Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Feast of St Scholastica


Born in 480AD, St Scholastica was the twin sister of St Benedict, and abbess of a nearby monastery to his - the origin of the Benedictine tradition of twinned men's and women's monasteries. Relatively little is known of her life - St Gregory the Great's Dialogues contain the only two surviving stories attesting to her holiness.

Life of St Scholastica

The first story tells of how St Scholastica out did her brother in prayer, getting God to bring on a thunderstorm in order to prevent St Benedict cutting short her annual visit to him (he was being a bit of a wowser). The second story is of St Benedict being granted a vision of her entry into heaven in the form of a dove, in 547.

St Scholastica and the history of Benedictine nuns

One of the interesting aspects of the first story is the idea of an annual visit by a nun to a monk. While many contemporary, and virtually all later orders made a significant distinction between monks and nuns in terms of enclosure, with women generally much more strictly enclosed, feminine versions of the Benedictine Rule from the middle ages typically just changed the gender references and dropped the two chapters relating to the selection and entry of priests.

And in fact a letter attributed to St Scholastica discovered a few years back and featured on Vultus Christi provides some nice supporting evidence on that. It was apparently written around 535, and survives in a later medieval copy. Even if it isn't genuine (and while I don't know what the status of the research on this is, it certainly sounds plausible!), it does presumably reflect some of the thinking of the later medieval monastery.

And either way, it provides some excellent on how to tackle Lent to ponder as we move ever closer to its start!




A remarkable letter

"To my beloved sister in Christ, the Lady Flavia, abbess of the handmaids of the Lord near Benevento.Grace and peace from Scholastica, abbess in the school of the Lord’s service that is at Plombariola.

....Know that I have no teaching of my own; from the time of my veiling (velatio) the commands and teaching of my brother, blessed by grace and by name, “have mingled like the leaven of divine justice in my mind” (RB 25).

In truth, dear sister, he who is my brother according to the flesh, has become my father in the Spirit. It was he who named me Scholastica, saying that, like him, I was destined to remain in the “school of the Lord’s service” (RB Pro:45). In this school I have found “nothing that is harsh or hard to bear” (RB Pro:46). On the contrary, through the continual practice of monastic observance and the life of faith” (RB Pro:49), my heart is opened wide, and even now I am running in the way of God’s commandments in a sweetness of love that is beyond words (cf. RB Pro: 49).

I see my venerable brother but once a year, and even then he refuses to come to me, not wanting to leave the enclosure of his monastery. I am obliged to go to him at Monte Cassino, inspired by the example of the Queen of the South who traveled far to sit at the feet of Solomon and listen to his wisdom. My brother himself says that “we must hurry to do now what will profit us forever” (RB Pro 44). I will continue to go to him as long as I am able to make the journey, trusting that he who formed us together in our mother’s womb will one day bring us “together to life everlasting” (cf. RB 73:12).

You ask me to tell you how we observe Lent here at Plombariola. My venerable brother, in his “little Rule written for beginners” (RB 73:8), says that “a monk’s life ought at all seasons to bear a Lenten character” (RB 49:1).

He is also the first to admit that “such strength is found only in the few” (RB 49:2). Following his teaching, I urge my sisters to “keep the holy days of Lent with a special purity of life, and also at this holy season to make reparation for the failings of other times” (RB 49:3). I try to order Lent in my monastery with “discretion, the mother of virtues” (RB 54:19) in such a way that “the strong may desire to carry more, and the weak are not afraid” (RB 54:19)....

My venerable brother says that we are to “guard ourselves from faults” during this holy time. To do this, one must “always remember all God’s commandments, and constantly turn over in one’s heart how hell will burn those who despise him by their sins and how eternal life has been prepared for those who fear him” (RB 7:11). My brother calls this the first step of humility. As for me, my faults appear daily in the bright mirror of the Scriptures. I have no excuse for putting off the labour of my conversion. As the psalmist says: “Thou hast set our evil-doings before Thee, our secret sins in the light of Thy countenance” (Ps 89:8).

My venerable brother recommends four Lenten practices: “prayer with tears, reading, compunction of heart, and abstinence” (RB 49:4).

The first, prayer with tears, has always come easily to me. God has never refused me anything I asked of him with tears. I have no doubt that he “has set my tears in his sight” (Ps 55:9). Tears in prayer are no cause for alarm. The heart pressed by the hand of God in prayer weeps just as a sponge held tightly in your hand or mine gives forth water.

Sacred reading is my brother’s second Lenten practice. He considers it so important that he completely changes the horarium of his monastery during Lent to make more time for it. Here we do the same. Nothing is done at Monte Cassino that we do not do here at Plombariola. In Lent our hours of reading are “from the morning until the end of the Third Hour” (RB 48:14). This means we do not begin work after Prime, as is the custom at other times, but consecrate to sacred reading the best three hours of the morning. We are alert then, and the early morning light in the cloister is wonderfully clear and bright....

My venerable brother says that during this sacred season we are “to increase in some way the normal standard of our service, as for example, by special prayers, or by a diminution in food or drink” (RB 49:5-6). It is edifying to see Nonna Aquilina lingering in the oratory after Compline. Even Pulcheria, our littlest oblate, asked me if she might give up the sweet bread and butter given her after None each day. Nonna Marcellina asked me if she might pray the Beati immaculati (Psalm 118) daily through Lent. She knows it by heart, of course. Ah, dear Mother Flavia, joys such as these compensate abundantly for the anxieties and sorrows that an abbess so often carries within her heart.

My venerable brother says that Lenten joy is the most important thing of all. Some would make of Lent a time of gloom and lamentation. Not my brother!..."

This epistle is already too long, dear Mother Flavia, and I am obliged to write now with smaller letters in the margins of the parchment, but there is still one important thing on which my venerable brother insists. Before my first Lent as abbess, he said that “every sister should propose to me whatever she intends to offer, and it should be performed with my blessing and approval” (cf. RB 49:8-9). This was very humbling for me, I hardly felt equal to the task, but he reminded me that I should “always bear in mind what I am called, and fufill in my actions the name of One who is called greater” (RB 2:1-2). I give you the same counsel, dear sister in Christ: “Anything done without the permission of the spiritual mother will be put down to presumption and vainglory, and deserving no reward” (RB 49:9). Do then as I do, following the example of my venerable brother. “Everything must be carried out with the approval of the abbess” (RB 49:10)...

+ Scholastica, abbess"

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