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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 41. St. Jerome as a Monk.


S. Eus. Hieronymi: Opera omnia, ed. Erasmus (assisted by Oecolampadius), Bas. 1516–’20, 9 vols. fol.; ed. (Bened.) Martianay, Par. 1693–1706, 5 vols. fol. (incomplete); ed. Vallarsi and Maffei, Veron. 1734–’42, 11 vols. fol., also Venet. 1766 (best edition). Comp. especially the 150 Epistles, often separately edited (the chronological order of which Vallarsi, in tom. i. of his edition, has finally established).

For extended works on the life of Jerome see Du Pin (Nouvelle Biblioth. des auteurs Eccles. tom. iii. p. 100–140); Tillemont (tom. xii. 1–356); Martianay (La vie de St. Jerôme, Par. 1706); Joh. Stilting (in the Acta Sanctorum, Sept. tom. viii. p. 418–688, Antw. 1762); Butler (sub Sept. 30); Vallarsi (in Op. Hieron., tom. xi. p. 1–240); Schröckh (viii. 359 sqq., and especially xi. 3–254); Engelstoft (Hieron. Stridonensis, interpres, criticus, exegeta, apologeta, historicus, doctor, monachus, Havn. 1798); D. v. Cölln (in Ersch and Gruber’s Encycl. sect. ii. vol. 8); Collombet (Histoire de S. Jérôme, Lyons, 1844); and O. Zöckler (Hieronymus, sein Leben und Wirken. Gotha, 1865).


The most zealous promoter of the monastic life among the church fathers was Jerome, the connecting link between Eastern and Western learning and religion. His life belongs almost with equal right to the history of theology and the history of monasticism. Hence the church art generally represents him as a penitent in a reading or writing posture, with a lion and a skull, to denote the union of the literary and anchoretic modes of life. He was the first learned divine who not only recommended but actually embraced the monastic mode of life, and his example exerted a great influence in making monasticism available for the promotion of learning. To rare talents and attainments,352352   As he himself boasts in his second apology to Rufinus: “Ego philosophus(?), rhetor, grammaticus, dialecticus, hebraeus, graecus, latinus, trilinguis.” The celebrated Erasmus, the first editor of his works, and a very competent judge in matters of literary talent and merit, places Jeromeabove all the fathers, even St. Augustine(with whose doctrines of free grace and predestination he could not sympathize), and often gives eloquent expression to his admiration for him. In a letter to Pope Leo X. (Ep. ii. 1, quoted in Vallarsi’s ed. of Jerome’s works, tom. xi. 290), he says: “Divus Hieronymus sic apud Latinos est theologorum princeps, ut hunc prope solum habeamus theologi dignum nomine. Non quod caeteros damnem, sed quod illustres alioqui, si cum hoc conferantur, ob huius eminentiam velut obscurentur. Denique tot egregiis est cumulatus dotibus, ut vix ullum habeat et ipsa docta Graecia, quem cum hoc viro quest componere. Quantum in illo Romanae facundiae! quanta linguarum peritia! quanta omnis antiquitatis omnium historiarum notitia! quam fida memoria! quam felix rerum omnium mixtum! quam absoluta mysticarum literarum cognitio! super omnia, quis ardor ille, quam admirabilis divini pectoris afflatus? ut una et plurimum delectet eloquentia, et doceat eruditione, et rapiat sanctimonia.” indefatigable activity of mind, ardent faith, immortal merit in the translation and interpretation of the Bible, and earnest zeal for ascetic piety, he united so great vanity and ambition, such irritability and bitterness of temper, such vehemence of uncontrolled passion, such an intolerant and persecuting spirit, and such inconstancy of conduct, that we find ourselves alternately attracted and repelled by his character, and now filled with admiration for his greatness, now with contempt or pity for his weakness.

Sophronius Eusebius Hieronymus was born at Stridon,353353   Hence called Stridonensis; also in distinction from the contemporary but little known Greek Jerome, who was probably a presbyter in Jerusalem. on the borders of Dalmatia, not far from Aquileia, between the years 331 and 342.354354   Martianay, Stilting, Cave, Schröckh, Hagenbach, and others, place his birth, according to Prosper, Chron. ad ann. 331, in the year 331; Baronius, Du Pin, and Tillemont, with greater probability, in the year 342. The last infers from various circumstances, that Jeromelived, not ninety-one years, as Prosper states, but only seventy-eight. Vallarsi (t. xi. 8) places his birth still later, in the year 346. His death is placed in the year 419 or 420. He was the son of wealthy Christian parents, and was educated in Rome under the direction of the celebrated heathen grammarian Donatus, and the rhetorician Victorinus. He read with great diligence and profit the classic poets, orators, and philosophers, and collected a considerable library. On Sundays he visited, with Bonosus and other young friends, the subterranean graves of the martyrs, which made an indelible impression upon him. Yet he was not exempt from the temptations of a great and corrupt city, and he lost his chastity, as he himself afterward repeatedly acknowledged with pain.

