Jerome - Letters 76
Abigaus the recipient of this letter was a blind presbyter of Baetica in Spain. He had asked the help of Jerome’s prayers in his struggles with evil and Jerome now writes to cheer and to console him. He concludes his remarks by commending to his especial care the widow Theodora. The letter should be compared with that addressed to Castrutius (LXVIII).. It was written at the same time with the preceding).
1. Although I am conscious of many sins and every day pray on bended knees, "Remember not the sins of my youth nor my transgressions,2299 yet because I know that it has been said by the Apostle “let a man not be lifted up with pride lest he fall into the condemnation of the devil,”2300 and that it is written in another passage, “God resisteth the proud but giveth grace to the humble,”2301 there is nothing I have striven so much to avoid from my boyhood up as a swelling mind and a stiff neck,2302 things which always provoke against themselves the wrath of God. For I know that my master and Lord and God has said in the lowliness of His flesh: “Learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart,”2303 and that before this He has sung by the mouth of David: "Lord, remember David and all his gentleness.2304 Again we read in another passage, “Before destruction the heart of man is haughty; and before honour is humility.”2305 Do not, then, I implore you, suppose that I have received your letter and have passed it over in silence. Do not, I beseech you, lay to my charge the dishonesty and negligence of which others have been guilty. For why should I, when called on to respond to your kind advances, continue dumb and repel by my silence the friendship which you offer? I who am always forward to seek intimate relations with the good and even to thrust myself upon their affection. “Two,” we read, “are better than one.… for if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow.… a three fold cord is not quickly broken, and a brother that helps his brother shall be exalted.”2306 Write to me, therefore, boldly, and overcome the effect of absence by frequent colloquies.
2. You should not grieve that you are destitute of those bodily eyes which ants, flies, and creeping things have as well as men; rather you should rejoice that you possess that eye of which it is said in the Song of Songs, “Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse; thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes.”2307 This is the eye with which God is seen and to which Moses refers when he says:—“I will now turn aside and see this great sight.”2308 We even read of some philosophers of this world2309 that they have plucked out their eyes in order to turn all their thoughts upon the pure depths of the mind. And a prophet has said “Death has entered through your windows.”2310 Our Lord too tells the Apostles: “Whosoever looketh upon a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”2311 Consequently they are commanded to lift up their eyes and to look on the fields, for these are white and ready for harvest.2312
3. You request me by my exhortations to slay in you Nebuchadnezzar and Rabshakeh and Nebuzar-adan and Holofernes.2313 Were they alive in you, you would never have sought my aid. No, they are dead within you, and you have begun to build up the ruins of Jerusalem with the help of Zerubbabel and of Joshua the son of Josedech the high priest, of Esd and of Nehemiah. You do not put your wages into a bag with holes,2314 but you lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven,2315 and if you seek my friendship, it is because you believe me to be a servant of Christ.
I commend to you—although she needs no commendation but her own—my holy daughter Theodora, formerly the wife or rather the sister of Lucinius of blessed memory. Tell her that she must not grow weary of the path upon which she has entered, and that she can only reach the Holy Land by toiling through the wilderness. Warn her against supposing that the work of virtue is perfected when she has made her exodus from Egypt. Remind her that she must pass through snares innumerable to arrive at mount Nebo and the River Jordan,2316 that she must receive circumcision anew at Gilgal,2317 that Jericho must fall before her, overthrown by the blasts of priestly trumpets,2318 that Adoni-zedec must be slain,2319 that Ai and Hazor, once fairest of cities, must both fall.2320
The brothers who are with me in the monastery salute you, and I through you earnestly salute those reverend persons who deign to bestow upon me their regard.
The eulogy of Fabiola whoso restless life had come to an end in 399 a.d. Jerome tells the story of her sin and of her penitence (for which see Letter LV)., of the hospital established by her at Portus, of her visit to Bethlehem, and of her earnestness in the study of scripture. He relates how he wrote for her his account of the vestments of the high priest (Letter LXIV). and how at the time of her death he was at her request engaged upon a commentary on the forty-two halting-places of the Israelites in the wilderness (Letter LXXIX).. This last he now sends along with this letter to Oceanus. Jerome also bestows praise upon Pammachius as the companion of all Fabiola’s labours. The date of the letter is 399 a.d.
1. Several years since I consoled the venerated Paula, whilst her affliction was still recent for the falling asleep of Blaesilla.2321 Four summers ago I wrote for the bishop Heliodorus the epitaph of Nepotian, and expended what ability I possessed in giving expression to my grief at his loss.2322 Only two years have elapsed since I sent a brief letter to my dear Pammachius on the sudden flitting of his Paulina.2323 I blushed to say more to one so learned or to give him back his own thoughts: lest I should seem less the consoler of a friend than the officious instructor of one already perfect. But now, Oceanus my son, the duty that you lay upon me is one that I gladly accept and would even seek unasked. For when new virtues have to be dealt with, an old subject itself becomes new. In previous cases I have had to soften and restrain a mother’s affection, an uncle’s grief, and a husband’s yearning; according to the different requirements of each I have had to apply from scripture different remedies.
