23 February 2009

'How Beautiful Is Thy Soaring, Dear Daughter of the King!'—St Scholastica


Today, 10 February on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate St Scholastica of Italy, sister of St Benedict. Everything known about St Scholastica is contained in the 2nd Book of the Dialogues of St Gregory the Great, where St Gregory narrates the Life of St Benedict. In Chapters 33 and 34 of that book, we are told the following story, which I shall quote in full because of its brevity (taken from the OSB website):

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE: Of a Miracle Wrought by his Sister, Scholastica.

GREGORY: Who is there, Peter, in this world, that is in greater favor with God than St. Paul? Three times he petitioned our Lord to be delivered from the thorn of the flesh, and yet he did not obtain his petition. Speaking of that, I must tell you how there was one thing which the venerable father Benedict would have liked to do, but he could not.

His sister, named Scholastica, was dedicated from her infancy to our Lord. Once a year she came to visit her brother. The man of God went to her not far from the gate of his monastery, at a place that belonged to the Abbey. It was there he would entertain her. Once upon a time she came to visit according to her custom, and her venerable brother with his monks went there to meet her.

They spent the whole day in the praises of God and spiritual talk, and when it was almost night, they dined together. As they were yet sitting at the table, talking of devout matters, it began to get dark. The holy Nun, his sister, entreated him to stay there all night that they might spend it in discoursing of the joys of heaven. By no persuasion, however, would he agree to that, saying that he might not by any means stay all night outside of his Abbey.

At that time, the sky was so clear that no cloud was to be seen. The Nun, hearing this denial of her brother, joined her hands together, laid them on the table, bowed her head on her hands, and prayed to almighty God.

Lifting her head from the table, there fell suddenly such a tempest of lightning and thundering, and such abundance of rain, that neither venerable Benedict, nor his monks that were with him, could put their heads out of doors. The holy Nun, having rested her head on her hands, poured forth such a flood of tears on the table, that she transformed the clear air to a watery sky.

After the end of her devotions, that storm of rain followed; her prayer and the rain so met together, that as she lifted up her head from the table, the thunder began. So it was that in one and the very same instant that she lifted up her head, she brought down the rain.

The man of God, seeing that he could not, in the midst of such thunder and lightning and great abundance of rain return to his Abbey, began to be heavy and to complain to his sister, 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.’

But the good father, not being able to leave, tarried there against his will where before he would not have stayed willingly. By that means, they watched all night and with spiritual and heavenly talk mutually comforted one another.

Therefore, by this we see, as I said before, that he would have had one thing, but he could not effect it. For if we know the venerable man's mind, there is no question but that he would have had the same fair weather to have continued as it was when he left his monastery. He found, however, that a miracle prevented his desire. A miracle that, by the power of almighty God, a woman's prayers had wrought.

Is it not a thing to be marveled at, that a woman, who for a long time had not seen her brother, might do more in that instance than he could? She realized, according to the saying of St. John, ‘God is charity’ [1 John 4:8]. Therefore, as is right, she who loved more, did more.

PETER: I confess that I am wonderfully pleased with that which you tell me.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR: How Benedict Saw the Soul of his Sister Ascend into Heavenly Glory.

GREGORY: The next day the venerable woman returned to her nunnery, and the man of God to his abbey. Three days later, standing in his cell, and lifting up his eyes to heaven, he beheld the soul of his sister (which was departed from her body) ascend into heaven in the likeness of a dove.

Rejoicing much to see her great glory, with hymns and praise he gave thanks to almighty God, and imparted the news of her death to his monks. He sent them presently to bring her corpse to his Abbey, to have it buried in that grave which he had provided for himself. By this means it fell out that, as their souls were always one in God while they lived, so their bodies continued together after their death.

There aren’t many other details to add. St Demetrius of Rostov, in his Menology, adds only what we might have surmised: ‘[S]he passed her life in virtue and fasting, and was therefore pleasing unto the Lord’ (St Benedict of Nursia, trans. Rdr Isaac E. Lambertsen [Liberty, TN: St John of Kronstadt, 1989], p. 16). The OSB page tells us that the monastery where she lived was ‘Plumbariola, the first “Benedictine” convent’. That is all.