About the year 370, whether before or after his literary tour to Treves and Aquileia is uncertain, but at all events in his later youth, he received baptism at Rome and resolved thenceforth to devote himself wholly, in rigid abstinence, to the service of the Lord. In the first zeal of his conversion he renounced his love for the classics, and applied himself to the study of the hitherto distasteful Bible. In a morbid ascetic frame, he had, a few years later, that celebrated dream, in which he was summoned before the judgment seat of Christ, and as a heathen Ciceronian,355355   “Mentiris,” said the Lord to him, when Jeromecalled himself a Christian, Ciceronianus es, non Christianus, ubi enim thesaurus tuus ibi et cor tuum.” Ep. xxii. ad Eustochium, “De custodia virginitatis ”(tom. i. p. 113). C. A. Heumann has written a special treatise, De ecstasi Hieronymi anti-Ciceroniana. Comp. also Schröckh, vol. vii. p. 35 sqq., and Ozanam: ” Civilisation au 5e Siècle,” i. 301. so severely reprimanded and scourged, that even the angels interceded for him from sympathy with his youth, and he himself solemnly vowed never again to take worldly books into his hands. When he woke, he still felt the stripes, which, as he thought, not his heated fancy, but the Lord himself had inflicted upon him. Hence he warns his female friend Eustochium, to whom several years afterward (a.d. 384) he recounted this experience, to avoid all profane reading: “What have light and darkness, Christ and Belial (2 Cor. vi. 14), the Psalms and Horace, the Gospels and Virgil, the Apostles and Cicero, to do with one another? ... We cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of the demons at the same time.”356356   Ep. xxii. ed. Vall. i. 112). But proper as this warning may be against overrating classical scholarship, Jerome himself, in his version of the Bible and his commentaries, affords the best evidence of the inestimable value of linguistic and antiquarian knowledge, when devoted to the service of religion. That oath, also, at least in later life, he did not strictly keep. On the contrary, he made the monks copy the dialogues of Cicero, and explained Virgil at Bethlehem, and his writings abound in recollections and quotations of the classic authors. When Rufinus of Aquileia, at first his warm friend, but afterward a bitter enemy, cast up to him this inconsistency and breach of a solemn vow, he resorted to the evasion that he could not obliterate from his memory what he had formerly read; as if it were not so sinful to cite a heathen author as to read him. With more reason he asserted, that all was a mere dream, and a dream vow was not binding. He referred him to the prophets, “who teach that dreams are vain, and not worthy of faith.” Yet was this dream afterward made frequent use of, as Erasmus laments, to cover monastic obscurantism.

After his baptism, Jerome divided his life between the East and the West, between ascetic discipline and literary labor. He removed from Rome to Antioch with a few friends and his library, visited the most celebrated anchorets, attended the exegetical lectures of the younger Apollinaris in Antioch, and then (374) spent some time as an ascetic in the dreary Syrian desert of Chalcis. Here, like so many other hermits, he underwent a grevious struggle with sensuality, which he described ten years after with indelicate minuteness in a long letter to his virgin friend Eustochium.357357   Ep. xxii. (i. p. 91, ed. Vallars.) In spite of his starved and emaciated body, his fancy tormented him with wild images of Roman banquets and dances of women; showing that the monastic seclusion from the world was by no means proof against the temptations of the flesh and the devil. Helpless he cast himself at the feet of Jesus, wet them with tears of repentance, and subdued the resisting flesh by a week of fasting and by the dry study of Hebrew grammar (which, according to a letter to Rusticus,358358   Ep. cxxv., ed. Vallars. (al. 95 or 4.) he was at that time learning from a converted Jew), until he found peace, and thought himself transported to the choirs of the angels in heaven. In this period probably falls the dream mentioned above, and the composition of several ascetic writings, full of heated eulogy of the monastic life.359359   De laude vitae solitariae, Ep. xiv. (tom. i. 28-36) ad Heliodorum. The Roman lady Fabiola learned this letter by heart, and Du Pin calls it a masterpiece of eloquence (Nouv. Bibl. des auteurs eccl. iii. 102), but it is almost too declamatory and turgid. He himself afterward acknowledged it overdrawn. His biographies of distinguished anchorets, however, are very pleasantly and temperately written.360360   Gibbon says of them: “The stories of Paul, Hilarion, and Malchus are admirably told; and the only defect of these pleasing compositions is the want of truth and common sense.” He commends monastic seclusion even against the will of parents; interpreting the word of the Lord about forsaking father and mother, as if monasticism and Christianity were the same. “Though thy mother”—he writes, in 373, to his friend Heliodorus, who had left him in the midst of his journey to the Syrian desert—“with flowing hair and rent garments, should show thee the breasts which have nourished thee; though thy father should lie upon the threshold; yet depart thou, treading over thy father, and fly with dry eyes to the standard of the cross. This is the only religion of its kind, in this matter to be cruel .... The love of God and the fear of hell easily, rend the bonds of the household asunder. The holy Scripture indeed enjoins obedience to parents; but he who loves them more than Christ, loses his soul .... O desert, where the flowers of Christ are blooming!. O solitude, where the stones for the new Jerusalem are prepared! O retreat, which rejoices in the friendship of God! What doest thou in the world, my brother, with thy soul greater than the world? How long wilt thou remain in the shadow of roofs, and in the smoky dungeon of cities? Believe me, I see here more of the light.”361361   Ep. xiv. (t. i. 29 sq.) Similar descriptions of the attractions of monastic life we meet with in the ascetic writings of Gregory, Basil, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Cassian, Nilus, and Isidor. “So great grace,” says the venerable monk Nilus of Mount Sinai, in the beginning of the fifth century (Ep. lib. i Ep. 1, as quoted by Neander, Am. ed. ii. 250), “so great grace his God bestowed on the monks, even in anticipation of the future world, that they wish for no honors from men, and feel no longing after the greatness of this world; but, on the contrary, often seek rather to remain concealed from men: while, on the other hand, many of the great, who possess all the glory of the world, either of their own accord, or compelled by misfortune, take refuge with the lowly monks, and, delivered from fatal dangers, obtain at once a temporal and an eternal salvation.” The eloquent appeal, however, failed of the desired effect; Heliodorus entered the teaching order and became a bishop.

