scholastica: the vessel and the energy

(Fr. Cyprian)

There are several famous pairings of male and female saints, besides Benedict and Scholastica that I think of often. The first is Saint Anthony of the Desert and his sister. If you remember the story, Anthony and his sister are orphans, and when Anthony has his conversion experience, he hands his sister over to the care of a community of virgins. What I always notice is lacking in that story is it’s not clear that he asked his sister what she wanted to do! And the other example is Francis and Clare: Clare wants to follow Francis in his heroic gallivanting around Umbria, but that would be unbecoming and unsafe for a woman in that day and age, and so he hands her over to the care of some cloistered Benedictine nuns and eventually sets up a new order of strictly cloistered women for her––the Poor Clares. There’s no indication that Clare minds this, but both of these stories leave me with the impression of “locking the feminine away”––maybe to protect it, granted, but still… I agree with Fr. Bruno and others that there really is something to this modern era, what some are calling the 2nd Axial Period, a new shift in consciousness when we need to rediscover the importance of three things that go together––the earth, the body and the feminine. It’s time to unlock the feminine––and the body and the earth. So often in the case of Benedictine monasteries I’ve visited, the men’s community is up high on a hill and the women’s communities are down below. This too is kind of archetypal, even of the so-called 1st Axial period: the men are reaching to the sky, climbing the ladder to heaven; the women are closer to the earth, sanctifying the ordinary.

I think what is rarely noted is how much women’s religious communities suffered since the 2nd Vatican Council. Partially that’s because for centuries women were not allowed a real place at the table and a real voice of authority in the church, even at the 2nd Vatican Council! Benedictine women, to give one example, had such a storied history of monastic life in Europe, but when they were brought over to the US they were brought to be active, missionaries and teachers. That has its validity, but the problem is that they were not allowed to have their own abbeys or abbesses. In Europe abbesses were historically very powerful, even to the point of a kind of semi-sacramental power; here they had to be under a bishop. They were not allowed to make solemn profession as nuns nor really live a monastic life. So they have really had to work double time to recover their monastic charism and character. I think why there are a lot of women’s voices that may seem strident to men rising up from out of the ranks of women is because of that; as Shakespeare tells us, Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. And so the story that St. Gregory the Great recounts in his Dialogues of Benedict and Scholastica spending their last evening together is iconic. Benedict wants to get home to observe the rules, and Scholastica wants him to stay on. So she prays and lets loose a thunderstorm. “Sister, what have you done?” he says. I can see a wry smile on her face: “’Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, brother.”

The Holy Father is on to this: at a short talk Pope Francis gave to an Italian women’s center recently, he said how happy he was to see many women sharing pastoral responsibilities with priests in accompanying people, families and groups, and joining in offering theological reflection. And he said that he hopes “that the spaces for a more capillary and incisive feminine presence in the church” would be enlarged. He wasn’t talking about ordination or making women cardinals; as a matter of fact he says that that is actually a kind of clericalism, the prejudice that one must be ordained to carry any kind of position of authority, or that ordination automatically confers a kind of juridical wisdom (which has obviously been proven wrong over and over again!). As a matter of fact, he said the shocking thing that, “Women in the church are more important than bishops and priests”! Last July Francis told the Brazilian bishops that he wanted them to “promote the active role of women in the ecclesial community” because “without women the church risks sterility.” And he said, “It can’t be limited to the fact that girls can be altar [servers], or that women can be the president of Caritas or a catechist. No! It has to be more than that, profoundly more, even mystically more,” he said. Even mystically more! And that’s why he speaks about the need for “a theology of women” because he doesn’t think we “have a way of making that explicit theologically” yet. This may be the day and age for that.

Even more than Anthony and his sister, or Francis and Clare, I think that Benedict and Scholastica are like two halves of a whole. The other image Gregory offers us is so powerful, too: of them being buried together, side-by-side in the same grave, like the Chinese yin-yang symbol. Of course I am back to one of my favorite images again, the energy and the vessel. You might think archetypically the female would represent more the vessel, but in this case Benedict represents the vessel, the Rule, a sturdy, sensible rule. Whereas Scholastica represents the energy; and the energy––even as Benedict tells us himself––is love, love of God and love among the sisters and brothers, the inexpressible delight of love. The energy is relationship. What that vessel, the structure, the institution of the Rule is trying to hold and protect is love and relationship, love of God and love among the brothers and sisters. And that’s what Scholastica, and perhaps the female in general, represents to me. But it’s not that Benedict was without this other side of it, and given the fact that they were so close, maybe it is from Scholastica he learned it. And you know in the Chinese symbol of the yin-yang there is a dot of the one in the other––a spot of the yang in the yin, a spot of the yin in the yang. And so we see in the Rule, as compared with the machismo of the other monastic rules and customs that Benedict encountered, not only does Benedict soften many strictures and demands, calling for moderation and sensibility, but the Rule is also replete with references to love, and exhortations to mutual obedience and, especially, to humility, all these soft things that are so hard for men, but absolutely essential for the spiritual life, for the Christian life. As the Holy Father warns, without those things we risk sterility!

At the same time I have to admit I’ve grown allergic to the idea of telling men that they need to get in touch with their feminine side. I think that’s misunderstood and so has been misappropriated and misused, and I know a lot of women who feel the same way, constantly associating the feminine with passivity and receptivity and emotionality. Maybe we just need a new word for it. Bede Griffiths just referred to it as “the other half of my soul” and associated it with the intuitive side. My mom used to speak too of “feminine intuition.” In one way of looking at it, this intuition is a deeper way of knowing, deeper than the emotions, deeper than the rational mind, a kind of wisdom where love and knowledge are not two, where the intelligence of the body is just as important as the machinations of the mind.

Scholastica reminds us that the other side is the energy, the energy of monasticism, the energy of love and relationship, both love of God and mutual love that resolves itself in mutual obedience. Without that the vessel of our life is empty. As St. Augustine wrote at one point, without that we’d be like virgins with no oil in our lamps! Without that energy of love this life would not only be silly; as the pope reminds us, it’d be sterile! But with it, with that energy of love, love for each other, love for God, the perfect love that casts out all fear, our hearts will overflow with inexpressible delight.

I loved the Collect (opening prayer) for Scholastica’s feast:

… we pray, O Lord, following the example of Saint Scholastica, we may serve you with pure love and happily receive what comes from loving you.

10 feb, 2014

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