A certain researcher in Rome recently uncovered the manuscript of a late medieval copy of an earlier copy of a letter attributed to Scholastica, abbess of Plombariola. The original letter appears to have been written to another abbess, named Flavia, in about the year 535. It treats of the observance of Lent.
To my beloved sister in Christ, the Lady Flavia, abbess of the handmaids of the Lord near Benevento. Grace and peace from Scholastica, abbess in the school of the Lord’s service that is at Plombariola.
The School of the Lord’s Service
Your letter brought me much joy and, bound by the sweetness of affection that unites us in holy friendship, I hasten to respond to your questions “with sincere and humble charity” (RB 72:10). Know that I have no teaching of my own; from the time of my veiling (velatio) the commands and teaching of my brother, blessed by grace and by name, “have mingled like the leaven of divine justice in my mind” (RB 25). In truth, dear sister, he who is my brother according to the flesh, has become my father in the Spirit. It was he who named me Scholastica, saying that, like him, I was destined to remain in the “school of the Lord’s service” (RB Pro:45). In this school I have found “nothing that is harsh or hard to bear” (RB Pro:46). On the contrary, through the continual practice of monastic observance and the life of faith” (RB Pro:49), my heart is opened wide, and even now I am running in the way of God’s commandments in a sweetness of love that is beyond words (cf. RB Pro: 49).
The Yearly Visit
I see my venerable brother but once a year, and even then he refuses to come to me, not wanting to leave the enclosure of his monastery. I am obliged to go to him at Monte Cassino, inspired by the example of the Queen of the South who traveled far to sit at the feet of Solomon and listen to his wisdom. My brother himself says that “we must hurry to do now what will profit us forever” (RB Pro 44). I will continue to go to him as long as I am able to make the journey, trusting that he who formed us together in our mother’s womb will one day bring us “together to life everlasting” (cf. RB 73:12).
You ask me to tell you how we observe Lent here at Plombariola. My venerable brother, in his “little Rule written for beginners” (RB 73:8), says that “a monk’s life ought at all seasons to bear a Lenten character” (RB 49:1). He is also the first to admit that “such strength is found only in the few” (RB 49:2). Following his teaching, I urge my sisters to “keep the holy days of Lent with a special purity of life, and also at this holy season to make reparation for the failings of other times” (RB 49:3). I try to order Lent in my monastery with “discretion, the mother of virtues” (RB 54:19) in such a way that “the strong may desire to carry more, and the weak are not afraid” (RB 54:19). The task of ruling souls and serving women of different characters is, as you know well, arduous and difficult (cf. RB 2:31). I must adapt and fit myself to all. Dear old Nonna Fabiola needs to be encouraged. Sister Petronilla, thick-skinned as she is, responds only to sharp rebuke, whereas Sister Anastasia has to be persuaded. With some, I have to be tough, and with others lovingly affectionate. This is my brother’s way, and by following it, I have “not lost any of the flock entrusted to me, and rejoice as my good flock increases” (RB 2:32).
But I digress, dear Mother Flavia. Your question was about Lent. My venerable brother says that we are to “guard ourselves from faults” during this holy time. To do this, one must “always remember all God’s commandments, and constantly turn over in one’s heart how hell will burn those who despise him by their sins and how eternal life has been prepared for those who fear him” (RB 7:11). My brother calls this the first step of humility. As for me, my faults appear daily in the bright mirror of the Scriptures. I have no excuse for putting off the labour of my conversion. As the psalmist says: “Thou hast set our evil-doings before Thee, our secret sins in the light of Thy countenance” (Ps 89:8).
Four Lenten Practices
My venerable brother recommends four Lenten practices: “prayer with tears, reading, compunction of heart, and abstinence” (RB 49:4). The first, prayer with tears, has always come easily to me. God has never refused me anything I asked of him with tears. I have no doubt that he “has set my tears in his sight” (Ps 55:9). Tears in prayer are no cause for alarm. The heart pressed by the hand of God in prayer weeps just as a sponge held tightly in your hand or mine gives forth water.
Sacred reading is my brother’s second Lenten practice. He considers it so important that he completely changes the horarium of his monastery during Lent to make more time for it. Here we do the same. Nothing is done at Monte Cassino that we do not do here at Plombariola. In Lent our hours of reading are “from the morning until the end of the Third Hour” (RB 48:14). This means we do not begin work after Prime, as is the custom at other times, but consecrate to sacred reading the best three hours of the morning. We are alert then, and the early morning light in the cloister is wonderfully clear and bright.
