AND SAINT BENEDICT:
A PARADOX, A PARADIGM
f one seriously reads medieval texts and examines their rhetoric, one can find moving revelations about women who seem to be lurking in shadowy parentheses, at the margins of the medieval world. In his Dialogues, Gregory may seem to be saying little about women. So too his ardent disciple, the deacon Peter. But if one takes the time to examine closely the uses of language in what may seem to be a simply anecdote, much can be inferred. In Chapter XXXIII of the second Dialogue Gregory tells a story of Benedict and Scholastica , which story along with a brief allusion to her death in the subsequent chapter, represents the only account we have of her existence. In the story, Benedict and Scholastica disagree about whether or not he should leave her convent after a visit. They do spend the night together in prayer and holy conversation. In the next chapter, we are told that shortly afterwards she dies. The story is simple. But if one examines the context, diction, images, narrative and didactic elements of the story, one finds a rather singular women. In fact, one finds a rather singular parable, illustrative of the lives of Benedict and Scholastica in particular, men and women in general, of earth and heaven, time and eternity, and finally of humanity and God.
First, let us examine the context of Chapter XXXIII of the Dialogues. Gregory has just completed a catalogue of Benedict's miracles, those performed at will and those effected by prayer. As his final example, he tells the moving story of a farmer who has carried the body of his dead son to the monastery where Benedict restores him to life, after praying that God consider not his own sins but the faith of the boy's father. Deacon Peter then asks Gregory 'whether holy men can always carry out their wishes, or at least obtain through prayer whatever they desire'. Gregory says not, then tells the story of the visit of Benedict and Scholastica in which Scholastica upstages her brother, in Gregory's words, ' contra hod quod voluit, in virtute omnipotentis Dei ex femina pectore miraculum inventi', 'contrary to what he will, by virtue of a miracle of almighty God, procured by the breast of woman'. In these words Gregory contrasts the request of Scholastica which came from her breast, 'ex pectore feminae ', with Benedict's desire to return to the monastery . 'Se venerabilis viri mentem aspicimus ', 'if we consider the mind of the venerable man' (italics mine). So Gregory is answering Peter's question regarding the possibility that holy men always have their way by telling the story of a holy woman whose heartful prayer once disallows her brothers's having his way, albeit his legitimate way.
Peter then responds to Gregory's antidote and interpretation with evident delight. Gregory, however, returns to his narrative in the subsequent chapter, as if the story had not been interrupted by either his explanation or Peter's comment. He simply states that the next morning Benedict and Scholastica return home. In thus bringing his story to closure, in a singular instance he uses the adjective ordinarily reserved for Benedict, venerabilis , to describe Scholastica, who is commonly described, sanctimonialis. He goes on to narrate three stories of death - that of Scholastica, of Germanus, Bishop of Capua, and of Benedict himself - and thus brings his dialogue about Benedict, Dialogue Two, to a close.
When I look at the story of Benedict and Scholastica in the context of the Dialogues, taking into account Peter's question which prompts the story and the subsequent narration regarding the deaths of Benedict and Scholastica, I notice that the frame of the story offsets two factors within the story. Peter's question makes us focus on the relationship between Benedict and Scholastica and helps us to see in his weakness her strength, in his defeat her victory. Since these opposites are ultimately apparent, rather than real, they establish paradox, rather than contradiction. Finally, the distinction between brother and sister helps us to realize how close they are to one another, how each complements the other. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of this story and the story of Scholastica's death, leads me to believe that the complementarity we see between brother and sister does not merely characterize this one day in their lives, but makes of that day a metaphor for their entire lives. There is a harmony, deeper than the ties of blood, which bind brother and sister to one another. Gregory acknowledges as much when, after mentioning that Benedict had his sister buried in the tomb he had prepared for himself, he comments, 'quo facto cintingit ut quorum mens uno semper in Deo fuerat, eorum quoque corpora nec sepultura separet ', 'The bodies of these two were now to share one common resting place, just as in life their souls had always been one in God'. The story then ends with explicit emphasis on unity, a unity which is the reconciliation of opposites within the story.
