Feast of St. Scholastica – A Reflection on Prayer

Denise West, OSBUncategorized 11 Comments

Feb. 10 is the Feast Day of St. Scholastica.

Scholastica is the twin sister of her more famous brother Benedict of Nursia. They grew up in a wealthy family and they both founded monasteries in the sixth century. Everything we know about them comes from a book written by Gregory the Great after Benedict’s death. Scholastica is mostly known for her great love of the spiritual life and for her fervent prayer. The famous story is that these siblings would leave their monasteries once a year to meet for spiritual conversation. On the last occasion of their meeting, they spent the whole day together and into the evening, but as it grew dark, Benedict said it was time to return home. Scholastica, however, wanted to stay up the whole night with her beloved brother. “Impossible, dear sister, I may not spend the night outside the monastery!” This was contrary to the rule of the community. At this Scholastica bowed her head in prayer and soon a torrential rain poured down. “God have mercy on you, sister! What have you done!” She replied, “I asked you and you would not listen to me. So I asked God and God listened.” Thus Benedict remained and they nourished one another all night with spiritual conversation.

A main point of the story is to demonstrate the great love that Scholastica had for her brother as well as the power of prayer. BUT …

I don’t know about you, but I can’t quite relate to what appears to be happening here: Scholastica bows her head in prayer and God immediately gives her what she asks for….? Frankly I find it a little irksome – I believe in the power of prayer, but in this story, it just seems like magic.

Let’s look at what Jesus has to say about prayer the book of Matthew. “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to God who is in secret; and God who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matt. 6:5-6)

The line about hypocrisy strikes a chord with me. Growing up in the south, in the Bible Belt, in a completely secular household (we didn’t even go to church on Christmas or Easter) I had a particular impression of Christianity. The Christians I heard and saw in the media seemed narrow-minded, judgmental, racist, homophobic and yes, hypocritical. I did not have a positive impression of Christians, to say the least. It was only well into my thirties that I began to search for a faith community at a time when I needed help. It was not a happy time in my life; relationships were difficult, I was depressed. I was having quite a bit of trouble psychologically.

Two things saved me. I found a good therapist and I found a good church.

One of my church friends, in fact, was an art therapist, and after service our little group of friends would often gather at her place and she would lay out all her art materials. It didn’t matter whether anyone had talent – that wasn’t the point. I made collages out of pictures cut from magazines or calendars. When we finished, we’d take turns sharing our work with the group. I remember my first piece – a charging rhinoceros, a gorilla with bared teeth, fire and explosions. It was clearly an expression of my internal emotional state, which I wasn’t even consciously aware of. My self-image was a calm, emotionally in-control, basically even-keeled person. Assembling these images into a collage was a way of expressing something inside me that I didn’t have words for. In the secret of my heart, I felt rage. Discovering that, allowing that part of myself to come out into the open…That, for me, was prayer.

What God wants from us more than anything is authenticity – discovering who we truly are, revealing ourselves to ourselves and to God. Admitting who we are is an ongoing challenge. It is much easier pretending to be who and what we’re not, perhaps who we wish to be. Jesus calls us to pray in secret, to pray from the depths of our heart, where we keep our secrets. But to live a life full of meaning and depth and passion, to be fully alive, we have to let our truest selves be known.

Thomas Merton said this: “There is only one thing for anybody to become in life. There’s no point in becoming spiritual – the whole thing is a waste of time. What you came here for is to become yourself, to discover your complete identity to be you.” In fact, he said, “For me to be a saint means to be myself….The problem of salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am….”

The world tells you who it thinks you ought to be. But God wants nothing more than for you to be simply who you are, as God created you. This is the call of the Christian. It was the call of Scholastica when she founded a monastic community – creating a place where she could dedicate herself to a life of prayer, that is, a life of becoming more authentically herself along with others seeking to do the same.

To return to the gospel, Jesus says that when you pray in secret, God who sees in secret will reward you. What then, is this reward? The reward is simply love. To know and accept myself as I am, is to love myself. And when I love myself, I am free to love others.

I want to end with a poem by Mary Oliver that meant a lot to me when I began this long and never-ending journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. It speaks to me both of a longing and the deep peace and reassurance of God’s constant presence and love. Some of you may know it – “Wild Geese.”

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

Comments 11

  1. Such a wonderful account of your life and the basis of your holy commitment, Denise. I thoroughly enjoyed the reading and I feel drawn to you in a way I have never felt before. I want to see you and to exchange our greetings and smiles as we have done now for quite a few years. How blessed we are for all of us to have each other at Holy Wisdom….

    Frank Court

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and story. I had never encountered Mary Oliver’s poem. The last five lines I am sure to recall, as well as the essence of your essay, when I look up and see the annual migration in process. Very timely.

  3. Denise, Thank you for sharing, so soulfully, the story of your own painful and scary experience at a point in your life that you did not allow to become the major story, but only a jumping off point to search for who you really are. I have only known you from afar and through our sharing in the Program you led on Benedictine Spirituality, Wisdom, Charism and the fundamental vow of Conversatio Morum. You were living that vow before you even knew of its rich fundamental basis in the Spirits of Scholastica and Benedict. It is the vow of discovering who we are and you, my dear friend, are a strong and courageous woman who is courageously giving herself over to herself with out embarrassment. And it is in that giving that your are becoming your greatest self. Bona Fortuna, my dear Benedictine Sister of Holy Wisdom Monastery. Who wouldn’t want to spend a lifetime with you in the Stability of the most wonderful, mysterious, and magnificent House of God, Holy Wisdom Monastery. With love and holy listening, Dennis.

  4. Denise, this is so eloquent and beautiful. After your reflection, Wild Geese brought tears to my eyes. I would really love to share your essay with others, if it’s okay with you.

    1. Hi sister! Thanks for reading…if you liked Wild Geese, there are many more poems by Mary Oliver to enjoy and cry over. 🙂
      Share freely!

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