Editor’s note: Homily preached on the memorial of St. Scholastica, February 10, 2022, at the Church of the Holy Innocents, Manhattan.
Today the Church of the West celebrates the birth to heavenly glory of St. Scholastica, twin sister of St. Benedict, born around 480 A.D. in Nursia/Norcia, Italy, where an ancient monastery (liquidated by Napoleon) was re-founded by Americans in 1998.
You may recall from grammar school religion class the story of how once a year Scholastica would go and visit her brother at a place near his abbey, and they would spend the day in prayer and in discussion of sacred texts and issues. One day, after supper, they continued their conversation. When Benedict indicated it was time for him to leave, Scholastica, perhaps having a premonition of her imminent death, asked him to stay with her for the evening, so that they could continue their discussions. Not wishing to break his own Rule, Benedict refused, insisting that he needed to return to his cell. At that point, Scholastica closed her hands in prayer, and in the blink of an eye, a wild storm started outside the guest house. Benedict asked, “What have you done?” To which, she replied, “I asked you, and you would not listen; so I asked my God and He did listen. So now go off, if you can; leave me and return to your monastery.” Benedict was unable to return to his monastery, and so they spent the night in sacra conversatio. If Benedict had had the experience of being taught by nuns, he never would have wasted his time opposing Scholastica’s plan and would have just said, “Yes, Sister!”
At any rate, three days later, from his cell, he saw his sister’s soul leaving the earth and ascending to Heaven in the form of a shining white dove. Benedict had her body brought to his monastery, where he had it laid in the tomb which he had prepared for himself.
Now, Scholastica was not the first woman to become what eventually would be called a nun. In fact, we are told that St. Jerome a century earlier had gathered around him numerous women whom he directed in the ways of the evangelical counsels. Interestingly, parents – eager to marry their daughters off to wealthy suitors – tried to keep Jerome at a safe distance, lest he garner them for a life of consecrated virginity.
Benedictine monasteries – often dual communities of men and women – spread like wildfire, with whole cities growing up around them. In England, for example, if a city’s name ends in “minster,” you should know that “minster” was the English truncated form of the Latin “monasterium.” So, think of “Leominster” or “Westminster.” Or, “Munich” in Germany. The monks’ and nuns’ communities were centers of spiritual life, to be sure, but they were also centers of learning, culture and civilization.
The female monasteries were led by abbesses, who were strong women, highly educated, and of great authority, making notable contributions with their manifold gifts. It was not uncommon for these women to be invested with a miter and crozier as symbols of their authority, which they wielded with seriousness, exerting their authority even over priests. That little-known fact became the basis of a book in 1983, written by Joan Morris and provocatively entitled, The Lady Was a Bishop: The Hidden History of Women with Clerical Ordination and the Jurisdiction of Bishops. Of course, abbesses were never ordained, but they certainly were a force to be reckoned with.
Parental success is often measured by the success (or failure) of their children. So, let’s turn our attention for a few moments to some of Scholastica’s spiritual daughters.
St. Walburga lived in eighth-century England and was a highly skilled copier of manuscripts. She became a missionary with her priest/monk-brother to pagan Germany (perhaps she could make a return visit these days!). She is acknowledged as the first female author in both England and Germany.
St. Hildegard of Bingen flourished in twelfth-century Germany. She was a polymath: writer, musical composer, philosopher, mystic, exegete, visionary, dramatist, physician, advocate of naturopathic medicine, and founder of scientific natural history. In Catholic circles, she is most thought of in terms of the haunting chants she created.
Hildegard professed monastic vows at the age of eight, eventually becoming an abbess. In that capacity, she mightily resisted the interference of monks in the legitimate autonomy of nuns. She was an advisor to popes and emperors, as well as to abbots and abbesses. She can be seen as a kind of “proto-feminist,” with her edgy riposte: “Woman may have been made from man, but no man can be made without a woman!” Unsurprisingly, she has attracted some nutty disciples in our time in feminist circles and in the New Age movement.