2. To-day you give me as my theme Fabiola, the praise of the Christians, the marvel of the gentiles, the sorrow of the poor, and the consolation of the monks. Whatever point in her character I choose to treat of first, pales into insignificance compared with those which follow after. Shall I praise her fasts? Her alms are greater still. Shall I commend her lowliness? The glow of her faith is yet brighter. Shall I mention her studied plainness in dress, her voluntary choice of plebeian costume and the garb of a slave that she might put to shame silken robes? To change one’s disposition is a greater achievement than to change one’s dress. It is harder for us to part with arrogance than with gold and gems. For, even though we throw away these, we plume ourselves sometimes on a meanness that is really ostentatious, and we make a bid with a saleable poverty for the popular applause. But a virtue that seeks concealment and is cherished in the inner consciousness appeals to no judgement but that of God. Thus the eulogies which I have to bestow upon Fabiola will be altogether new: I must neglect the order of the rhetoricians and begin all I have to say only from the cradle of her conversion and of her penitence. Another writer, mindful of the school, would perhaps bring forward Quintus Maximus, “the man who by delaying rescued Rome,”2324 and the whole Fabian family; he would describe their struggles and battles and would exult that Fabiola had come to us through a line so noble, shewing that qualities not apparent in the branch still existed in the root. But as I am a lover of the inn at Bethlehem and of the Lord’s stable in which the virgin travailed with and gave birth to an infant God, I shall deduce the lineage of Christ’s handmaid not from a stock famous in history but from the lowliness of the church.
3. And because at the very outset there is a rock in the path and she is overwhelmed by a storm of censure, for having forsaken her first husband and having taken a second, I will not praise her for her conversion till I have first cleared her of this charge. So terrible then were the faults imputed to her former husband that not even a prostitute or a common slave could have put up with them. If I were to recount them, I should undo the heroism of the wife who chose to bear the blame of a separation rather than to blacken the character and expose the stains of him who was one body with her. I will only urge this one plea which is sufficient to exonerate a chaste matron and a Christian woman. The Lord has given commandment that a wife must not be put away “except it be for fornication, and that, if put away, she must remain unmarried.”2325 Now a commandment which is given to men logically applies to women also. For it cannot be that, while an adulterous wife is to be put away, an incontinent husband is to be retained. The apostle says: “he which is joined to an harlot is one body.”2326 Therefore she also who is joined to a whoremonger and unchaste person is made one body with him. The laws of Caesar are different, it is true, from the laws of Christ: Papinianus2327 commands one thing; our own Paul another. Earthly laws give a free rein to the unchastity of men, merely condemning seduction and adultery; lust is allowed to range unrestrained among brothels and slave girls, as if the guilt were constituted by the rank of the person assailed and not by the purpose of the assailant. But with us Christians what is unlawful for women is equally unlawful for men, and as both serve the same God both are bound by the same obligations. Fabiola then has put away—they are quite right—a husband that was a sinner, guilty of this and that crime, sins—I have almost mentioned their names—with which the whole neighbourhood resounded but which the wife alone refused to disclose. If however it is made a charge against her that after repudiating her husband she did not continue unmarried, I readily admit this to have been a fault, but at the same time declare that it may have been a case of necessity. “It is better,” the apostle tells us, “to marry than to burn.”2328 She was quite a young woman, she was not able to continue in widowhood. In the words of the apostle she saw another law in her members warring against the law of her mind;2329 she felt herself dragged in chains as a captive towards the indulgences of wedlock. Therefore she thought it better openly to confess her weakness and to accept the semblance of an unhappy marriage than, with the flame of a monogamist, to ply the trade of a courtesan. The same apostle wills that the younger widows should marry, bear children, and give no occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully.2330 And he at once goes on to explain his wish: “for some are already turned aside after Satan.”2331 Fabiola therefore was fully persuaded in her own mind: she thought she had acted legitimately in putting away her husband, and that when she had done so she was free to marry again. She did not know that the rigour of the gospel takes away from women all pretexts for re-marriage so long as their former husbands are alive; and not knowing this, though she contrived to evade other assaults of the devil, she at this point unwittingly exposed herself to a wound from him.
4. But why do I linger over old and forgotten matters, seeking to excuse a fault for which Fabiola has herself confessed her penitence? Who would believe that, after the death of her second husband at a time when most widows, having shaken off the yoke of servitude, grow careless and allow themselves more liberty than ever, frequenting the baths, flitting through the streets, shewing their harlot faces everywhere; that at this time Fabiola came to herself? Yet it was then that she put on sackcloth to make public confession of her error. It was then that in the presence of all Rome (in the basilica which formerly belonged to that Lateranus who perished by the sword of Caesar2332 ) she stood in the ranks of the penitents and exposed before bishop, presbyters, and people—all of whom wept when they saw her weep—her dishevelled hair, pale features, soiled hands and unwashed neck. What sins would such a penance fail to purge away? What ingrained stains would such tears be unable to wash out? By a threefold confession Peter blotted out his threefold denial.2333 If Aaron committed sacrilege by fashioning molten gold into the head of a calf, his brother’s prayers made amends for his transgressions.2334 If holy David, meekest of men, committed the double sin of murder and adultery, he atoned for it by a fast of seven days. He lay upon the earth, he rolled in the ashes, he forgot his royal power, he sought for light in the darkness.2335 And then, turning his eyes to that God whom he had so deeply offended, he cried with a lamentable voice: “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight,” and “Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation and uphold me with thy free spirit.”2336 He who by his virtues teaches me how to stand and not to fall, by his penitence teaches me how, if I fall, I may rise again. Among the kings do we read of any so wicked as Ahab, of whom the scripture says: “there was none like unto Ahab which did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the Lord”?2337 For shedding Naboth’s blood Elijah rebuked him, and the prophet denounced God’s wrath against him: “Hast thou killed and also taken possession? …behold I will bring evil upon thee and will take away thy posterity”2338 and so on. Yet when Ahab heard these words “he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted …in sackcloth, and went softly.”2339 Then came the word of God to Elijah the Tishbite saying: “Seest thou how Ahab humbleth himself before me? Because he humbleth himself before me, I will not bring the evil in his days.”2340 O happy penitence which has drawn down upon itself the eyes of God, and which has by confessing its error changed the sentence of God’s anger! The same conduct is in the Chronicles2341 attributed to Manasseh, and in the book of the prophet Jonah2342 to Nineveh, and in the gospel to the publican.2343 The first of these not only was allowed to obtain forgiveness but also recovered his kingdom, the second broke the force of God’s impending wrath, while the third, smiting his breast with his hands, “would not lift up so much as his eyes to heaven.” Yet for all that the publican with his humble confession of his faults went back justified far more than the Pharisee with his arrogant boasting of his virtues. This is not however the place to preach penitence, neither am I writing against Montanus and Novatus.2344 Else would I say of it that it is “a sacrifice …well pleasing to God,”2345 I would cite the words of the psalmist: “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,”2346 and those of Ezekiel “I prefer the repentance of a sinner rather than his death,”2347 and those of Baruch, “Arise, arise, O Jerusalem,”2348 and many other proclamations madeby the trumpets of the prophets).
