Jerome - Letters 7
This letter (written like the preceding in 374 a.d.) is addressed by Jerome to three of his former companions in the religious life. It commends Bonosus (§3), asks guidance for the writer’s sister (§4), and attacks the conduct of Lupicinus, Bishop of Stridon (§5).
1. Those whom mutual affection has joined together, a written page ought not to sunder. I must not, therefore, distribute my words some to one and some to another. For so strong is the love that binds you together that affection unites all three of you in a bond no less close than that which naturally connects two of your number.91 Indeed, if the conditions of writing would only admit of it, I should amalgamate your names and express them under a single symbol. The very letter which I have received from you challenges me in each of you to see all three, and in all three to recognize each. When the reverend Evagrius transmitted it to me in the corner of the desert which stretches between the Syrians and the Saracens, my joy was intense. It wholly surpassed the rejoicings felt at Rome when the defeat of Cannae was retrieved, and Marcellus at Nola cut to pieces the forces of Hannibal. Evagrius frequently comes to see me, and cherishes me in Christ as his own bowels.92 Yet as he is separated from me by a long distance, his departure has generally left me as much regret as his arrival has brought me joy.
2. I converse with your letter, I embrace it, it talks to me; it alone of those here speaks Latin. For hereabout you must either learn a barbarous jargon or else hold your tongue. As often as the lines—traced in a well-known hand—bring back to me the faces which I hold so dear, either I am no longer here, or else you are here with me. If you will credit the sincerity of affection, I seem to see you all as I write this.
Now at the outset I should like to ask you one petulant question. Why is it that, when we are separated by so great an interval of land and sea, you have sent me so short a letter? Is it that I have deserved no better treatment, not having first written to you? I cannot believe that paper can have failed you while Egypt continues to supply its wares. Even if a Ptolemy had closed the seas, King Attalus would still have sent you parchments from Pergamum, and so by his skins you could have made up for the want of paper. The very name parchment is derived from a historical incident of the kind which occurred generations ago.93 What then? Am I to suppose the messenger to have been in haste? No matter how long a letter may be, it can be written in the course of a night. Or had you some business to attend to which prevented you from writing? No claim is prior to that of affection. Two suppositions remain, either that you felt disinclined to write or else that I did not deserve a letter. Of the two I prefer to charge you with sloth than to condemn myself as undeserving. For it is easier to mend neglect than to quicken love.
3. You tell me that Bonosus, like a true son of the Fish, has taken to the water.94 As for me who am still foul with my old stains, like the basilisk and the scorpion I haunt the dry places.95 Bonosus has his heel already on the serpent’s head, whilst I am still as food to the same serpent which by divine appointment devours the earth.96 He can scale already that ladder of which the psalms of degrees97 are a type; whilst I, still weeping on its first step, hardly know whether I shall ever be able to say: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”98 Amid the threatening billows of the world he is sitting in the safe shelter of his island,99 that is, of the church’s pale, and it may be that even now, like John, he is being called to eat God’s book;100 whilst I, still lying in the sepulchre of my sins and bound with the chains of my iniquities, wait for the Lord’s command in the Gospel: “Jerome, come forth.”101 But Bonosus has done more than this. Like the prophet102 he has carried his girdle across the Euphrates (for all the devil’s strength is in the loins103 ), and has hidden it there in a hole of the rock. Then, afterwards finding it rent, he has sung: “O Lord, thou hast possessed my reins.104 Thou hast broken my bonds in sunder. I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving.”105 But as for me, Nebuchadnezzar has brought me in chains to Babylon, to the babel that is of a distracted mind. There he has laid upon me the yoke of captivity; there inserting in my nostrils a ring of iron,106 he has commanded me to sing one of the songs of Zion. To whom I have said, “The Lord looseth the prisoners; the Lord openeth the eyes of the blind.”107 To complete my contrast in a single sentence, whilst I pray for mercy Bonosus looks for a crown.
4. My sister’s conversion is the fruit of the efforts of the saintly Julian. He has planted, it is for you to water, and the Lord will give the increase.108 Jesus Christ has given her to me to console me for the wound which the devil has inflicted on her. He has restored her from death to life. But in the words of the pagan poet, for her
there is no safety that i do not fear.109
You know yourselves how slippery is the path of youth—a path on which I have myself fallen,110 and which you are now traversing not without fear. She, as she enters upon it, must have the advice and the encouragement of all, she must be aided by frequent letters from you, my reverend brothers. And—for “charity endureth all things,”111 —I beg you to get from Pope112 Valerian113 a letter to confirm her resolution. A girl’s courage, as you know, is strengthened when she realizes that persons in high place are interested in her.
