Jerome - Letters 117
Jerome writes to Julian, a wealthy nobleman apparently of Dalmatia (§5), to console him for the loss of his wife and two daughters all of whom had recently died. He reminds Julian of the trials of Jb and recommends him to imitate the patience of the patriarch. He also urges him to follow the example set by Pammachius and Paulinus, that is, to give up his riches and to become a monk for the sake of Christ. The date of the letter is 406 a.d.
I. At the very instant of his departure Ausonius, a son to me as he is a brother to you, gave me a late glimpse of himself but quickly hurried away again, saying good-morning and good-bye together. Yet he thought that be would return empty-handed unless he could bring you some trifle from me however hastily written. Clothed in scarlet as befitted his rank, he had already strapped on his sword-belt3070 and sent down a requisition to have a stage-horse saddled. Still he made me send for my secretary and dictate a letter to him. This I did with such rapidity that his nimble hand could hardly keep pace with my words or manage to put down my hurried sentences. Thus hasty dictation has taken the place of careful writing; and, if I break my long silence, it is but to offer you an expression of good will. This is an impromptu letter without logical order or charm of style. You must look on me for once as a friend only; you will find, I assure you, nothing of the orator here. Bear in mind that it has been dashed off on the spur of the moment and given as a provision for the way to one in a hurry to depart.
Holy scripture says: “a tale out of season is as musick in mourning.”3071 Accordingly I have disdained the graces of rhetoric and those charms of eloquence which boys find so captivating, and have fallen back on the serious tone of the sacred writings. For in these are to be found true medicines for wounds and sure remedies for sorrow. In these a mother receives back her only son even on the bier.3072 In these a crowd of mourners hears the words: “the maid is not dead but sleepeth.”3073 In these one that is four days dead comes forth bound at the call of the Lord.3074
2. I hear that in a short space of time you have suffered. several bereavements, that you have buried in quick succession two young unmarried daughters, and that Faustina, most chaste and loyal of wives, your sister in the fervour of her faith and your one comfort in the loss of your children, has suddenly fallen asleep and been taken from you. You have been like a shipwrecked man, who has no sooner reached the shore than he falls into the hands of brigands, or in the eloquent language of the prophet like one “who did flee from a lion, and a bear met him; or went into the house, and leaned his hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him.”3075 Pecuniary losses have followed your bereavements; the entire province has been overrun by a barbarian enemy, and in the general devastation your private property has been destroyed, your flocks and herds have been driven off, and your poor slaves either made prisoners or else slain. To crown all, your only daughter, made all the more dear to you by the loss of the others, has for her husband a young nobleman who, to say nothing worse of him, has given you more occasion for sorrow than for rejoicing. Such is the list of the trials that have been laid upon you; such is the conflict waged by the old enemy against Julian a raw recruit to Christ’s standard. If you look only to yourself your troubles are indeed great but if you look to the strong Warrior,3076 they are but child’s play and the conflict is only the semblance of one. After untold trials a wicked wife was still left to the blessed Job, the devil hoping that he might learn from her to blaspheme God. You on the other hand have been deprived of an excellent one that you might learn to go without consolation in the hour of misfortune. Yet it is far harder to put up with a wife whom you dislike than it is to mourn for one whom you dearly love. Moreover when Job’s children died they found a common tomb beneath the ruins of his house, and all he could do to shew his parental affection was to rend his garments to fall upon the ground and to worship, saying: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away: it has been as the Lord pleased: blessed be the name of the Lord.”3077 But you, to put the matter briefly, have been allowed to perform the obsequies of your dear ones; and those obsequies have been attended by many respectful kinsmen and comforting friends. Again Jb lost all his wealth at once; and, as, one after another, the messengers of woe unfolded new calamities, he flinched as little as the sage of whom Horace writes:3078 —
Shatter the world to atoms if you will.
Fearless will be the man on whom it falls.
But with you the case is different. The greater part of your substance has been left to you, and your trials have not been greater than you can bear. For you have not yet attained to such perfection that the devil has to marshal all his forces against you.
