As we grow the Healthy Hildegard community, we intersect with others drawn to Hildegard. Each one offers a unique perspective on how Hildegard of Bingens’s life and body of work through writings moved and inspired their lives. Hildegard led us to God’s Hotel and Dr. Victoria Sweet, and for that we are grateful.
Dr. Victoria Sweet
In the spring of 2016, while doing research for an upcoming article, we stumbled across a handful of promising leads relating to Hildegard’s concept of Viriditas.
We were already veterans of spelunking into esoteric rabbit holes, chasing tenuous links through a warren of dead-ends and circular references, so expectations had been calibrated accordingly. It was not uncommon to emerge from such pursuits a day older with nothing but several pages of more unanswered questions.
But something during this quest to understand Viriditas had stood out. Wedged between the doodles of a wandering mind and a growing list of unanswered questions, there existed an actual living person who seemed to be popping-up with an authority and presence that was uncommon in those dusty chambers.
It didn’t take long to realize that we had found the Indiana Jones of Hildegard, Dr. Victoria Sweet.
Book Review: “God’s Hotel: a Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine”, by Victoria Sweet
In God’s Hotel, Dr. Sweet weaves several interconnected journeys into a transformative story about her quest to redefine the process of healing. Her story raises questions, presents small moments with big revelations, and illuminates the space where life’s mysteries bind it all together.
From that space, Dr. Sweet discovered Hildegard of Bingen. And, by way of Hildegard, she embarked on a path of discovery and change that continues today.
The Lifecycle of Premodern Medicine
Through her writing, Dr. Sweet employs craft and control, leaving fingers pinching the next page in anticipation. She seems to live through the motivation of her inquiry, and thereby inspires energetic curiosity. As the reader pursues, we are carried into the past.
We travel across the Spanish countryside, through ancient cultures and languages, to the middle-ages, and back. Our pursuit is the birth and death of premodern medicine. And, much like Dr. Sweet herself, we often return to the warm comforts of Laguna Honda, an almshouse located in San Francisco, where premodern medicine persists in the face of hostility.
In what is likely the last almshouse in the country, Laguna Honda remains mired in the inefficiencies of slow medicine. Yet, Dr. Sweet treats the hospital lovingly, as a microcosm for the unfortunate fate of premodern medicine. Through the almshouse, she observes the death knell of an ancient tradition.
The Hero’s Journey
Dr. Sweet’s journey becomes our journey. We meander through the lives of her patients, through the halls and haunts of a hospital like none other, where a hen roams, gardens get tended, and patients rendezvous for illicit moments of normalcy that are anything but normal.
The residents of Laguna Honda are the people who exist on the fringes. They are the outcast and forgotten, those who have buckled beneath the weight of misfortune or mislaid plans.
Yet so much humanity remains, often with a vibrancy and sense of ease that belies their condition. It is fitting then, that the people under the care of Dr. Sweet are both distressing and inspiring. They embody the dualities of life.
Hero with a thousand faces
Dr. Sweet takes us on her rounds, where the stricken tell their stories in a broken code of abridged charts, conflicting signs, and the passing personal anecdotes of a life outside Laguna. Her patients exist like icebergs, unwilling or unable to reveal more than tiny fractions of their stories.
They drift in and out of her care by unknowable or uncontrollable forces. Just as often, they serve as fixtures in the Laguna landscape, where passing time feels geologic in scale.
A new way of healing from antiquity
These displaced lives and broken bodies illuminate the very questions that drive Dr. Sweet into the past. She seems on an ancient mission toward a new way of healing. Among the spaces between the obvious and enigmatic and the known and unknown, she begins to find answers.
Her answers come from bridges between the past and the present. She discovers new ideas about mending the ancient fissure between care and cure that has cast its long shadow onto modern medicine.
Bureaucracy of modern medicine
Dr. Sweet offers a candid view into the messy collision of politics, economics, healthcare, and humanity. Through her lens, she shares the complexities of systems and processes and of people and personalities, with an ease and approachability uncommon in a setting so disposed to jargon and antiseptic distance.
Hildegard of Bingen Medicine
With the same thoughtful approach she applies to her practice, Dr. Sweet takes care to treat Hildegard as a whole person and not merely as an idol for praise. As a true Hildegard scholar, Dr. Sweet presents a balanced exploration into Hildegard’s writings, as she extracts new meaning and new possibilities.
Dr. Sweet leaves much about Hildegard for us to revere, including the inspiration she provided to set a new course. Indeed, Dr. Sweet’s own reverence and compassion for all she encounters is an intrinsic part of what makes her story so compelling.
The greening power of Viriditas
The greening force of viriditas resonates most clearly as the lasting vestige from Hildegard of Bingen. Dr. Sweet emphasizes an impractical focus on efficiency in modern medicine. Instead, she proposes we observe the slow process of healing in nature. Much like a gardener tills the field for space to grow, a doctor clears the path to healing.
Meanwhile, modernity pecks at the foundation of Laguna Honda. Dr. Sweet advances her understanding of how to bridge the space between comfort of the past and progress of the future. The unease that accompanies the coming changes kindles her passion and affirms her belief that there is a different way.
A Rediscovery of Slow Medicine
Through external pressures and internal conflicts, she strengthens her resolve to answer the lingering question of how to unite the discord between caring and curing. The answer comes by making small, subtle moves. She slows down, even sitting quietly with a sleeping patient. (Since the publication of this article, we have read and reviewed Victoria Sweet’s latest book, Slow Medicine, which is worth the read for anyone enthusiastic about medicine, particularly Hildegard’s brand of medicine.)
As Dr. Sweet iterates and observes, she begins to incorporate her ideas, drawn from pre-modern medicine and tested by her own hand, into the modern system. She then uses modern language, the metrics of utility and return-on-investment, to make her case against the a priori pillars of modern medicine. This sets the stage for her next journey.
The intended impact
As a medical practitioner, God’s Hotel may challenge you to rethink the nature of your work, what has come before you, and what you can do to change the course that awaits. Dr. Sweet’s journey may ignite a passion otherwise lost beneath computers, systems, and insurance billing codes.
In any case, God’s Hotel leaves you with questions. Not the omissions that annoy, but gentle open-ended possibilities that lead to real change. In short, Dr. Sweet presents reckonings of faith, purpose, and healing.
Revisiting Pre-Modern Medicine
For the rest of us, we are left with a better understanding of the challenges of medicine. We gather a compelling case for revisiting past practices, and a deep sense of gratitude for our health and vitality and all that modernity has afforded us.
There is a contagious sense of hope that emerges from God’s Hotel, one that we at Healthy Hildegard find particularly appealing. We hope to discover value in the wisdom of the past, and recognize that true progress may just mean going backward. Perhaps even 900 years or so to a monastery in the Rhine Valley and a nun with some big ideas.
Dr. Sweet is an MD, PhD Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and a prize-winning historian with a Ph.D. in history (Hildegard of Bingen Medicine). She practiced medicine for twenty years at Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco, where she began writing. In 2014, Dr. Sweet was awarded a Guggenheim fellow for Creative Arts.
In addition to God’s Hotel, Dr. Sweet wrote a book focused on Hildegard Medicine called Rooted in the Earth, Rooted in the Sky. She’s also been a prolific contributor on matters related to modern medicine, and Hildegard of Bingen, specifically; see Dr. Sweet’s article in the New York Times on Florence Nightingale and the idea of a calling.
Dr. Sweet is now working on her next book, Slow Medicine, Fast Medicine: Healing, Curing and Caring in an Age of Technology.
For Dr. Sweet’s TEDx talk on viriditas.