Old Saints, New Questions: St Scholastica and the Place of Women in the Church

If you are tempted to think of St Scholastica, whose feast we celebrate today, as one of those slightly dodgy saints about whom we know very little and, unless one is Benedictine, cares less, I urge you to think again. It is true we know very little about her, but what we do know highlights some very contemporary questions.

Let’s start with the facts, quietly noting that, as so often, they come from a male author. According to Book II of Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, Scholastica was the twin sister of St Benedict, born in Nursia, Umbria, of wealthy parents and dedicated to God from a young age. The word Gregory uses, sanctimonialis, does not mean ‘nun’ but something like our modern (but also ancient) ‘Consecrated Virgin’. She may have lived in her parents’ house or in a separate establishment with a group of like-minded women. Legend asserts she had a small house at the foot of Monte Cassino or at Plumbariola, about five miles away, but we have no evidence to support either. Indeed, it has been suggested that both Benedict and Scholastica are figments of Gregory’s imagination, representing types of holiness rather than real people, but let’s stay with the idea that both truly existed.

The main story Gregory tells of Scholastica is that once a year her brother and a few of his monks visited Scholastica and spent their time discussing spiritual matters. On one occasion it grew late and Benedict was anxious to return home, determined not to spend the night away from his monastery despite Scholastica’s entreaties. Since her brother would not listen to her, Scholastica laid her head on the table and prayed. When she raised it, such a fierce storm broke out that Benedict was forced to stay, ruefully acknowledging that her prayer had prevailed because she loved God more. Three days later, according to Gregory, Benedict looked out of his window and saw the soul of Scholastica ascending to heaven in the form of a dove. Both were eventually buried in the same grave (now side by side in the crypt at Monte Cassino).

The hagiographer will home in on some of the detail. For example, the vision of the soul ascending is a well-known topos that confirms the sanctity of both the one who has died and the one who sees the vision. The historian will tend to concentrate on the dynamics of the relationship between brother and sister and what they tell us about male-female roles in the Church. The modern reader may question the conclusions of both, especially as they contribute to the ‘accepted narrative’ of St Scholastica today. For example, the preface of the feast boldly asserts that Scholastica was ‘schooled in holiness by St Benedict’ — a nice nod towards the language of the Rule but not necessarily an accurate reflection of the relationship between the two. It is possible (but not provable) that Scholastica affected Benedict as much as he affected her (twins often have an extraordinarily close bond) — and there is that surprising admission from Benedict that Scholastica had got to the heart of the matter and realised that divine love prevails over human regulations. Again and again in the Rule we find Benedict softening the teaching of the Rule of the Master by bringing us back to our motivation, the love of Christ. Is that something the Father of Western Monasticism learned from his sister? Who can say? It does not lessen his achievement. In fact, in my view, it enhances it and reminds us how brilliantly Benedict incorporated the ideas of others into his own work.

But what about my statement, that St Scholastica invites some very contemporary reflection? For a start, there is that conference organized by the Pontifical Council for Culture which has been discussing ‘women’s issues’ during the past week. Women themselves were not present, and the reported agenda contained elements that made me smile as well as gnash my teeth a little (e.g. since when has plastic surgery been a major concern of Catholic women, and is it something Catholic men never concern themselves with?) To discuss women in the absence of women is to suggest that we are not really members of the Church but a problem to be solved; and no one likes being thought of as a problem. We all know that priestly ordination is reserved to men, but there are times when it seems harder for a Catholic woman to be heard at the Vatican than a man of some other denomination. No wonder many think there is a misogyny in parts of the Church that needs to be confronted and challenged.

Does this perception of misogyny have any noticeable effects, other than allowing individuals to grumble and grouse? One that has struck me is the effect on vocations to the religious life. I notice that most candidates are much older than they used to be. In part, I suspect that is simply a reflection of the fact that we all take longer to grow up than we did fifty or a hundred years ago. But, if the women I’ve spoken to are to be believed (and I see no reason why they shouldn’t), part of their long-maturing process of discernment has been getting to grips with the idea that the Church regards women as of less consequence than western civil society does. They offer themselves to the monastic life despite, rather than because of, what they experience in the Church. I find that worrying. It seems consistent with anecdotal reports that women are giving up on the Church in the way that the working-classes did in the last century. Of course, we can look to the Third World and comfort ourselves with reports of growth and continuing fervour, but I think we should be concerned about what is happening nearer home, because what we experience today, the rest of the world may experience tomorrow.

Note, however, Scholastica’s way of challenging what we might call the status quo, which meant her brother determined the terms on which they met. It wasn’t noisy or aggressive but patient and subtle. She prayed, and because she had grown close to the Lord through years of prayer and service, her prayer was heard. Sometimes we are tempted to see prayer as an extra — something we do when we have decided on a course of action and want the Lord to endorse our plans. But for Scholastica it was of the essence. I certainly think we need to pray as never before about the role of women in the Church. I should be sorry if we were to end up with the clamorous polarisation of the 60s and 70s, when the struggle to achieve equality in civil society led to a male-female divide and endless dispiriting talk of power and patriarchy. The Church is not the same as civil society, and it is unhelpful, to say the least, to present the challenges we face in the same terms. That said, we cannot be complacent because ultimately what we are concerned with is the mission of the Church as a whole — to be the Body of Christ, complete, beautiful and holy. The Church needs her Scholasticas as well as her Benedicts, and they must work together. Let us ask the prayers of St Scholastica that we may learn how to do so.