5. But this one thing I will say, for it is at once useful to my readers and pertinent to my present theme. As Fabiola was not ashamed of the Lord on earth, so He shall not be ashamed of her in heaven.2349 She laid bare her wound to the gaze of all, and Rome beheld with tears the disfiguring scar which marred her beauty. She uncovered her limbs, bared her head, and closed her mouth. She no longer entered the church of God but, like Miriam the sister of Moses,2350 she sat apart without the camp, till the priest who had cast her out should himself call her back. She came down like the daughter of Babylon from the throne of her daintiness, she took the millstones and ground meal, she passed barefooted through rivers of tears.2351 She sat upon the coals of fire, and these became her aid.2352 That face by which she had once pleased her second husband she now smote with blows; she hated jewels, shunned ornaments and could not bear to look upon fine linen.2353 In fact she bewailed the sin she had committed as bitterly as if it had been adultery, and went to the expense of many remedies in her eagerness to cure her one wound.
6. Having found myself aground in the shallows of Fabiola’s sin, I have dwelt thus long upon her penitence in order that I might open up a larger and quite unimpeded space for the description of her praises. Restored to communion before the eyes of the whole church, what did she do? In the day of prosperity she was not forgetful of affliction;2354 and, having once suffered shipwreck she was unwilling again to face the risks of the sea. Instead therefore of re-embarking on her old life, she broke up2355 and sold all that she could lay hands on of her property (it was large and suitable to her rank), and turning it into money she laid out this for the benefit of the poor. She was the first person to found a hospital, into which she might gather sufferers out of the streets, and where she might nurse the unfortunate victims of sickness and want. Need I now recount the various ailments of human beings? Need I speak of noses slit, eyes put out, feet half burnt, hands covered with sores? Or of limbs dropsical and atrophied? Or of diseased flesh alive with worms? Often did she carry on her own shoulders persons infected with jaundice or with filth. Often too did she wash away the matter discharged from wounds which others, even though men, could not bear to look at. She gave food to her patients with her own hand, and moistened the scarce breathing lips of the dying with sips of liquid. I know of many wealthy and devout persons who, unable to overcome their natural repugnance to such sights, perform this work of mercy by the agency of others, giving money instead of personal aid. I do not blame them and am far from construing their weakness of resolution into a want of faith. While however I pardon such squeamishness, I extol to the skies the enthusiastic zeal of a mind that is above it. A great faith makes little of such trifles. But I know how terrible was the retribution which fell upon the proud mind of the rich man clothed in purple for not having helped Lazarus.2356 The poor wretch whom we despise, whom we cannot so much as look at, and the very sight of whom turns our stomachs, is human like ourselves, is made of the same clay as we are, is formed out of the same elements. All that he suffers we too may suffer. Let us then regard his wounds as though they were our own, and then all our insensibility to another’s suffering will give way before our pity for ourselves.
Not with a hundred tongues or throat of bronze
Could I exhaust the forms of fell disease2357
which Fabiola so wonderfully alleviated in the suffering poor that many of the healthy fell to envying the sick. However she showed the same liberality towards the clergy and monks and virgins. Was there a monastery which was not supported by Fabiola’s wealth? Was there a naked or bedridden person who was not clothed with garments supplied by her? Were there ever any in want to whom she failed to give a quick and unhesitating supply? Even Rome was not wide enough for her pity. Either in her own person or else through the agency of reverend and trustworthy men she went from island to island and carried her bounty not only round the Etruscan Sea, but throughout the district of the Volscians, as it stands along those secluded and winding shores where communities of monks are to be found.
7. Suddenly she made up her mind, against the advice of all her friends, to take ship and to come to Jerusalem. Here she was welcomed by a large concourse of people and for a short time took advantage of my hospitality. Indeed, when I call to mind our meeting, I seem to see her here now instead of in the past. Blessed Jesus, what zeal, what earnestness she bestowed upon the sacred volumes! In her eagerness to satisfy what was a veritable craving she would run through Prophets, Gospels, and Psalms: she would suggest questions and treasure up the answers in the desk of her own bosom. And yet this eagerness to hear did not bring with it any feeling of satiety: increasing her knowledge she also increased her sorrow,2358 and by casting oil upon the flame she did but supply fuel for a still more burning zeal. One day we had before us the book of Numbers written by Moses, and she modestly questioned me as to the meaning of the great mass of names there to be found. Why was it, she inquired, that single tribes were differently associated in this passage and in that, how came it that the soothsayer Balaam in prophesying of the future mysteries of Christ2359 spoke more plainly of Him than almost any other prophet? I replied as best I could and tried to satisfy her enquiries. Then unrolling the book still farther she came to the passage2360 in which is given the list of all the halting-places by which the people after leaving Egypt made its way to the waters of Jordan. And when she asked me the meaning and reason of each of these, I spoke doubtfully about some, dealt with others in a tone of assurance, and in several instances simply confessed my ignorance. Hereupon she began to press me harder still, expostulating with me as though it were a thing unallowable that I should be ignorant of what I did not know, yet at the same time affirming her own unworthiness to understand mysteries so deep. In a word I was ashamed to refuse her request and allowed her to extort from me a promise that I would devote a special work to this subject for her use. Till the present time I have had to defer the fulfilment of my promise: as I now perceive, by the Will of God in order that it should be consecrated to her memory. As in a previous work2361 I clothed her with the priestly vestments, so in the pages of the present2362 she may rejoice that she has passed through the wilderness of this world and has come at last to the land of promise.
