St. Scholastica of Nursia

(Died A.D. 543)

One of the beneficial contributions of contemporary feminism is that it has made historians conscious of the scarcity of biographical studies of eminent women. Much has been written, for instance, about the great monastic pioneer, St. Benedict of Nursia. History records very little, however, about his sister St. Scholastica. But she, too, was a pioneer in the development of women’s monasticism.

Here is her story, as far as the data allow us to recount it.

Scholastica, not only Benedict’s sister, but traditionally his twin, was naturally also a native of Nursia (now Norcia) in central Italy. They were the children of distinguished parents. Influenced, it seems, by her brother’s example of becoming a monk, she apparently dedicated herself early to the monastic service of God.

The first evidence we have of this is her ruling a convent at Subiaco, not far from her brother’s first cliff-hanging monastery. When he moved his monastic center to Monte Cassino near Naples, she also moved hers.

In both cases, Benedict was the director of his monks and her nuns. Brother Benedict was very strict in his dealings with women religious. He allowed even his sister to visit with him only once a year, and then not in the monastery but at a midway house. She nevertheless looked forward with joy to these annual meetings, during which they would spend the time praising God and speaking on matters of the soul.

The earliest biographer of Benedict, St. Gregory the Great, tells us practically nothing about the monk’s sister except to recount the remarkable last meeting they had. The story tells us about the traits of these kindred spirits.

At their meeting in 543, after the two had passed the day in devout conversation and had finished supper, Scholastica asked her brother if they could not continue their colloquy on the joys of heaven throughout the night. Perhaps she had a premonition that this would be their final get-together on earth. St. Benedict, shocked by a request that went counter to the monastic rule, said he could not in conscience consent. Thereupon, with a show of holy stubbornness, his sister bent down over the table in prayer. She had scarcely lifted her head when a heavy cloudburst broke out, so intense as to prevent St. Benedict and his companions from even stepping out-of-doors.

“God forgive you, sister,” Benedict said in reproach “what have you done?” “I asked a favor of you and you refused it,” she answered, perhaps with a cute toss of the head. “I asked it of God, and He has granted it.”

Foiled, St. Benedict did agree to resume their conversation on the glories of heaven. Both found it a discussion worth remembering. Dawn brought the tempest to an end, and brother and sister parted. Three days later, as Benedict prayed in his monastery cell, he saw his sister’s soul, in the form of a dove, ascending to heaven. Rejoicing rather than sorrowing, for the knowledge of her being in heaven canceled the grief of his loss, he had her body buried in the same tomb at his monastery on Monte Cassino that he had constructed for himself. “So it happened to these two,” wrote St. Gregory, “that even in the grave their bodies were not separated.”

Do the relics of the two remain in their original tomb? There is a credible story that in the seventh century Benedict’s original monastery fell empty, hence the bones of both were transposed for greater safety to the Benedictine monastery at Fleury in France. Yet in the 11th century, Abbot Desiderius of Monte Cassino happened upon what he considered the real relics in an undisturbed sepulcher at Monte Cassino.

Which set of relics is the authentic one remains an unsettled question. But whether you pray to these two notable saints at Fleury or in their chapel at Monte Cassino, you may be sure that they will hear you equally well.

--Father Robert F. McNamara