Among Saint Jerome’s letters, those of enduring interest are of a formal nature, written with the expectation that they would be copied and passed from hand to hand. Jerome often refers readers to other letters just as he refers them to his books. Many of the letters deal with monastic life, a subject of increasing interest and in which guidance was needed. However, monasticism was only one aspect of Jerome’s message for his generation, which was simply a serious call to a devout and holy life.
The Roman world, less than a century after the conversion of Constantine the Great, was nominally Christian but still largely pagan. Hitherto, persecution had kept the Church fairly honest. Now not to be a Christian was considered bad form. Never had the Roman world been so corrupted—and confused. Jerome was a picturesque individual in whom learning was combined with experience of the desert. People wrote to him from every quarter seeking his counsel. What they got was strong medicine: Repent and be converted; separate yourselves from corrupt society; discipline your bodies; renounce wealth and social position; read the Bible and the writings of the saints; minister to the sick and the poor; and pray constantly.
The times were turbulent. Between the death of Constantius in 361 c.e. and the accession of Theodosius the Great in 379, five emperors and three usurpers had met their deaths. With the Goths ravaging Europe and Huns at large in Asia Minor, no one felt safe. In a letter to a young man from Marseilles, Jerome writes, “May our renunciation of the world be a matter of free will and not of necessity! However, in our present miseries, with swords raging fiercely all around us, he is rich enough who is not in actual want of bread, he is more powerful than he needs be who is not reduced to slavery.”
Jerome distinguished between being a Christian in the world and turning one’s back on the world to pursue perfection. In his own case, renouncing the world meant not merely leaving family and friends to go and live in the desert; it also meant disposing of his library of Greek and Latin authors, which he could not make up his mind to do even though he knew that clinging to pagan authors was like drinking the cup of Christ and the cup of the devil at the same time. While he was in Antioch, ready to depart for the Syrian desert, the matter resolved itself. Jerome fell seriously ill and in a delirium, he believed he stood before the judgment seat. When he represented himself as a Christian, the judge said, “Thou liest; thou are a Ciceronian, not a Christian. ’For where thy treasure is there will thy heart be also.’” When he cried for mercy, the sound of his voice was drowned out by the noise of the lash; and he was pardoned only when he swore never again to read the works of pagan authors.
Jerome stayed in the desert for five years, slowly inuring himself to its torments. “I remember that often I joined night to day with my wailings and ceased not from beating my breast till tranquility returned to me at the Lord’s behest.” He was not a member of a community, but there were other monks in the vicinity, and when he could not by fasting overcome “the promptings of sin and the ardent heat of my nature,” he put himself in the hands of a converted Jew and learned Hebrew. “How often I despaired, how often I gave up and then in my eagerness to learn began again . . . those can testify who were then living with me. I thank the Lord that from a bitter seed of learning I am now plucking sweet fruits.” He also wrote letters, including one to his close friend, Heliodorus, who had accompanied him to the desert but after a while had returned to civilization. “Why are you such a timid Christian?” Jerome writes. “Are you looking for an inheritance in this world, you who are a joint-heir with Christ? Consider the meaning of the word monk [monachos, solitary], your proper designation. What are you, a solitary, doing in a crowd?” Heliodorus was ordained a presbyter and later was made a bishop, and his friendship with Jerome continued. Jerome was himself ordained when he left the desert, and he came to look on organized monastic life as a kind of seminary for the secular clergy.
Reconciled, it seems, to the fact that he was temperamentally unsuited to the solitary life, Jerome, as a counselor, concerned himself largely with the question of how one can be in the world and not of the world, how, in Paul’s words, he can “use the world as not abusing it” (1 Cor. 7:31). Writing in the satiric vein common in the classical world, he often approaches this question by portraying false Christians. There are priests, he says, who at home never had anything to eat but millet and coarse bread but who now dine so well that they know the names of every kind of fish, can tell on what coast an oyster was gathered, and have learned to prize a dish solely on its rarity and cost. Other priests he portrays as...
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