Soppy or Steely? The Case of St Scholastica

Every year on the feast of St Scholastica, the twin sister of St Benedict, the community utters a collective groan when faced with the English collect composed by certain monks of the order and opts instead for an unauthorised, but infinitely preferable — and incidentally far more sing-able — version composed by nuns. The reason is simple. The collect composed by our male brethren is soppy in the extreme and has St Scholastica dissolving into floods of womanish tears over her brother. The collect composed by the nuns concentrates on her insight into prayer and the power she has with God. It is yet another case of nuns being perceived from a male point of view as weak little ninnies who exist only to be of service to men, whereas the nuns see themselves rather differently. Such evidence as we have suggests that St Benedict himself inclined to the nuns’ point of view. According to the account given by St Gregory the Great in Book II of the Dialogues, when Scholastica’s prayer was answered in dramatic fashion and Benedict was prevented from going home, he readily conceded that she had prevailed because she had a greater love of God and admitted, humbly and graciously, that he was abashed. Two great saints united in their search for God, each recognizing and giving thanks for the qualities of the other, showing a degree of mutual understanding and respect for the vocation of the other we often lack today.

Why do I mention this? Partly because I think many people view monks and nuns through a distorting lens. This, they say, is what a monk or nun ought to be; and very often it is totally unrealistic — a pseudo-medieval fantasy made up of strange clothes, flickering candlelight and vicarious penance. The truth is much more prosaic. Monks and nuns are ordinary people trying to live a holy life, neither more nor less intelligent or educated than their lay peers, neither more nor less successful at overcoming their faults and failings. For various reasons which need not concern us here, nuns (moniales) have come to have associated with them a body of legislation about enclosure, etc, which does not apply in the same way to monks; but there is no Second Order among Benedictines. Indeed, strictly speaking, we do not form an order at all in the way that Dominicans or Franciscans, for instance, do. We ante-date such notions, just as our vows — stability, coversatio morum and obedience — ante-date by several hundred years the formulations of contemporary canon law.

I think the truth of monastic life, once appreciated, is so attractive, so compelling, that it cannot but draw others; but it must be the truth, not an imposed idea of it or some romantic parody of it. Even in my lfetime, there have been some rather ill-informed documents about monastic life, especially as lived by women, that make it much harder for people to embrace the monastic vocation with complete integrity. All is not lost, however. We have the example of St Scholastica to help us. As a novice I was told that St Scholastica may not be the patron of Benedictine nuns (St Benedict is) but if I wanted to be a good nun, I could do far worse than follow her example of prayer and feistiness. The two go together. Without prayer, real, persevering prayer, we easily go astray; but if our prayer is genuine, it will never allow us to become complacent. I don’t see Scholastica as soppy at all. I think she is an example of the steel we need, be we monks, nuns or whatever. May she pray for us all, whether we live the cloistered life or follow the inspiration of the Rule far beyond its confines.