Evidence

To be saints without living in the shadow of a saint

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04 September 2021

Scholastica and her twin Benedict, Clare and Francis: united but distinct, the role of women who are not subordinate


After centuries, is it realistic to think we can intercept the voice of couples, of men and women? Is there a method we should apply or do we have to create it as we go along? Can one play on resonances?

Perhaps an outcome is possible by creating a triangulation, amongst the historical context, and their personal thought processes. If we proceed not from a prefixed ideology but dig into the reality of events, only then does the epiphany of people stand out brightly.

This is all the more the case when it comes to two couples who, over the centuries, have left a living and pulsating trace; namely, Benedict and Scholastica and Francis and Clare. The trace that is huella, as contemporary historians have taught us, have managed to make women speak when, in the past centuries dominated by patriarchal historians, they were condemned not only to silence but even to muteness. Can the apparent void provide us with traces? Yet, signs, huella, there were.

In different centuries, there was Scholastica in the IV century, and Clare in the XIII century. Did both of them always live in the shadow of Benedict and Francis, as official history would have us believe?

Certainly not. They were friends, kindred spirits, and eager to communicate, but remaining in the shadow was not valid for either of them because the female difference has always existed, even if subdued by the social silencer.

Though seemingly silenced, the truth pressed upon both women and etched itself into history; but how was it engraved?

What is the link between the famous meeting of Benedict and his twin sister Scholastica in 547 and the encounter of Francis and Clare in Assisi in the middle of the 13th century?

Disobedience and metamorphosis, which are still precious and vital today.

Both women challenged their social environment by thinking for themselves, that is, by cultivating a thought, a reasoning that, interwoven with living experience, opened their eyes to the role of women, to their ability to express personal decisions, dictated by their will and empathy with those with whom they shared the earthly pilgrimage.

It is not a question of self-centeredness: Scholastica and Clare were profoundly centered on the experience of the irruption of God in themselves and in the history of humanity; they were, however, tied to an autonomy of judgment that did not lock them into masculine social factors.

It was the disobedience of thinkers and challengers. A freedom conquered personally and, with a total woman’s touch, which was joyfully shared.

They were not forced and bogged down to think as their family dictated, in which separation and hierarchy between father and mother and daughter or son prevailed and was prevalent at that time.

With Benedict and Scholastica, and Francis and Clare, everything was upside down and a relationship was imposed in which the roles are not bound by rigid laws but by the deep feeling of genuine empathy. An original and new evangelical and social path opened up and opened wide, because it emanated from starting from oneself, as a specific experience to discover and formulate new keys to have an impact on reality.

However, within the feminine feeling that perceives the need for experience, there is the practice of relationship and mediation with the opposite sex.

Scholastica and Benedict saw each other once a year. In their meeting February 6, 547, Scholastica who, as far as we know, did not belong to a defined order, nor did she live within a monastic foundation, desired to speak with her brother with whom she lived in deep harmony.  She was not afraid to disobey him by asking to continue their conversation throughout the night, despite the fact that a precise monastic rule required them to return to the abbey by a certain hour. Benedict refused. Scholastica unleashed thunder and lightning storms. Not in order to prevail, but because she was moved by another feeling; that as archetype of the woman of God, she did not impose the authority of her person, but referred to the Most High Himself; thus, she reconfirmed before her brother her precise identity as a nun who knows the Bible well. This spiritual power that overcomes temporal power, the vigorous strength of one who proclaims as a prophetess, and, unarmed, won over the armed ranks of the world. Scholastica had authority not power, and she was at the root, if not the actual founder, of the group of nascent Benedictine nuns.

While just twelve years old, Clare was attracted to the radical poverty of that fool Francis whom she saw denuding himself in order to follow Christ. It is not the sublimated love for the man Francis, but the love for that Francis that revealed the love for Jesus Christ..

So together, in a shared and respectful duality, they subvert the logic of the surrounding world with repercussions throughout the centuries to come.

Clare did not share her life with the men and women of her social class; instead, she created her own way of being a consecrated woman, and the first to have drawn up a feminine rule. Not only that, for she was the first to have obtained recognition for it, after much resistance and opposition to that central nucleus of the rule that disturbed everyone and made them shake their heads, while not possessing anything.

Clare, a noblewoman, rich and well educated - with an excellent knowledge of Latin, as can be deduced from her writings - threw herself headlong into absolute poverty. This at a historical moment of a nascent monetary economy in which the market and the bourgeoisie dictated the law with their growing power, and moreover in times of war. She dared to ask Innocent III in 1216 for a very contrasting and disconcerting privilege, i.e. not to be forced to accept possessions. Abruptly she stated, “And if anyone tells you or suggests other initiatives, which impede the way of perfection that you have embraced or which seem to you contrary to the divine vocation, even though I respect you, do not follow his advice”.

The word “someone” should be noted. It could also be the Pope. Thus, when Gregory IX wanted to release her from her vow of poverty, her reply, if not declaring war and opposition, nevertheless she launched a stunning theological blow: “Holy Father, by no means and never, in eternity, do I wish to be dispensed from the following of Christ”. And she won the game, as authentically disobedient. After seven years of resilience and then it came about on the eve of his death.

The collaborative dualism between Francis and Clare, between sisters and brothers, reached its apex when Clare, in 1230, reacted to Gregory IX’s bull, forbidding the brothers to preach to the sisters without the Pope’s permission, by going on hunger strike. The disobedient one won.

The experience of the Benedict-Scholastica and Francis-Clare couples exudes theology, not the theology drawn up at a desk and then offered (or imposed) to life. Theirs is a theology which is experienced and lived experientially.

They did not leave behind theological works, or philosophical reflections, but they did bequeath us writings of life. They left letters, rules that would shape existence, and some prayerful and poetic invocations. A flow that did not end in the context of the times to which they belonged, but crossed the centuries. Fecundated with motherhood, theirs is a capacity for mediation that generates an infinite creativity and that re-proposes itself with waves of paths of disobedience and liberation and that feeds the knowledge of the soul with the reason of the heart, with the wisdom of life.

Benedict with Scholastica and Francis with Clare lived with the determination of that strategic intuition that moves between will, faith, desire and passion that guides and presides over the shaping of self to reach a metamorphosis, which is the only way to transform historical reality.

They were not only transformers of the role of women, but metamorphoses that permitted male and female duality, which could interact respectfully and productively because they were equal before grace.

by Cristiana Dobner
Discalced Carmelite, prioress of the monastery of St Mary of Mount Carmel in Concenedo di Barzio (Lecco). Theologian, writer and translator