8. But let me continue the task which I have begun. Whilst I was in search of a suitable dwelling for so great a lady, whose only conception of the solitary life included a place of resort like Mary’s inn; suddenly messengers flew this way and that and the whole East was terror-struck. For news came that the hordes of the Huns had poured forth all the way from Maeotis2363 (they had their haunts between the icy Tanais2364 and the rude Massagetae2365 where the gates of Alexander keep back the wild peoples behind the Caucasus); and that, speeding hither and thither on their nimble-footed horses, they were filling all the world with panic and bloodshed. The Roman army was absent at the time, being detained in Italy on account of the civil wars. Of these Huns Herodotus2366 tells us that under Darius King of the Medes they held the East in bondage for twenty years and that from the Egyptians and Ethiopians they exacted a yearly tribute. May Jesus avert from the Roman world the farther assaults of these wild beasts! Everywhere their approach was unexpected, they outstripped rumour in speed, and, when they came, they spared neither religion nor rank nor age, even for wailing infants they had no pity. Children were forced to die before it could be said that they had begun to live; and little ones not realizing their miserable fate might be seen smiling in the hands and at the weapons of their enemies. It was generally agreed that the goal of the invaders was Jerusalem and that it was their excessive desire for gold which made them hasten to this particular city. Its walls uncared for in time of peace were accordingly put in repair. Antioch was in a state of siege. Tyre, desirous of cutting itself off from the land, sought once more its ancient island. We too were compelled to marl our ships and to lie off the shore as a precaution against the arrival of our foes. No matter how hard the winds might blow, we could not but dread the barbarians more than shipwreck. It was not, however, so much for our own safety that we were anxious as for the chastity of the virgins who were with us. Just at that time also there was dissension among us,2367 and our intestine struggles threw into the shade our battle with the barbarians. I myself clung to my long-settled abode in the East and gave way to my deep-seated love for the holy places. Fabiola, used as she was to moving from city to city and having no other property but what her baggage contained, returned to her native land; to live in poverty where she had once been rich, to lodge in the house of another, she who in old days had lodged many guests in her own, and—not unduly to prolong my account—to bestow upon the poor before the eyes of Rome the proceeds of that property which Rome knew her to have sold.
9. This only do I lament that in her the holy places lost a necklace of the loveliest. Rome recovered what it had previously parted with, and the wanton and slanderous tongues of the heathen were confuted by the testimony of their own eyes. Others may commend her pity, her humility, her faith: I will rather praise her ardour of soul. The letter2368 in which as a young man I once urged Heliodorus to the life of a hermit she knew by heart, and whenever she looked upon the walls of Rome she complained that she was in a prison. Forgetful of her sex, unmindful of her frailty, and only desiring to be alone she was in fact there2369 where her soul lingered. The counsels of her friends could not hold her back; so eager was she to burst from the city as from a place of bondage. Nor did she leave the distribution of her alms to others; she distributed them herself. Her wish was that, after equitably dispensing her money to the poor, she might herself find support from others for the sake of Christ. In such haste was she and so impatient of delay that you would fancy her on the eve of her departure. As she was always ready, death could not find her unprepared.
10. As I pen her praises, my dear Pammachius seems suddenly to rise before me. His wife Paulina sleeps that he may keep vigil; she has gone before her husband that he remaining behind may be Christ’s servant. Although he was his wife’s heir, others—I mean the poor—are now in possession of his inheritance. He and Fabiola contended for the privilege of setting up a tent like that of Abraham2370 at Portus. The contest which arose between them was for the supremacy in shewing kindness. Each conquered and each was overcome. Both admitted themselves to be at once victors and vanquished for what each had desired to effect alone both accomplished together. They united their resources and combined their plans that harmony might forward what rivalry must have brought to nought. No sooner was the scheme broached than it was carried out. A house was purchased to serve as a shelter, and a crowd flocked into it. “There was no more travail in Jacob nor distress in Israel.”2371 The seas carried voyagers to find a welcome here on landing. Travellers left Rome in haste to take advantage of the mild coast before setting sail. What Publius once did in the island of Malta for one apostle and—not to leave room for gainsaying—for a single ship’s crew,2372 Fabiola and Pammachius have done over and over again for large numbers; and not only have they supplied the wants of the destitute, but so universal has been their munificence that they have provided additional means for those who have something already. The whole world knows that a home for strangers has been established at Portus; and Britain has learned in the summer what Egypt and Parthia knew in the spring.
11. In the death of this noble lady we have seen a fulfilment of the apostle’s words:—“All things work together for good to them that fear God.”2373 Having a presentiment of what would happen, she had written to several monks to come and release her from the burthen under which she laboured;2374 for she wished to make to herself friends of the mammon of unrighteousness that they might receive her into everlasting habitations.2375 They came to her and she made them her friends; she fell asleep in the way that she had wished, and having at last laid aside her burthen she soared more lightly up to heaven. How great a marvel Fabiola had been to Rome while she lived came out in the behaviour of the people now that she was dead. Hardly had she breathed her last breath, hardly had she given back her soul to Christ whose it was when
Flying Rumour heralding the woe2376
gathered the entire city to attend her obsequies. Psalms were chaunted and the gilded ceilings of the temples were shaken with uplifted shouts of Alleluia.
