Growing up with a twin sister, I always had a fondness for St. Scholastica, twin sister of St. Benedict. I remember my delight when I discovered that there was a female saint who was a fraternal twin, just like me.
I’ve often thought about the pious tradition around her life, in particular the story of her last meeting with her twin brother. Every year, the two met at a location between their two monasteries. Every year, they spent that day talking together about their mutual love for God. Then, at the end of the evening, Benedict — whose rule stipulated stability and attachment to the monastery — would insist on returning to his monastery for the night.
Although they were twins, for years he played the role of spiritual father in her life. He prayed with her and for her. Her monastery was fashioned after his famous monastic rule.
The last year they met, Scholastica must have sensed that it would be their final meeting on this earth. So, at the end of their conversation, when Benedict said it was time for him to leave, she asked him to stay. He refused. She put her head down in prayer. Moments later, a ferocious storm broke out. Shocked, Benedict looked at his sister, “Sister! What have you done?”
I can just imagine her mischievous (or maybe just weary) smile as she looked up and told him, “You would not hear my request. So, I took it to One who would.”
Needless to say, Benedict was forced to spend the night away from his monastery, praying with his sister. Days later, she died.
The first time I heard that story, I was amused by the prospect of a saint arguing with her twin. I thought that it was a beautiful but funny anecdote. Now, as a grown woman, I see it in a whole new light.
Scholastica was choosing the better part, and she was inviting her brother to choose it with her.
I am wife to one, and spiritual daughter and mother to many priests and seminarians. I’ve gotten to know men from the perspective of a wife, mother, and daughter in a whole new way in recent years. Something that I have been struck by is how natural it is for women to focus on relationship, and how much more effort it takes for men to do likewise. Even when they are in relationship with others, men view relationships differently than women. Their first instinct is to solve problems, come up with strategies, and do things with people. Women, however, want to acknowledge problems, offer concern and sympathy, and be with people.
Of course, some of the best listeners in my life are men. And goodness knows that my first tendency when listening to someone is to want to offer a solution. However, there is something to these general tendencies of men and women. They complement each other. I am happy to report that I know many, many, many men who are ordained or are preparing for ordination who are actively working on being good listeners, and not always jumping in with a solution. I’ve often joked with my spiritual director that I want him to be a John (standing silently at the foot of the cross and just being present) not a Peter (“It’s good that we are here! Let’s build three tents!”). Nevertheless, the men in my life — my husband, my spiritual fathers and sons, are the ones who often spur me on to action, challenging me to face my fears and give God my “yes.”
Yet, there is a strength in the female genius, a strength that the Church would be less rich without. That strength is in relationship. Why is relationship so important? Its importance is in our ultimate vocation to relationship with God. Although contemplation can rightly be called “activity,” it is not a busyness. It is a resting in the presence of the Beloved. It is delighting in the activity of just being with the One whom we love.
Benedict’s rule changed monastic life in the western world. Although we often think of cloistered and contemplative religious as not being “active,” their lives are ones of activity – activity that is always oriented to Christ and his Church.
It was not morally wrong for Benedict to want to return to his monastery on that fateful last night with his sister. It was good and laudable that he wanted to deny himself the pleasure of spiritual conversation and prayer with his sister, in exchange for obedience to his Rule. However, that night, Scholastica played the role of spiritual mother to him. She taught him one final lesson.
Scholastica wasn’t wanting her brother to stay and pray with her out of an inordinate attachment to him. She wanted him to stay with her so that he could join her in loving and praising God together, one last time. It was her parting gift to him — the reminder that his love for God needed to be the basis of all things. She reminded him of the importance of relationship, with God and with each other.
Relationships, as we all know, are messy. Human beings are not tidy. Sitting down to be with someone in need is not something that you can time by the clock. Yet, “the greatest of these is love,” and (as Scholastica taught Benedict) above all else, God desires us to be in relationship with each other and with him.