Her name was Disciple (Scholastics), and her twin brother was Blessed (Benedictus). When one looks at their lives, it is hard to resist the impression that these were prophetic names. Besides, it is so strong that in the wave of systemic doubt in the sources of that era, some scholars even denied the historicity of these two figures. The tide sailed, and the twins of Nursia, like seasoned surfers, emerged at the other end of it, and today few question that they existed or even operated at the turn of the fifth and sixth centuries. Precisely because of the era in which they lived, it was said of Benedict that he “stood on the frontier times.” However, his biography – the magnificent second book of Dialogues by St. Gregory the Great – shows that he was not there alone. He was accompanied by Scholastics, with whom they had lived together since their mother’s womb, and it seems that this fellowship was only torn apart for the duration of his brother’s hermit life. It is hardly surprising, then, that his sister missed him, and it was because of this that she taught him one of the most valuable lessons he received in life. But before I talk about the latter, let’s look at the spiritual mother of all nuns living according to the Rule of St. Benedict with the cool eye of a historian.

The main source for her biography is the life of Benedict just mentioned. Written using the ancient form of dialogue (the author, Gregory, converses with an unknown Peter), it tells the story of the abbot of Monte Cassino in an engaging and emotionally involving way. “Listening” to this conversation, we learn that to a Christian couple from Nursia around year 480 a pair of twins was born. This was a family with power and wealthy, though not of the most prominent (let’s say the middle class of the time), but undoubtedly pious.

The children were baptized early, because nowhere do we read about Benedict’s baptism, and Gregory’s closer story begins when his hero began his education in Rome. Back then, boys began their education at the age of seven, so the future author of the Rule of his own name must have been received into the Church as a child – and since he was, so was his sister.

She was “consecrated to the Almighty Lord from her earliest years,” so she was probably placed as a child as an oblate in one of the Roman monasteries. There she became a disciple sensu stricto – and not just any Master. Besides, she would remain faithful to His teachings to the point of sainthood.

The practice of placing children in the service of God was normal at the time (in the Rule of St. Benedict we find whole chapters devoted to the subject of the treatment of the youngest in the abbey), the child’s psyche and his place in the family were simply viewed differently.

The Roman mentality still held the belief that until a person reached adulthood, she was the property of her father. And she could be dealt with at will, such as deciding that a daughter would be a nun, even if she was not yet ten years old. In Scholastics’ case, fortunately, the decision turned out to be right and in line with what the Lord was calling the girl to do.

By the time her brother began his studies in literature, she had probably already acquired the level of education that the customs of the time prescribed for a woman, and was entering more and more deeply into monastic life. I suppose Benedict visited her, and who knows if it wasn’t the stark contrast between the quietness and ideals of the sister monastery and the almost unprincipled student life of decadent Rome that caused the young man to suddenly get up and leave the room one day, in the middle of a lecture. It was around the year 500 – his path towards the summits: holiness and Monte Cassino, where he eventually founded his monastery, was beginning.

We don’t know when on this mountain his sister joined him, founding a female abbey a short distance away. Gregory records that she visited her brother infrequently, only once a year. It is very likely that they corresponded, but no traces have survived to support this hypothesis. One thing we know for sure – their bond, based on radical love for Christ, remained alive and nourished both of them.

Gregory describes in detail only one of Scholastic’s visits to the male abbey. She did not enter it, but stayed with her companions on the grounds belonging to the monastery, though not within its walls, thus expressing respect for the cloister. This geography is relevant here, as we will soon see.

Benedict went out to visit his sister with his brothers, and they sat down in the guest house to talk about “the things of God.” They were both old by then, and as they sat at the table like this, gray-haired and wrinkled, but surrounded by a cluster of disciples, they were a living confirmation of Christ’s promise that whoever leaves home and loved ones for Him, a hundredfold will receive now, in this life (cf. Mk.10:28-31). They spent the entire day in this way, and also ate the only prescribed meal of the day together, and when evening came, Benedict began to gather to leave. This was a display of fidelity on his part to the law he himself had established – the regulations firmly prohibit monks from spending the night outside the abbey if they had possibility to return.

Scholastic began to ask her brother to stay so that she could still enjoy a conversation together, but he was relentless. To her fervent request, “Please don’t abandon me this night! Let’s talk until morning about the joys of eternal life!”, he replied, judging by his tone, somewhat indignant that he could not spend the night outside the monastery.

Here Gregory interjects a meteorological remark: “And the sky was so bright that not even the smallest cloud was visible anywhere,” then returns to the story. She writes that Scholastics did not argue with her brother. She simply intertwined her hands on the table, leaned over and began to pray. The second she raised her head, thunder rolled outside the windows, and torrential rain poured down from the hitherto clear sky. It was so violent that no one was able to put a foot out the door.