3. Long ago this wealthy proprietor and still wealthier father was made by a sudden stroke destitute and bereaved. But as, in spite of all that befel him, he had not sinned before God or spoken foolishly, the Lord—exulting in the victory of his servant and regarding Job’s patience as His own triumph—said to the devil: “Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God and escheweth evil? and still he holdeth fast his integrity?”3079 He finely adds the last clause because it is difficult for innocence to refrain from murmuring when it is overborne by misfortune; and to avoid making a shipwreck of faith when it sees that its sufferings are unjustly inflicted. The devil answered the Lord and said: “Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life. But put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face.”3080 See how crafty the adversary is, and how hardened in sin his evil days have made him! He knows the difference between things external and internal. He knows that even the philosophers of the world call the former adiafora that is indifferent, and that the perfection of virtue does not consist in losing or disdaining them. It is the latter, those that are internal and objects of preference,3081 the loss of which inevitably causes chagrin. Wherefore he boldly contradicts what God has said and declares that Jb deserves no praise at all; since he has yielded up no part of himself but only what is outside himself, since he has given for his own skin the skins of his children, and since he has but laid down his purse to secure the health of his body. From this your sagacity may perceive that your trials have so far only reached the point at which you give hide for hide, skin for skin, and are ready to give all that you have for your life. The Lord has not yet stretched forth His hand upon you, or touched your flesh, or broken your bones. Yet it is when such afflictions as these are laid upon you that it is Bard not to groan and not to ‘bless’ God to His face, that is to curse Him. The word ‘bless’ is used in the same way in the books of Kings where it is said of Naboth that he ‘blessed’ God and the king and was therefore stoned by the people.3082 But the Lord knew His champion and felt sure that this great hero would even in this last and severest conflict prove unconquerable. Therefore He said: “Behold he is in thine hand; but save his life.”3083 The holy man’s flesh is placed at the devil’s disposal, but his vital powers are withheld. For if the devil had smitten that on which sensation and mental judgment depend, the guilt arising from a misuse of these faculties I would have lain at the door not of him who committed the sin but of him who had overthrown the balance of his mind.
4. Others may praise you if they will, and celebrate your victories over the devil. They may eulogize you for the smiling face with which you bore the loss of your daughters, or for the resolution with which, forty days after they fell asleep, you exchanged your mourning for a white robe to attend the dedication of a martyr’s bones; unconcerned for a bereavement which was the concern of the whole city, and anxious only to share in a martyr’s triumph. Nay, say they, when you bore your wife to burial, it was not as one dead but as one setting forth on a journey. But I shall not deceive you with flattering words or take the ground froth under your feet with slippery praises. Rather will I say what it is good for you to hear: “My son, if thou come to serve the Lord, prepare thy soul for temptation,”3084 and “when thou shalt have done all those things which are commanded thee, say, I am an unprofitable servant; I have done that which was my duty to do.”3085 Say to God: “the children that thou hast taken from me were Thine own gift. The hand-maiden that Thou hast taken to Thyself Thou also didst lend to me for a season to be my solace. I am not aggrieved that Thou hast taken her back, but thankful rather that Thou hast previously given her to me.”
Once upon a time a rich young man boasted that he had fulfilled all the requirements of the law, but the Lord said to him (as we read in the gospel): “One thing thou lackest: if thou wilt be perfect, go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor; and come and follow me.”3086 He who declared that he had done all things gave way at the first onset to the power of riches. Wherefore they who are rich find it hard to enter the kingdom of heaven, a kingdom which desires for its citizens souls that soar aloft free from all ties and hindrances. “Go thy way,” the Lord says, “and sell” not a part of thy substance but “all that thou hast, and give to the poor;” not to thy friends or kinsfolk or relatives, not to thy wife or to thy children. I will even go farther and say: keep back nothing for yourself because you fear to be some day poor, lest by so doing you share the condemnation of Ananias and Sapphira;3087 but give everything to the poor and make to yourself friends of the mammon of unrighteousness that they may receive you into everlasting habitations.3088 Obey the Master’s injunction “follow me,”3089 and take the Lord of the world for your possession; that you may be able to sing with the prophet, “The Lord is my portion,”3090 and like a true Levite3091 may possess no earthly inheritance. I cannot but advise you thus if you wish to be perfect, if you desire to attain the pinnacle of the apostles’ glory, if you wish to take up your cross and to follow Christ. When once you have put your hand to the plough you must not look back;3092 when once you stand on the housetop you must think no more of your clothes within; to escape your Egyptian mistress3093 you must abandon the cloak that belongs to this world. Even Elijah, in his quick translation to heaven could not take his mantle with him, but left in the world the garments of the world.3094 Such conduct, you will object, is for him who would emulate the apostles, for the man who aspires to be perfect. But why should not you aspire to be perfect? Why should not you who hold a foremost place in the world hold a foremost place also in Christ’s household? Is it because you have been married? Peter was married too, but when he forsook his ship and his nets he forsook his wife also.3095 The Lord who wills that all men shall be saved and prefers the repentance of a sinner to his death3096 has, in His almighty providence, removed from you this excuse. Your wife can no longer draw you earthwards, but you can follow her as she draws you heavenwards. Provide good things for your children who have gone home before you to the Lord. Do not let their portions go to swell their sister’s fortune, but use them to ransom four own soul and to give sustenance to the needy. These are the necklaces your daughters expect from you; these are the jewels they wish to see sparkle on their foreheads. The money which they would have wasted in buying silks may well be considered saved when it provides cheap clothing for the poor. They ask you for their portions. Now that they are united to their spouse they are loth to appear poor and undistinguished: they desire to have the ornaments that befit their rank.