As I read the story I find in its diction the poles of opposition which are ultimately reconciled, between the verbs 'volo ' and 'valeo ', and between the various nouns used to identify Benedict and Scholastica, as male and female. The harmony between these poles is discovered in the way one complements the other. Forms of the word volo and valeo appear eleven times in the four hundred and thirty-nine words of Chapter XXXIII. Their occurrence is densely concentrated at the beginning and at the end of Gregory's story - four instances in the first two sentences, seven isntances in the four sentences at the end. In the first sentence of Chapter XXXIII, Gregory introduces the verbal opposition betweenvolo and valeo . He reveals to Peter that it is impossible for the holy man always to obtain what he desires by reminding him that St Paul - and who could be holier than he? - asked three times that the Lord remove the sting from his flesh, ' et tamen quod voluit obtinere non valuit '. Gregory returns to these words at the end of the chapter. In the last four sentences, he uses 'non valens ', 'noluit, ' voluisse,' voluerit', ' voluit' and 'valuit '. In the first instance, both verbs are used in the negative. Benedict, like Paul, cannot have his way: 'Ipse autem exire extra tectum non valens, qui remanere sponte noluit, in loco mansit invitus', 'on the other hand, unable to go out from under the roof, although he did not want to remain of his own accord, he had to stay in the place, unavenged'. Benedict's wish not to remain, noluit, echoes the use of the same verb in the preceding sentence, a beautifully balanced statement of Scholastica in which she explains, ' Ecce te rogavi, et audiri me noluisti; rogavi Dominum meum, et audivit me ', 'I asked you, and you would not hear me: I asked my Lord and he heard me'. Benedict is reprimanded for his unwillingness to hear his sister, not only by Scholastica and God but also by Gregory's style.
In the subsequent sentences, after explaining that brother and sister spend the night in sacred colloquy, Gregory comments first in an indirect discourse, ' eum voluisse aliquid, sed minime potuisse ', 'that he wanted something, but could have less'; secondly, ' dubium non est quod eandem serenitatem voluerit ', 'that there is no doubt but that he wanted a clear sky'; and that what ensured was 'contra hoc quod voluit ', 'contrary to that very thing he wanted'. In the last sentence of the narrative, Gregoy explains why everything went amiss for Benedict and for the first time uses 'valeo ' in the affirmative. He says 'Nec mirum quod plus illo femina, quae diu fratrem videre cupiebat, in eodem rempore valuit ', 'it is no wonder that in this instance the woman, more than her brother, was able to have that which she desired'. The concluding sentence thus alerts us to what was allowed to Scholastica. The use of cupio, rather than volo, in this instance seems to imply that Scholastica's request was one of heartfelt desire, quite distinct from Benedict's act of volition.
If by following the verbs valeo and volo through the text one can sense the distinction Gregory makes between what one wants and what one is allowed - a distinction which serves to characterize the brother and sister and their God -, by examining the various nouns which identify Benedict and Scholastica, one can see that they are often strategically chosen to name the role the man or woman takes at a given point in the story. Benedict is pater, frater and vir; Scholastica,soror andfemina ; Benedict,venerabilis, Scholastica,sanctimonialis (nun or holy woman). Gregory only once refers to Benedict as pater, and there seems to emphasize his relation as a Benedictine to the founder of his order. Three times he refers to Benedict as frater ; when he comes to visit Scholastica; when Scholastica has heard his refusal to stay; and finally when he compares the effectiveness of their wishes in his concluding comments on the justice of God's resolution of their difference. In these three instances, he emphasizes the close relationship of brother and sister, elucidates Scholastica's sensitivity to Benedict's refusal, and then judges and explains the woman's superiority over her brother. The two times Benedict is referred to simply as vir , 'man' there seems to be a touch of irony in the text. In the first instance, Benedict, vir Dei , 'the man of God' is disturbed and complains bitterly that he cannot return to his monastery. In the second, Gregory is explaining that in the end, the woman's breast wins over the mind, 'venerabilis viri', 'of the venerable man'. The diction identifying Benedict seems to remind us of the importance of relationships, of brother and sister, man and woman.
