Sunday, August 23, 2009

Scholastica: The Heroine's Journey

I suppose it was an odd place for an epiphany. It was July in an abandoned Church just outside of Norcia, Italy. The Church is named after Scholastica, the twin sister of Benedict. According to tradition it is the site of Scholastica’s first monastery, on the site of their families country estate. About thirty of us Benedictine sisters from three continents stood under the old frescoes with scenes from the life of Benedict and Scholastica and renewed our monastic profession. As we had many years or only a few years before we recited the Suscipe, the Psalm verse used in the profession ceremony: “Receive me O Lord as you have promised that I may live, and disappoint me not in my hope.” We then promised once more to live our lives according to obedience, stability and fidelity to the monastic way of life.

In this place past and present merged for a moment. All of us represented the daughters of Scholastica, part of the company of women who have lived monastic life, like Scholastica, usually in humble, unsung, out of the way places for over 1500 years. We were a living manifestation of the always tenacious, often hidden face of women’s monasticism, monasticism that is about faithfulness to God in daily life.

The story of Benedict and Scholastica is perhaps the archetypal story of men’s and women’s monasticism. All we know of both Benedict and Scholastica comes from the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great, written not long after Benedict’s death in 547. In this story Benedict embodies many of the classic elements of the hero’s journey. After his birth to a wealthy family he goes to study in Rome. Repelled by the decadence of the city he flees to live a solitary, holy life in a cave in Subiaco. He is then asked to help a small community of monks who proceed to try to poison them when he tries to reform them. He leaves but again is called to be the founder of a new type of monasticism and to write the Rule that monastics follow to this day.

Of Scholastica we know much less. She was consecrated as a virgin from childhood, living an enclosed life in community. In a famous section of Gregory’s life of Benedict she is presented as the one who knows the value of love over law. In this story Benedict and Scholastica were meeting together as they did once a year to discuss the spiritual life. When evening came Benedict insisted he had to leave, he could not stay out all night in violation of his own rule. He refused when Scholastica insisted he stay. Scholastica then lowered her head, cried and began to pray. As soon as she did a severe thunderstorm erupted, so severe that Benedict had to stay. Benedict rebuked her saying: "God forgive you, what have you done?" 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. Therefore if you can now depart, in God's name return to your monastery, and leave me here alone." And after that they spent the night in holy conversation.

So this is Scholastica, a woman who lived a life centered on God from childhood. She knew the value of relationships and the need to nurture relationships on a regular basis. She understood the need for rules and structures but she also knew rules and structures have to be flexible, they bend to suit the needs of people, people are not bent to serve the needs of the rule. Scholastica knew the power of prayer accompanied by tears and rooted in love. Scholastica may not have been the one who wrote the Rule, but she is the one who understood and lived its essence.

The story of Scholastica is the story of women’s monasticism. It is not the hero’s journey like Benedict, full of escapades in exotic places, battling the external forces of evil and returning triumphant. The story of Scholastica is the heroine’s journey, the women’s journey to holiness. Women’s lives are seldom documented and when they are they are usually the story of a more domestic holiness, the holiness of the ordinary, not the extraordinary.

Scholastica’s journey was one of experiencing ever deeper levels of holiness in the ordinariness of everyday life. She and her sisters probably did not travel much, no one thought their way of life important enough to document. Her life and the lives of most monastic women through history were lives in which domesticity begins to take on the divine. In the daily round of meals, prayer and work the ordinary is sanctified and becomes the means of transformation. God is present in the daily service of one another, in the common prayers. The daily grinding of personalities, weaknesses, bearing one another’s burdens becomes the raw material of transformation, the slow, un-ending process of being remade into the image and likeness of Christ.

Most of the monastic daughters of Scholastica have lived unknown lives. Their feats have not been extraordinary, seemingly they haven’t changed the world through lives of devotion in hidden places. But what they knew and what they lived is the reality that monastic life is about love, it is about relationships, it is about being transformed in our desire for God as we live lives grounded in the sanctity of the ordinary. Scholastica is a heroine for our day.

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