Wednesday, February 10, 2010

For All the Saints: Scholastica

It is easy to dismiss as legend the one and only chestnut we usually read about St. Scholastica, sister of St. Benedict: That she prayed to God to be allowed to talk longer with her brother; that God rewarded her with a lightning storm that forced the siblings to spend the night together in spiritual conversation; and that three days later, when his sister died, Benedict had a vision of a dove rising to heaven. Just another Catholic legend, right?

But wait. Consider the source. “Almost everything we know about Saint Scholastica comes from the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great.” Gregory is a Doctor of the Church, one of the great Catholics in all of history, and he was born (540 AD) three years before the death of St. Scholastica. Gregory was born in Rome, about 90 miles from the place of Scholastica’s death in or near Montecassino, site of Benedict’s first monastery. Montecassino is on a road south from Rome, effectively en route to Sicily, where Gregory’s father had extensive land holdings. Gregory himself became a Benedictine monk and abbot before becoming Pope.

If the final days of St. Scholastica are “only legend,” then they are not legends like Paul Bunyan and the Blue Ox Babe. They are more like a family story told by one generation, who saw the events, to the next generation, eager to learn—young and impressionable maybe, but hardly gullible or stupid.

Witnesses testified that when Joan of Arc died at the stake about 900 years after Scholastica’s death, a dove flew out of the flames. Another legend, right? Except that no life of a saint is more documented than Joan’s.

These things interest me as the older brother of four sisters and the father of two grown daughters. I am always deeply impressed by the reverence my Church shows for great women of faith. In the story of the lightning storm, God was on Scholastica’s side, not that of her older, more powerful brother.