5. Nor may you excuse yourself on the score of your noble station and the responsibilities of wealth. Look at Pammachius and at Paulinus that presbyter of glowing faith both of whom have offered to the Lord not only their riches but themselves. In spite of the devil and his shuffling they have by no means given skin for skin, but have consecrated their own flesh and bones, yea and their very souls unto the Lord. Surely these may lead you to higher things both by their example and by their preaching, that is, by their deeds and words. You are of noble birth, so are they: but in Christ they are made nobler still. You are rich and held in repute, so once were they: but now instead of being rich and held in repute they are poor and obscure, yet, because it is for Christ’s sake, they are really richer and more famous than ever. You too, it is true, shew yourself beneficent, you are said to minister to the wants of the saints, to entertain monks, and to present large sums of money to churches. This however is only the a b c of your soldiership. You despise money; the world’s philosophers have done the same. One of these3097 —to say nothing of the rest—cast the price of many possessions into the sea, saying as he did so “To the bottom with you, ye provokers of evil lusts. I shall drown you in the sea that you may never drown me in sin.” If then a philosopher—a creature of vanity whom popular applause can buy and sell—laid down all his burthen at once, how can you think that you have reached virtue’s crowning height when you have yielded up but a portion of yours? It is you yourself that the Lord wishes for, “a living sacrifice …acceptable unto God.”3098 Yourself, I say, and not what you have. And therefore, as he trained Israel by subjecting it to many plagues and afflictions, so does He now admonish you by sending you trials of different kinds. “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.”3099 The poor widow did but cast two mites into the treasury; yet because she cast in all that she had it is said of her that she surpassed all the rich in offering gifts to God.3100 Such gifts are valued not by their weight but by the good-will with which they are made. You may have spent your substance upon numbers of people, and a portion of your fellows may have reason to rejoice in your bounty; yet those who have received nothing at your hands are still more numerous. Neither the wealth of Darius nor the riches of Croesus would suffice to satisfy the wants of the world’s poor. But if you once give yourself to the Lord and resolve to follow the Saviour in the perfection of apostolic virtue, then you will come to see what your place has hitherto been, and how you have lagged in the rear of Christ’s army. Hardly had you begun to mourn for your dead daughters when the fear of Christ dried the tears of paternal affection upon your cheeks. It was a great triumph of faith, true. But how much greater was that won by Abraham who was content to slay his only son, of whom he had been told that he was to inherit the world, yet did not cease to hope that after death Isaac would live again.3101 Jephthah too offered up his virgin daughter, and for this is placed by the apostle in the roll of the saints.3102 I would not therefore have you offer to the Lord only what a thief may steal from you or an enemy fall upon, or a proscription confiscate, what is liable to fluctuations in value now going up and now down, what belongs to a succession of masters who follow each other as fast as in the sea wave follows wave, and—to say everything in a word—what, whether you like it or not, you must leave behind you when you die. Rather offer to God that which no enemy can carry off and no tyrant take from you, which will go down with you into the grave, nay on to the kingdom of heaven and the enchantments of paradise. You already build monasteries and support in the various islands of Dalmatia a large number of holy men. But you would do better still if you were to live among these holy men usa holy man yourself. “Be ye holy, saith the Lord, for I am holy.”3103 The apostles boasted that they had left all things and had followed the Saviour."3104 We do not read that they left anything except their ship and their nets; yet they were crowned with the approval of Him who was to be their judge. Why? Because in offering up themselves they had indeed left all that they had.
6. I say all this not in disparagement of your good works or because I wish to under rate your generosity in almsgiving, but because I do not wish you to be a monk among men of the world and a man of the world among monks. I shall require every sacrifice of you for I hear that your mind is devoted to the service of God. If some friend, or follower, or kinsman tries to combat this counsel of mine and to recall you to the pleasures of a handsome table, be sure that he is thinking less of your soul than of his own belly, and remember that death in a moment terminates both elegant entertainments and all other pleasures provided by wealth. Within the short space of twenty days you have lost two daughters, the one eight years old and the other six; and do you suppose that one so old as you are yourself can live much longer? David tells you how long a time you can look for: “the days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow.”3105 Happy is he and to be held worthy of the highest bliss whom old age shall find a servant of Christ and whom the last day shall discover fighting for the Saviour’s cause. “He shall not be ashamed when he speaketh with his enemies in the gate.”3106 On his entrance into paradise it shall be said to him: “thou in thy lifetime receivedst evil things but nowhere thou art comforted.”3107 The Lord will not avenge the same sin twice. Lazarus, formerly poor and full of ulcers, whose sores the dogs licked and who barely managed to live, poor wretch, on the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table, is now welcomed into Abraham’s bosom and has the joy of finding a father in the great patriarch. It is difficult nay impossible for a man to enjoy both the good things of the present and those of the future, to satisfy his belly here and his mind yonder, to pass from the pleasures of this life to the pleasures of that, to be first in both worlds, and to be held in honour both on earth and in heaven.