5. The fact is that my native land is a prey to barbarism, that in it men’s only God is their belly,114 that they live only for the present, and that the richer a man is the holier he is held to be. Moreover, to use a well-worn proverb, the dish has a cover worthy of it; for Lupicinus is their priest.115 Like lips like lettuce, as the saying goes—the only one, as Lucilius tells us,116 at which Crassus ever laughed—the reference being to a donkey eating thistles. What I mean is that an unstable pilot steers a leaking ship, and that the blind is leading the blind straight to the pit. The ruler is like the ruled.
6. I salute your mother and mine with the respect which, as you know, I feel towards her. Associated with you as she is in a holy life, she has the start of you, her holy children, in that she is your mother. Her womb may thus be truly called golden. With her I salute your sisters, who ought all to be welcomed wherever they go, for they have triumphed over their sex and the world, and await the Bridegroom’s coming,117 their lamps replenished with oil. O happy the house which is a home of a widowed Anna, of virgins that are prophetesses, and of twin Samuels bred in the Temple!118 Fortunate the roof which shelters the martyr-mother of the Maccabees, with her sons around her, each and all wearing the martyr’s crown!119 For although you confess Christ every day by keeping His commandments, yet to this private glory you have added the public one of an open confession; for it was through you that the poison of the Arian heresy was formerly banished from your city.
You are surprised perhaps at my thus making a fresh beginning quite at the close of my letter. But what am I to do? I cannot refuse expression to my feelings. The brief limits of a letter compel me to be silent; my affection for you urges me to speak. I write in haste, my language is confused and ill-arranged; but love knows nothing of order.
Niceas, the sub-deacon, had accompanied Jerome to the East but had now returned home. In after-years he became bishop of Aquileia in succession to Chromatius. The date of the letter is 374 a.d.
The comic poet Turpilius120 says of the exchange of letters that it alone makes the absent present. The remark, though occurring in a work of fiction, is not untrue. For what more real presence—if I may so speak—can there be between absent friends than speaking to those whom they love in letters, and in letters hearing their reply? Even those Italian savages, the Cascans of Ennius, who—as Cicero tells us in his books on rhetoric—hunted their food like beasts of prey, were wont, before paper and parchment came into use, to exchange letters written on tablets of wood roughly planed, or on strips of bark torn from the trees. For this reason men called letter-carriers tablet-bearers,121 and letter-writers bark-users,122 because they used the bark of trees. How much more then are we, who live in a civilized age, bound not to omit a social duty performed by men who lived in a state of gross savagery, and were in some respects entirely ignorant of the refinements of life. The saintly Chromatius, look you, and the reverend Eusebius, brothers as much by compatibility of disposition as by the ties of nature, have challenged me to diligence by the letters which they have showered upon me. You, however, who have but just left me, have not merely unknit our new-made friendship; you have torn it asunder—a process which Laelius, in Cicero’s treatise,123 wisely forbids. Can it be that the East is so hateful to you that you dread the thought of even your letters coming hither? Wake up, wake up, arouse yourself from sleep, give to affection at least one sheet of paper. Amid the pleasures of life at home sometimes heave a sigh over the journeys which we have made together. If you love me, write in answer to my prayer. If you are angry with me, though angry still write. I find my longing soul much comforted when I receive a letter from a friend, even though that friend be out of temper with me.
A bantering letter to an indifferent correspondent. Of the same date as the preceding.
Heliodorus,124 who is so dear to us both, and who loves you with an affection no less deep than my own, may have given you a faithful account of my feelings towards you; how your name is always on my lips, and how in every conversation which I have with him I begin by recalling my pleasant intercourse with you, and go on to marvel at your lowliness, to extol your virtue, and to proclaim your holy love.
Lynxes, they say, when they look behind them, forget what they have just seen, and lose all thought of what their eyes have ceased to behold. And so it seems to be with you. For so entirely have you forgotten our joint attachment that you have not merely blurred but erased the writing of that epistle which, as the apostle tells us,125 is written in the hearts of Christians. The creatures that I have mentioned lurk on branches of leafy trees and pounce on fleet roes or frightened stags. In vain their victims fly, for they carry their tormentors with them, and these rend their flesh as they run. Lynxes, however, only hunt when an empty belly makes their mouths dry. When they have satisfied their thirst for blood, and have filled their stomachs with food, satiety induces forgetfulness, and they bestow no thought on future prey till hunger recalls them to a sense of their need.
