The Holy Twins: Benedict and Scholastica Kathleen Norris and Tomie dePaola
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2001
When I was last browsing through the picture book stacks at my local library, I was delighted to chance upon The Holy Twins: Benedict and Scholastica, a collaboration between Kathleen Norris and Tomie dePaola. Not because I had a prior burning interest in either Benedict or Scholastica, mind you, but because I love each of these artists’ work and was astonished to see they had done a picture book together.
Kathleen Norris is a poet and essayist whose writing I first encountered in college, in a creative nonfiction class my senior year. We had a long booklist of essays, spiritual writing, and autobiography to choose from; at the time, having spent the past four years immersed in political science and philosophy, I didn’t recognize many of the authors on the list. (This is a deficiency I have happily spent the past ten years correcting.) A California kid engaged to be married to someone from that alien and fascinating state, North Dakota (“Really? People live there?” was one actual response I got when I told someone from my hometown where my fiance was from), my eyes lit on a memoir entitled Dakota. I picked it up, was immediately drawn in to her spiritual meditations on life on the Great Plains, and quickly read my way through her other nonfiction as well. She is an adult convert to Christianity, a Presbyterian who is also an oblate at a Benedictine monastery, and a woman whose writings testify to patient wisdom borne of prayer and close observation of the world.
(Our book club read her short book The Quotidian Mysteries a few years back, and it completely changed the way I view my work here at home, in a redemptive and hopeful way. But that’s another post for another day.)
So, needless to say, I was thrilled to see that she had paired with one my favorite author/illustrators, Tomie de Paola. Except: Benedict and Scholastica? Really? I’m a church history junkie, and even I had trouble getting excited about this one. How compelling could it be as a children’s book? And, frankly, as a Protestant, a biography of a founder of a monastic order felt, well…a little less than relevant.
I was totally wrong. First of all, if you didn’t know, Benedict (480-547) had a really exciting life. Miracles, attempted poisonings by disgruntled fellow monks, wilderness ramblings – it’s all there. The founder of the Benedictine order only came to develop his common sense rule for Christian life together after wandering Italy and experiencing many trials. These trials taught an otherwise brilliant and exacting man to be patient, gracious, and hospitable to his brothers in Christ.
His story is told alongside that of his twin sister, Scholastica – an equally precocious child, but as a woman, consigned to a simple life among nuns in a monastery. She was more than a match, though, for her brilliant brother – and over the course of a long correspondence, taught him that the way of obedience is through love, not legalistic adherence to rules. At one point, when Benedict describes to her the rule that he is writing for the monks at Monte Cassino, she begins to laugh. “Isn’t it funny, Brother, that you had to travel all over Italy to learn some of the things that I discovered by staying in one place!”
Although the Protestant tradition has departed from monastic life, these “holy twins” are nevertheless part of our church history and well worth meeting. I love how this book introduces them as true saints: those in love with God, dedicated to living their life in submission to him, and seeking to love his world as Christ loved us. It’s a wonderful way to share church history with children in an ecumenical, inspiring way.