A Patron Saint for Nuns

One of the tragedies of our time is the decline in the number of nuns. In 1965 the United States reached the high-water mark with approximately 180,000 women religious, 104,000 of whom were teaching sisters; by 2002 (the most recent statistic) that number had dropped to 75,000 sisters, only 8,200 of whom were in the classroom.

The loss of those good and dedicated women who were a constant presence in our parishes, schools, hospitals and countless Catholic charitable organizations is incalculable. On Feb. 10 let's pray to St. Scholastica for an increase of vocations to the religious life.

St. Scholastica (whose feast day is tomorrow, February 10) and her twin brother St. Benedict set the standard for monastic and convent life in the West by reacting against the way religious life was practiced in the East. Throughout the desert regions of the Middle East and North Africa lived bands of hermits and loosely organized communities of monks who hoped to become holy by practicing extreme penances. They deprived themselves of food, water, sleep, even clothes, to the point that many became physical wrecks and some went mad.

In response to these excesses, Scholastica and Benedict designed an orderly, sane, yet spiritually concentrated way of life for men and women seeking God. The Benedictines ate healthy meals that included bread, fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and fish, even a little wine or beer. They wore religious habits suitable to the local climate. They divided their days into regular periods of work, study, prayer and recreation.

 Brother and sister both founded communities on the slopes of Monte Cassino south of Rome. Since men were not permitted in Scholastica's convent and women could not enter Benedict's monastery, to visit each other the twin saints met at a small house halfway between their two establishments. On one such visit Scholastica brought a few of her nuns and Benedict came accompanied by a few monks; they all spent the afternoon in pleasant conversation, dined together, and were chatting so happily after dinner they forgot the time. Realizing the late hour Benedict rose to go, but Scholastica begged him to stay and talk with her until morning. Benedict refused. His own rule forbade his monks from staying away from the monastery all night. As the men headed out the door, Scholastica bowed her head and began to pray. Immediately a violent storm broke over the mountain, with tornado-force winds and torrential rain. Benedict and his monks retreated back into the house.

"What have you done?" Benedict asked his sister.

"I asked you to grant me a favor and you refused. So I asked the same favor of God and He heard my prayer. Go back to your monastery, if you can."

So Benedict stayed and brother and sister talked until dawn, when the storm stopped as suddenly as it had begun.

Three days later Benedict was gazing out his window when he saw his sister's soul ascending to Heaven in the shape of a white dove. Today St. Scholastica and St. Benedict lie together in the crypt beneath the great abbey church at Monte Cassino. As for the rule of life they created together, it has become the basis for the rule of every religious order of nuns and monks in the Catholic world.

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Thomas Craughwell is the author of Saints for Every Occasion (Stampley Enterprises, 2001).

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