7. And if in your secret thoughts you are troubled because I who give you this advice am not myself what I desire you to be, and because you have seen some after beginning well fall midway on their journey; I shall briefly plead in reply that the words which I speak are not mine but those of the Lord and Saviour, and that I urge upon you not the standard which is possible to myself but the ideal which every true servant of Christ must wish for and realize. Athletes as a rule are stronger than their backers; yet the weaker presses the stronger to put forth all his efforts Look not upon Judas denying his Lord but upon Paul confessing Him. Jacob’s father was a man of great wealth; yet, when Jacob went to Mesopotamia, he went alone and destitute leaning upon his staff. When he felt weary he had to lie down by the wayside and, delicately nurtured as he had been by his mother Rebekah, was forced to content himself with a stone for a pillow. Yet it was then3108 that he saw the ladder set up from earth to heaven, and the angels ascending and descending on it, and the Lord above it holding out a helping hand to such as fall and encouraging the climbers to fresh efforts by the vision of Himself. Therefore is the spot called Bethel or the house of God; for there day by day there is ascending and descending. When they are careless, even holy men lose their footing; and sinners, if they wash away their stains with tears regain their place. I say this not that those coming down may frighten you but that those going up may stimulate you. For evil can never supply a model and even in worldly affairs incentives to virtue come always from the brighter side.
But I have forgotten my purpose and the limits set to my letter. I should have liked to say a great deal more. Indeed all that I can say is inadequate alike to satisfy the seriousness of the subject and the claims of your rank. But here is our Ausonius beginning to be impatient for the sheets, hurrying the secretaries, and in his impatience at the neighing of his horse, accusing my poor wits of slowness. Remember me, then, and prosper in Christ. And one thing more; follow the example set you at home by the holy Vera,3109 who like a true follower of Christ does not fear to endure the hardships of pilgrimage. Find in a woman your ‘leader in this high emprise.’3110
Minervius and Alexander two monks of Toulouse had written to Jerome asking him to explain for them a large number of passages in scripture. Jerome in his reply postpones most of these to a future time but deals with two in detail viz. (I) “we shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed,” 1Co 15,51; and (1) “we shall be caught up in the clouds,” 1 Th. 4,17. With regard to (1) Jerome prefers the reading “we shall all sleep but we shall not all be changed,” and with regard to (2) he looks upon the language as metaphorical and interprets it to mean that believers will be ‘assumed’ into the company of the apostles and prophets. The date of the letter is 406 a.d.
At the request of Hedibia, a lady of Gaul much interested in the study of scripture, Jerome deals with the following twelve questions. It will be noticed that several of them belong to the historical criticism of our own day.
(1) How can anyone be perfect? and How ought a widow without children to live to God?
(2) What is the meaning of Mt 26,29?
(3) How are the discrepancies in the evangelical narratives to be accounted for? How can Mt 28,I be reconciled with Mc 16,I, Mark xvi. 2
(4) How can Mt 28,9 (Saturday evening) be reconciled with Jn 20,1–181—18 (Sunday morning)?
(5) How can Mt 28,9 be reconciled with Jn 20,17?
(6) How was it that, if there was a guard of soldiers at the sepulchre, Peter and Jn were allowed to go in freely? (Mt 27,66, John xx. 1–8).
(7) How is the statement of Matthew and Mc that the apostles were ordered to go into Galilee to see Jesus there to be reconciled with that of Lc and Jn who make Him appear to them in Jerusalem?
(8) What is the meaning of Mt 27,50, Mt 28,51?
(9) How is the statement of Jn 20,22 that Jesus breathed on his apostles the Holy Ghost to be reconciled with that of Lc (Lc 24,49, Acts i. 4) that He would send it to them after His ascension?
(10) What is the meaning of the passage, Rm 9,14–29?
(11) What is the meaning of 2Co 2,16?
(12) What is the meaning of I Th. 5,23? The date of the letter is 406 or 407 a.d.
Jerome writes to a lady of Gaul named Algasia to answer eleven questions which she had submitted to him. They were as follows:—
(1) How is Lc 7,18, Lc 7,19, to be reconciled with Jn i. 36?
(2) What is the meaning of Mt 12,20?
(3) And of Mt 16,24?