Now in your case it cannot be that you have already had enough of me. Why then do you bring to a premature close a friendship which is but just begun? Why do you let slip what you have hardly as yet fully grasped? But as such remissness as yours is never at a loss for an excuse, you will perhaps declare that you had nothing to write. Had this been so, you should still have written to inform me of the fact.
Jerome writes to Paul of Concordia, a centenarian (§2), and the owner of a good theological library (§, to lend him some commentaries. In return he sends him his life (newly written) of Paul the hermit.126 The date of the letter is 374 a.d.
1. The shortness of man’s life is the punishment for man’s sin; and the fact that even on the very threshold of the light death constantly overtakes the new-born child proves that the times are continually sinking into deeper depravity. For when the first tiller of paradise had been entangled by the serpent in his snaky coils, and had been forced in consequence to migrate earthwards, although his deathless state was changed for a mortal one, yet the sentence127 of man’s curse was put off for nine hundred years, or even more, a period so long that it may be called a second immortality. Afterwards sin gradually grew more and more virulent, till the ungodliness of the giants128 brought in its train the shipwreck of the whole world. Then when the world had been cleansed by the baptism—if I may so call it—of the deluge, human life was contracted to a short span. Yet even this we have almost altogether wasted, so continually do our iniquities fight against the divine purposes. For how few there are, either who go beyond their hundredth year, or who, going beyond it, do not regret that they have done so; according to that which the Scripture witnesses in the book of Psalms: “the days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow.”129
2. Why, say you, these opening reflections so remote and so far fetched that one might use against them the Horatian witticism:
back to the eggs which leda laid for zeus,
the bard is fain to trace the war of troy?130
Simply that I may describe in fitting terms your great age and hoary head as white as Christ’s.131 For see, the hundredth circling year is already passing over you, and yet, always keeping the commandments of the Lord, amid the circumstances of your present life you think over the blessedness of that which is to come. Your eyes are bright and keen, your steps steady, your hearing good, your teeth are white, your voice musical, your flesh firm and full of sap; your ruddy cheeks belie your white hairs, your strength is not that of your age. Advancing years have not, as we too often see them do, impaired the tenacity of your memory; the coldness of your blood has not blunted an intellect at once warm and wary.132 Your face is not wrinkled nor your brow furrowed. Lastly, no tremors palsy your hand or cause it to travel in crooked pathways over the wax on which you write. The Lord shows us in you the bloom of the resurrection that is to he ours; so that whereas in others who die by inches whilst yet living, we recognize the results of sin, in your case we ascribe it to righteousness that you still simulate youth at an age to which it is foreign. And although we see the like haleness of body in many even of those who are sinners, in their case it is a grant of the devil to lead them into sin, whilst in yours it is a gift of God to make you rejoice.
3. Tully in his brilliant speech on behalf of Flaccus133 describes the learning of the Greeks as “innate frivolity and accomplished vanity.”
Certainly their ablest literary men used to receive money for pronouncing eulogies upon their kings or princes. Following their example, I set a price upon my praise. Nor must you suppose my demand a small one. You are asked to give me the pearl of the Gospel,134 “the words of the Lord,” “pure words, even as the silver which from the earth is tried, and purified seven times in the fire,”135 I mean the commentaries of Fortunatian136 and—for its account of the persecutors—the History of Aurelius Victor,137 and with these the Letters of Novatian;138 so that, learning the poison set forth by this schismatic, we may the more gladly drink of the antidote supplied by the holy martyr Cyprian. In the mean time I have sent to you, that is to say, to Paul the aged, a Paul that is older still.139 I have taken great pains to bring my language down to the level of the simpler sort. But, somehow or other, though you fill it with water, the jar retains the odor which it acquired when first used.140 If my little gift should please you, I have others also in store which (if the Holy Spirit shall breathe favorably), shall sail across the sea to you with all kinds of eastern merchandise.
Aemona was a Roman colony not far from Stridon, Jerome’s birthplace. The virgins to whom the note is addressed had omitted to answer his letters, and he now writes to upbraid them for their remissness. The date of the letter is 374 a.d.