The choirs of young and old extolled her deeds
And sang the praises of her holy soul.2377
Her triumph was more glorious far than those won by Furius over the Gauls, by Papirius over the Samnites, by Scipio over Numantia, by Pompey over Pontus. They had conquered physical force, she had mastered spiritual iniquities.2378 I seem to hear even now the squadrons which led the van of the procession, and the sound of the feet of the multitude which thronged in thousands to attend her funeral. The streets, porches, and roofs from which a view could be obtained were inadequate to accommodate the spectators. On that day Rome saw all her peoples gathered together in one, and each person present flattered himself that he had some part in the glory of her penitence. No wonder indeed that men should thus exult in the salvation of one at whose conversion there was joy among the angels in heaven.2379
12. I give you this, Fabiola,2380 the best gift of my aged powers, to be as it were a funeral offering. Oftentimes have I praised virgins and widows and married women who have kept their garments always white2381 and who follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth.2382 Happy indeed is she in her encomium who throughout her life has been stained by no defilement. But let envy depart and censoriousness be silent. If the father of the house is good why should our eye be evil?2383 The soul which fell among thieves has been carried home upon the shoulders of Christ.2384 In our father’s house are many mansions.2385 Where sin hath abounded, grace hath much more abounded.2386 To whom more is forgiventhe same loveth more.2387
A treatise on the Forty-two Mansions or Halting-places of the Israelites, originally intended for Fabiola but not completed until after her death. Sent to Oceanus along with the preceding letter. These Mansions are made an emblem of the Christian’s pilgrimage, the true Hebrew hastening to pass from earth to heaven.
A letter of consolation addressed by Jerome to Salvina (a lady of the imperial court) on the death of her husband Nebridius. After excusing his temerity in addressing a complete stranger Jerome eulogizes the virtues of Nebridius, particularly his chastity and his bounty to the poor. He next warns Salvina (in no courtier-like terms) of the dangers that will beset her as a widow and recommends her to devote all her energies to the careful training of the son and daughter who are now her principal charge. The tone of the letter is somewhat arrogant and it can hardly be regarded as one of Jerome’s happiest efforts. Salvina, however, consecrated her life to deeds of piety, and became one of Chrysostom’s deaconesses. Its date is 400 a.d.
1. My desire to do my duty may, I fear, expose me to a charge of self-seeking; and although I do but follow the example of Him who said: “learn of me for I am meek and lowly of heart,”2388 the course that I am taking may be attributed to a desire for notoriety. Men may say that I am not so much trying to console a widow in affliction as endeavouring to creep into the imperial court; and that, while I make a pretext of offering comfort, I am really seeking the friendship of the great. Clearly this will not be the opinion of any one who knows the commandment: “thou shall not respect the person of the poor,”2389 a precept given lest under pretext of shewing pitywe should judge unjust judgment. For each individualis to be judged not by his personal importance but by the merits of his case. His wealth need not stand in the way of the rich man, if he makes a good use of it; and poverty can be no recommendation to the poor if in the midst of squalor and want he fails to keep clear of wrong doing. Proofs of these things are not wanting either in scriptural times or our own; for Abraham, in spite of his immense wealth, was “the friend of God”2390 and poor men are daily arrested and punished for their crimes by law. She whom I now address is both rich and poor so that she cannot say what she actually has. For it is not of her purse that I am speaking but of the purity of her soul. I do not know her face but I am well acquainted with her virtues; for report speaks well of her and her youth makes her chastity all the more commendable. By her grief for her young husband she has set an example to all wives; and by her resignation she has proved that she believes him not lost but gone before. The greatness of her bereavement has brought out the reality of her religion. For while she forgets her lost Nebridius, she knows that in Christ he is with her still.
But why do I write to one who is a stranger to me? For three reasons. First, because (as a priest is bound to do) I love all Christians as my children and find my glory in promoting their welfare. Secondly because the father of Nebridius was bound to me by the closest ties.2391 Lastly—and this is a stronger reason than the others—because I have failed to say no to my son Avitus.2392 With an importunacy surpassing that of the widow towards the unjust judge2393 he wrote to me so frequently and put before me so many instances in which I had previously dealt with a similar theme, that he overcame my modest reluctance and made the resolve to do not what would best become me but what would most nearly meet his wishes.
2. As the mother of Nebridius was sister to the empress2394 and as he was brought up in the bosom of his aunt, another might perhaps praise him for having so much endeared himself to the unvanquished emperor. Theodosius, indeed, procured him from Africa a wife of the highest rank,2395 who, as her native land at this time was distracted by civil wars, became a kind of hostage for its loyalty. I ought to say at the very outset that Nebridius seems to have had a presentiment that he would die early. For amid the splendour of the palace and in the high positions to which his rank and not his years entitled him he lived always as one who believed that he must soon go to meet Christ. Of Cornelius, the centurion of the Italian band, the sacred narrative tells us that God so fully accepted him as to send to him an angel; and that this angel told him that to his merit was due the mystery whereby Peter from the narrow limits of the circumcision was conveyed to the wide field of the uncircumcision. He was the first Gentile baptized by the apostle, and in him the Gentiles were set apart to salvation. Now of this man it is written: “there was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band, a devout man and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway.”2396 All this that is said of him I claim—with a change of name only—for my dear Nebridius. So “devout” was this latter and so enamoured of chastity that at his marriage he was still pure. So truly did he “fear God with all his house” that forgetting his high position he spent all his time with monks and clergymen. So profuse were the alms which he gave to the people that his doors were continually beset with swarms of sick and poor. And assuredly he “prayed to God alway” that what was for the best might happen to him. Therefore “speedily was he taken away lest that wickedness should alter his understanding …for his soul pleased the Lord.”2397 Thus I may truthfully apply to him the apostle’s words: “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth Him and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him.”2398 As a soldierNebridius took no harm from his cloak and sword-belt and troops of orderlies; for while he wore the uniform of the emperor he was enlisted in the service of God. On the other hand nothing is gained by men who while they affect coarse mantles, sombre tunics, dirt, and poverty, belie by their deeds their lofty pretensions. Of another centurion we find in the gospel this testimony from our Lord:—“I have not found so great faith, no not in Israel.”2399 And, to go back to earlier times, we read of Joseph who gave proof of his integrity both when he was in want and when he was rich, and who inculcated freedom of soul both as slave and as lord. He was made next to Pharaoh and invested with the emblems of royalty;2400 yet so dear was he to God that, alone of all the patriarchs, he became the father of two tribes.2401 Daniel and the three children were set over the affairs of Babylon and were numbered among the princes of the state; yet although they wore the dress of Nebuchadnezzar, in their hearts they served God. Mordecai also and Est amid purple and silk and jewels overcame pride with humility; and although captives were so highly esteemed as to be able to impose commands upon their conquerors.