Benedict had no doubt who was behind it. With a simplicity surprising to our scientific mentality, he exclaimed: “May Almighty God forgive you, sister. What have you done?” To this she replied, as befitted a seedy mamma italiana: “I asked you, and you wouldn’t listen to me. I asked my Lord and He heard me. So now leave, if you can, leave me and go back to the convent!”. What was left for the humiliated patriarch – he stayed. They talked all night about the things of God, and in the morning the rain stopped and Benedict and his brothers returned to the abbey.

I am invariably impressed by the spiritual interpretation that the whole event is given by the pope-biographer quoted so abundantly here. So let’s quote him again, so as not to miss anything of its beauty: “Benedict not always could do whatever he wanted (…) His will was opposed (…) by a miracle worked by the heart of a woman to whom God lent his omnipotence. No wonder that long longing for her brother, she was that hour stronger than he, for in the words of John ‘God is love’ (1Jn 4:16). And there is deep justice in this, that more was achieved by the one who loved more.” Well, after such a statement, it only falls to repeat after Gregory’s interlocutor: “I confess that I like very much what you say.”

Much wisdom can be gleaned from this story. What captures me most of all is the portrayal of Scholastics’ weakness as the space of her greatest strength. In her wisdom at a time when she is helpless, she relies on God. After all, she couldn’t force her brother to break a law that he himself laid down and took so seriously that somewhere in that righteousness love was lost. Scholasticism introduced a touch (if storms of such intensity can be so described!) of chaos into the perfectly ordered and principled male world. This allowed life, its brazen and yet so endearing dynamism, to enter this space.

About the Rule of St. Benedict, its experts, but also practitioners, say that the main feature of this work, decisive for the fact that for one and a half a millennium it is still valid and thousands of monks and nuns live according to it, is moderation and understanding of human weakness. I sometimes wonder if the presence of these qualities was not influenced precisely by its creator’s relationship with his sister. Wasn’t Scholastics, though not mentioned by name, the one who tempered her brother’s principled character, patiently pointing out God’s mercy?

One thing cannot be doubted – he loved her dearly. This is evidenced by the continuation of the story about her in the Dialogues. Well, three days after the sister’s visit, Benedict had a vision. In it he saw that Scholastics was dying – her soul, like a dove, was about to fly away to heaven – to which he reacted in a way that probably shocked us. Well, he began to worship God. Not because he had just lost his sister, but because he had seen her reach the goal toward which they had both been so persistent. Only when he finished singing for joy did he tell his brothers what had happened. Perhaps the thought also flashed through his head, full of gratitude, that good was the storm and a good night vigil together, as the time for Scholastics’ departure approached.

He ordered her body to be brought to the abbey and placed in a tomb he had prepared for himself. He himself soon followed her, too, and they rested in the womb of the earth together – as they had lived together in their mother’s womb – awaiting the resurrection. It was also a sign that they had united far more than was possible in mortality – with God and in God.

Let’s return to the image from the beginning of this story, taken from the hymn to the Hour of Readings for the feast of St. Benedict: “When the end of the old order came / And the new earth was born in pain / You stood, Father, on the frontier of time / To protect the good. The turn of the fifth and sixth centuries, that is, the period when the siblings of Nursia lived, was in the West the slow dying of the ancient world, finally killed by barbarians ravaging the Eternal City. The entire sublime civilization with its culture, laws, social norms and technology – was passing away. Cities ceased to exist or turned into villages, education disappeared and books became a luxury that only the increasingly illiterate could appreciate.

Out of this world plunging into chaos and death, it was Scholastics and Benedict, along with their spiritual children, who saved what was good in it. It delights me that at the beginning of the regulated Western monastic movement that would shape the European continent for centuries to come, and in the 10th and 11th centuries de facto bring the hierarchical Church out of total spiritual collapse, stood the siblings. Equal to each other, autonomous when it came to the care of their communities, equally radically running in the same direction, and at the same time loving each other so deeply with a completely pure love.

Scholastics seems to remain in her brother’s shadow, yet she is the first to achieve the goal of their common desire. She is also a model that describes well the roles of the great holy women of the Middle Ages, and perhaps of any era. There is a vivid resemblance to Mary in her silence and devotion to God, for they only strengthen the nun’s ability to admonish her brother when necessary. She draws all her strength from her Lord, and it is from Him that her authority flows – so strong that for believers it is unquestionable, while those who do not recognize it must succumb to it anyway, compelled by circumstances. After all, as those wiser than I say, coincidence is just one of God’s many names.

From: Elżbieta Wiater “Mistyczki i wojowniczki. Kobiety, które zmieniały Kościół”, WAM 2021, p. 11-17.