This scanty sheet of paper shows in what a wilderness I live, and because of it I have to say much in few words. For, desirous though I am to speak to you more fully, this miserable scrap compels me to leave much unsaid. Still ingenuity makes up for lack of means, and by writing small I can say a great deal. Observe, I beseech you, how I love you, even in the midst of my difficulties, since even the want of materials does not stop me from writing to you.
Pardon, I beseech you, an aggrieved man: if I speak in tears and in anger it is because I have been injured. For in return for my regular letters you have not sent me a single syllable. Light, I know, has no communion with darkness,141 and God’s handmaidens no fellowship with a sinner, yet a harlot was allowed to wash the Lord’s feet with her tears,142 and dogs are permitted to eat of their masters’ crumbs.143 It was the Saviour’s mission to call sinners and not the righteous; for, as He said Himself, "they that be whole need not a physician.144 He wills the repentance of a sinner rather than his death,145 and carries home the poor stray sheep on His own shoulders.146 So, too, when the prodigal son returns, his father receives him with joy.147 Nay more, the apostle says: “Judge nothing before the time.”148 For “who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? To his own master he standeth or falleth.”149 And “let him that standeth take heed lest he fall.”150 “Bear ye one another’s burdens.”151
Dear sisters, man’s envy judges in one way, Christ in another; and the whisper of a corner is not the same as the sentence of His tribunal. Many ways seem right to men which are afterwards found to be wrong.152 And a treasure is often stowed in earthen vessels.153 Peter thrice denied his Lord, yet his bitter tears restored him to his place. “To whom much is forgiven, the same loveth much.”154 No word is said of the flock as a whole, yet the angels joy in heaven over the safety of one sick ewe.155 And if any one demurs to this reasoning, the Lord Himself has said: “Friend, is thine eye evil because I am good?”156
The subject of this letter is similar to that of the preceding. Of Antony nothing is known except that some mss. describe him as “of Aemona.” The date of the letter is 374 a.d.
While the disciples were disputing concerning precedence our Lord, the teacher of humility, took a little child and said: “Except ye be converted and become as little children ye cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”157 And lest He should seem to preach more than he practised, He fulfilled His own precept in His life. For He washed His disciples’ feet,158 he received the traitor with a kiss,159 He conversed with the woman of Samaria,160 He spoke of the kingdom of heaven with Mary at His feet,161 and when He rose again from the dead He showed Himself first to some poor women.162 Pride is opposed to humility, and through it Satan lost his eminence as an archangel. The Jewish people perished in their pride, for while they claimed the chief seats and salutations in the market place,163 they were superseded by the Gentiles, who had before been counted as “a drop of a bucket.”164 Two poor fishermen, Peter and James, were sent to confute the sophists and the wise men of the world. As the Scripture says: “God resisteth the proud and giveth grace to the humble.”165 Think, brother, what a sin it must be which has God for its opponent. In the Gospel the Pharisee is rejected because of his pride, and the publican is accepted because of his humility.166
Now, unless I am mistaken, I have already sent you ten letters, affectionate and earnest, whilst you have not deigned to give me even a single line. The Lord speaks to His servants, but you, my brother servant, refuse to speak to me. Believe me, if reserve did not check my pen, I could show my annoyance in such invective that you would have to reply—even though it might be in anger. But since anger is human, and a Christian must not act injuriously, I fall back once more on entreaty, and beg you to love one who loves you, and to write to him as a servant should to his fellow-servant. Farewell in the Lord.
An interesting letter, as throwing some light on Jerome’s family relations. Castorina, his maternal aunt, had, for some reason, become estranged from him, and he now writes to her to effect a reconciliation. Whether he succeeded in doing so, we do not know. The date of the letter is 374 a.d.