The same can probably be said of the words which identify Scholastica, except that she has the advantages of her victory. Of course, she is introduced as sister to Benedict. When she first asks Benedict to spend the night, she is identified as woman and sister, sanctimonialis femina soror . From that point on, with one noteworthy exception, she is referred to as femina, 'woman'. Which seems appropriate, given that she is thinking and acting in a fashion independent from, even opposed to her brother. The one exception to the choice of the noun ' femina' to identify Scholastica occurs in Benedict's denunciation of her act, 'Parcat tibi omnipotens Deus, soror; quid est quod fecisti ?' 'May almighty God spare you, sister, what is it that you have done?' Where Benedict in a sense demeans his sister, Gregory, and God, exalt the woman by settling in her favour. While Gregory is certainly not describing a 'battle of the sexes' and choosing the female victor, he is describing in a very deep way how man does need woman and the woman indeed deserves the settlement in her favour.
While God's settling the debate in the woman's favour is the central resolution of the anecdote, I feel that it may be equally important to look at the narrative elements of the story to determine what the settlement means in symbols that may stretch even the beautiful moral Gregory draws from the outcome of the dispute. Brother and sister, and their brothers and sisters, are at table, sharing food, cibus , and the heavens, coeli , respond to Scholastica's wishes, rather than Benedict's. The alliterating nouns, cibus and coeli, gently remind us of the original harmony between earth and heaven. the table at which the group eats foreshadows the eternal banquet. The altercation alone disturbs the peace. Gregory reminds us that the sisters and brothers have supped together and are at table when Scholastica first invites her brother and his brethren to spend the night. When he resists she puts her hands on the table and her head in her hands. Simultaneously when she lifts her head from the table, the thunderstorm begins. Gregory repeats that the woman's tears and the rain so coincided with one another that the thunder resounded as she was lifting her head from the table. The revelation of and resolution to their disagreement comes from the skies as a kind of Christiandeus ex machina , but also as a symbol which relates this story to those which follow it.
In the stories that follow, Benedict reads portents of death in the skies; later his own death is accompanied by a heavenly sign. In the first instance, three days after he has spent the night with his sister, while he is in his room looking up at the sky he sees her soul leave her body and enter heaven in the form of a dove. In the second instance, standing at his window while everyone is sleeping, he sees a flood of light, then the whole world is gathered into a single ray of light , and lastly the soul of the Bishop of Capua is carried by angels to heaven in a ball of fire. Finally, when Benedict himself dies, two monks - one at Monte Cassino, the other at a distance - have the same vision of a richly carpeted road, glittering with light, which stretches to the heavens, on which Benedict walks in majesty. The association between the firmament and the heavenly kingdom is suggested from the first time it is mentioned, in Chapter XXXIII, when Gregory explains that the table conversation is ' de coelestis vitae gaudiis', 'about the joy of the heavenly life'. He immediately asserts that ' vero erat coeli serenitas', 'indeed the sky was clear', and so connects 'heavenly matters', spiritual realities with the blue sky. In Chapter XXV Gregory further explains to Deacon Peter that the vision Benedict has of the world's assumption into heaven indicates not that the world grew small, but that the enlightened spirit is enlarged and can therefore contain the world.
This explanation of Gregory in the later chapter elaborates on his didacticism in the story of Benedict and Scholastica. It is indeed a story of spiritual relationship. The prayer of Scholastica is answered because 'Deus charitas est ', 'God is love', and because Scholastica ' amplius amavit', 'loved more'. Love allows the synchronicity between the prayer of Scholastica and the storm which effects the answers to her prayer. She, like Magdalene in Luke's Gospel, is granted her request because she loves more.
Scholastica at once desired ( cupiebat) and prevails ( valuit) ' in eodem tempore', because in that point in human time where love as desire and love as act are one in God, the person is open to eternal life. The regularity of the monastic hours, which impels Benedict to say, quite reasonably, that it is time to go, yields to a holy desire which creates its own time for an exchange of thoughts about the secrets of the spiritual life. The unity of earth and heaven, desire and act, time and eternaity, is complete in Chapter XXXIV where Benedict sees Scholastica's soul, 'in columba specie coeli secreta penetrare ', 'in the likeness of a dove penetrate the depths of the heavens'.
