Today, July 11 is the feast of St. Benedict. Saint Benedict is a giant in the Western spiritual tradition. Benedict was born in Umbria, Italy in 450 AD. He desired to live the contemplative life and with a group of disciples established the first monastery in Western Europe. The rule he established to guide his life and the life of his brothers became the foundational rule for all monastic living and for that he is often called the Father of Western Monasticism.
A sister’s love
I am spending a lot of quality time with my siblings this summer and when I saw it was Benedict’s feast, it made me think immediately of his sister Scholastica, who following her brother’s inspiration founded a community of women and brought a feminine expression to the Benedictine rule. The story I want to share however, is more like the feature in one of the popular celebrity magazines called “They are just like us.” In this feature the magazine shares photos of stars doing ordinary things: grocery shopping, hailing a taxi, calming a crying child. In the lives of the saints, we might call the series, “Siblings just like us, “or in this case, “Sisters know best.” Pope Gregory tells the story much better than I could and here it is from his Dialogues.
Now Benedict had a sister named Scholastica, who had been consecrated to the Almighty Lord from the time of her childhood. She had the custom of visiting him once a year and the man of God would come down to meet her at a place belonging to the monastery not far beyond the gate. One day she came, as was her custom, and her venerable brother came down to meet her with his disciples. They spent the whole day in the praise of God and in holy conversation. The darkness of night was already falling when they took their meal together. The hour grew later and later as they sat there at table carrying on their holy conversation. His sister, a holy monastic woman, then made a request: “I beg you. Do not leave me this night so that we may talk until morning more about the joys of heavenly life. But he responded, “What are you talking about, my sister? Under no circumstances can I stay outside my cell.”
Now the heavens were so calm that no cloud appeared in the sky. When this holy monastic woman heard her brother’s refusal, she folded her hands and put them upon the table. Leaning down, she put her head on her hands to make a prayer to God. When she raised her head from the table, there broke forth such powerful lightning and thunder and such a flood of rain that neither the venerable Benedict nor the brothers with him could set foot outside the door of the place where they were sitting. Indeed, while resting her head on her hands, this holy monastic woman had poured out a flood of tears on the table, and in this way she had attracted the rain to the calm skies. The flood followed her prayer in an instant. The connection between the prayer and the storm was such that her head rose from the table together with the thunder as if both the raising of her head and the falling of the rain were one and the same action.
When the man of God saw that he could not get back to the monastery because of the lightning and thunder and the great flood of rain, he was irritated and began to complain: “May God have mercy on you, my sister. Why have you done this?” And she replied to him: “See, I asked you, and you would not listen to me. So I asked my Lord, and he has listened to me. Now then, go, if you can. Leave me, and go back to the monastery.” But unable to go outside, he stayed against his will in a place where he had been unwilling to stay on his own. So it happened that they spent the whole night in vigil, and during their holy conversation about the spiritual life they found fulfillment for themselves in their relationship with one another.
I have told this story about what the venerable man wanted but was unable to have. And when we examine his mind, there can be no doubt that he had wanted the sky to remain calm, as it had been when he had come down. But contrary to what he wanted, he found a miracle worked by a woman’s heart with the power of the omnipotent God. It is no wonder that the woman who had desired to see her brother that day proved at the same time that she was more powerful than he was. For as John says: “God is love,” and according to that most just precept, she proved more powerful because she loved more.
Benedict returned to his monastery and three days later, he had a vision of his sister’s soul going to heaven and indeed learned shortly after that she died on that day.
The Rule of Saint Benedict and Lay Life
If you would like to explore the Rule of Saint Benedict, it is possible to buy a copy of this concise 73 page rule. Esther DeWaal, in her book, Seeking God looks at the the rule can offer for lay people living in the world. The American writer, Kathleen Norris also has written a few books including The Cloister Walk, about her experience living a praying with a community of Benedictine monks.