The apostle and evangelist Jn rightly says, in his first epistle, that “whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer.”167 For, since murder often springs from hate, the hater, even though he has not yet slain his victim, is at heart a murderer. Why, you ask, do I begin in this style? Simply that you and I may both lay aside past ill feeling and cleanse our hearts to be a habitation for God. “Be ye angry,” David says, “and sin not,” or, as the apostle more fully expresses it, “let not the sun go down upon your wrath.”168 What then shall we do in the day of judgment, upon whose wrath the sun has gone down not one day but many years? The Lord says in the Gospel: “If thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.”169 Woe to me, wretch that I am; woe, I had almost said, to you also. This long time past we have either offered no gift at the altar or have offered it whilst cherishing anger “without a cause.” How have we been able in our daily prayers to say “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,”170 whilst our feelings have been at variance with our words, and our petition inconsistent with our conduct? Therefore I renew the prayer which I made a year ago in a previous letter,171 that the Lord’s legacy of peace172 may be indeed ours, and that my desires and your feelings may find favor in His sight. Soon we shall stand before His judgment seat to receive the reward of harmony restored or to pay the penalty for harmony broken. In case you shall prove unwilling—I hope that it may not be so—to accept my advances, I for my part shall be free. For this letter, when it is read, will insure my acquittal.
Heliodorus, originally a soldier, but now a presbyter of the Church, had accompanied Jerome to the East, but, not feeling called to the solitary life of the desert, had returned to Aquileia. Here be resumed his clerical duties, and in course of time was raised to the episcopate as bishop of Altinum.
The letter was written in the first bitterness of separation and reproaches Heliodorus for having gone back from the perfect way of the ascetic life. The description given of this is highly colored and seems to have produced a great impression in the West. Fabiola was so much enchanted by it that she learned the letter by heart.173 The date is 373 or 374 a.d.
1. So conscious are you of the affection which exists between us that you cannot but recognize the love and passion with which I strove to prolong our common sojourn in the desert. This very letter—blotted, as you see, with tears—gives evidence of the lamentation and weeping with which I accompanied your departure. With the pretty ways of a child you then softened your refusal by soothing words, and I, being off my guard, knew not what to do. Was I to hold my peace? I could not conceal my eagerness by a show of indifference. Or was I to entreat you yet more earnestly? You would have refused to listen, for your love was not like mine. Despised affection has taken the one course open to it. Unable to keep you when present, it goes in search of you when absent. You asked me yourself, when you were going away, to invite you to the desert when I took up my quarters there, and I for my part promised to do so. Accordingly I invite you now; come, and come quickly. Do not call to mind old ties; the desert is for those who have left all. Nor let the hardships of our former travels deter you. You believe in Christ, believe also in His words: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you.”174 Take neither scrip nor staff. He is rich enough who is poor—with Christ.
2. But what is this, and why do I foolishly importune you again? Away with entreaties, an end to coaxing words. Offended love does well to be angry. You have spurned my petition; perhaps you will listen to my remonstrance. What keeps you, effeminate soldier, in your father’s house? Where are your ramparts and trenches? When have you spent a winter in the field? Lo, the trumpet sounds from heaven! Lo, the Leader comes with clouds!175 He is armed to subdue the world, and out of His mouth proceeds a two-edged sword176 to mow down all that encounters it. But as for you, what will you do? Pass straight from your chamber to the battle-field, and from the cool shade into the burning sun? Nay, a body used to a tunic cannot endure a buckler; a head that has worn a cap refuses a helmet; a hand made tender by disuse is galled by a sword-hilt.177 Hear the proclamation of your King: “He that is not with me is against me, and he that gathereth not with me scattereth.”178 Remember the day on which you enlisted, when, buried with Christ in baptism, you swore fealty to Him, declaring that for His sake you would spare neither father nor mother. Lo, the enemy is striving to slay Christ in your breast. Lo, the ranks of the foe sigh over that bounty which you received when you entered His service. Should your little nephew179 hang on your neck, pay no regard to him; should your mother with ashes on her hair and garments rent show you the breasts at which she nursed you, heed her not; should your father prostrate himself on the threshold, trample him under foot and go your way. With dry eyes fly to the standard of the cross. In such cases cruelty is the only true affection.
3. Hereafter there shall come—yes, there shall come—a day when you will return a victor to your true country, and will walk through the heavenly Jerusalem crowned with the crown of valor. Then will you receive the citizenship thereof with Paul.180 Then will you seek the like privilege for your parents. Then will you intercede for me who have urged you forward on the path of victory.
I am not ignorant of the fetters which you may plead as hindrances. My breast is not of iron nor my heart of stone. I was not born of flint or suckled by a tigress.181 I have passed through troubles like yours myself. Now it is a widowed sister who throws her caressing arms around you. Now it is the slaves, your foster-brothers, who cry, “To what master are you leaving us?” Now it is a nurse bowed with age, and a body-servant loved only less than a father, who exclaim: “Only wait till we die and follow us to our graves.” Perhaps, too, an aged mother, with sunken bosom and furrowed brow, recalling the lullaby182 with which she once soothed you, adds her entreaties to theirs. The learned may call you, if they please,
The sole support and pillar of your house.183
The love of God and the fear of hell will easily break such bonds.