3. These remarks are intended to shew that the youth of whom I speak used his kinship to the royal family, his abundant wealth, and the outward tokens of power, as helps to virtue. For, as the preacher says, “wisdom is a defence and money is a defence”2402 also. We must not hastily conclude that this statement conflicts with that of the Lord: “verily I say unto you that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven; and again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.”2403 Were it so, the salvation of Zacchaeus the publican, described in scripture as a man of great wealth, would contradict the Lord’s declaration. But that what is impossible with men is possible with God2404 we are taught by the counsel of the apostle who thus writes to Timothy:—“charge them that are rich in this world that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God who giveth us richly all things to enjoy, that they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute. willing to communicate, laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come that they may lay hold on the true life.”2405 We have learned how a camel can pass through a needle’s eye, how an animal with a hump on its back,2406 when it has laid down its packs, can take to itself the wings of a dove2407 and rest in the branches of the tree which has grown from a grain of mustard seed.2408 In Isaiah we read of camels, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah and Sheba, which carry gold and incense to the city of the Lord.2409 On like typical camels the Ishmaelitish merchantmen2410 bring down to the Egyptians perfume and incense and balm (of the kind that grows in Gilead good for the healing of wounds2411 ); and so fortunate are they that in the purchase and sale of Joseph they have for their merchandise the Saviour of the world.2412 And Aesop’s fable tells us of a mouse which after eating its fill can no longer creep out as before it crept in.2413
4. Daily did my dear Nebridius revolve the words: “they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare” of the devil “and into many lusts.”2414 All the money that the Emperor’s bounty gave him or that his badges of office procured him he laid out for the benefit of the poor. For he knew the commandment of the Lord: “If thou wilt be perfect go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and come and follow me.”2415 And because he could not literally fulfil these directions, having a wife and little children and a large household, he made to himself friends of the mammon of unrighteousness that they might receive him into everlasting habitations.2416 He did not once for all cast away his brethren, as did the apostles who forsook father and nets and ship,2417 but by an equality he ministered to the want of others out of his own abundance that afterwards their wealth might be a supply for his own want.2418 The lady to whom this letter is addressed knows that what I narrate is only known to me by hearsay, but she is aware also that I am no Greek writer repaying with flattery some benefit conferred upon me. Far be such an imputation from all Christians. Having food and raiment we are therewith content.2419 Where there is cheap cabbage and household bread, a sufficiency to eat and a sufficiency to drink, these riches are superfluous and no place is left for flattery with its sordid calculations. You may conclude therefore that, where there is no motive to tell a falsehood, the testimony given is true.
5. It must not, however, be supposed that I praise Nebridius only for his liberality in alms-giving, although we are taught the great importance of this in the words: “water will quench a flaming fire; and alms maketh an atonement for sins.”2420 I will pass on now to his other virtues each one of which is to be found but in few men. Who ever entered the furnace of the King of Babylon without being burned?2421 Was there ever a young man whose garment his Egyptian mistress did not seize?2422 Was there ever a eunuch’s2423 wife contented with a childless marriage bed? Is there any man who is not appalled by the struggle of which the apostle says: “I see another law in my members warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members?”2424 But wonderful to say Nebridius, though bred up in a palace as a companion and fellow pupil of the Augusti2425 (whose table is supplied by the whole world and ministered to by land and sea); Nebridius, I say, though in the midst of abundance and in the flower of his age, shewed himself more modest than a girl and never gave occasion, even the slightest, forscandalous rumours. Again though he was the friend, companion, and cousin of princes and had been educated along with them—a thing which makes even strangers intimate—he did not allow pride to inflate him or frown with contempt upon others who were less fortunate than he: no, he was kind to all, and while he loved the princes as brothers he revered them as sovereigns. He used to avow that his own health and safety were dependent upon theirs. Their attendants and all those officers of the palace who by their numbers add to the grandeur of the imperial court he had so well conciliated by shewing his regard for them, that men who were in reality inferior to him were led by his attention to believe themselves his peers. It is no easy task to throw one’s rank into the shade by one’s virtue, or to gain the affection of men who are forced to yield you precedence. What widow was not supported by his help? What ward did not find in him a father? To him the bishops of the entire East used to bring the prayers of the unfortunate and the petitions of the distressed. Whenever he asked the Emperor for a boon, he sought either alms for the poor or ransom for captives or clemency for the afflicted. Accordingly the princes also used gladly to accede to his requests, for they knew well that their bounty would benefit not one man but many.
