Food is Medicine
The 1987 Danish drama, Babette’s Feast, offers the perfect complement to Clement of Alexandria’s stoicism. Babette’s Feast is a deeply Christian film about food wherein two devout Danish sisters allow their cook, a French refugee, to prepare a feast in honor of their late father's birthday, despite their spiritual concerns over the sensuality of French cuisine. Babette had been head cook in one of the finest restaurants in Paris. The film shows how powerful lovingly, prepared food can be for the healing of mind, soul, and body - especially when shared in communion with others.
Food, wine, and oil go together (Psalm 104), and spices get their flavor from essential oil. If it smells wholesome and fresh and it came from a plant, what we smell is the essential oil. The delightful tastes and smells of plants are part of God’s providence. In my mind, essential oils are more like food than medicine, but depending on your disposition to food that may or may not present a complete picture.
Clement’s main concern for Christians is that we don’t use essential oils in excessive luxuriousness or sensual licentiousness. Clement of Alexandria does not actually use the term ‘essential oil.’ He speaks of ointments and unguents, but a quick glance through his writing shows that what he means is aromatic oils, sometimes mixed with fatty carrier oil, but not always.
Clement lists a number of plant sources: lilies, cypress, spikenard, roses, myrrh, stacte (aloes), cassia, narcissus, myrtle, and frankincense. His first admonition is against those who drench themselves in unguents in order to be sexually alluring.
Here he is talking about the use of essential oils as perfume. He believes it is effeminate for men to wear perfume, but a few unguents are permissible for married women, as long as the scent is not “overpowering to their husband.”
Essential Oils for Healing
Clement does not, however, condemn their use for medicine: “In the department of medicine, for healing, and sometimes also for moderate recreation, the delight derived from flowers, and the benefit derived from unguents and perfumes, are not to be overlooked . . . [they] are most useful.” Clements quotes five Scriptural references to oils for spiritual edification and as a basis for legitimate oil use:
· Luke 7:37-38 - And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.
· Psalm 45:7-8 - Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions; your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia.
· Ecclesiasticus 38:1-2, 5 - Honor the physician for his usefulness, for the Most High made him; and the art of healing is of the Lord. And the compounder of unguents will make the mixture.
Ecclesiasticus 39:13-14 – Listen to me, O you holy sons, and bud like a rose growing by a stream of water; send forth fragrance like frankincense, and put forth blossoms like a lily. Scatter the fragrance and sing a hymn of praise; bless the Lord for all his works.
· Ecclesiasticus 39:26-27 - The basic necessities of human life are water and fire and iron and salt and wheat flour and milk and honey, the blood of the grape and oil and clothing. All these are good for the godly.
Clement recognizes that roots, plants, and flowers have their individual properties: “some beneficial, some injurious, some also dangerous.” (Obviously we would not want to use poison ivy oil topically or take hemlock oil internally.) Clement gives several examples of beneficial uses for oils, like these: narcissus calms the nerves, rose relieves headaches, cypress helps one sleep, etc. Clement says that rubbing the feet with unguents and massage also has beneficial effects. Clement recognizes that oils have the ability to relieve all manner of ailments:
“God hath permitted the production of oil for the mitigation of men's pains... Ointment is to be employed as a medicine and help in order to bring up strength when enfeebled, and against sinus congestion, colds, fatigue and depression, as the comic poet says:
The nostrils are anointed; it being
a most essential thing for health to fill the brain with good odors.”[i]
PRINCIPLE: CHRISTIANS USE ESSENTIAL OILS TO SUPPORT A HEALTHY BODY WITHOUT EXCESSIVE SELF-INDULGENCE
There is no need to go into all the ways essential oils support the body. That is what essential oil guidebooks are for. Thank God for modern science and the tools we have to observe and record the multiple, beneficial effects of essential oils. Today we are able to observe and record both chemical and electrical interactions between essential oils and the body. That is fascinating. It speaks to the wonder and glory of God’s intent for plants and humans.
[i] All of the quotes about oil from Clement of Alexandria, in this chapter, come from The Instructor, Book II, Chapter 8