(A confession: I am beginning to figure out that approximately 32.975% of my distressing aversion to writing might be attributable to the sin of gluttony. Take the story of Saints Scholastica and Benedict, for instance—there’s so much doggone material to write about that I had a heck of a time picking just one piece of it. I mean have you read this stuff?? It is crazy good story telling. Aargh! This blog will be the death of me yet.)
|Icon of Saints Benedict and Scholastica by Amanda Hunter © 2010|
Seriously, have you read the story of Saints Scholastica and Benedict recently? Take five minutes to do so. Here’s a link, in case you don’t have your copy of the Dialogues handy: http://www.osb.org/gen/scholastica.html. Go on now. I’ll wait here until you come back.
Done? No, come on, read it. Really. It’s short—it will take five minutes max. You’ll like it. Trust me. Here’s the link again: http://www.osb.org/gen/scholastica.html.
See? I told you it was good stuff! Gregory the Great weaves a nifty little yarn about a family reunion between two venerable old monastic founders, Saint Benedict and his (as legend has it, twin) sister Saint Scholastica. It’s a good reminder that saints aren’t angels with clipped wings; they were made of regular old dust and ashes, just like us, and have real-life earthly kin, the same as we do. Every one of them has a “past,” even if they behaved better in theirs than we did in ours.
As helpful as it is to remember their blessed humanity, it is, of course, not the point of the story. Gregory tells us about this episode in response to the question of whether a holy person “can always carry out their wishes, or at least obtain through prayer whatever they desire?” The answer is plainly no. With the notable exception of Jesus—who doesn’t really count because he had the obvious advantage of being fully divine as well as fully human—not even the holiest among us can always get what they want, even if they pray extra, extra hard for it. This insight ought to be a comfort for us as we bumble through our own prayers, asking for good weather or healing or world peace or a winning lottery ticket (proceeds to be used only for charitable purposes, of course). Too often either nothing seems to “happen” or the answer is “Nuh-uh.” As they say, the only prayer that never fails is “Thy will be done.”
Okay, but if that is the one lesson to be learned from the story, then why did Gregory end by talking about love? When you think about it, Saint Benedict was behaving in a pretty un-Benedict manner here. Saint Scholastica asked him to extend their annual Jesusfest for a few hours and he said no. So she prayed her heart out to the Almighty, got the miracle she requested, and what did her brother do? He got ticked off about it, chastised her and stayed only “unwillingly.” Is this the same guy who wrote 73 chapters of instructions on how to get better at loving God and one another?? Is it the same guy who started the whole thing by telling us to Listen?? “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your heart, holy abbot!” Call me crazy, but if someone prayed for me to stick around and got an immediate monsoon from God to make me do so, I’d like to think that I’d have sense enough to yield to the Message rather than griping about missing curfew.
Some commentators have suggested that in this instance, “Benedict is, as it were, paralyzed by his faithfulness to the Rule.”[i] This assertion has the unfortunate implication that the story pits law against love. One could certainly draw such a conclusion; but again, it hardly fits with the image of a man whose life’s work has been lauded through the centuries for its moderation and grace. He said himself that the whole purpose of the Rule is not only to “amend faults” but to “safeguard love” (RB Prol 47). Maybe he just got crabby when it was too far past his bedtime. He was an old guy by this point, after all.
Mostly I wonder if Benedict wasn’t missing some important clue here. What was going on with Scholastica in that room? Did he not pick up on her urgency and wonder what it was all about? Granted, they lived apart from each other since their youth and only got together once a year at most, but Gregory tells us that they were so close that “their souls had always been one in God.” Benedict even arranged that the two of them would share the same grave. Could this man of Vision and of visions not see that his twin would be dead in three days? After all, Scholastica seems to have known it.
I have only been with a dying person once. It was an experience I will never forget. There were moments during my friend’s last days when he shined with a light that I can with absolute certainty say was not an earthly one. Hospice and hospital chaplains have told me that it’s a common phenomenon, a sign of the holy taking hold. Our true visage coming to light as the masks drop away, perhaps? If that other worldly glow is in essence a seeping through of the divine fire which resides in us always, why don’t we see it in one another every day? If we did, I suspect that we would be a whole lot better at genuinely receiving all as Christ.
If Saint Scholastica was aware that she was nearing the Heart of Love, maybe that is why her love was so much more effective on this occasion. It’s the power of proximity. What extravagant things could we accomplish if we, in choosing every day to draw closer to Christ, were able to unleash more of the divine light within us? Now that would be another great story, wouldn’t it?
God bless you in Love and loving. Happy Feast!
[i]Adalbert de Vogüé commentary on Gregory the Great, The Life of Saint Benedict (NY: Fordham University Press,1993) 160.