Blogging Scholastica (the sister of Benedict)

Since I’ve been passing through several Benedictines along with the Rule, in honour of International Women’s Day, here is a selection from Gregory the Great, Dialogues 2.33, that features St Scholastica, sister of St Benedict:

GREGORY. What man is there, Peter, in this world, that is in greater favour with God than St. Paul was: who yet three times desired our Lord to be delivered from the prick of the flesh, and obtained not his petition? Concerning which point also I must needs tell you, how there was one thing which the venerable father Benedict would have done, and yet he could not.

For his sister called Scholastica, dedicated from her infancy to our Lord, used once a year to come and visit her brother. To whom the man of God went not far from the gate, to a place that did belong to the Abbey, there to give her entertainment. And she coming thither on a time according to her custom, her venerable brother with his monks went to meet her, where they spent the whole day in the praises of God and spiritual talk: and when it was almost night they supped together, and as they were yet sitting at the table, talking of devout matters, and darkness came on, the holy Nun his sister entreated him to stay there all night, that they might spend it in discoursing of the joys of heaven. But by no persuasion would he agree unto that, saying that he might not by any means tarry all night out of his Abbey.

At that time, the sky was so clear that no cloud was to be seen. The Nun, receiving this denial of her brother, joining her hands together, laid them upon the table: and so, bowing down her head upon them, she made her prayers to almighty God: and lifting her head from the table, there fell suddenly such a tempest of lightning and thundering, and such abundance of rain, that neither venerable Benedict, nor his monks that were with him, could put their head out of door: for the holy Nun, |95 resting her head upon her hands, poured forth such a flood of tears upon the table, that she drew the clear air to a watery sky, so that after the end of her devotions, that storm of rain followed: and her prayer and the rain did so meet together, that as she lifted up her head from the table, the thunder began, so that in one and the very same instant, she lifted up her head and brought down the rain. The man of God, seeing that he could not by reason of such thunder and lightning and great abundance of rain return back to his Abbey, began to be heavy and to complain of his sister, saying: “God forgive you, what have you done?” to whom she answered: “I desired you to stay, and you would not hear me, I have desired our good Lord, and he hath vouchsafed to grant my petition: wherefore if you can now depart, in God’s name return to your monastery, and leave me here alone.”

But the good father, being not able to go forth, tarried there against his will, where willingly before he would not stay. And so by that means they watched all night, and with spiritual and heavenly talk did mutually comfort one another: and therefore by this we see, as I said before, that he would have had that thing, which yet he could not: for if we respect the venerable man’s mind, no question but he would have had the same fair weather to have continued as it was, when he set forth, but he found that a miracle did prevent his desire, which, by the power of almighty God, a woman’s prayers had wrought. And it is not a thing to be marvelled at, that a woman which of long time had not seen her brother, might do more at that time than he could, seeing, according to the saying of St. John, God is charity and therefore of right she did more which loved more.

PETER. I confess that I am wonderfully pleased with that which you tell me.

-Translation as at tertullian.org

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Saint of the Week: Amma Syncletica

In light of the fact that I have yet to officially make a woman “Saint of the Week” and the Egyptian saints’ feasts this week (as noted in yesterday’s post), I feel that it is only appropriate to look at Amma Syncletica (feast: 5 January).

The first question you may be asking is, “What kind of a name is that?” It is, I reply, the sort of name one gives an Egyptian monachos, or, I suppose in this case, monacha?

The group of early monks/hermits/anchorites we call the “Desert Fathers and Mothers” had a number of notables amongst it. These people were treated with respect by the other monastics and were often consulted for nuggets of wisdom by these younger or less experienced desert dwellers. They were mostly male, and in Greek are referred to as geron, old man. They also received, however, the Egyptian/Coptic title Abba or Amma, Father or Mother. So we hear of Abba Antony, Abba Poemen, Abba Macarius, and Amma Syncletica.

The details of Syncletica’s life are obscure. Syncletica was born to Greek/Macedonian parents in Alexandria. All of her life she was drawn to God. Like St. Antony before her (my post here), she inherited a large estate and the care for her sister. Like St. Antony before her, she sold off her inheritance and gave to the poor. She retired with her sister to a crypt.

She now began the principle exercise of the desert life: prayer. Prayer is the scopos (goal) of all the Desert Fathers and Mothers, with the telos (end) of prayer being holiness and the vision of divine glory. [1] As Syncletica says, “Bodily poison is cured by still stronger antidotes; so fasting and prayer drive sordid temptation from us.” (DF 27) [2]

Syncletica emphasises fasting in other sayings attributed to her, for prayer in the desert is always coupled with ascetic discipline and sobriety of spirit.  The goal of this sobriety which is reflected by a lack of immoderate laughter and much silence, is a true, lasting joy, as Syncletica says, “In the beginning there are a great many battles and a good deal of suffering for those who are advancing towards God and afterwards, ineffable joy.  It is like those who wish to light a fire; at first they are choked by the smoke and cry, and by this means obtain what they seek (as it is said: ‘Our God is a consuming fire’ [Heb. 12:24]): so we also must kindle the divine fire in ourselves through tears and hard work.” (SDF 231)

As Syncletica lived the ascetic life of prayer, fasting, silence, and mortification in solitude from the world, her fame (inevitably) spread.  Like St. Antony before her, she went from being an anchorite (like Lady Julian) to being an abbess.  Unlike Antony, she seems not to have minded (St. Antony kept running away from his monks).  She is thus, like Poemen, one of the earliest examples of coenobitic monasticism — seeking the disciplined life of prayer and fasting in community.

