Saint Scholastica and Breaking the Rule

St. Scholastica and St. Benedict

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.

Saint Sophia of Thrace and What to Do Next

St. Sophia of Thrace

What do you do when your plans go to ruin through unexpected ways? The lives of many saints show us the choices they made when confronted with the unthinkable: deaths of loved ones, natural disaster, persecution, abandonment, disease or infirmity, financial calamity, wars, famine, and so on. For the holy women we remember who faced such disaster, what they chose to do next is the illustration of their character and their faithfulness to God.

A recurring theme in good hagiography is one of holy eucatastrophe. This term, coined by J.R.R. Tolkein, is commonly defined as the happy resolution, an impossible problem which is solved by the end of a story. Why do I predicate eucatastrophe with the word holy? In the lives of saints, the plot twist in their lives is not usually rectified to the same status they were before. They may not have another child or remarry or regain wealth or live in peaceful times, all tropes we like to read or see in fairy tales. The resolution, the good to come from disaster, is a transformation of this person’s life path for their salvation, the choice to do good.

St. Sophia is known to us as ‘The Mother of Orphans’. In the first half of her life, however, she was a mother and wife, a devoted Christian woman, living in Thrace, most likely before 700 AD. She had borne 6 children and in the midst of a busy family, did not neglect prayer or Church attendance. A plague swept through her town, carrying off her husband and each of her children in quick succession. Sophia was now a childless widow.

There is a quote from Dorothy Day which I keep written at the beginning of my journals, where she offered advice to a young man who needed discernment about his life’s path.

“Pray this prayer, ‘Lord, what would you have me to do?’ The answer to this prayer is finding yourself doing more than you ever thought possible.”

In my experience, the work God has for us, especially when we are faced with monumental changes, is so much more than we can dream. I underestimate myself constantly and hide in fear of failure or of conflict. The parable of hiding talents is my constant reminder to use what little I have been given. I feel special kinship with these types of saints because they allowed the Holy Spirit to work humility in their lives, while at the same time, doing great works of faith.

Sophia, whether she consciously prayed this prayer or not, went about doing much more than she had expected in the second half of life. For the next twenty years, she took in 100 orphans and raised them as Christians. She sold property to care for fellow widows. She preferred to do without the necessities of life herself rather than allow any poor person to leave her home empty-handed. She continued to be a mother, seeing the fruit of her love grow in a multitude of ways beyond her first loss.

God blessed her humility and generosity through a unique miracle. She had a jug of wine that she used to serve poor guests. The jug never emptied and was replenished every day. This continued until Sophia told another person of the miracle and the wine dried up. She was immediately sorrowful about her indiscretion. Sophia took the monastic tonsure before her repose at age 53. Her icon often depicts her holding the wine jug as a sign of God’s provision. Her feast day is June 4th.

More about St. Sophia:

Venerable Sophia of Ainos

St. Sophia of Thrace

What is Hagiography?

St. Luke the Evangelist

What makes a good story? Is it a compelling plot? Or do you need an emotional tie to a main character? Are you disappointed with unexpected endings? Are you a fact-checker with sci-fi or historical novels and give up if the author gets the details wrong? We all approach stories with assumptions about what makes them good or dissatisfying. Hagiography, or the recording of the lives of Orthodox saints, has these unspoken assumptions, or in modern terminology, ‘tropes’ for a specific goal. Over the course of several posts, I will explore what hagiography teaches us and the fruits we can gather from the lives of every kind of saint.

I am a trained archivist; my work was to take a jumble of papers from a person or event and impart physical order so as to make a coherent system for finding information. When working with personal papers, there were several ways to go about this, but the overarching picture was to keep in mind the whole of this person’s life trajectory. As I began creating lessons centered around the lives of women saints, I delved into dozens, if not hundreds of stories, sorting out representatives to help my students understand a particular theme. I naturally picked up on patterns in the language used to describe our Orthodox saints.

Were these patterns made by unspoken little ‘t’ tradition or were there rules? Like within the tradition of iconography, are there understood symbols and depictions transmuted in language? I quickly learned there has been no academic or lengthy analysis on what hagiography is or rubrics delineating how we remember the saints. This is surprising considering how much of our liturgical life is guided through well-honed patterns.

To start with a basic definition, hagiography is writing about holiness. The goal of writing about a saint is to record what is profitable from their life story for our salvation -or- how their lives are joined with God in the world. This act of recording takes a great deal of wisdom and is much more complex than a social historian like myself would encounter when writing a biographical essay in my discipline. My emerging thesis is that hagiography is mythos meets ethos using logos or a recurrent structured story that builds towards a defining shared character for a group of people which shows the Divine life in the world.

