A World Away in Thought and Time?

Every year on today’s feast I wonder what the average church-goer makes of St Scholastica. For most, the sixth century is a world away in thought and time. Although we dutifully name the saint of the day in our prayers, she remains vague, a strange conflation of our own ideas about nuns and fragments of half-remembered tales of holy women of old. I see that in a number of my previous posts about St Scholastica I have tackled this head on (see links at the end of this post) but I doubt very much whether I have changed anyone’s thinking or made Scholastica come alive, as it were, as the extraordinary person she must have been. Once the Church acknowledges someone’s sanctity, it seems their humanity and vivid personality are lost for ever.

Of course I exaggerate. Scholastica taught her brother, Benedict, that love and prayer can achieve what law and rigorous self-discipline alone cannot. She therefore challenges all of us who are tempted to take refuge in exact obedience or scrupulous fulfilment of the regulations. She is always urging us towards the more perfect way. I have mentioned before that the community will not use the collect for the day composed by monks of our order because it makes Scholastica out to be thoroughly soppy whereas we see her as a woman of steel. Steel is not comfortable, not malleable, nor was Scholastica. We need saints like her. The fact that she lived in the sixth century and we in the twenty-first is irrelevant. She is very much a saint for our times.

Some previous posts about St Scholastica




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.


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.


St Scholastica and Single-heartedness

Today is the feast of St Scholastica, sister of St Benedict. All we know about her comes from the second book of Gregory the Great’s Dialogues. We are told that once a year she and her brother used to meet to discuss spiritual matters. On one occasion she wished her brother to stay longer, but he, anxious not to spend the night away from his monastery, refused. Scholastica prayed, and the result of her prayers was a storm so fierce and long that he was compelled to stay and passed the night discussing holy matters with her. He humbly acknowledged that she had prevailed with God because she loved much. The second reference to her occurs when Benedict sees a dove flying skywards and realises that it is an image of the soul of Scholastica ascending to heaven.

Pretty stories, or something more? It rather depends whom and what you want to believe. For some, Scholastica is no more ‘real’ than St Benedict, simply an image of prayer, the ‘feminine’ aspect of monasticism. For others, Scholastica is indeed an historical person, but merely an adjunct to the story of St Benedict. If she is remembered at all it is because she was, as the preface of the day says, ‘schooled in holiness by St Benedict’ and his bones were allegedly placed in the same grave as hers. I myself think the truth is more complex.

The Dialogues are not history as we understand it today. Scholastica’s appearance in the narrative has a didactic purpose. She is presented in the first incident as the  teacher of St Benedict. He had to learn, first, that his purely human legislation (not spending a night away from the monastery) might, on occasion, and for good reason, be abrogated. More importantly, he had to learn that the  power of prayer proceeds from the love and fervour with which it is practised. At many points in the Rule Benedict insists that prayer be short and pure, that we shall not be heard for our many words but for our purity of heart and devotion; the motive he gives for almost every act is love of Christ. This is particularly noticeable in those passages adapted from the Rule of the Master and gives a completely different character to RB. Benedict learned his lesson well.

With the second incident, the vision of Scholastica’s soul ascending to heaven, we come to a favourite topos or theme in hagiography. It confirms the holiness of both the visionary and the subject of his vision. Like the burial of brother and sister in a single grave (or side by side, as now) Benedict and Scholastica are both examples of Benedictine holiness, neither complete without the other. We cannot always be doing; we cannot always be praying in the formal sense; we can, and should, always be monastic, single-hearted in the service of our Lord.

May St Scholastica pray for us all.