In conclusion this seeming scrap of information about the life of Scholastica can serve as a paradigm in which what one wishes is allowed, because of the love in the wish; voloand valeoare reconciled. In the same love, heaven conspires against the brother who would chose the law over his sister's loving request, in a way that unites brother and sister, woman and man, in a night long conversation about the interior life. Man and woman are reconciled in God, heaven and earth are so reconciled, because Deus charitas est.
e miraculo Scholasticas sororis eius . Caput XXXIII.
Gregorius : Quisnam erit, Petre, in hac cita Paulo sublimior, qui de carnis suae stimulo ter Dominus rogavit, & tamen quod voluit obtinere non valuit? Ex qua re necesse est, ut tibi de venerabili patri Benedicto narrem: quia fuit quiddam quod voluit, sed non valuit implere. Soror namquam eius, Scholastica nomine, omnipotenti Domino ab ipso infantiae tempore dedicata, ad eum semel per annum venire consueverat. Ad quam vir Dei non longe extra januam in possessione monasterii descendebat. Quadam vero die venit ex more, atque ad eam cum discipulis venerabilis eius descendit frater: qui totum diem in Dei laudibus sacrisque colloquiis ducentres, incumbentibus jam noctis tenebris simul acceperunt cibos. Cumque adhuc ad mensam sederent, et inter sacra colloquia tardior se hora protraheret, eadem santimonialis femina soror eius eum rogavit, dicens: quaeso te ne ista nocte me deseras, ut usque mane de coelestis vitae gaudiis loquamur. Cur ille respondit: Quid est quod loqueris, soror? Manere extra cellam nullatenus possum. Tanta vero erat coeli serenitas, ut nulla in aere nubes appareret. Sanctimoniales autem femina, cum verba fratris negantis audisset, insertas digitis manus super mensam posuit, et caput in manibus omnipotentem Dominum rogature declinavit. Cumque de mensa levaret caput, tanta coruscationis et tonitrui virtus, tantaque inundatio pulviae erupit, ut neque venerabilis Benedictus, neque fratres qui cum eo aderant, extra loci limen quo consederant, pedem movere potuissent. Sanctimonialis quippe femina capit in manibus declinans, lacrymarum fluvios in mensam suderat, per quas serenitatem aeris ad pluviam traxit. Nec paulo tardius post orationem inundatio illa secuta est, sed tanta fuit convenientia orationis et inundationis, ut de mensa caput jam cum tonitruo levaret: quatenus unum idemque esset momentum, et levare caput, et pluviam deponere. Tunc vir Dei inter coruscos et tonitruos atque ingentis pluviae inundationem videns se ad monasterium non posse remeare, coepit conqueri contristatus, dicens: Parcat tibi omnipotens Deus, soro; quid est quod fecisti? Cui illa respondit: Ecce te rogavit, et audiri me noluisti; rogavi Dominum meum, et audivit me. Modo ergo si potes, egredere, et me dimissa ad monasterium recede. Ipse autem exire extra tectum non valens, qui remanaere sponte noluit, in loco mansit invitus. Sicque factum est ut totam noctem pervigilem ducerant, atque per sacra spiritalis vitae colloquia sese vicaria relatione satiarent. Qua de re dixi eum voluisse aliquid, sed minime potuisse: quia si venerabilis viri mentem aspicimus, dubium non est quod eamdem serenitatem voluerit in qua descenderat permanere; sed contra hod quod voluit, in virtute omnipotentis Dei ex feminae pectore miraculum invenit. Nec mirum quod plus illo femina, quae diu fratrem videre cupiebat, in eodem tempora valuit: quia enim juxta Joannis vocem, Deus charitas est, justo valde judicio illa plus potuit, quae amplius amavit.
Petrus . Fateor,
multum placet quod dicis.
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