We know very little about St. Scholastica, whose memorial we celebrate today, on February 10, and what we do know is a mix of history and legend. In that regard, she is in good company. I can imagine many of the saints looking down upon humanity from their heavenly abodes, laughing with one another at the manner in which their life stories morph from one telling to another as the great storytellers attempted to inspire, motivate and, yes, even entertain the people of God.
It was at the end of the 5th century that St. Scholastica and her more famous twin, St. Benedict lived and died. They were born into a wealthy family but that wealth could not prevent the death of their mother in childbirth. Most likely this loss served to strengthen the bond between them. Benedict was eventually sent off to study in Rome, a privilege not extended to women of the time. But true to her name, Scholastica found a way to learn, to think and to talk about God through her brother. Each of the siblings was drawn to monastic life. Benedict founded a community in Monte Cassino for whom he wrote his famous Rule of St. Benedict. Scholastica adopted the same rule for her group of women. 364 days of the year, the twins remained in their monasteries but for one day each year, they met in the guest house just outside Monte Cassino. (Men and women could not enter one another’s monasteries.) At this annual meeting, the two were known to spend hours in prayer, study and conversation about theology and the spiritual life. Their souls were said to be “one with God.” I imagine neither one of them wanted the day to come to a close!
That was definitely the case at one meeting. One meeting that was their last. One meeting that was recorded by a Pope.
According to Pope St. Gregory the Great, having finished dinner Benedict arose to return to his cell. Scholastica asked him to stay longer. He was reluctant. To remain beyond the set time would mean breaking the Rule which he, himself had written. Scholastica did not plead. She did not argue. She did not get angry. She went above his head. And who is above one of the greatest monastic leaders in history? The Lord God, that’s who! As Scholastica prayed, “there fell suddenly such a tempest of lightning and thundering, and such abundance of rain” that no one could “put their head out of doors.” “What have you done?” asked Benedict. She answered him, “I desired you to stay, and you would not hear me; I have desired it of our good Lord, and he has granted my petition.” Benedict surrendered and had, unknowingly, his final long and wonderful conversation with his sister.
Three days later, Scholastica was called home to God. Her brother had her placed in his own tomb at Monte Cassino and would join her only a few months later.
I love this story. It reminds me to treasure every one of those soul-to-soul encounters I have with people I love as if it is the last. For it may very well be. It reminds me that when I deeply desire something, it may be more effective to turn to prayer than to whining (to which I am prone) or argument (to which I am also prone). I hardly expect the Lord to deliver a thunderstorm so that I get my way, but who knows what sort of results may come to be?
(This story and the direct quotes are found in Gregory the Great, Dialogues, 33. More of the scant but interesting details of Scholastica’s life and afterlife can be found in Mary Richard Boo, O.S.B. and Joan Braun, OS.B. “Emerging from the Shadows: St. Scholastica,” in Medieval Women Monastics: Wisdom’s Wellsprings.)
Christine Way Skinner is a lay minister and author. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Theology degree from St. Francis Xavier University and a Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School. She is currently working on a Doctorate in Theology at St. Michael’s College in Toronto. Christine loves trying to find inclusive, compelling and creative ways to pass on the church’s 2000 year old traditions. She enjoys exploring the arts, gardening and engaging conversations. Christine’s numerous publications can be found and purchased here.