Saint Scholastica 2021
On the fifth day, God created “every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kind, and every winged bird according to its kind.” (Gn 1:21) God blessed them and charged them to multiply. God loves birds and Jesus tells us that not a single sparrow “will fall to the ground without [the] Father’s will” (Mt 10:29).
Two kinds of birds have been most especially associated with the Benedictine family: ravens and doves.
Ravens are independent, long-lived, and clever birds which, according to the Gospel, are the objects of God’s special care: “Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.” (Lk 12:24). In his youth at Subiaco, St Benedict emulated God’s merciful care by feeding a raven with what was left from his Spartan regime. He, too, was very conscious that he was fed by our Father in heaven, even to the point of being able to feed others. In memory of this, ravens were kept at Subiaco till not so long ago. The animals are no longer there, but there still exists a “Cortile dei Corvi” or ‘Raven’s Courtyard’.
How could we not be reminded of the very first bird which was sent out of the ark after the deluge? “At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made and sent forth a raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the face of the ground.” (Gn 9:6-7). Ravens are among the very rare animals able to report on something which happened in another place. This is probably why Noah chose to send this symbol of vigilance and keen observation, as well as of faithful reporting.
After the raven, Noah “sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground.” A first time, the dove came back and Noah “put his hand and took her and brought her into the ark with him”. But after seven days, he sent her out again. The “dove came back to him in the evening, and lo, in her mouth a freshly plucked olive leaf.” (cf. Gn 9:6-12). This was the sign of new life appearing on earth after the waters of death had done their purifying work. As we know, St Scholastica is associated with the dove, since she appeared to her brother as a dove ascending to heaven at the time of her death.
The raven and the dove have thus become fitting symbols of our Benedictine monasticism.
On the one hand, you have the raven. In its black suit and with its rugged voice, it is the clever, methodical, and persevering servant, patiently waiting for the waters to dry up. It is a creature of the night, or of the end of the night. It does not rejoice before the time has come. It keeps the mourning attitude of the one who knows that God’s justice must first bring its work to completion. You cannot have Easter morning without going through Good Friday and Holy Saturday. You cannot be called a saint before you have become one. You had better, dear Brother, dear Sister, climb the descending ladder of humility, with its degrees of virtue, conversion, and observance. Follow the Rule and do not think too soon that you can free yourself of its yoke. Rather, submit yourself in obedience to your Abbot, follow the examples of your seniors and the common rule of the monastery.
The dove, on the other hand, speaks of hope. It goes out, in perfect obedience, and comes back, in irreproachable submission. But, with its white robe and its musical voice, it belongs to the day. It anticipates the morning. It lives for Sunday, for the light and for the resurrection. It brings back home the sign of life and breathes the Benedictine Pax. It is a bird of desire, of aspiration, and of loving longing. It has found the light and discovered the source of joy; it is given more, because it loves more. Dear Brother, dear Sister, live, you too, for the Lord and His victory. Be a man, a woman of the morning and the light. Follow the desire of your heart and answer the voice which is calling you: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away, for lo the winter is passed [well, not really!!!]. O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet and your face is comely.” (cf. Sg 2:10-14)
There was a certain day when St Benedict wanted to be a good, serious raven whereas St Scholastica felt in her heart the great desires of a dove. And God agreed with her. There was another day when St Scholastica made it to heaven as a dove. St Benedict, on that day, ascended with her in desire. As a good raven, he did not forget that their bodies had first to descend in the tomb. But he had no doubt, now, that he, too, was called to the freedom and the audacity of the loving dove.
The monastic tradition has clothed us all in black, so that we might not forget our raven-like vocation. But this does not forbid us to aim at the freedom of the dove. Nigra sum, I am black like the raven, sed formosa, but beautiful like the dove, because the Son of God “loved me and gave himself up for me”. This is why I hold nothing dearer to me than Christ, the Lord of the doves, of the ravens, and of all sorts of other strange birds.