In the next post of this series, I will explain what hagiography is not (if in doubt, go apophatic) and what are the hallmarks of good hagiography. This will be a fun rabbit trail, I promise!

Saint Genevieve of Paris and Loving Your Place

Who feels like home to you? When you go into the hardware store in your hometown, is George always at the counter? Is it memories of your grandmother on the porch with a bowl of peas to shell? Is it the announcer at the ballpark, who made each game memorable? Is it the yia-yia who stands in the same corner every week in church, praying with gentle determination for the new generation darting behind her skirts?

St. Genevieve of Paris

For any devout Parisian, St. Genevieve is their grandmother, guarding over their city like a broody hen. Throughout time and in nearly every place Orthodox Christianity has put down roots, there are saints who join themselves with a place as firmly as the bedrock. Some are in the world, either in aristocracy or as ordinary folk, and some take the monastic tonsure, as St. Genevieve. They know in their hearts, that come what may, their service to God is to love and serve Him and His people in this place, in life and in their repose.

St. Genevieve is a foundational saint in the Church of northern France, being less than two generations removed from the first bishop and martyr of Paris, St. Denis (Dionysius). Her venerable life spanned the most tumultuous years of the post-Roman era, from 419 – 512. Born to Christian parents, she was dedicated at a young age to Christ through the blessing of Bishop St. Germain, who laid his hand on her head when she was eight and asked if she wished to consecrate herself to which she gave her assent. Her mother, however, upon learning of this, became very angry and struck Genevieve and went immediately blind. Only when Genevieve forgave her mother and prayed, did the woman regain her sight.

When she was fifteen, Genevieve and several other young women presented themselves to the Bishop of Paris to receive their tonsure. The Bishop, instead of tonsuring the most senior of the women, began with Genevieve.The women dwelt with Genevieve at her grandmother’s spacious house in Paris, thus beginning the monastic tradition in the city. She was known to only eat twice a week and to pray during the night. She continued these ascetic labors until old age and infirmity decreased her austerity. Word spread of her miracles and asceticism so that even St. Symeon the Stylite heard of her exploits.

St. Genevieve worked relentlessly and bravely for the well-being and safety of her people. In 451, Attila the Hun threatened invasion of Paris. St. Genevieve and St. Germain’s deacon persuaded the Parisians to not flee the city but to pray. It was claimed that she took a torch and her sisters to the city walls as a witness and the would-be invaders turned away soon after. Again, in 464, Childeric besieged and blockaded the city. St. Genevieve passed through enemy lines untouched and brought in grain for the people. She repeatedly reasoned with both Childeric and with Clovis for peace, with the latter eventually building an abbey for Genevieve and her sisters.

Another way St. Genevieve showed devotion to the Church in France was through building the first chapel dedicated to St. Denis and honoring other Gaulic saints. The Bishop objected to the idea since there was no more limestone left in the nearest quarry. Genevieve told the Bishop that this was not so and the chapel should be built. A few days later, the deacons overheard shepherds at the bridge saying they had found another source of limestone. Genevieve and her sisters also made pilgrimages to Tours to venerate the relics of St. Martin the Wonderworker.

Her earthly pilgrimage ended in her repose in 512, at around age 93. This is not the end of her ministry to the Church in Paris. Her relics were kept in the Basilica of St. Denis until the French revolutionaries burned and dumped them into the Seine in 1793. Afterwards, other remains were gathered together from various churches and interred at Saint Etienne du Mont. Her feast day is January 3rd.

The following is a story related from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, regarding how St. Genevieve welcomed Russian emigres to Paris and asked for their intercession and veneration:

In one of our poorest and smallest communities in Paris a woman saw a dream that she was somewhere in the thickets near a wood, that she was impelled to look at what there was within it; she found a gate, walked further and was confronted with the statue of a woman, who was holding in her hands a book and a sheaf of wheat, and this woman looked at her in sorrow and said: How is it that the people of my city, who share my faith pay me no honour. The woman awoke, there was no name she could attach to the vision; she spoke of it, but she had no answer, until a few weeks later, going to a small place not far from Paris, called Sainte Genevieve des Bois, she recognised the place of her dream, the thicket; she entered it, found a gate and was confronted with the same statue, but this time an inscription revealed to her it was Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris together with Saint Denis. And she brought the news, and in our small community we began to pray to her, later we created a parish in her name, and this was the beginning of French Orthodoxy.

