A hidden flame

Celebrating St Scholastica

For many of the special feasts and solemnities in our calendar we are blessed with hymns written by members of our community. I often reflect that in these hymns we sing the theology of what it means to belong to the Benedictine Communities at Turvey. The feast of St Scholastica provides a particular challenge for the hymn writer, as we know very little indeed about her. What little we know of her comes from the Dialogues of St Gregory. The Dialogues are written in an hagiographical style and tend more to folklore than historical fact. There’s a certain freedom in this for me. We are left to listen to the silences and to allow poetry to fill those gaps.

In the Dialogues we find one story about Scholastica and Benedict:

Scholastica, the sister of Saint Benedict, had been consecrated to God from her earliest years. She was accustomed to visiting her brother once a year. He would come down to meet her at a place on the monastery property, not far outside the gate.

One day she came as usual and her saintly brother went with some of his disciples; they spent the whole day praising God and talking of sacred things. As night fell they had supper together. 

Their spiritual conversation went on and the hour grew late. The holy nun said to her brother: “Please do not leave me tonight; let us go on until morning talking about the delights of the spiritual life.” “Sister,” he replied, “what are you saying? I simply cannot stay outside my cell.”

When she heard her brother refuse her request, the holy woman joined her hands on the table, laid her head on them and began to pray. As she raised her head from the table, there were such brilliant flashes of lightning, such great peals of thunder and such a heavy downpour of rain that neither Benedict nor his brethren could stir across the threshold of the place where they had been seated. Sadly he began to complain: “May God forgive you, sister. What have you done?” “Well,” she answered, “I asked you and you would not listen; so I asked my God and he did listen. So now go off, if you can, leave me and return to your monastery.”

Reluctant as he was to stay of his own will, he remained against his will. So it came about that they stayed awake the whole night, engrossed in their conversation about the spiritual life. 

It is not surprising that she was more effective than he, since as John says, God is love, it was absolutely right that she could do more, as she loved more.

Three days later, Benedict was in his cell. Looking up to the sky, he saw his sister’s soul leave her body in the form of a dove, and fly up to the secret places of heaven. Rejoicing in her great glory, he thanked almighty God with hymns and words of praise. He then sent his brethren to bring her body to the monastery and lay it in the tomb he had prepared for himself. 

Their minds had always been united in God; their bodies were to share a common grave.

This one story gives us a frame of reference for Scholastica and hints at her understanding of values implicit in the monastic path. Our Turvey hymn takes the little we know of her and gives me space to wonder. And it’s through this wondering that I can connect with her.

Jesus, desire of those you call apart
To care for you alone,
Brides of your Word in singleness of heart,
Seeds in the desert sown.

We who receive the blessings of your grace
Of all your mercies sing,
For now Scholastica with unveiled face
Praises our only King.

Though in her life she dwelled a hidden flame,
A song by all unheard,
Death has unlocked the music of her name,
Clear as a singing in bird.

Be happy, Benedict, that she is gone,
For love defeats the law;
And you must follow where the dove has flown,
In peace for evermore.

To Christ our holiness we make our prayer.
When this world’s Lent is past,
Clothed in your Easter joy and free from care,

We share the feast at last.

As far as we can tell, it’s possible that Scholastica lived some form of consecrated life with a small group of women. She chose to set herself apart and to search for God with singleness of heart. Just what her life would have entailed is difficult to piece together. I like to think that the seeds of this search for God were sown in her childhood and the life she shared with her brother Benedict.

I have been struck over these past months by the huge part played by singleness of heart in coping with this pandemic. For all those who work in the NHS there has been no other way to proceed than with single-hearted devotion. Every hand held, every temperature chart checked, every patient intubated has had no other goal than to save life. Each week those who had already given their all, were asked to give a little more. There are many others, in all kinds of jobs, whose dedication has allowed us to access some of the things that are necessary to our lives.

Our hymn also picks up the theme of the hidden nature of Scholastica’s life: though in her life she dwelled a hidden flame, a song by all unheard. This is a common way of speaking about consecrated life and in particular, monastic and contemplative life. This phrase strikes me year after year. It gives me great hope to think that the smallest of flames can keep on burning.

I think there are many whose lives could be seen as hidden flames in our world today. There must be countless people who have turned up for work and given the very best they could manage without any real recognition. In the scientific world there will be those whose names will never be mentioned, but without whom our vaccines would never have been produced. I am conscious too of those who have worked through the night on experiment after experiment. The flame that these people have kept alight burns bright now as vaccines are distributed and administered. I think also of the hidden flame of love of a husband who can’t visit his wife in a care home. Those waves through a window that she can’t understand and his calls to the care staff to check that she is okay, all keep the hidden flame of love burning.

And, sadly, for some, death will have unlocked the music of their names. In the years to come we will hear the stories of those who gave all they had, put themselves in danger and paid with their lives. That song of selfless love will surely be heard in every race, creed and land.

While we can’t be certain that Scholastica existed (or even Benedict, for that matter) we can perhaps assume that this story was handed down to teach us something about connection and love. Scholastica and Benedict are connected by blood and by their search for God. Through Scholastica’s earnest prayer love triumphs over the particular practice of Benedict’s monastery. Gregory wants us to remember Scholastica as the one who ‘loved more’.

During this time of pandemic we have the opportunity to be people who ‘love more’. Whether that love be visible or hidden, Scholastica lights the path before us.