Scripture, you will argue, bids us obey our parents.184 Yes, but whoso loves them more than Christ loses his own soul.185 The enemy takes sword in hand to slay me, and shall I think of a mother’s tears? Or shall I desert the service of Christ for the sake of a father to whom, if I am Christ’s servant, I owe no rites of burial,186 albeit if I am Christ’s true servant I owe these to all? Peter with his cowardly advice was an offence to the Lord on the eve of His passion;187 and to the brethren who strove to restrain him from going up to Jerusalem, Paul’s one answer was: “What mean ye to weep and to break my heart? For I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”188 The batteringram of natural affection which so often shatters faith must recoil powerless from the wall of the Gospel. “My mother and my brethren are these whosoever do the will of my Father which is in heaven.”189 If they believe in Christ let them bid me God-speed, for I go to fight in His name. And if they do not believe, “let the dead bury their dead.”190
4. But all this, you argue, only touches the case of martyrs. Ah! my brother, you are mistaken, you are mistaken, if you suppose that there is ever a time when the Christian does not suffer persecution. Then are you most hardly beset when you know not that you are beset at all. “Our adversary as a roaring lion walketh about seeking whom he may devour,”191 and do you think of peace? “He sitteth in the lurking-places of the villages: in the secret places doth he murder the innocent; his eyes are privily set against the poor. He lieth in wait secretly as a lion in his den; he lieth in wait to catch the poor;”192 and do you slumber under a shady tree, so as to fall an easy prey? On one side self-indulgence presses me hard; on another covetousness strives to make an inroad; my belly wishes to be a God to me, in place of Christ,193 and lust would fain drive away the Holy Spirit that dwells in me and defile His temple.194 I am pursued, I say, by an enemy
Whose name is Legion and his wiles untold;195
and, hapless wretch that I am, how shall I hold myself a victor when I am being led away a captive?
5. My dear brother, weigh well the various forms of transgression, and think not that the sins which I have mentioned are less flagrant than that of idolatry. Nay, hear the apostle’s view of the matter. “For this ye know,” he writes, “that no whore-monger or unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.”196 In a general way all that is of the devil savors of enmity to God, and what is of the devil is idolatry, since all idols are subject to him. Yet Paul elsewhere lays down the law in express and unmistakable terms, saying: “Mortify your members, which are upon the earth, laying aside fornication, uncleanness, evil concupiscence and covetousness, which are197 idolatry, for which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh.”198
Idolatry is not confined to casting incense upon an altar with finger and thumb, or to pouring libations of wine out of a cup into a bowl. Covetousness is idolatry, or else the selling of the Lord for thirty pieces of silver was a righteous act.199 Lust involves profanation, or else men may defile with common harlots200 those members of Christ which should be “a living sacrifice acceptable to God.”201 Fraud is idolatry, or else they are worthy of imitation who, in the Ac of the Apostles, sold their inheritance, and because they kept back part of the price, perished by an instant doom.202 Consider well, my brother; nothing is yours to keep. “Whosoever he be of you,” the Lord says, “that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.”203 Why are you such a half-hearted Christian?
