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Over and above the rules

· Elisa Zamboni talks about St Scholastica ·

On the threshold of the sixth century a woman was celebrated by a Pope, Gregory the Great, with a description that encapsulates the whole of her life: “She who loved more, did more”. Her life is intensely concentrated in two chapters of Gregory the Great’s Second Book of Dialogues, dedicated in their entirety to St Benedict.

In these chapters – one of Gregory’s most beautiful passages – the last meeting between Scholastica and her brother is described. Scholastica, born in about 480 and known to have been the sister of the great father of monasticism of the West, thus appears in a book dedicated to the viri Dei, “men of God”, whose lives are recounted as examples for all Christians to imitate. The narration aims to make comprehensible concepts which would otherwise be inaccessible to simple and illiterate people. They are exhortatory compositions that suggest examples of holiness for imitation without investigating their historical data. The only source we have therefore leaves many questions unanswered, partly because Gregory speaks of Scholastica solely with reference to Benedict. And it is precisely this relationship as siblings which makes Scholastica’s name a feminine reference for the beginning of Western monasticism.

Jean de Stavelot, “Episodes concerning St Scholastica” (15th century)

The brother and sister would meet once a year in a place not far from Benedict’s monastery. Once, after a day spent in prayer and spiritual dialogue, Scholastica expressed the wish to prolong their conversation throughout the night. Benedict’s refusal was immediate, faithful as he was to the Rule that does not permit monks to spend a night outside the monastery. On hearing Benedict’s words, Scholastica prayed until she wept and unleashed a sudden storm so violent as to prevent her brother from returning to the monastery. Thus, in spite of himself, Benedict spent the night in conversation with his sister. They only parted from each other the following morning and three days later Scholastica died. The whole of her life prior to this episode is summed up by Gregory in a single line: Scholastica was consecrated to the Lord from her earliest years. And now the sanctimonialis femina is defined, an expression which indicates a virgin without specifying the cenobitic form of life: it can also indicate a consecrated virgin who lives in a village or with her family. Nevertheless the beginnings of Scholastica’s vocation may be traced back by following in Benedict’s footsteps. We may suggest that his influence, with his firm abandonment of the family and of his studies, was such as to delineate for her too the form of monastic-cenobitic life that he was to live, first in Subiaco and then in Montecassino. Thus their blood ties were merged into an even more definitive bond in their common vocation, which made them one in Christ.

The relationship between Benedict and Scholastica is described as a human relationship of reciprocal love, marked by tenderness. It was a relationship that developed within their personal love for God: they visited one another once a year, and during their meetings prayed, sought God and discussed all that they had most at heart. The atmosphere of the encounter was marked by joy, just as joy was to characterize Scholastica’s death, the only other fact we can find in the pages of the Dialogue. After her death, Scholastica’s soul, seen by Benedict, penetrated heaven in the form of a dove. Joy and glory are the feelings that this death inspired in him.

Scholastica was a “pupil” at that “school of divine service” which was the monastery according to Benedict’s Rule. She who preferred nothing to the love of Christ was truly seeking God (cf. Rule, 58, 7), and consequently prayer (cf. 4, 21; 43, 3). She entirely fulfilled the words of the Rule with her life. The prayer that welled up from her pure heart was her strength: the intensity of her supplication and the abundance of her tears obtained for her what she ardently desired. Scholastica, who lived her life in absolute faithfulness to the vocation which from childhood she had felt to be her own forma vitae in accordance with the Gospel, now showed that she had persevered in this simple, sound faith.

In the narration of the Dialogues she is presented as a peaceful and free female figure. She was a woman with all the attributes of femininity: sweetness, deep affection, and the audacity to obtain what she profoundly desired. In Gregory’s description she may be seen as the sign of a distinction, a difference, with regard to the vocation that she shared with her brother. It was this difference that enabled her to live serenely the great gift of the indisputable primacy of love above any rule or law. Benedict had needed to take the last step in the passage from the strictness of law to the freedom of love: the meeting with his sister brought him this passage and made him move from the paralysis in which observance of the Rule had imprisoned him.

What is fascinating about Scholastica and is the most important sign of her holiness and spiritual grandeur is her profound humanity, her existence as a woman of desire and of seeking, but above all of love. Her life following the Lord has the power of the communion which comes only from love of Jesus. Scholastica represents love, she is the woman criticized by her brother, champion of the law, custodian of observance: she, on the contrary, surpasses the literal interpretation of the Rule and makes love for the individual person prevail. For this reason God hears her prayers, for she loved much (cf. Lk 7:47). The Lord sets the seal of authenticity on the spiritual desire and love that Scholastica dares to express against the words of the Rule. “She who loved more, did more”. Scholastica is also a woman of the present, of today: we have no history of her, we have no long descriptions of her acts, but her tale belongs to this today, a today that is fully human because it can make room for love: Dilatentur spatia caritatis (Augustine, Sermons, 69, 1).

Scholastica reminds us all that over and above the laws and rules that we can give ourselves in order to walk in the Lord’s footsteps, there is no way safer than an ardent and sincere love to find God’s will for our lives.

Elisa Zamboni, who holds a degree in philosophy, lives in the community of Bose, where she looks after the editing and press office of the publishing house Qiqajon.

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