Tuesday, February 10, 2015
Feast of Scholastica, the first Benedictine nun
The following is adapted from a sermon I wrote on St. Scholastica several years ago.
Today is the feast of St. Scholastica. She is the sister of St. Benedict, the person who created the Benedictine Order and the rule of life which is used by monks and nuns throughout the world even today. Some accounts claim that Benedict and Scholastica were twins, while others say that they were so close that many thought they were twins. If they were twins, they were probably born around the year 478 or 480 in Nursia, Italy. Scholastica lived very much in the shadow of her brother, and the little we know about her comes from the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great.
Scholastica was consecrated to God at a very early age, and like most consecrated virgins of the Fifth century she lived in her parent's home. Benedict and Scholastica spent their youth together until Benedict came of the age which the law required him to go to Rome to study for an occupation. Benedict was not interested in learning a trade and ran away from Rome at the age of 15, "untaught though unwise" according to his biographer. He escaped to Subiaco where he lived in a grotto for three years. He eventually established a rule of life for monks and founded twelve monasteries.
The world in which Scholastica and Benedict lived was a violent world. The Roman empire was collapsing and was under attack by the Vandals, the Alani, the Suebians, Visigoths and Ostrogoths. Many of these barbarians were Christians, but they were Arian Christians, believers in a heresy which taught that the Son, the second person of the Trinity, was created by the Father, the first person of the Trinity. The Arians believed that Jesus was a kind of semi-divine, semi-created being. Scholastica and Benedict were orthodox, catholic, Christians, and so were those who lived in their houses. Their monasteries were bastions of orthodoxy in a sea of Italian Arianism. During the collapse of the Roman Empire and the society which it had created, the center of learning became the monasteries, and it was from the monasteries that those who helped form the new society came. Benedict founded a monastery at Monte Cassino, and Scholastica founded a monastery, or convent, for women five miles away in Plombariola. Both houses were under the rule of Benedict, which means that Scholastica was the first Benedictine nun.
According to the rules of both houses, men could not enter the convent and women could not enter the monastery, so Scholastica and Benedict used to meet once a year at a house located between the two houses where they would discuss spiritual matters and all that was involved in keeping their monasteries functioning.
St. Gregory the Great tells the story of their final meeting in his Dialogues Book II (The Life and Miracles of St. Benedict).
I'll post it here, but I'll warn you that translation is from the 19th century and the language is a bit flowery!
CHAPTER THIRTY THREE: OF A MIRACLE WROUGHT BY HIS SISTER SCHOLASTICA
GREGORY: Who is there, Peter, in this world, that is in greater favor with God than St. Paul was: who yet three times desired our Lord to be delivered from the sting of the flesh, and obtained not his petition? Concerning which point also I must needs tell you, how there was one thing which the venerable father Benedict would have done, and yet he could not. For his sister called Scholastica, dedicated from her infancy to our Lord, used once a year to come and visit her brother. To whom the man of God went not far from the gate, to a place that did belong to the Abbey, there to give her entertainment.
And she coming thither on a time according to her custom, her venerable brother with his monks went to meet her, where they spent the whole day in the praises of God and spiritual talk: and when it was almost night they supped together, and as they were yet sitting at the table, talking of devout matters, and darkness came on, the holy Nun his sister entreated him to stay there all night, that they might spend it in discoursing of the joys of heaven. But by no persuasion would he agree to that, saying that he might not by any means tarry all night out of his Abbey.
At that time, the sky was so clear that no cloud was to be seen. The Nun, receiving this denial of her brother, joining her hands together, laid them upon the table: and so, bowing down her head upon them, she made her prayers to almighty God: and lifting her head from the table, there fell suddenly such a tempest of lightning and thundering, and such abundance of rain, that neither venerable Benedict, nor his monks that were with him, could put their head out of door: for the holy Nun, resting her head upon her hands, poured forth such a flood of tears upon the table, that she drew the clear air to a watery sky, so that after the end of her devotions, that storm of rain followed: and her prayer and the rain did so meet together, that as she lifted up her head from the table, the thunder, so that in one and the very same instant, she lifted up her head and brought down the rain.
The man of God, seeing that he could not by reason of such thunder and lightning and great abundance of rain return back to his Abbey, he began to be heavy and to complain of his sister, saying: "God forgive you, what have you done?" to whom she answered: "I desired you to stay, and you would not hear me, I have desired our good Lord, and he hath vouchsafed to grant my petition: wherefore if you can now depart, in God's name return to your monastery, and leave me here alone."
But the good father, being not able to go forth, tarried there against his will, where willingly he would not stay. And so by that means they watched all night, and with spiritual and heavenly talk did mutually comfort one another: and therefore by this we see, as I said before. that he would have had that thing, which yet he could not: for if we respect the venerable man's mind, no question but he would have had the same fair weather to have continued as it was, when he set forth, but he found that a miracle did prevent his desire, which, by the power of almighty God, a woman's prayers had wrought.
It is not a thing to be marveled at, that a woman which of long time had not seen her brother, might do more at that time than he could, seeing, according to the saying of St. John, "God is charity" [1 John 4:8] and therefore of right she did more which loved more.
PETER: I confess that I am wonderfully pleased with that which you tell me.
CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR: HOW BENEDICT SAW THE SOUL OF HIS SISTER ASCEND INTO HEAVENLY GLORY.
The next day the venerable woman returned to her Nunnery, and the man of God to his Abbey: who three days after, standing in his cell, raising up his eyes to heaven, beheld the soul of his sister (which was departed from her body), in the likeness of a dove to ascend into heaven: who rejoicing much to see her great glory, with hymns and lauds gave the almighty God, and did impart the news of this her death to his monks, whom also he sent presently to bring her corpse to his Abbey, and had it buried in that grave which he had provided for himself; by means whereof it fell out that, as their souls were always one in God whiles they lived, so their bodies continued together after their death.
Okay, that was fun! Thank you, St. Gregory the Great! You know, when I get together with my sister, we aren't as holy and pious as Scholastica and Benedict; we actually like to complain about moments in our childhood and how our parents scarred us for life. But then, we haven't established convents and monasteries, either. We're just a couple of church musicians. But I digress. . . (okay, this paragraph wasn't in my sermon!)
St. Scholastica died around the year 543 and Benedict passed on not much later. Some say that we should only petition God for momentously important matters. God's love, however, is so great that God wishes to give us every good thing. God is ever ready to hear our prayers: our prayers of praise and thanksgiving, and our prayers of petition, repentance, and intercession. Nothing is too great or too trivial to share with our God. When we depend on God we learn that everything we are and have is from God's bountiful goodness; when we finally learn that lesson we turn to God with all our hopes and dreams and needs. Saint Scholastica is one who learned to depend on God and her life of dedication to God, to the sisters of her convent, and to her brother, makes her a model which we remember today.