6. Why do I farther postpone the end? “All flesh is grass and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field.”2426 The dust has returned to the dust.2427 He has fallen asleep in the Lord and has been laid with his fathers, full of days and of light and fostered in a good old age. For “wisdom is the grey hair unto men.”2428 “In a short time he” has “fulfilled a long time.”2429 In his place we now have his charming children. His wife is the heir of his chastity. To those who miss his father the tiny Nebridius shews him once more, for
Such were the eyes and hands and looks he bore.2430
A spark of the parent’s excellence shines in the son: the child’s face betrays like a mirror a resemblance in character.
That narrow frame contains a hero’s heart.2431
And with him there is his sister, a basket of roses and lilies, a mixture of ivory and purple. Her face though it takes after that of her father inclines to be still more attractive; and, while her complexion is that of her mother, she is so like both her parents that the lineaments of each are reflected in her features. So sweet and honied is she that she is the pride of all her kinsfolk. The Emperor2432 does not disdain to hold her in his arms, and the Empress2433 likes nothing better than to nurse her on her lap. Everyone runs to be the first to catch her up. Now she clings to the neck of one, and now she is fondled in the arms of another. She prattles and stammers, and is all the sweeter for her faltering tongue.
7. You have, therefore, Salvina, those to nurse who may well represent to you your absent husband: “Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord; and the fruit of the womb is his reward.”2434 In the place of one husband you have received two children, and thus your affection has more objects than before. All that was due to him you can give to them. Temper grief with love, for if he is gone they are still with you. It is no small merit in God’s eyes to bring up children well. Hear the apostle’s counsel: “Let not a widow be taken into the number under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man, well reported of for good works; if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints’ feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work.”2435 Here you learn the roll of the virtues which God requires of you, what is due to the name of widow which you bear, and by what good deeds you can attain to that second degree of chastity2436 which is still open to you. Do not be disturbed because the apostle allows none to be chosen as a widow under threescore years old, neither suppose that he intends to reject those who are still young. Believe that you are indeed chosen by him who said to his disciple, “Let no man despise thy youth,”2437 your want of age that is, not your want of continence. If this be not his meaning, all who become widows under threescore years will have to take husbands. He is training a church still untaught in Christ, and making provision for people of all stations but especially for the poor, the charge of whom had been committed to himself and Barnabas.2438 Thus he wishes only those to be supported by the exertions of the church who cannot labour with their own hands, and who are widows indeed,2439 approved by their years and by their lives. The faults of his children made Eli the priest an offence to God. On the other hand He is appeased by the virtues of such as “continue in faith and charity and holiness with chastity.”2440 “O Timothy,” cries the apostle, “keep thyself pure.”2441 Far be it from me to suspect you capable of doing anything wrong; still it is only a kindness to admonish one whose youth and opulence lead her into temptation. You must take what I am going to say as addressed not to you but to your girlish years. A widow “that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth.”2442 So speaks the “chosen vessel”2443 and the words are brought out from his treasure who could boldly say: “Do ye seek a proof of Christ speaking in me?”2444 Yet they are the words of one who in his own person admitted the weakness of the human body, saying: “The good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not that I do.”2445 And again: Therefore “I keep under my body and bring it into subjection lest that by any means when I have preached to others I myself should be a castaway.”2446 If Paul is afraid, which of us can venture to be confident? If David the friend of God and Solomon who loved God2447 were overcome like other men, if their fall is meant to warn us and their penitence to lead us to salvation, who in this slippery life can be sure of not falling? Never let pheasants be seen upon your table, or plump turtledoves or black cock from Ionia, or any of those birds so expensive that they fly away with the largest properties. And do not fancy that you eschew meat diet when you reject pork, hare, and venison and the savoury flesh of other quadrupeds.2448 It is not the number of feet that makes the difference but delicacy of flavour. I know that the apostle has said: “every creature of God is good and nothing to be refused if it be received with thanksgiving.”2449 But the same apostle says: “it is good neither to eat flesh nor to drink wine,”2450 and in another place: “be not drunk with wine wherein is excess.”2451 “Every creature of God is good”—the precept is intended for those who are careful how they may please their husbands.2452 Let those feed on flesh who serve the flesh, whose bodies boil with desire, who are tied to husbands, and who set their hearts on having offspring. Let those whose wombs are burthened cram their stomachs with flesh. But you have buried every indulgence in your husband’s tomb: over his bier you have cleansed with tears a face stained with rouge and whitelead; you have exchanged a white robe and gilded buskins for a sombre tunic and black shoes; and only one thing more is needed, perseverance in fasting. Let paleness and squalor be henceforth your jewels. Do not pamper your youthful limbs with a bed of down or kindle your young blood with hot baths. Hear what words a heathen poet2453 puts into the mouth of a chaste widow:2454
He, my first spouse, has robbed me of my loves.
( it: let him keep them in the tomb.
If common glass is worth so much, what must be the value of a pearl of price?2455 If in deference to a law of nature a Gentile widow can condemn all sensual indulgence, what must we expect from a Christian widow who owes her chastity not to one who is dead but to one with whom she shall reign in heaven?
8. Do not, I pray you, regard these general remarks—applying as they do to all young women—as intended to insult you or to take you to task. I write in a spirit of apprehension, yet pray that you may never know the nature of my fears. A woman’s reputation is a tender plant; it is like a fair flower which withers at the slightest blast and fades away at the first breath of wind. Especially is this so when she is of an age to fall into temptation and the authority of a husband is wanting to her. For the very shadow of a husband is a wife’s safeguard. What has a widow to do with a large household or with troops of retainers? As servants, it is true, she must not despise them, but as men she ought to blush before them. If a grand establishment requires such domestics, let her at least set over them an old man of spotless morals whose dignity may guard the honour of his mistress. I know of many widows who, although they live with closed doors, have not escaped the imputation of too great intimacy with their servants. These latter become objects of suspicion when they dress above their degree, or when they are stout and sleek, or when they are of an age inclined to passion, or when knowledge of the favour in which they are secretly held betrays itself in a too confident demeanour. For such pride, however carefully concealed, is sure to break out in a contempt for fellow-servants as servants. I make these seemingly superfluous remarks that you may keep your heart with all diligence2456 and guard against every scandal that may be broached concerning you.