Hildegard was never formally canonized (although considered a saint by popular acclamation and given a feast day in various local churches). Pope Benedict XVI remedied that lacuna in her resume by an act of “equivalent canonization” in May of 2012 and followed up in that October by declaring her a doctor of the Church, noting that she was “an authentic teacher of theology and a profound scholar of the natural sciences and music.”
St. Gertrude the Great was another German nun, a century after Hildegard. She entered the monastic school of St. Mary at Helfta at the age of four and professed vows at the age of ten. She was well versed in Sacred Scripture and the Fathers of the Church, in addition to being an accomplished rhetorician and Latinist.
She was the recipient of visions at the age of 25, visions which continued for the rest of her life. These caused her to shift her focus from secular learning to more spiritual affairs. And so, she promoted the notion of “nuptial mysticism,” whereby nuns came to think of themselves as “brides of Christ.” She was also an early champion of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which experienced a revival in the sixteenth century and reached its high point in the seventeenth century with St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. Gertrude also exerted a spiritual and theological influence on St. Philip Neri, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Francis de Sales, as well as on Dom Prosper Guéranger in his liturgical movement.
Suffice it to say that, down the centuries, these nunneries were powerhouses of prayer and education. Nor were we lacking those communities in the United States, which had dozens of monasteries of Benedictine nuns, sadly, though, most of which went over the cliff in the 1970s. However, we can boast of two monasteries which have mitred abbesses: St. Walburga’s in the Archdiocese of Denver, one of whose nuns (Mother Noella Marcellino) is a specialist in the microbiology of cheese ripening!
The second monastery led by a mitred abbess is that of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut. One of its members is Mother Dolores Hart, famous for having been the actress to have kissed Elvis! To this day, she is a voting member for the Academy Awards. These nuns are likewise acknowledged for their superb chant. Some years ago, I walked into the now-defunct Virgin Records in Times Square to be greeted by one of their workers with: “Sorry, Father, we’re all sold out.” “Sold out of what?” “Oh, I presumed you were here to purchase ‘Women in Chant’ from those nuns in Connecticut.” I didn’t know they had gone into the recording business but asked the young man who was buying up their records. “Tons of young people,” came the reply.
Petersham, Massachusetts, is home to a joint community of monks and nuns: St. Mary’s Priory for the men and St. Scholastica’s for the women.
A relatively new community of Benedictine nuns put down roots in Gower, Missouri. Those nuns have garnered praise and attention for their beautiful chant (available from their now-many recordings) and the beautiful vestments they make.
Cardinal Newman wrote extensively on the Benedictines, causing him to pen this accolade in his reflection on Benedictine schools, which could apply to Benedictines throughout the world: “. . . the Anglo-Saxon Church [was] itself the creation of the Benedictines, and the seat from which their influence went out for the education or conversion of Europe, from the Baltic to the Bay of Biscay. . . .”
I hope these brief vignettes have put the lie to the calumny of female subjugation by the Church.
The month of February began with the feast of the Lord’s Presentation, which St. John Paul II dedicated to honoring those in consecrated life. Last week, we celebrated Catholic Schools Week. With those two observances in our rear view mirror, I would assert that the Church in our nation became as great as it was (and even is), not because of the work of priests but because of women religious, especially through their apostolate of Catholic education. This grandson of four immigrants holds two doctorates and brought his parents back to a living faith, thanks to the Sisters, who were holy women and dedicated educators. The influence of the Sisters also made it very difficult for their boys and young men to become machos, disrespectful of women.
Pray today for an increase in young women, worthy daughters of St. Scholastica – whether as Benedictines or members of other communities – so that the Church will never be deprived of what Pope John Paul endearingly called “the feminine genius.”
And let’s pray also for ourselves in the words of Scholastica’s holy twin:
Almighty God, give me wisdom to perceive Thee, intelligence to seek Thee, patience to wait for Thee, eyes to behold Thee, a heart to meditate upon Thee, and a life to proclaim Thee, through the power of the Spirit of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
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