6. See how Peter left his net;204 see how the publican rose from the receipt of custom.205 In a moment he became an apostle. “The Son of man hath not where to lay his head,”206 and do you plan wide porticos and spacious halls? If you look to inherit the good things of the world you can no longer be a joint-heir with Christ.207 You are called a monk, and has the name no meaning? What brings you, a solitary, into the throng of men? The advice that I give is that of no inexperienced mariner who has never lost either ship or cargo, and has never known a gale. Lately shipwrecked as I have been myself, my warnings to other voyagers spring from my own fears. On one side, like Charybdis, self-indulgence sucks into its vortex the soul’s salvation. On the other, like Scylla, lust, with a smile on her girl’s face, lures it on to wreck its chastity. The coast is savage, and the devil with a crew of pirates carries irons to fetter his captives. Be not credulous, be not over-confident.The sea may be as smooth and smiling as a pond, its quiet surface may be scarcely ruffled by a breath of air, yet sometimes its waves are as high as mountains. There is danger in its depths, the foe is lurking there. Ease your sheets, spread your sails, fasten the cross as an ensign on your prow. The calm that you speak of is itself a tempest. “Why so?” you will perhaps argue; “are not all my fellow-townsmen Christians?” Your case, I reply, is not that of others. Listen to the words of the Lord: “If thou wilt be perfect go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and come and follow me.”208 You have already promised to be perfect. For when you forsook the army and made yourself an eunuch for the kingdom of heaven’s sake,209 you did so that you might follow the perfect life. Now the perfect servant of Christ has nothing beside Christ. Or if he have anything beside Christ he is not perfect. And if he be not perfect when he has promised God to be so, his profession is a lie. But “the mouth that lieth slayeth the soul.”210 To conclude, then, if you are perfect you will not set your heart on your father’s goods; and if you are not perfect you have deceived the Lord. The Gospel thunders forth its divine warning: “Ye cannot serve two masters,”211 and does any one dare to make Christ a liar by serving at once both God and Mammon? Repeatedly does He proclaim, “If any one will come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”212 If I load myself with gold can I think that I am following Christ? Surely not. “He that saith he abideth in Him ought himself also so to walk even as He walked.”213
7. I know you will rejoin that you possess nothing. Why, then, if you are so well prepared for battle, do you not take the field? Perhaps you think that you can wage war in your own country, although the Lord could do no signs in His?214 Why not? you ask. Take the answer which comes to you with his authority: “No prophet is accepted in his own country.”215 But, you will say, I do not seek honor; the approval of my conscience is enough for me. Neither did the Lord seek it; for when the multitudes would have made Him a king he fled from them.216 But where there is no honor there is contempt; and where there is contempt there is frequent rudeness; and where there is rudeness there is vexation; and where there is vexation there is no rest; and where there is no rest the mind is apt to be diverted from its purpose. Again, where, through restlessness, earnestness loses any of its force, it is lessened by what it loses, and that which is lessened cannot be called perfect. The upshot of all which is that a monk cannot be perfect in his own country. Now, not to aim at perfection is itself a sin.
8. Driven from this line of defence you will appeal to the example of the clergy. These, you will say, remain in their cities, and yet they are surely above criticism. Far be it from me to censure the successors of the apostles, who with holy words consecrate the body of Christ, and who make us Christians.217 Having the keys of the kingdom of heaven, they judge men to some extent before the day of judgment, and guard the chastity of the bride of Christ. But, as I have before hinted, the case of monks is different from that of the clergy. The clergy feed Christ’s sheep; I as a monk am fed by them. They live of the altar:218 I, if I bring no gift to it, have the axe laid to my root as to that of a barren tree.219 Nor can I plead poverty as an excuse, for the Lord in the gospel has praised an aged widow for casting into the treasury the last two coins that she had.220 I may not sit in the presence of a presbyter;221 he, if I sin, may deliver me to Satan, “for the destruction of the flesh that the spirit may be saved.”222 Under the old law he who disobeyed the priests was put outside the camp and stoned by the people, or else he was beheaded and expiated his contempt with his blood.223 But now the disobedient person is cut down with the spiritual sword, or he is expelled from the church and torn to pieces by ravening demons. Should the entreaties of your brethren induce you to take orders, I shall rejoice that you are lifted up, and fear lest you may be cast down. You will say: “If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.”224 I know that; but you should add what follows: such an one “must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, chaste, of good behavior, given to hospitality, apt to teach, not given to wine, no striker but patient.”225 After fully explaining the qualifications of a bishop the apostle speaks of ministers of the third degree with equal care. “Likewise must the deacons be grave,” he writes, “not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre, holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. And let these also first be proved; then, let them minister, being found blameless.”226 Woe to the man who goes in to the supper without a wedding garment. Nothing remains for him but the stern question, “Friend, how camest thou in hither?” And when he is speechless the order will be given, “Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”227 Woe to him who, when he has received a talent, has bound it in a napkin; and, whilst others make profits, only preserves what he has received. His angry lord shall rebuke him in a moment. “Thou wicked servant,” he will say, “wherefore gavest thou not my money into the bank that at my coming I might have required mine own with usury?”228 That is to say, you should have laid before the altar what you were not able to bear. For whilst you, a slothful trader, keep a penny in your hands, you occupy the place of another who might double the money. Wherefore, as he who ministers well purchases to himself a good degree,229 so he who approaches the cup of the Lord unworthily shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.230