Her ascetic labour also attracted the attention of the devil and his minions.  This is the inevitable result of holiness, for the devil has a grip on this world, and the holiness of the saints does war against it.  However, she was able to withstand their assaults and temptations, teaching the virtue of moderation (DF 106) as well as the importance of fortitude in the face of temptation (DF 63-64).

Some more of her teachings are as follows:

Blessed Syncletica was asked if poverty is a perfect good.  She said, “For those who are capable of it, it is a perfect good.  Those who can sustain it receive suffering in the body but rest in the soul, for just as one washes coarse clothes by trampling them underfoot and turning them about in all directions, even so the strong soul becomes much more stable thanks to voluntary poverty.” (SDF 231)

She also said, “Imitate the publican, and you will not be condemned with the Pharisee.  Choose the meekness of Moses and you will find your heart which is a rock changed into a spring of water.” (SDF 233)

She also said, “Those who are great athletes must contend against stronger enemies.” (SDF 233)

She also said, “Just as one cannot build a ship unless one has some nails, so it is impossible to be saved without humility.” (SDF 235)

[1] See John Cassian, Conference 1.

[2] Quotations marked DF are from Benedicta Ward’s translation of the Latin Systematic Collection of sayings, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks for Penguin Classics. Quotations marked SDF are from her translation of the Greek Alphabetical Collection of sayings, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers for Cistercian Publications.

An Alternative “Toast tae the Lassies”

My more traditional option here.

Robert Burns, the Scots Bard, is well-known for his love of women, a love that got him into trouble at Ayr’s local kirk and produced at least one bastard child.  As a result, it is a tradition common to the dinners held in his honour at the commemoration of his birthday across the world to provide a toast to the “fairer” sex.

Yet might I take a moment to toast not just lassies in general, who are certainly a species of creature worth toasting, but to those lassies most worthy of a toast?  Might I turn our attention from the more carnal taste of Burns to the more spiritual taste of the saints?

Indeed, throughout the history of Christianity, strong women have been a force to be reckoned with.  They have been on the front lines of evangelisation, of work amongst the poor, of medicine and hospitals, of hospitality, of generosity, of pilgrimage, of mysticism.  Yet too often they are forgotten — indeed, even I have failed in over a year of “Weekly Saints” to make a female saint the topic for the week.  Nevertheless, the power of women in Christianity is something not to be forgotten, from the Blessed Virgin our “Champion Leader” to Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Let us toast first, then, the Mother of Our Lord, St. Mary of Nazareth.  She stands out not only as the only person to carry God in her womb, but also as the first person in a series of biblical calls to avoid making excuses and say in response to God’s call, “Let it be unto me according to your will.”  Faith and obedience to God’s call are our lessons from the Supersaint Godbearer.  To Mary!

A toast is also in order to Perpetua, the second-century martyress who stood firm in her faith and faced execution at the hands of Rome boldly, even wrestling with demons while she awaited her death.  Endurance and fortitude in the face of extreme unpleasantness are our lessons from St. Perpetua.  To Perpetua!

Third, I propose a toast to Amma Syncletica the fourth-century Desert Mother of Egypt, if for no other reason than this quotation: “Just as the most bitter medicine drives out poisonous creatures so prayer joined to fasting drives evil thoughts away.”  For encouraging us to pray and to fast in the bitter struggle against our own evil desires, a toast to Syncletica!

Slàinte mhath to St. Hilda of Whitby (my post here), who founded an abbey and used discernment to seek out the talents the Lord hid away in people like Caedmon.  May we all have true insight into the world around us.  To Hilda!

A toast to St. Clare of Assisi (my post here).  This intrepid mystic followed the call of God against the pressures of family and hearth — a difficult task for anyone whose family is Christian (to reject pagans is one thing, but to turn your back on your Christian parents another).  Would that more Christians had the boldness to follow the call of God to difficult places and a life of prayer regardless of what others think of them.  To Clare!

I propose a toast to Lady Julian of Norwich (my page here), the mystic anchorite who has shown so many of us something of the depths of the riches of the love of God Almighty for us.  May we, too, seek God’s face in prayer and spread his message of love to the world around us.  To Julian!

A toast is definitely in order to Susannah Wesley, mother of John and Charles, who, in a household full of loud children, sought the Lord at all times — even if it was just under the kitchen table.  She also has the distinction of having raised two of the eighteenth centuries great men of faith.  To Susannah!

Given the limits of time, let us remember Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who demonstrated heroic virtue in seeking Christ in the lowest of the low and the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, who moved beyond the confines of her nunnery to bring Christ where he was needed.  May we all be willing to go out of our comfort zones as we live for Christ.  To Teresa!

These few women and the many more who have populated Christianity from its earliest days as (allegedly) a faith of women and slaves are worthy of a toast.  May we live up to their examples of obedience to God, of faithfulness, of perseverance in prayer, of discernment, of willingness to go beyond the usual, of visions of God’s love, of the pursuit of God in everyday life, of heroic virtue seeking Christ in all places!

To the lassies of Christ!  Lang may their lum reek!