herbs into the recipes as well.

  2. Kathy, anything by Susun Weed or Rosemary Gladstar are great places to begin, especially in exploring the wise woman tradition of herbalism (as opposed to a more medical model).