Benedict & Scholastica

Benedict & Scholastica

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By Bill Schulz

Two of the most well-known figures of the late Patristic period, Saint Benedict of Nursia and his sister, Saint Scholastica, are regarded by both the Church and many scholars of the period as key figures in early Christian monasticism.

But who were they? Scholastica, in particular, is subjected to a great deal of scrutiny, as little contemporary proof of her existence has been found. Both of the holy twins, as they were born on the same day in the year 480 in a little town in the rugged, central Italian highlands of Umbria, are mentioned by Pope Saint Gregory the Great in his four volume Dialogues, but we know little beyond that. Although revered in the Church today, what do we really know about this holy brother and sister who served God so faithfully?

Benedict

Saint Benedict and his Rule are much in the news of late, as Eastern Orthodox author Rod Dreher has recently released a book entitled The Benedict Option¸ discussing the application of Benedict’s ideals to contemporary America. Benedict was the founder of the Benedictine Order and the author of the Rule of Benedict, a guide for those seeking a more regimented, communal monastic life.

Although many Catholics today tend to view monasticism and Benedictine monasticism synonymously, in Benedict’s day, monasticism was more often than not eremitic (hermits). The great desert fathers like Saint Anthony had already established a strong tradition of Christian spirituality centered on hermits living their lives in seclusion and prayer more than a hundred years before Benedict’s time. Nevertheless, even from the Fourth century, there was some interest in forming cenobitic (communal) monasteries, the first of these likely being founded by Saint Pachomius.

Benedict was born into a wealthy family and came of age during the reign of the barbarians in Italy, following the fall of Rome. Still a young man of Benedict’s background had tremendous opportunities in life. He rejected this life in favor of his calling to serve God as a monk.  Finding Rome to be a city of degenerates, pagans, and worldly temptation, he retreated to the countryside, there to found a small community of Christians dedicated to a regimented life of prayer and work. In order to provide a formal system of rules for the rapidly expanding monastic community, Benedict authored a set of rules regulating much of a monk’s conduct. These rules, still in use today by some orders, are collectively referred to as the Rule of Saint Benedict.

Pope Gregory tells us of the many works performed by Benedict during his life. Here is where, perhaps, we begin to drift into the realm of legend, as Gregory tells us that almost all that he knows of Benedict is what he was told by four of Benedict’s monks: Constantinus, Honoratus, Simplicius, and Valentinianus. He relates how Benedict experienced visions, performed exorcisms, was granted the gift of prophecy, raised the dead, and walked on water (or gave to another the power to walk on water). Of course, none of these things is beyond the power of saint, yet we know so little of Benedict’s life beyond what we are told by Gregory. Was he one man, or a series of holy men, known to Gregory through the stories of Benedictine monks? Some scholars believe that the latter is more likely, and Gregory’s use of the contemporary formula for writing about the lives of the saints makes it reasonable to believe that Benedict is merely a literary construct.[1]

 

Scholastica

Of course every doubt about Saint Benedict is magnified exponentially regarding Saint Scholastica. Gregory mentions her in only one chapter of his Dialogues, and it is chiefly from this source that our knowledge springs. Scholastica is described as a woman “dedicated from her infancy to God.”[1] She was a nun, living in a small community of women consecrated to God’s service.  Beyond this, we know very little.

Gregory tells us that she regularly visited Benedict at a place not far from his monastery, and that she and the other nuns conversed with Benedict and his monks. Shortly before her death, during one of her regular visits to Benedict, Scholastica asked him to remain visiting with her overnight, something Benedict and the other monks were not allowed to do.  Despite her entreaties, Benedict would not relent, arguing that he and the other monks could not tarry outside beyond the walls of the monastery overnight.

Gregory says that at this point, Scholastica prayed to God that her brother might remain with her. Out of a clear sky, rain and harsh wind suddenly emerged preventing Benedict from returning to his monastery. As Gregory tells us, “And 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 and therefore of right she did more which loved more.”[2]

Scholastica disappears shortly after Gregory introduces her, as her death is mentioned in the very next chapter of his Dialogues. Three days after their first and only all day and night meeting, Benedict looked up from his prayers and saw her soul ascend to heaven in the likeness of a dove. Her ordered her body brought to the monastery at Monte Cassino and buried in the tomb he had made for himself.  Nothing is mentioned of Scholastica after this, and historians have found precious little more evidence of her life and works.

 

 

Benedict and Scholastica

Because of the turbulence of the time they lived in, many records were lost and as a result we may never know the reality of Benedict and Scholastica’s historical existence. Perhaps, as today’s scholars conjecture, Benedict was simply an amalgamation of many holy men who, together, founded the Order of St. Benedict and composed the Rule. Perhaps there was a real Benedict, whose Rule and Order were expanded by many disciples who, together, we credit as St. Benedict. Or, perhaps, Catholic tradition and Dante are correct;  there was a real St. Benedict, who sits now in the sphere of Heaven reserved for the contemplatives, a shining example of Christian purity..” 

St. Scholastica, too, may have been a real person, the twin sister of St. Benedict, whose passage to Heaven he witnessed. Perhaps, as some have suggested, she was merely a literary device, invented solely to “illustrate the Benedictine practice of reflective study.”[1] Regardless, she has served as the ideal of feminine Benedictine spirituality. Her love for her brother was so great, and her faith in God’s love and charity so strong, that her prayer for a miracle was granted, and she spent what was almost the last night of her life in prayer and conversation with her beloved brother.

Rarely in history have two such intensely pious souls been so tightly joined as have those of the twins, Benedict and Scholastica. In these troubled times, they can provide an example of the power of faith, love, and prayer to all Christians. Certainly, the Rule continues to play a significant function in Christian monasticism, but beyond that, the wisdom of the holy twins and their way of life should serve as a guide and inspiration to us all. 

[1] Sister Margaret Clarke, OSB, “St. Benedict and St. Scholastica,” from the College of St. Scholastica’s website, http://www.css.edu/about/mission-integration/st-benedict-and-st-scholastica.html

[1] See, for example, essays and articles by Pearse Aidan Cusack, W. Goffart, Roger Pearse, and J. H. Wansborough discussing the historicity and interpretations of Saint Benedict.

[2] Pope Saint Gregory the Great, Dialogues, Philip Warner (trans.), (London, 1911), Book II, chapter 33. The whole of the work is available online for free at Roger Pearse’s website: http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/index.htm#

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sister Margaret Clarke, OSB, “St. Benedict and St. Scholastica,” from the College of St. Scholastica’s website, http://www.css.edu/about/mission-integration/st-benedict-and-st-scholastica.html

 

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