(4) And of Mt 24,19, Mt 24,20?
(5) And of Lc 9,53?
(6) What is the meaning of the parable of the unjust steward?
(7) What is the meaning of Rm 5,7?
(8) And of Rom.vii. 8?
(9) And of Rm 9,3?
(10) And of Col 2,18?
(11) And of 2 Th. 2,3?
The date of the letter is 406 a.d.
Rusticus and Artemia his wife having made a vow of continence broke it. Artemia proceeded to Palestine to do penance for her sin and Rusticus promised to follow her. However he failed to do so, and Jerome was asked to write this letter in the hope that it might induce him to fulfil his promise. The date is about 408 a.d.
I. I am induced to write to you, a stranger to a stranger, by the entreaties of that holy servant of Christ Hedibia3112 and of my daughter in the faith Artemia, once your wife but now no longer your wife but your sister and fellow-servant. Not content with assuring her own salvation she has sought yours also, in former days at home and now in the holy places. She is anxious to emulate the thoughtfulness of the apostles Andrew and Philip; who after Christ had found them, desired in their turn to find, the one his brother Simon and the other his friend Nathanael.3113 To the former of these it was said “Thou art Simon, the son of Jona: thou shall be called Cephas which is by interpretation a stone;”3114 while the latter, whose name Nathanael means the gift of God, was comforted by Christ’s witness to him: “behold an Israelite indeed in whom is no guile.”3115 So of old Lot3116 desired to rescue his wife as well as his two daughters, and refusing to leave blazing Sodom and Gomorrah until he was himself half-on-fire, tried to lead forth one who was tied and bound by her past sins. But in her despair she lost her composure, and looking back became a monument of an unbelieving soul.3117 Yet, as if to make up for the loss of a single woman, Lot’s glowing faith set free the whole city of Zoar. In fact when he left the dark valleys in which Sodom lay and came to the mountains, the sun rose upon him as he entered Zoar or the little City; so-called because the little faith that Lot possessed, though unable to save greater places, was at least able to preserve smaller ones. For one who had gone so far astray as to live in Gomorrah could not all at once reach the noonland where Abraham, the friend of God,3118 entertained God and His angels.3119 (For it was in Egypt that Joseph fed his brothers, and when the bride speaks to the Bridegroom her cry is: “tell me where thou feedest, where thou makest thy flock to rest at noon.”3120 ) Good men have always sorrowed for the sins of others. Samuel of old lamented for Saul3121 because he neglected to treat the ulcers of pride with the balm of penitence. And Paul wept for the Corinthians3122 who refused to wash out with their tears the stains of fornication. For the same reason Ezekiel swallowed the book where were written within and without song, and lamentation and woe;3123 the song in praise of the righteous, the lamentation over the penitent, and the woe for those of whom it is written, “When the wicked man falleth into the depths of evil, then is he filled with scorn.”3124 It is to these that Isaiah alludes when he says: “in that day did the Lord God of hosts call to weeping and to mourning and to baldness and to girding with sackcloth: and behold joy and gladness, slaying oxen; and killing sheep, eating flesh” and saying, “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”3125 Yet of such persons Ezekiel is bidden to speak thus: “O thou son of man, speak unto the house of Israel; Thus ye speak, saying, If our transgressions and our sins be upon us, and we pine away in them, how should we then live? Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live,” and again, “turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?”3126 Nothing makes God so angry as when men from despair of better things cleave to those which are worse; and indeed this despair in itself is a sign of unbelief. One who despairs of salvation can have no expectation of a judgment to come. For if he dreaded such, he would by doing good works prepare to meet his Judge. Let us hear what God says through Jeremiah, “withhold thy foot from a rough way and thy throat from thirst”3127 and again “shall they fall, and not arise? Shall he turn away, and not return?”3128 Let us hear also what God says by Isaiah: “When thou shalt turn and bewail thyself, then shall thou be saved, and then shalt thou know where thou hast hitherto been.”3129 We do not realize the miseries of sickness till returning health reveals them to us. So sins serve as a foil to the blessedness of virtue; and light shines more brightly when it is relieved against darkness. Ezekiel uses language like that of the other prophets because he is animated by a similar spirit. “Repent,” he cries, “and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin. Cast away from you all your transgressions whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord.”3130 Wherefore in a subsequent passage he says: “As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked: but that the wicked turn from his way and live.”3131 These words shew us that the mind must not through disbelief in the promised blessings give way to despair; and that the soul once marked out for perdition must not refuse to apply remedies on the ground that its wounds are past curing. Ezekiel describes God as swearing, that if we refuse to believe His promise in regard to our salvation we may at least believe His oath. It is with full confidence that the righteous man prays and says, “Turn us, O God of our salvation, and cause thine anger toward us to cease,”3132 and again, “Lord, by thy favour thou hast made my mountain to stand strong: thou didst hide thy face and I was troubled.”3133 He means to say, “when I forsook the foulness of my faults for the beauty of virtue, God strengthened my weakness with His grace.” Lo, I hear. His promise: “I will pursue mine enemies and overtake them: neither will I turn again till they are consumed,”3134 so that I who was once thine enemy and a fugitive from thee, shall be laid hold of by thine hand. Cease not from pursuing me till my wickedness is consumed, and I return to my old husband who will give me my wool and my flax, my oil and my fine flour and will feed me with the richest foods.3135 He it was who hedged up and enclosed my evil ways3136 that I might find Him the true way who says in the gospel, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”3137 Hear the words of the prophet: “they that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.”3138 Say also with him: “All the night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears”3139 : and again, “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my meat day and night,”3140 and in another place, “O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and weary land where no water is. So have I looked upon thee in the sanctuary.”3141 For although my soul has thirsted after thee, yet much more have I sought thee by the labour of my flesh and have not been able to look upon thee in thy sanctuary; not at any rate till I have first dwelt in a land barren of sin, where the weary wayfarer is no more assailed by the adversary, and where there are no pools or rivers of lust.