But there is a kind of consensus that this paucity of detail is rather monastic in spirit. In his commentary on this part of St Benedict’s Life (St Gregory the Great, The Life of St Benedict, comm. by Adalbert de Vogüé, trans. Hilary Costello and Eoin de Bhaldraithe [Petersham, MA: St Bede’s 1993], pp. 155-62), the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé gives us a brilliant comparison of St Gregory’s narrative with that of St Augustine in Confessions 9.10—the famous story of his conversation with his mother, St Monica (on p. 162, n. 3, de Vogüé, in his humility, admits that this was suggested to him by a 1980 German study of the Life by E. Jungclaussen and C. Pastro). In such a comparison, of course, it is obvious that St Augustine is much more forthcoming with information than St Gregory, although de Vogüé questions whether the latter ‘knew anything more about Benedict’s sister than what he has told us’ (p. 159). But he characterises St Gregory’s account of the conversation as one of ‘sobriety’ (p. 159), and of the account of St Scholastica’s repose, de Vogüé writes (pp. 159-60):
Benedict was not present at the death of his sister. He learns of it by a miracle, seeing her go up to heaven, and this news only fills him with joy, praise and thanksgiving. Death is absorbed in the victory and in the glory. Sadness, affection, affliction have no place here. Augustine’s most moving admissions give way to a stylized attitude of the man of God whose eyes, looking towards the invisible, ignore the earth.

It is an attitude reflected in the chapter on St Scholastica in Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourette’s beautiful little book, A Monastic Year: Reflections from a Monastery (Dallas: Taylor, 1996), p. 43, where he seems content to accept that she is ‘a quiet saint, for so little is known about her’, concluding, ‘Though little is known about her, the portrait that Pope Gregory gives is one of a very human and charming saint who makes the work of love and prayer the operative reasons for her life.’

It is also reflected in a wonderful post for St Scholastica for her feast on the papal calendar by the Cistercian blogger, Fr Mark Kirby of Vultus Christi. Fr Mark writes:

Apart from a few precious pages in the Dialogues of Saint Gregory, we know nothing of Saint Scholastica. The little revealed by Saint Gregory has, nonetheless, inspired an astonishing richness of liturgical texts: antiphons, responsories, hymns, and prayers. Like miners in search of a vein of pure gold, anonymous poets through the ages have extracted from Saint Gregory’s few pages the raw material of chants and prayers that, even today, delight us and draw us into the heavenward flight of Scholastica, the pure dove.

There is so much to see, to hear, to taste, to smell:

—psalms of praise sung around a table, men’s and women’s voices in antiphony;
—the breaking of bread and the fragrance of wine poured out;
—the impassioned sound of Mediterranean conversation;
—two saints locked in a holy difference of opinion;
—Scholastica’s hands folded upon the table;
—her head bowed and resting upon her hands;
—her tears flowing freely;
—the pentecostal wind, the crash of thunder and blaze of lightning;
—the torrential downpour, heaven’s answer to a woman’s tears.

Aside from this delightful post, Fr Mark has also given us a wonderful document appropriate both to the feast of St Scholastica, and this week of preparation before Clean Monday and Lent, which I shall reproduce in a second post.

In conclusion, I offer just one of the liturgical texts fashioned from the raw material of ‘St Gregory’s few pages’—a Hymn for the Feast of St Scholastica taken from Dom Laurence Shepherd’s translation of Dom Prosper Gueranger’s The Liturgical Year: Lent (Dublin: James Duffy, 1870), p. 416:


The shades of night are passing away:
the longed-for day is come,
when the virgin Scholastica
is united to her God, her Spouse.

Winter’s tedious gloom is over;
the rainy clouds are gone;
and the Spring of the starry land
yields its eternal flowers.

The God of love bids his beloved come;
and she, taking the wings of a dove,
flies swiftly to the embrace
so ardently desired.

How beautiful is thy soaring,
dear daughter of the King!
Thy Brother, the Abbot, sees thee,
and fervently thanks his God.

Scholastica receives the embrace of her Spouse,
and the crown her works have won;
inebriated with the torrent of glory,
she drinks of the joys of her Lord.

May the world-wide creation of every age,
adore thee, O Jesus,
sweet Flower of the vale,
together with the Father and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

1 comment:

orrologion said...

"The College of St. Scholastica is a Catholic Benedictine institution and the only independent private college in northeastern Minnesota."

I was always intrigued by the name of this school growing up in MN. I never really knew anything about it and wondered if the name referred not to a person but to a quality - scholasticism, scholastic work, etc. It was only much later that the internet and Google allowed me to find out something about what this saint was all about.

When my wife was dancing with a ballet company in Duluth (from January to March - I never realized how cold, cold, cold it could get: much colder than in the Twin Cities) I actually went up to the College and the convent. Terribly ugly, modern RC chapel - with the seemingly requisite Orthodox icon of to the side, of course, as in many an uber-liberal ECUSA parish).

Incidentally, the ballet company Board Member my wife was staying with while there had been a former nun of this convent before leaving in the 70s when it became allowed.