9. Not all bishops are bishops indeed. You consider Peter; mark Judas as well. You notice Stephen; look also on Nicolas, sentenced in the Apocalypse by the Lord’s own lips,231 whose shameful imaginations gave rise to the heresy of the Nicolaitans. “Let a man examine himself and so let him come.”232 For it is not ecclesiastical rank that makes a man a Christian. The centurion Cornelius was still a heathen when he was cleansed by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Daniel was but a child when he judged the elders.233 Am was stripping mulberry bushes when, in a moment, he was made a prophet.234 David was only a shepherd when he was chosen to be king.235 And the least of His disciples was the one whom Jesus loved the most. My brother, sit down in the lower room, that when one less honorable comes you may be bidden to go up higher.236 Upon whom does the Lord rest but upon him that is lowly and of a contrite spirit, and that trembleth at His word?237 To whom God has committed much, of him He will ask the more.238 “Mighty men shall be mightily tormented.”239 No man need pride himself in the day of judgment on merely physical chastity, for then shall men give account for every idle word,240 and the reviling of a brother shall be counted as the sin of murder.241 Paul and Peter now reign with Christ, and it is not easy to take the place of the one or to hold the office of the other. There may come an angel to rend the veil of your temple,242 and to remove your candlestick out of its place.243 If you intend to build the tower, first count the cost.244 Salt that has lost its savor is good for nothing but to be cast out and to be trodden under foot of swine.245 If a monk fall, a priest shall intercede for him; but who shall intercede for a fallen priest?
10. At last my discourse is clear of the reefs: at last this frail bark has passed from the breakers into deep water. I may now spread my sails to the breeze; and, as I leave the rocks of controversy astern, my epilogue will be like the joyful shout of mariners. O desert, bright with the flowers of Christ! O solitude whence come the stones of which, in the Apocalypse, the city of the great king is built!246 O wilderness, gladdened with God’s especial presence! What keeps you in the world, my brother, yon who are above the world?247 How long shall gloomy roofs oppress you? How long shall smoky cities immure you? Believe me, I have more light than you. Sweet it is to lay aside the weight of the body and to soar into the pure bright ether. Do you dread poverty? Christ calls the poor blessed.248 Does toil frighten you? No athlete is crowned but in the sweat of his brow. Are you anxious as regards food? Faith fears no famine. Do you dread the bare ground for limbs wasted with fasting? The Lord lies there beside you. Do you recoil from an unwashed head and uncombed hair? Christ is your true head.249 Does the boundless solitude of the desert terrify you? In the spirit you may walk always in paradise. Do but turn your thoughts thither and you will be no more in the desert. Is your skin rough and scaly because you no longer bathe? He that is once washed in Christ needeth not to wash again.250 To all your objections the apostle gives this one brief answer: “The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory” which shall come after them, “which shall be revealed in us.”251 You are too greedy of enjoyment, my brother, if you wish to rejoice with the world here, and to reign with Christ hereafter.
11. it shall come, it shall come, that day when this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and this mortal shall put on immortality.252 Then shall that servant be blessed whom the Lord shall find watching.253 Then at the sound of the trumpet254 the earth and its peoples shall tremble, but you shall rejoice. The world shall howl at the Lord who comes to judge it, and the tribes of the earth shall smite the breast. Once mighty kings shall tremble in their nakedness. Venus shall be exposed, and her son too Jupiter with his fiery bolts will be brought to trial; and Plato, with his disciples, will be but a fool. Aristotle’s arguments shall be of no avail. You may seem a poor man and country bred, but then you shall exult and laugh, and say: Behold my crucified Lord behold my judge. This is He who was once an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and crying in a manger.255 This is He whose parents were a workingman and a working-woman.256 This is He, who, carried into Egypt in His mother’s bosom, though He was God, fled before the face of man. This is He who was clothed in a scarlet robe and crowned with thorns.257 This is He who was called a sorcerer and a man with a devil and a Samaritan.258 Jew, behold the hands which you nailed to the cross. Roman, behold the side which you pierced with the spear. See both of you whether it was this body that the disciples stole secretly and by night.259 For this you profess to believe.
My brother, it is affection which has urged me to speak thus; that you who now find the Christian life so hard may have your reward in that day.
Jerome - Letters 7