The Saviour also wept over the city of Jerusalem because its inhabitants had not repented;3142 and Peter washed out his triple denial with bitter tears,3143 thus fulfilling the words of the prophet: “rivers of waters run down mine eyes.”3144 Jeremiah too laments over his impenitent people, saying: “Oh that my head were waters and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for …my people!”3145 And farther on he gives a reason for his lamentation: “weep ye not for the dead,” he writes, “neither bemoan him: but weep sore for him that goeth away: for he shall return no more.”3146 The Jew and the Gentile therefore are not to be bemoaned, for they have never been in the Church and have died once for all (it is of these that the Saviour says: “let the dead bury their dead”3147 ); weep rather for those who by reason of their crimes and sins go away from the Church, and who suffering condemnation for their faults shall no more return to it. It is in this sense that the prophet speaks to ministers of the Church, calling them its walls and towers, and saying to each in turn, “O wall, let tears run down.”3148 In this way, it is prophetically implied, you will fulfil the apostolic precept: “rejoice with them that do rejoice and weep with them that weep,”3149 and by your tears you will melt the hard hearts of sinners till they too weep; whereas, if they persist in evil doing they will find these words applied to them, “I …planted thee a noble vine, wholly a right seed: how then art thou turned into the degenerate plant of a strange vine unto me?”3150 and again “saying to a stock, Thou art my father; and to a stone, Thou hast brought me forth: for they have turned their back unto me, and not their face.”3151 He means, they would not turn towards God in penitence; but in the hardness of their hearts turned their backs upon Him to insult Him. Wherefore also the Lord says to Jeremiah: “hast thou seen that which backsliding Israel hath done? She is gone up upon every high mountain and under every green tree, and there hath played the harlot. And I said after she” had played the harlot and “had done all these things, Turn thou unto me. But she returned not.”3152
2. How hard hearted we are and how merciful God is! who even after our many sins urges us to seek salvation. Yet not even so are we willing to turn to better things. Hear the words of the Lord: “If a man put away his wife, and she go from him, and become another man’s and shall afterwards desire to return to him, will he at all receive her? Will he not loathe her rather? But thou hast played the harlot with many lovers: yet return again to me, saith the Lord.” In place of the last clause the true Hebrew text (which is not preserved in the Greek and Latin versions) gives the following: “thou hast forsaken me, yet return, and I will receive thee, saith the Lord.”3153 Isaiah also speaking in tim same sense uses almost the same words: “Return,” he cries, “O children of Israel, ye who think deep counsel and wicked.3154 Return thou unto me and I will redeem thee. I am God, and there is no God else beside me; a just God and a Saviour; there is none beside me. Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.3155 Remember this and shew yourselves men: bring it again to mind, O ye transgressors. Return in heart and remember the former things of old: for I am God and there is none else.”3156 Jl also writes: “turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting and with weeping and with mourning: and rend your heart and not your garments and turn unto the Lord your God; for he is gracious and merciful…and repenteth him of the evil.”3157 How great His mercy is and how excessive—if I may so say—and unspeakable is His pitifulness, the prophet Hosea tells us when he speaks in the Lord’s name: "how shall I give thee up, Ephraim? how shall I deliver thee, Israel? how shall I make thee as Admah? How shall I set thee as Zeboim? Mine heart is turned within me, my repentings are kindled together. I will not execute the fierceness of mine anger.’3158 David also says in a psalm: “in death there is no remembrance of thee; in the grave who shall give thee thanks?”3159 and in another place: “I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin. For this shall every one that is godly pray unto thee in a time when thou mayest be found: surely in the floods of great waters they shall not come nigh unto him.”3160
3. Think how great that weeping must be which deserves to be compared to a flood of waters. Whosoever so weeps and says with the prophet Jeremiah “let not the apple of mine eye cease”3161 shall straightway find the words fulfilled of him: “mercy and truth are met together: righteousness and peace have kissed each other;”3162 so that, if righteousness and truth terrify him, mercy and peace may encourage him to seek salvation.
