Today is the feast of St Scholastica, twin sister of St Benedict, and regarded as foundress of Benedictine nuns.
Only a few incidents of the saints life have been recorded and transmitted down to us, mostly in St Gregory the Great's Life of St Benedict, but those few are powerful attestations to a holiness that outshone even her brother's.
A few years ago, though, Vultus Christi blog published a letter claiming to be by St Scholastica to another Abbess, discovered in the form of a later medieval copy. Whether or not it is genuine, it does give a good exposition of the Benedictine approach to Lent, so I thought it would be timely to reproduce the relevant section of it here today in the lead up to that holy season.
Choose a penance suited to your own capabilities!
Over at Fr Corrigan's A Country Priest blog, a reader, Stephen K, argues that the idea of doing positive things as Lenten penances, such as extra prayers or reading, is not a genuine penance, and that choosing our penances inevitably leads to self-indulgence.
The traditional view, however, is that our penances should be adapted to our own strengths and weaknesses, aimed at helping us persevere, not setting ourselves up to fail, as St Scholastica advises:
"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). The task of ruling souls and serving women of different characters is, as you know well, arduous and difficult (cf. RB 2:31). I must adapt and fit myself to all. Dear old Nonna Fabiola needs to be encouraged. Sister Petronilla, thick-skinned as she is, responds only to sharp rebuke, whereas Sister Anastasia has to be persuaded. With some, I have to be tough, and with others lovingly affectionate. This is my brother’s way, and by following it, I have “not lost any of the flock entrusted to me, and rejoice as my good flock increases” (RB 2:32).
Penance and conversion
Over at a Country Priest, Stephen K also argues that the very idea of choosing a penance is somehow Pelagian. St Scholastica provides some sound advice on the spirit with which we must approach Lent:
"...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.
The role of the spiritual director
Mr K also suggests that selecting our penances is necessarily self-indulgent, and St Scholastica does warn of the potential dangers in this area that we must struggle against.
Ideally, of course, we should seek the guidance of our spiritual director or regular confessor on our choices. Most people, however, do not have access to such a person and must do the best they can.
In ages part, of course (and still in the Eastern Churches), the Church chose a suitable penance for us, in the form of fasting and abstinence, and one simple approach would be to simply adopt this as our regime for Lent.
Another approach is to make choices within a set framework such as that provided by St Benedict, so that the choice, for example, is not whether to read a spiritual book for Lent, but which one; the choice is not whether to do extra prayer, what form it should take; and the choice is not what to stint ourselves of food-wise, but what particular indulgence to cut out.
Clearly in making these choices we should draw on our self-knowledge of what we need, as opposed to what we want to do. Fr Corrigan suggests testing what we do choose to do in prayer and I think that is good advice.
Here is the letter's take on the subject:
"When your letter arrived I was, in fact, choosing Lenten books from our library for my nuns. My venerable brother says that this is one of the most important tasks of an abbess. When a sister chooses her own book she is all too often swayed by personal prejudices and taste. It is easy to avoid the book that will prick the soul with compunction. And so I choose carefully for my little flock, imitating Nonna Lucia, our infirmarian, an expert dispenser of medicines for every affliction. In choosing the Lenten books, I try to offer a remedy for the sick soul, a comfort for the weary, a joy for the downhearted, a light for the path of the one who seems to have lost her way. Following my brother’s practice, I will give them out on the First Sunday of Lent. Each sister will come forward to receive her book from my hand, seeing in it a provision of daily bread for the forty days of the Great Fast. After Pascha, the nuns will return their books in good condition, having read them through from the beginning (cf. RB 48:15).
Prayer and abstinence
"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.
Nor is there anything wrong with penances that are positive in character:
"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! When I asked him on my last visit to Monte Cassino how my nuns were to keep Lent, he smiled broadly and said, “Let each one spontaneously in the joy of the Holy Spirit make some offering to God concerning the allowance granted her” (RB 49:6). My brother is known for his gravitas, but to me he reveals a heart brimming over with joy in the Holy Spirit. It is true that he has no time for silliness, or giddy laughter, or talkativeness -- he has always loved silence more than talking, even from the time we were children -- but that silence is the seal of his joy. He pours out his joy like a fine wine, with discretion; but his joy itself is boundless."
Often my venerable brother speaks of offering. He wants our Lenten practices to be a holy oblation offered to God (cf. RB 49:6). I saw him once standing close to the altar at the moment of Holy Communion with his hands raised in prayer, completely taken up in the offering of Christ to the Father of infinite majesty. This, I think, is why he prescribed the singing of the Suscipe before the altar on the day of my monastic consecration."