St. Scholastica — She Could Do More, Because She Loved More
Catholics owe a great debt to this saint and her brother, St. Benedict, for their complementary roles in preserving Christian tradition in the early Middle Ages.
Several weeks ago, at our parish library, my 5-year-old son picked up a book on St. Benedict and his twin sister, St. Scholastica. That afternoon, we curled up on the couch to read it, my younger son also nestled beside me.
Although the writing and illustrations were beautiful, I did not expect my little boys, besotted as they are with sword-bearing saints like Martin of Tours and Joan of Arc, to be overly enthusiastic about the story of these monastic siblings. Instead, they eagerly listened, and throughout the week they constantly brought the book to me and my husband for yet another reading. I cannot say what it was in the book that so enchanted their young minds, but I was hardly less intrigued. I had a cursory knowledge of St. Benedict’s life and work, but I confess to almost a complete ignorance of his holy sister.
In reading her story, I was delighted to uncover the pious and precocious Scholastica, the first playmate of the great saint. Inseparable as children, the two remained in close contact even after Benedict was sent away to school and Scholastica was sent to finish her schooling at a convent. Years later, when Benedict founded his monastery at Monte Cassino, the birthplace of the Benedictine Order, Scholastica settled only a few miles away with her own group of sisters, establishing the first order of nuns living under the rule of Benedict.
Although, as was proper, Scholastica deferred to her brother’s authority on all matters spiritual, one charming tale has trickled down through the centuries, allowing us a small glimpse into how God often uses our own families to gently show us more of his heart.
Once a year, the brother and sister would trek from their respective monasteries, and spend the day at a house halfway between the two. No overnight stays were permitted in the order and at the end of the day each would return to their homes. However, one year, the twins were so absorbed in their discussions that the sun set without their noticing. Distressed, Benedict immediately began to prepare to leave so as not to break his own rule. Scholastica, perhaps with some premonition of her impending death, begged him to stay so that they could continue their conversation. Her fastidious brother refused, ignoring the grief his inflexibility caused his sister. Not to be put off, Scholastica immediately bowed her head in prayer, tears welling in her eyes. Moments later, a tremendous storm blew in, rendering the roads impassable for the night. Angered by what he perceived as his sister’s weakness, Benedict demanded to know what she had done.
Scholastica calmly replied, “I asked a favor of you, and you refused to listen to me. So I asked my God, and he, more generous than you, granted my request.” Chastised by his sister’s humble faith, Benedict remained with her and the two continued their prayerful conversation unbroken until morning when he departed.
Three days later, Scholastica would pass into eternity. Sitting in his monastery, Benedict saw a vision of his sister’s soul ascending to heaven and knew instantly that she had died. Heartbroken, he had her body brought back to his monastery and entombed in a grave, where he himself would also be buried.
Benedict would go down in history, and rightfully so, as the great reformer whose monastic order shepherded Christendom through the violence and upheaval of a post-Roman world. In a world devolving into chaos, Benedict injected rules and order. But like many effective and competent administrators, he sometimes favored discipline over love, a fact illustrated by the small group of disgruntled monks who once tried to poison him out of annoyance at his rigidity. How poetic then that the Divine Author, knowing the great task that he had set for this man, and knowing the exact skills he would need to accomplish it, attached him, from the womb, with a gentle sister who would soften his often rigid zeal. While his monks may not have been able to question his decisions, the girl who had run and played with him in the fields behind their home could know the precise words to remind him that duty without love was of no interest to God.
Writing the century after Scholastica’s death, Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote that compared to her brother, “She could do more, because she loved more.”
If we have Benedict to thank for preserving Christian tradition at the onset of the Middle Ages, then it is his sister we must also thank for allowing God to use her when her brother needed gentle correction and a quiet reminder that love was not less important than the traditions he was entrusted with to protect.
St. Scholastica, pray for us!