The whole repentance of a sinner is exhibited to us in the fifty-first3163 psalm written by David after he had gone in unto Bathsheba the wife of Uriah the Hittite,3164 and when, to the rebuke of the prophet Nathan he had replied, “I have sinned.” Immediately that he confessed his fault he was comforted by the words: “the Lord also hath put away thy sin.”3165 He had added murder to adultery; yet bursting into tears he says: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.”3166 A sin so great needed to find great mercy. Accordingly he goes on to say: “Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only have I sinned”—as a king he had no one to fear but Gods—“and done this evil in thy sight; that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest and be clear when thou judgest.”3167 For “God hath concluded all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all.”3168 And such was the progress that David made that he who had once been a sinner and a penitent afterwards became a master able to say: “I will teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.”3169 For as “confession and beauty are before God,”3170 so a sinner who confesses his sins and says: “my wounds stink and are corrupt because of my foolishness”3171 loses his foul wounds and is made whole and clean. But “he that covereth his sins shall not prosper.”3172
The ungodly king Ahab, who shed the blood of Naboth to gain his vineyard, was with Jezebel, the partner less of his bed than of his cruelty, severely rebuked by Elijah. “Thus saith the Lord, hast thou killed and also taken possession?” and again, “in the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth, shall dogs lick thy blood, even thine;” and “the dogs shall eat Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel.”3173 “And it came to pass”—the passage goes on—“when Ahab heard those words that he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh,and fasted, and lay in sackcloth…andthe word of the Lord came to Elijah saying, Because Ahab humbleth himself before me, I will not bring the evil in his days.”3174 Ahab’s sin and Jezebel’s were the same; yet because Ahab repented, his punishment was postponed so as to fall upon his sons, while Jezebel persisting in her wickedness met her doom then and there).
Moreover the Lord tells us in the gospel, “the men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas;”3175 and again He says “I am not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”3176 The lost piece of silver is sought for until it is found in the mire.3177 So also the ninety and nine sheep are left in the wilderness, while the shepherd carries home on his shoulders the one sheep which has gone astray.3178 Wherefore also “there is joy in the presence of the angels over one sinner that repenteth.”3179 What a blessed thought it is that heavenly beings rejoice in our salvation! For it is of us that the words are said: “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”3180 Death and life are contrary the one to the other; there is no middle term. Yet penitence can knit death to life. The prodigal son, we are told, wasted all his substance, and in the far country away from his father “would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat.” Yet, when he comes back to his father, the fatted calf is killed, a robe and a ring are given to him.3181 That is to say, he receives again Christ’s robe which he had before defiled, and hears to his comfort the injunction: “let thy garments be always white.”3182 He receives the signet of God and cries to the Lord: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee;” and receiving the kiss of reconciliation, he says to Him: “Now is the light of thy countenance sealed upon us, O Lord.”3183
Hear the words of Ezekiel: “as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall thereby in the day that he turneth from his wickedness; neither shall the righteous be able to live for his righteousness in the day that he sinneth.”3184 The Lord judges every man according as he finds him. It is not the past that He looks upon but the present. Bygone sins there may be, but renewal and conversion remove them. “A just man,” we read “falleth seven times and riseth up again.”3185 If he falls, how is he just? and if he is just, how does he fall? The answer is that a sinner does not lose the name of just if he always repents of his sins and rises again. If a sinner repents, his sins are forgiven him not only till seven times but till seventy times seven.3186 To whom much is forgiven, the same loveth much.3187 The harlot washed with her tears the Saviour’s feet and wiped them with her hair; and to her, as a type of the Church gathered from the nations, was the declaration made: “Thy sins are forgiven.”3188 The self-righteous Pharisee perished in his pride, white the humble publican was saved by his confession.3189
God makes asseveration by the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah: “At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up to pull down and to destroy it: if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom to build and to plant it; if it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good wherewith I said I would benefit them.” And immediately he adds: “Behold, I frame evil against you, and devise a device against you: return ye now every one from his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good. And they said, there is no hope: but we will walk after our own devices, and we will every one do the imagination of his evil heart.”3190 The righteous Simeon says in the gospel: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many,”3191 for the fall, that is, of sinners and for the rising again of the penitent. So the apostle writes to the Corinthians: “it is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife. And ye are puffed up and have not rather mourned that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you.”3192 And in his second epistle to the same, “lest such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow,”3193 he calls him back, and begs them to confirm their love towards him, so that he who had been destroyed by incest might be saved by penitence.
