The Orthodox are known for our rules and for not keeping them, or so it appears to the outside world. We have a term, oikonomia, which is applied to situations where the rule would be harmful or overly harsh to a person or a parish. We scale the strictness of fasting to age or infirmity or childbearing. There are rules (which we follow most of the time) and then there is life. We choose life.
St. Benedict and his younger sister, Scholastica, are also known for their monastic Rule, which is lived out in monasteries around the world to this day. The holy pair were born in 470 and 480 AD, respectively, in what is now northern Italy. From a young age, her parents dedicated her to God. In this transitional time in the west, where monasticism was still a forming concept, dedicating a boy or girl to God meant living as a consecrated virgin in the home or with a small group of others, informally connected to the Church. In the eastern desert, cenobitic monasticism was already going strong with the rule of St. Pachomius. St. Benedict began his ascetic struggle with such an informal group, when he did a miracle of repairing a broken wine vessel, he fled the ensuing attention to an abandoned villa, to live as a hermit.
St. Benedict was entreated to become an abbot for a group of monks. He instilled order to this unruly band, which they did not like. They tried to poison their abbot, but was not successful, since St. Benedict had prayed over the wine and the poison was neutralized. Again, he fled to his mountain retreat. This seclusion did not last long and soon, he found monks gathering near him. He took this as a sign to organize monasteries, based on his Rule, to create a stable life and witness for the Church.
Scholastica joined one of these monasteries a few miles from Monte Cassino, where she eventually became mother abbess and lived out the remainder of her days. Stability is one of the vows Benedictine monastics take, along with obedience and ‘conversion of life’ or poverty and chastity. At the time of the monastery foundations, there was a problem in the countryside of wandering monks, who often did scandalous things. Both Scholastica and Benedict took their vow of stability seriously, that they did not enter each others’ monasteries. They wrote to each other frequently but that did not satisfy their desire to see each other, as siblings engaged in the same struggle.
A compromise was found. One day per year, the brother and sister would meet at a house between the two monasteries to discuss their joys and sorrows. They continued in this routine for many years, until the very last. In 543, St. Scholastica knew her death was imminent. She begged her brother to stay overnight so they could have more time to talk. He refused to be away from his cell for even one night, which would break his rule, and made to leave. Scholastica prayed for God to intervene. A severe storm erupted and continued so that Benedict and his brothers could not leave. He said, “May Almighty God forgive you sister for what you have done!”
She replied, “I asked a favor of you and you refused it. I asked it of God, and He has granted it!”
Thus reproved for his strictness, Benedict stayed and consoled his sister.
Three days later, St. Benedict had a vision of his sister’s soul ascending to heaven like a dove. He had her buried in his own tomb and later joined her in repose. Her feast day is February 10th. She is portrayed in iconography with a dove and a crosier.
This beautiful story, recorded by St. Gregory the Great, shows us how, at times, even the most faithful must learn to break a rule, even one which bears their name, for the sake of life and love. Strictness brings order and training on the path of salvation. Gentleness brings healing.