This opened, our minds, and our hearts to something which we had overlooked, because having lost our Country and all we loved we had a tendency to be (ingrained) in our Russian life, remembering only our Russian ancestry, both spiritual and material, the country we loved, the people who were our kin, and the saints who were the glory of Russia. And now we suddenly became aware that we had come into the West, not in a part of the world that was strange and alien to us but in a part of the world which for nearly a thousand years had shared with us the same faith, the same plenitude of oneness, the same joy of belonging together with all the Christian world. We began then to pay attention to the saints of the West and. in all countries now this awareness has grown and when we come to a country of the Western world., we know that beyond a thousand years of separation we meet the memory, the prayers, the names and the presence of those Saints of Orthodoxy who are and were its glory, its resplendence before God, we come to our own people; and this is something which is so wonderful and for which we are so deeply grateful. We are no strangers in this land, thousands and thousands of men and women have shared our faith; we are strangers in no land because the oneness of the Church hundreds of years ago unbroken make us the kin of those who are their resplendence and their glory.


Many of my readers are first generation Orthodox Christians, either in their place or in their families or both. Some of us have been in the founding stages of mission parishes and seen them grow into consecrated churches. I fit into both categories. My onus is, “My faithfulness contributes to this foundation and will it be strong enough for future generations to build upon?” This is a difficult thing to ponder as ‘missionaries’, when what we see now are temporary buildings, small bank accounts, and every precious convert to shepherd.

Those who live in places where Orthodoxy has deep roots, even to the beginning of the Church, your question may be framed, “Will the faith endure after me, with what I do now?” Even the mightiest oak can fall in the next storm. 

We all have the same responsibility of Christians at any time and any place – the faith endures because of us! Perhaps we can be those saints who loved their small patch of land and people so deeply that our memory calls out to the future and welcomes in those who are bereft of both.


Met. Anthony’s address regarding St. Genevieve:


Starting the Brown Dress Project

The Three Holy Generations

A friend was visiting a monastery at Mt. Athos while he was working on his PhD in Theology in Thessaloniki. An old monk was sitting in the courtyard, with a small group of pilgrims, between services. All of the visitors had thought of questions for the elder which were quite detailed. My friend thought the monk looked rather frustrated with all the debates on liturgical minutiae. So he ventured this question,

Geronta, how should I study the Scriptures?”

The elder looked at the young man intently for a moment and replied,

“You begin by reading the lives of the saints. They will show you the Gospels lived out in the world.”

The young man returned to his studies with a different vantage point for his future work in the Church.

When I began teaching Church School to a small group of middle school aged girls in the fall of 2017, I thought it would be a simple matter of following a prepared curriculum, helping with a Nativity production, and patting them on the shoulder at the end of the year in May. I read the first lesson from the curriculum and handed out a worksheet, which the girls dutifully filled out. They looked bored beyond measure. Then I posed a life-changing question of my own,

“What would you all like to learn in this class?”

“I want to learn about women saints!” an eager voice replied. The others nodded enthusiastically.

We brainstormed a few other ideas, but we kept circling back to the central theme of the life of women in the church.

During the following week, I set about looking for resources on women saints, scaled for youth. I quickly realized there were no coherent outlines for this theme already written. No worksheets. No Pinterest-worthy crafts. I was sailing into uncharted territory and all I had for a map was the Synaxarion.

The path of learning we followed for the last 8 months has been mutually challenging. I put on my librarian’s organizational cap. How do I go about coherently presenting the incredibly complex variety of saints who lived in every possible life circumstance across 2000 + years of history? Most importantly, how do I show these girls that the path of holiness is the Gospel lived in the World in the context of being a woman?

These questions lead me to see just how rarely the lives of women saints are presented as integral to the life of the Church. We learned about names both frequently mentioned and those who are not – whose memory is alive on paper, but may not be alive in our preconceptions of how sainthood is portrayed. All through the ages and places where Christ’s Church has been founded, women have lived their faith boldly and quietly, as royalty and as poor widows, as wives and as virgins, as missionaries and teachers, as midwives and mothers, as monastics and as hermitesses, as martyrs and venerable eldresses in their communities. We have these witnesses to the Christ, as our inheritance, to show us the path of holiness is possible wherever and whenever we live.

With these ideas in mind, I have my spiritual father’s blessing to start sharing with you the lessons I have taught and continue to learn along the way.