Contemplatio, consideratio & caritas

A triverberate (!) of Latin words does not make for good “clickbait”, but this is for the serious reader not the passing internet surfer. All will soon be clear enough.

Today the Order of St Benedict keeps the feast of Scholastica, the sister of St Benedict (and he, not she, is the patron saint of Benedictine nuns, for the record). Glimpses into her life can be gleaned from Book 2 of the Dialogues of Pope St Gregory the Great (or, in the eastern Church, St Gregory the Dialogist). A homage to his spiritual master, it was written between 593 and 594, less than 50 years after the death of Benedict. The relevant passage was read this morning at Matins, St Gregory as narrator:

His sister, named Scholastica, was dedicated from her infancy to our Lord. Once a year she came to visit her brother. The man of God went to her not far from the gate of his monastery, at a house that belonged to his monastery, and there he would meet with her.

Once she came to visit according to her custom, and her venerable brother with his monks went there to meet her. They spent the whole day speaking the praise of God and other spiritual talk, and when it was almost night, they ate together. While they were at table, talking of sacred things, night began to fall. The holy nun, his sister, entreated him to stay there all night that they might spend it in discoursing on the joys of heaven. However, he would not agree to this, saying that he might not by any means stay all night outside of his monastery.

Now, at that time the sky was so clear that no cloud was to be seen. The nun, hearing this refusal from her brother, joined her hands together, laid them on the table, bowed her head upon her hands, and prayed to almighty God.

Lifting her head from the table, there fell suddenly such a tempest of lightning and thundering, and such abundance of rain, that neither venerable Benedict, nor his monks that were with him, could put their heads out of doors. The holy nun, having rested her head on her hands, poured forth such a flood of tears on the table, that she transformed the clear air into a watery sky…

The man of God, seeing that he could not, in the midst of such thunder and lightning and great abundance of rain, return to his monastery, began to complain to his sister, saying: “God forgive you, what have you done?” She answered him, “I asked you to stay, and you would not hear me; I asked it of our good Lord, and he has granted my petition. Therefore if you can now depart, in God’s name return to your monastery, and leave me here alone.”

But the good father, not being able to leave, remained there against his will, though before he would not have stayed willingly. They watched through the night and with spiritual and heavenly talk mutually comforted one another.

Therefore, by this we see, as I said before, that he could not have what he desired. For as we know the venerable man’s mind, there is no question but that he would have desired the same fair weather as when he left his monastery. He found, however, that a miracle prevented his desire. A miracle that, by the power of almighty God, a woman’s prayers had wrought. Is it not a thing to be marvelled at, that a woman, who for a long time had not seen her brother, might do more in that instance than he could? She realized, according to the saying of St. John, that “God is charity.” Therefore, as is right, since she loved the more, she achieved the more.

From our modern perspective, we read this with a wry grin: feminine wiles manipulating a pious man. However, St Gregory is making a serious point here, and the moral of the story is at the very end: the primacy of charity.

Ss Benedict and Scholastica in holy converse, from The Life of St Benedict by Br John McKenzie OSB (Norcia)

In preaching this morning at Mass, Fr Abbot raised St Gregory’s teaching on contemplatio as balanced by consideratio. He did not develop them and, in the context of the gospel passage on Martha and Mary, some hearers might unwittingly have translated consideratio as considerateness. Obviously, Our Lord did not chastise Mary for any lack of considerateness in leaving Martha to do the work. She chose the better part because, in fact, the work was not urgent and so was secondary.

A more accurate translation might be a sense of proportion, or even discretion. For St Gregory consideratio was the use of one’s reason to discern the proper balance between body and soul, the active and the contemplative, spiritual ideals and the physical/social situation at any moment in question. Put another way, it is to apply the primacy of love to any situation; not the schmaltzy love favoured in muzak, but the love of God and of our neighbour as ourselves, seen in one harmonious whole. A good example would be Our Lord’s healing on the sabbath: he did not devalue the sabbath but put it in a proper sense of proportion, as being made for man not man for it.

So St Benedict failed his sister; a failure in charity arising from a failure in consideratio. He valued observance of his rule over a concrete demand of charity. Love will out, as St Scholastica proved. St Gregory himself noted it: because she loved more, her will prevailed, not her brother’s idealism.

In the last post here I dared to counsel moderation in discussing the serious issues of Church and doctrine that face us today: that one can be clear and committed without shouting or vilification; that truth without charity is grievously undermined. If we truly have charity for even those who disagree with us, who peddle a line that reeks of error, then we will achieve far more by persuasion than intimidation. The achievement might comes in God’s good time rather than our own, a salutary reminder that instant gratification is not of the Gospel. A sense of proportion, a healthy discretion, will keep us to this way. It is all there in the Tradition.

It is interesting to note that when dealing with sinners Jesus was mildness itself. His more strident tone was reserved for those who should have known better, or thought they knew better. Consideratio indeed.

Happy feast.

PS There is a happy ending of course, related by St Gregory:

The next day the venerable woman [Scholastica] returned to her monastery, and the man of God [Benedict] to his abbey. Three days later, standing in his cell, and lifting up his eyes to the heavens, he beheld the soul of his sister departing her body and ascending into heaven in the form of a dove.

Rejoicing much to see her great glory, with hymns and praise he gave thanks to almighty God, and told the news of her death to his monks. He sent them to bring her body back to his monastery, to bury it in the tomb he had prepared for himself. Just as their souls were always united in God while they lived, so their bodies were united after death.

The Passing of St Scholastica, by Maicon Dandi Sousa

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  1. Father, this very morning, in a packed Moston Cemetery Chapel, Manchester, the veritable Fr. Ray Matus, C.O., preached an almost identical homily in his usual homespun style. His homilies alone are worth getting out of bed on a wet Saturday, or any other morning for that matter.


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