When your letter arrived I was, in fact, choosing Lenten books from our library for my nuns. My venerable brother says that this is one of the most important tasks of an abbess. When a sister chooses her own book she is all too often swayed by personal prejudices and taste. It is easy to avoid the book that will prick the soul with compunction. And so I choose carefully for my little flock, imitating Nonna Lucia, our infirmarian, an expert dispenser of medicines for every affliction. In choosing the Lenten books, I try to offer a remedy for the sick soul, a comfort for the weary, a joy for the downhearted, a light for the path of the one who seems to have lost her way. Following my brother’s practice, I will give them out on the First Sunday of Lent. Each sister will come forward to receive her book from my hand, seeing in it a provision of daily bread for the forty days of the Great Fast. After Pascha, the nuns will return their books in good condition, having read them through from the beginning (cf. RB 48:15).
Human weakness being what it is, I am obliged nonetheless to appoint two seniors to go round the monastery during the hours set aside for reading to see whether perchance they come upon some lazy sister who is engaged in doing nothing or, God forbid, in chatter, and is not intent upon her book. Such nuns are not only profitless to themselves but lead others astray too (cf. RB 48:17-18). Every year I hope that such will not be the case, but I must tell you, dear Mother Flavia, that one Lent I had to reprimand a certain chatterbox once and a second time. Finally, I had to punish her in accordance with my brother’s Rule, so that others might be warned (cf. RB 48:19-20). Happily, she has made progress since then and I pray that this Lent she will attend to her reading in quiet and in peace.
My venerable brother says that during this sacred season we are “to increase in some way the normal standard of our service, as for example, by special prayers, or by a diminution in food or drink” (RB 49:5-6). It is edifying to see Nonna Aquilina lingering in the oratory after Compline. Even Pulcheria, our littlest oblate, asked me if she might give up the sweet bread and butter given her after None each day. Nonna Marcellina asked me if she might pray the Beati immaculati (Psalm 118) daily through Lent. She knows it by heart, of course. Ah, dear Mother Flavia, joys such as these compensate abundantly for the anxieties and sorrows that an abbess so often carries within her heart.
My venerable brother says that Lenten joy is the most important thing of all. Some would make of Lent a time of gloom and lamentation. Not my brother! When I asked him on my last visit to Monte Cassino how my nuns were to keep Lent, he smiled broadly and said, “Let each one spontaneously in the joy of the Holy Spirit make some offering to God concerning the allowance granted her” (RB 49:6). My brother is known for his gravitas, but to me he reveals a heart brimming over with joy in the Holy Spirit. It is true that he has no time for silliness, or giddy laughter, or talkativeness — he has always loved silence more than talking, even from the time we were children — but that silence is the seal of his joy. He pours out his joy like a fine wine, with discretion; but his joy itself is boundless.
Often my venerable brother speaks of offering. He wants our Lenten practices to be a holy oblation offered to God (cf. RB 49:6). I saw him once standing close to the altar at the moment of Holy Communion with his hands raised in prayer, completely taken up in the offering of Christ to the Father of infinite majesty. This, I think, is why he prescribed the singing of the Suscipe before the altar on the day of my monastic consecration.
With the Abbot’s Blessing
This epistle is already too long, dear Mother Flavia, and I am obliged to write now with smaller letters in the margins of the parchment, but there is still one important thing on which my venerable brother insists. Before my first Lent as abbess, he said that “every sister should propose to me whatever she intends to offer, and it should be performed with my blessing and approval” (cf. RB 49:8-9). This was very humbling for me, I hardly felt equal to the task, but he reminded me that I should “always bear in mind what I am called, and fufill in my actions the name of One who is called greater” (RB 2:1-2). I give you the same counsel, dear sister in Christ: “Anything done without the permission of the spiritual mother will be put down to presumption and vainglory, and deserving no reward” (RB 49:9). Do then as I do, following the example of my venerable brother. “Everything must be carried out with the approval of the abbess” (RB 49:10).
I have tried to answer your question, reverend Lady — always my dear sister in Christ. I greet you and those who, being with you, “truly seek God” (RB 58:7) with a holy kiss. Let us now “with the joy of spiritual desire, look forward to holy Pascha” (RB 49:7).
+ Scholastica, abbess