Hildegard, Hargitay and Hippocrates

by Jennie Hurd.

Like far too many people, I had Covid in April. Having tested negative on the Saturday, I was positive by Palm Sunday evening and not feeling good. It took another nineteen days to test negative again. For the first time since going On Note as a Local Preacher in 1984, I had to tell a congregation that I was not well enough to take their service the next Sunday – Easter Day! If I’d had enough energy, I’d have felt guilty, but I hadn’t, so I didn’t.

A fortnight later, once my voluntary self-isolation had ended, I was driven to Synod to chair it, and to church on the Sunday to lead worship. Both days I returned immediately to bed. I know I wasn’t nearly as poorly as many, but I felt rough, and I’m still not quite right. As I flopped about, I remembered something my mother used to say, an old nurse who trained in the very early years of the NHS, finishing to bring up her children just as disposables were coming in (she says): “The body wants to heal itself.” Obviously, the body can’t always heal itself in the sense of full restoration, however much help it is given, but I can see the sense: the human body, made in the image of God, whose will is health and wholeness, always wants to heal itself, even to what some refer to as the ultimate healing of death. With no medication to take but paracetamol, I reckoned it was only the wisdom of these words, coupled with rest and time, that was going to get me back up to full speed after Covid.

Since then, I’ve revisited a book called God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine by Dr Victoria Sweet[i].  It’s the remarkable story of Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco, the last of America’s almshouses, modelled on the medieval monastic ‘Hôtel-Dieux’. In the narrative, the patients include those that no other ‘health care facility’ in the city will admit – people with long-term conditions and terminal illnesses, difficult or challenging patients, people with addictions, very poor people and patients with no one else to care for them. Inspired by the work of Hildegard of Bingen, the twelfth century German abbess, mystic, musician, theologian and healer, Victoria Sweet used some of her time working at the hospital to develop a project termed “ecomedicine”. Drawing on the understanding that the body is more like a garden than a machine in terms of its needs for its flourishing, Sweet writes about seeking to demonstrate her hypothesis of “Slow Medicine”, positing that time, minimal medication, care and “the little things” provide as effective a result as modern, scientific healthcare in such cases, while being more economical and “satisfying” for all involved[ii]. More recently, sitting in the waiting room at a local surgery, I noticed two quotations on display. The first, attributed to the American actress Mariska Hargitay, declares, “Healing takes time and asking for help is a courageous step.” The second quotes Hippocrates: “Healing is a matter of time but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.” I was struck by the resonances from two such contrasting sources.

I find myself, then, trying to reach towards a theological understanding of all this, rooted in my own experience of Covid and ongoing recovery, the medieval theories of Hildegard of Bingen, the more recent experience of Victoria Sweet and the ancient wisdom of Hippocrates. I think it speaks of rest, working in harmony with nature and, above all, with God’s time, not ours. That is challenging, given that time for many people today is a luxury: how can you take time off to recover if you are trying to hold down two or more part-time jobs and feed a growing family? I wonder also about the possible relevance of this for Christ’s body, the church, hard-hit by Covid (as is the whole of society) and seeking to recover. Should we be resting, taking time, allowing God’s healing power to work in us? If so, how? We’re familiar with timetabled periods of rest in the practice of our faith – Sabbath, sabbatical, Jubilee, even – but what about the unstructured, sudden need for rest that can come upon us without notice? How should we respond? I sense the Methodist Covenant Prayer may have some relevance here, and invite comments, contradictions, criticisms and conversation!

[i] Riverhead Books, NY: 2012

[ii] Page 351

2 thoughts on “Hildegard, Hargitay and Hippocrates”

  1. Thank you Jennie. I’m responding to this from the context of recent grief and am struck by the resonances. One of the most difficult things to fully accept is that I can’t be in control of my grieving process….I can do things both to help and to hinder, as we can do with our state of health….but ultimately there needs to be a ceding of control and a going with the flow of it. For myself I might have thought that the experience of the pandemic (even recognising that I had a privileged experience) might have accustomed me to the fact that the control I feel I can exercise over my life and future events is largely an illusion, but it seems that the root is far too deep to be yanked out even over the course of a 2.5 year experience.


    1. God bless you, Rachel. It seems to me that there are some things we just find ourselves learning again and again, in different ways, but with every time, every experience, by the grace of God, the learning goes a little deeper and becomes more part of us. It’s never easy, but hopefully it’s a growing in wisdom and courage, and I’m sure this true for you.


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