She Lifted Up Her Head and Brought Down the Rain: Learning from Scholastica

More than just “the sister of Benedict”

Yesterday was Scholastica’s feast day. The little that we know about her comes from a delightful short narrative in Gregory’s Dialogues:

[Benedict’s] sister, named Scholastica, was dedicated from her infancy to our Lord. Once a year she came to visit her brother. The man of God went to her not far from the gate of his monastery, at a place that belonged to the Abbey. It was there he would entertain her. Once upon a time she came to visit according to her custom, and her venerable brother with his monks went there to meet her.

They spent the whole day in the praises of God and spiritual talk, and when it was almost night, they dined together. As they were yet sitting at the table, talking of devout matters, it began to get dark. The holy Nun, his sister, entreated him to stay there all night that they might spend it in discoursing of the joys of heaven. By no persuasion, however, would he agree to that, saying that he might not by any means stay all night outside of his Abbey.

At that time, the sky was so clear that no cloud was to be seen. The Nun, hearing this denial of her brother, joined her hands together, laid them on the table, bowed her head on her hands, and prayed to almighty God.

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 heads out of doors. The holy Nun, having rested her head on her hands, poured forth such a flood of tears on the table, that she transformed the clear air to a watery sky.

After the end of her devotions, that storm of rain followed; her prayer and the rain so met together, that as she lifted up her head from the table, the thunder began.  So it was that in one and the very same instant that she lifted up her head, she brought down the rain.

The man of God, seeing that he could not, in the midst of such thunder and lightning and great abundance of rain return to his Abbey, began to be heavy and to complain to his sister, saying: “God forgive you, what have you done?” She answered him, “I desired you to stay, and you would not hear me; I have desired it of our good Lord, and he has granted my petition. Therefore if you can now depart, in God’s name return to your monastery, and leave me here alone.”

But the good father, not being able to leave, tarried there against his will where before he would not have stayed willingly. By that means, they watched all night and with spiritual and heavenly talk mutually comforted one another.

Therefore, by this we see, as I said before, that he would have had one thing, but he could not effect it.  For if we know the venerable man’s mind, there is no question but that he would have had the same fair weather to have continued as it was when he left his monastery.  He found, however, that a miracle prevented his desire. A miracle that, by the power of almighty God, a woman’s prayers had wrought. Is it not a thing to be marveled at, that a woman, who for a long time had not seen her brother, might do more in that instance than he could? She realized, according to the saying of St. John, “God is charity” [1 John 4:8]. Therefore, as is right, she who loved more, did more.

The narrative in this ancient document is wonderful. The tension between the two siblings working together toward a climax where she lifts her head and the thunder begins, she lifts her head and the rain descends. Benedict wishes to ascend back to the monastery, but the descending rain thwarts his desire in support of hers. Sometimes ancient narratives can seem difficult to parse or we run the risk of interpreting them through our own unspoken assumptions, but there is still so much to delight in the Dialogues or the sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Two things strike me in particular with this story. First, “she who loved more, did more.” Love is prioritized over knowledge, power, or social order. Benedict is the Abbot, the founder, the rule-writer. Benedict wants to return to his cloister in Monte Cassino. Benedict wants to choose the custom over the relationship. Scholastica loves, and she is the effective one. Second, “they watched all night and with spiritual and heavenly talk mutually comforted one another.” Benedict and Scholastica’s relationship finds its fulfillment in communication. Likewise, the entire story is framed within a conversation between Gregory and a deacon named Peter.

As educators and as readers, we need to be Scholastica. She has read her brother’s Rule, but she loves him as a person first. Yes, when we research and write, we mirror Benedict, but we should not forget that it is those times talking with students that remind us why we research.

I have to admit that Scholastica is my favorite sister. I will never meet her, she is never mentioned in her brother’s Rule, and her special day nearly passed me by, but I love her because of this story.

Who are the people or characters that you only know through narrative? Why are they important to you?

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