St. Scholastica and Christian unity

February 13, 2015

On Tuesday, February 10, 2015, the Dominican House of Studies hosted the Washington Theological Consortium’s annual Figel Address on Ecumenical Dialogue, given by Fr. John Ford, CSC. The evening began with the celebration of Evening Prayer, presided by Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception president Fr. John Langlois, O.P. Below is Fr. Langlois’s homily for the occasion. I think it is rather fitting that this evening’s celebration of Vespers, where we pray in a special way for Christian unity, falls on the feast of St. Scholastica. Scholastica was the sister of St. Benedict, the father of Western monasticism. Like her brother, she too embraced the monastic life and lived in a monastery at the foot of the hill from Benedict’s Monte Cassino. Though brother and sister lived in close proximity, they saw each other only once a year. As became their custom, Benedict would descend the hill for a day to see his sister and converse with her about the spiritual life. There is a wonderful story told about their final visit that I think holds some important lessons for us gathered here this evening. As the day was drawing to a close and Benedict was making ready to return to his monastery, Scholastica pleaded with him to stay a bit longer, so uplifted was she by the conversation they were having. But Benedict would hear none of it. “What are you saying?” he chided her “I simply cannot stay outside my cell.” At that point, Scholastica laid her hands and head on the table in prayer, pleading with God to grant her request. And lo and behold, a great thunderstorm blew in making it impossible for Benedict to return to his monastery for the entire night. St. Gregory, Benedict’s biographer, comments here that Scholastica’s prayer was granted because of her love! He further informs us that Scholastica ended up dying just a few days later. Clearly, her desire for an extended conversation with her brother on this occasion was motivated by a premonition that she did not have much longer to live in this world. So how does this wonderful and touching story apply to us who gather here this evening to pray for Christian unity? Well first of all, we should note that the conversations between Scholastica and Benedict were conversations that focused on the grace of Christ at work in their lives. While ecumenical dialogue must necessarily deal with the often thorny issues of dogma, it is perhaps helpful to focus first of all on how the grace of Christ is at work in our lives as well as in the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we do that, we are reminded that something wonderful binds us, despite whatever differences we may have in belief. As mutual recipients of grace, we have a common basis for giving thanks to God, and we grow in appreciation for one another as we see God’s love at work in one another. Secondly, we have in this story a wonderful reminder of the power of prayer, particularly when prayer is marked by loving trust in God. In recounting the story of the miraculous thunderstorm in response to Scholastica’s prayer, St Gregory comments, “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.” Now I don’t think Gregory here is saying that Scholastica loved God more than Benedict did, at least not in an absolute way! That would be difficult to prove! Rather, I think the point he is making is that Scholastica obtained what she desired because her first instinct was to seek her help in God alone. Seeing that Benedict was intent on keeping the rule and not making any exceptions, Scholastica did not resort to reasoning or argument to dissuade him. Rather, her immediate response was to turn to God in loving trust. She confided her desire to the Father of Love, trusting in his goodness to bring about a change in her brother’s determination. In love, she sought an answer from Divine Love. Here again, I think we are given a valuable lesson. The work of unity among the different Christian churches is not something that can be achieved merely by our striving for or willing it. Ultimately, we must recognize that it can only be the fruit of God’s response to our desire voiced in prayer with loving trust. And so, following the example of Scholastica, what matters is that our desire be continually confided to God. Our deepest hope and confidence must be in the power of Divine Love to bring about the unity that is impossible for us to accomplish through our own efforts. God brought about a thunderstorm in answer to Scholastica’s prayer. It is for us to believe that he both desires and has the power to heal the wounds of division among us his children who bear the name of his Divine Son. May our common desire and prayer for unity this evening be marked by faith, borne up by hope, and clothed in love!

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