9. Take no well-curled steward to walk with you, no effeminate actor, no devilish singer of poisoned sweetness, no spruce and smooth-shorn youth. Let no theatrical compliments, no obsequious adulation be associated with you. Keep with you bands of widows and virgins; and let your consolers be of your own sex. The character of the mistress is judged by that of the maid. So long as you have with you a holy mother, so long as an aunt vowed to virginity is at your side, you ought not to neglect them and at your own risk to seek the company of strangers. Let the divine scripture be always in your hands, and give yourself so frequently to prayer that such shafts of evil thoughts as ever assail the young may thereby find a shield to repel them. It is difficult, nay more it is impossible, to escape the beginnings of those internal motions which the Greeks with much significance call propaqeiai that is ‘predispositions to passion.’ The fact is that suggestions of sin tickle all our minds, and the decision rests with our own hearts either to admit or to reject the thoughts which come. The Lord of nature Himself says in the gospel:—“out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.”2457 It is clear from the testimony of another book that “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth,”2458 and that the soul wavers between the works of the flesh and of the spirit enumerated by the apostle,2459 desiring now the former and now the latter. For
From faults no mortal man is wholly free;
The best is he who has but few of them.2460
And, to quote the same poet,
At moles men cavil when they mark fair skins.2461
To the same effect in different words the prophet says:—“I am so troubled that I cannot speak,”2462 and in the same book, “Be ye angry and sin not.”2463 So Archytas of Tarentum2464 once said to a careless steward: “I should have flogged you to death had I not been in a passion.” For “the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.”2465 Now what is here said of one form of perturbation may be applied to all. Just as anger is human and the repression of it Christian, so it is with other passions. The flesh always lusts after the things of the flesh, and by its allurements draws the soul to partake of deadly pleasures; but it is for us Christians to restrain the desire for sensual indulgence by an intenser love for Christ. It is for us to break in the mettlesome brute within us by fasting, in order that it may desire not lust but food and amble easily and steadily forward having for its rider the Holy Spirit.
10. Why do I write thus? To shew you that you are but human and subject, unless you guard against them, to human passions. We are all of us made of the same clay and formed of the same elements. Whether we wear silk or rags we are all at the mercy of the same desire. It does not fear the royal purple; it does not disdain the squalor of the mendicant. It is better then to suffer in stomach than in soul to rule the body than to serve it, to lose one’s balance than to lose one’s chastity. Let us not lull ourselves with the delusion that we can always fall back on penitence. For this is at best but a remedy for misery. Let us shrink from incurring a wound which must be painful to cure. For it is one thing to enter the haven of salvation with ship safe and merchandise uninjured, and another to cling naked to a plank and, as the waves toss you this way and that, to be dashed again and again on the sharp rocks. A widow should be ignorant that second marriage is permitted; she should know nothing of the apostle’s words:—“It is better to marry than to burn.”2466 Remove what is said to be worse, the risk of burning, and marriage will cease to be regarded as good. Of course I repudiate the slanders of the heretics; I know that “marriage is honourable …and the bed undefiled.”2467 Yet Adam even after he was expelled from paradise had but one wife. The accursed and blood-stained Lamech, descended from the stock of Cain, was the first to make out of one rib two wives; and the seedling of digamy then planted was altogether destroyed by the doom of the deluge. It is true that in writing to Timothy the apostle from fear of fornication is forced to countenance second marriage. His words are these:—“I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully.” But he immediately adds as a reason for this concession; “for some are already turned aside after Satan.”2468 Thus we see that he is offering not a crown to those who stand but a helping hand to those who are down. What must a second marriage be if it is looked on merely as an alternative to the brothel! “For some,” he writes, “are already turned aside after Satan.” The upshot of the whole matter is that, if a young widow cannot or will not contain herself, she had better take a husband to her bed than the devil.
A noble alternative truly which is only to be embraced in preference to Satan! In old days even Jerusalem went a-whoring and opened her feet to every one that passed by.2469 It was in Egypt that she was first deflowered and there that her teats were bruised.2470 And afterwards when she had come to the wilderness and, impatient of the delays of her leader Moses, had said when maddened by the stings of lust: “these be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt,”2471 she received statutes that were not good and commandments that were altogether evil whereby she should not live2472 but should be punished through them. Is it surprising then that when the apostle had said in another place of young widows: “when they have begun to wax wanton against Christ they will marry, having damnation because they have cast off their first faith,”2473 he granted to such as should wax wanton statutes of digamy that were not good and commandments that were altogether evil? For the reason which he gives for allowing a second husband would justify a woman in marrying a third or even, if she liked, a twentieth. He evidently wished to shew them that he was not so much anxious that they should take husbands as that they should avoid paramours. These things, dearest daughter in Christ, I impress upon you and frequently repeat, that you may forget those things which are behind and reach forth unto those things which are before.2474 You have widows like yourself worthy to be your models, Judith renowned in Hebrew story and Anna the daughter of Phanuel famous in the gospel. Both these lived day and night in the temple and preserved the treasure of their chastity by prayer and by fasting. One was a type of the Church which cuts off the head of the devil2475 and the other first received in her arms the saviour of the world and had revealed to her the holy mysteries which were to come.2476 In conclusion I beg you to attribute the shortness of my letter not to want of language or scarcity of matter but to a deep sense of modesty which makes me fear to force myself too long upon the ears of a stranger, and causes me to dread the secret verdict of those who read my words.
Jerome - Letters 76