Friday, July 13, 2007

Benedict, continued; and Scholastica, of course (promised postscript on the July 11 feast)

It's not that we know that much about Benedict; we really don't. What we do have is his Rule, and the many, many communities of Benedictines, Catholic and Anglican, and numerous other monastic and other vowed religious communities whose rule of life descends from that of Benedict.

There are sixty gazillion contemporary books on Benedictine spirituality, including the very popular
Wisdom Distilled from the Daily by Joan Chittister (feminist Catholic Benedictine sister, author, worker for peace, National Catholic Reporter columnist) and the less well known but very reader-friendly, user-friendly, and practical Benedict's Way: An Ancient Monk's Insights for a Balanced Life by Lonni Collins Pratt and Daniel Homan, which I like a lot. (Most people loved the Chittister book, and while I like a lot of her other work, this one didn't float my boat, at least in the past year.) And from the Anglican corner, there are introductory and other works by Esther De Waal.

My current favorite is a more bread-and-butter kind of book, less warm and fuzzy than some of the others, but still accessible and really informative and solid: Columba Stewart's Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition.

And of course, there's Kathleen Norris's The Cloister Walk.

From Columba Stewart's book:

The genius of Benedict was to situate the individual search for God within a communal context that shaped as well as supported the quest. For him community was not simply the place where one seeks God but its vital means. This is perhaps his most important message for modern Christians, especially those in western countries where autonomy has become the ideal pattern for life.

Stewart reminds us that the monastic life was already well established by the time Benedict became a monk around the year 500 C.E. What Benedict provided, drawing heavily on a previous, longer rule by a monk known only as "the Master," was an interpretation and application of previous monastic experience. While the Rule may seem stringent to us, it was a balanced and moderate way of life compared to previous practices of asceticism. It is also profoundly biblical, and Benedict integrates lectio divina, sacred reading, into his spiritual teaching. Benedict, notes Stewart, resists our desire to know about him, as did most early monks. It is fitting that we have far more life and literature inspired by the Rule than by the person of Benedict, though his touch and spirit are there in his work.

Two questions I had students write about in their journals this year, after they'd read parts of Stewart's book and of the Rule itself:

"Listen with the ear of the heart." What does this invitation from the first sentence of the Rule say to you?

You already have some kind of “rule of life.” What are its elements?

[The latter question because late adolescent/young adult students especially shrink in horror at the notion of living by a rule. To which I say, "You have one already. You brush your teeth in the morning, don't you?"]

I will ask the same questions of a group of Quakers in a spiritual formation program for which I'll be giving a presentation on Benedictine spirituality and facilitating some conversation in the fall.

The storm story:

We have it from Gregory the Great's Dialogues, which also gave us an account --at least once removed-- of Benedict's life. Benedict and Scholastica were brother and sister; twins, so the story goes. What little we know of Scholatica is that she followed in the footsteps of her brother, entering monastic life and eventually coming to live with the community of nuns at Piumarola, near Benedict's Monte Cassino.

According to the story, as retold on the website of a Roman Catholic Benedictine community...

It seems to have been St. Scholastica's custom, while at Piumarola, to meet with her brother once a year, in a house that was near Benedict's monastery. During one of these meetings, as the evening drew on, St. Benedict prepared to return to the monastic enclosure, since it was his rule not to pass the night away from there. St. Scholastica pleaded with him not to go, but, unable to convince him, she lowered her head and folded her hands in prayer. Her earnest petition to God resulted in a violent thunderstorm, which prevented Benedict's departure. "Sister!" Benedict exclaimed, "What have you done?" Scholastica calmly responded, "I asked you and you wouldn't listen to me. I asked my Lord and he listened. Go now, if you can." Unable to leave, St. Benedict remained with his sister, passing the whole night in "vigil" and "holy talk on the spiritual life." The interpretation of this story is supplied by St. Gregory: "It is no surprise that the woman who wished to see her brother for a longer time was on this occasion stronger than he . . . she was able to do more because she loved more."

Thus, St. Scholastica is taken as a model of great love and single-hearted devotion to God. And Benedict, in turn, was greatly devoted to Scholastica. At the time of her death, which occurred just three days after their fateful meeting, St. Benedict witnessed her soul ascending into heaven in the form of a dove. Sending his monks to bring her body, St. Benedict had it placed in the tomb he had prepared for himself. Again, Gregory comments: "In this way it happened that those two whose minds were always united in God were not separated in body by the grave."

I am close to my brother, who is my only sibling, so I love this story. And I love the thunderstorm piece. An old friend of mine, now a Lutheran pastor, claims that I once prayed up a big snowtorm that kept her beloved in town with her at a time when they could not see each other very often or very long. But I think the Midwestern winter probably did the job.


Edward said...

Thanks for the good stuff here. I really like The Cloister Walk, and the second or third time through came to appreciate the Chittister book. Both made me think about life in non-monastic communities in different ways. I'll make note of your recommendations.

I like your "though question" about rules of life. I've used a similar approach in conversations about ritual and liturgy. We all have them, even if we haven't recognized them.

johnieb said...

Loved this: thanks!

Hi, ED! :)