“There is no man clean from sin; even though he has lived but for one day.”3194 And the years of man’s life are many in number. “The stars are not pure in his sight,3195 and his angels he charged with folly.”3196 If there is sin in heaven, how much more must there be sin on earth? If they are stained with guilt who have no bodily temptations, how much more must we be, enveloped as we are in frail flesh and forced to cry each one of us with the apostle: “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?3197 For in my flesh there dwelleth no good thing.”3198 For we do not what we would but what we would not; the soul desires to do one thing, the flesh is compelled to do another. If any persons are called righteous in scripture, and not only righteous but righteous in the sight of God, they are called righteous according to that righteousness mentioned in the passage I have quoted: “A just man falleth seven times and riseth up again,”3199 and on the principle laid down that the wickedness of the wicked shall not hurt him in the day that he turns to repentance.3200 In fact Zachariah the father of Jn who is described as a righteous man sinned in disbelieving the message sent to him and was at once punished with dumbness.3201 Even Job, who at the outset of his history is spoken of as perfect and upright and uncomplaining, is afterwards proved to be a sinner both by God’s words and by his own confession. If Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the prophets also and the apostles were by no means free from sin and if the finest wheat had chaff mixed with it, what can be said of us of whom it is written: “What is the chaff to the wheat, saith the Lord?”3202 Yet the chaff is reserved for future burning; as also are the tares which at present are mingled with the growing corn. For one shall come whose fan is in His hand, and shall purge His floor, and shall gather His wheat into the garner, and shall burn the chaff in the fire of hell.3203
4. Roaming thus through the fairest fields of scripture I have culled its loveliest flowers to weave for your brows a garland of penitence; for my aim is that, flying on the wings of a dove, you may find rest3204 and make your peace with the Father of mercy. Your former wife, who is now your sister and fellow-servant, has told me that, acting on the apostolic precept,3205 you and she lived apart by consent that you might give yourselves to prayer; but that after a time your feet sank beneath you as if resting on water and indeed—to speak plainly—gave way altogether. For her part she heard the Lord saying to her as to Moses: “as for thee stand thou here by me;”3206 and with the psalmist she said of Him: “He hath set my feet upon a rock.”3207 But your house—she went on—having no sure foundation of faith fell before a whirlwind of the devil.3208 Hers however still stands in the Lord, and does not refuse its shelter to you; you can still be joined in spirit to her to whom you were once joined in body. For, as the apostle says, “he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit” with him.3209 Moreover, when the fury of the barbarians and the risk of captivity separated you again, you promised with a solemn oath that, if she made her way to the holy places, you would follow her either immediately or later, and that you would try to save your soul now that by your carelessness you had seemed to lose it. Perform, now, the vow which you then made in the presence of God. Human life is uncertain. Therefore, lest you may be snatched away before you have fulfilled your promise, imitate her whose teacher you ought to have been. For shame! the weaker vessel overcomes the world, and yet the stronger is overcome by it!
A woman leadeth in the high emprise;
3210 and yet you will not follow her when her salvation leads you to the threshold of the faith! Perhaps, however, you desire to save the remnants of your property and to see the last of your friends and fellow-citizens and of their cities and villas. If so, amid the horrors of captivity, in the presence of exulting foes. and in the shipwreck of the province, at least hold fast to the plank of penitence;3211 and remember your fellow-servant3212 who daily sighs for your salvation and never despairs of it. While you are wandering about your own country (though, indeed, you no longer have a country; that which you once had, you have lost) she is interceding for you in the venerable spots which witnessed the nativity, crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour, and in the first of which He uttered His infant-cry. She draws you to her by her prayers that you may be saved, if not by your own exertions, at any rate by her faith. Of old one lay upon his bed sick of the palsy, so powerless in all his joints that he could neither move his feet to walk nor his hands to pray; yet when he was carried to our Lord by others, he was by Him so completely restored to health as to carry the bed which a little before had carried him.3213 You too—absent in the body but present to her faith—your fellow-servant offers to her Lord and Saviour; and with the Canaanite woman she says of you: “my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.”3214 Souls are of no sex; therefore I may fairly call your soul the daughter of hers. For as a mother coaxes her unweaned child which is as yet unable to take solid food; so does she call you to the milk suitable for babes and offer to you the sustenance that a nursing mother gives. Thus shall you be able to say with the prophet: “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek thy servant; for I do not forget thy commandments.”3215
Jerome - Letters 117