The active and restless spirit of Jerome soon brought him again upon the public stage, and involved him in all the doctrinal and ecclesiastical controversies of those controversial times. He received the ordination of presbyter from the bishop Paulinus in Antioch, without taking charge of a congregation. He preferred the itinerant life of a monk and a student to a fixed office, and about 380 journeyed to Constantinople, where he heard the anti-Arian sermons of the celebrated Gregory Nazianzen, and translated the Chronicle of Eusebius and the homilies of Origen on Jeremiah and Ezekiel. In 382, on account of the Meletian schism, he returned to Rome with Paulinus and Epiphanius. Here he came into close connection with the bishop, Damasus, as his theological adviser and ecclesiastical secretary,362362   As we infer from a remark of Jeromein Ep. cxxiii. c. 10, written a. 409 (ed. Vallars. i. p. 901): “Ante annos plurimos, quum in chartis ecclesiasticis” (i.e. probably in ecclesiastical documents; though Schröckh, viii. p. 122, refers it to the Holy Scriptures, appealing to a work of Bonamici unknown to me), “juvarem Damasum, Romanae urbis episcopum, et orientis atque occidentis synodicis consultationibus responderem,” etc. The latter words, which Schröckh does not quote, favor the common interpretation. and was led by him into new exegetical labors, particularly the revision of the Latin version of the Bible, which he completed at a later day in the East.

At the same time he labored in Rome with the greatest zeal, by mouth and pen, in the cause of monasticism, which had hitherto gained very little foothold there, and met with violent opposition even among the clergy. He had his eye mainly upon the most wealthy and honorable classes of the decayed Roman society, and tried to induce the descendants of the Scipios, the Gracchi, the Marcelli, the Camilli, the Anicii to turn their sumptuous villas into monastic retreats, and to lead a life of self-sacrifice and charity. He met with great success. “The old patrician races, which founded Rome, which had governed her during all her period of splendor and liberty, and which overcame and conquered the world, had expiated for four centuries, under the atrocious yoke of the Caesars, all that was most hard and selfish in the glory of their fathers. Cruelly humiliated, disgraced, and decimated during that long servitude, by the masters whom degenerate Rome had given herself, they found at last in Christian life, such as was practised by the monks, the dignity of sacrifice and the emancipation of the soul. These sons of the old Romans threw themselves into it with the magnanimous fire and persevering energy which had gained for their ancestors the empire of the world. ’Formerly,’ says St. Jerome, ’according to the testimony of the apostles, there were few rich, few noble, few powerful among the Christians. Now it is no longer so. Not only among the Christians, but among the monks are to be found a multitude of the wise, the noble, and the rich.’... The monastic institution offered them a field of battle where the struggles and victories of their ancestors could be renewed and surpassed for a loftier cause, and over enemies more redoubtable. The great men whose memory hovered still over degenerate Rome had contended only with men, and subjugated only their bodies; their descendants undertook to strive with devils, and to conquer souls .... God called them to be the ancestors of a new people, gave them a new empire to found, and permitted them to bury and transfigure the glory of their forefathers in the bosom of the spiritual regeneration of the world.”363363   Montalembert, himself the scion of an old noble family in France, l.c. i. p. 388 sq. Comp. Hieron., Epist. lxvi. ad Pammachium, de obit. Paulinae (ed. Vallars. i. 391 sqq.).

Most of these distinguished patrician converts of Jerome were women—such widows as Marcella, Albinia, Furia, Salvina, Fabiola, Melania, and the most illustrious of all, Paula, and her family; or virgins, as Eustochium, Apella, Marcellina, Asella, Felicitas, and Demetrias. He gathered them as a select circle around him; he expounded to them the Holy Scriptures, in which some of these Roman ladies were very well read; he answered their questions of conscience; he incited them to celibate life, lavish beneficence, and enthusiastic asceticism; and flattered their spiritual vanity by extravagant praises. He was the oracle, biographer, admirer, and eulogist of these holy women, who constituted the spiritual nobility of Catholic Rome. Even the senator Pammachius, son in-law to Paula and heir to her fortune, gave his goods to the poor, exchanged the purple for the cowl, exposed himself to the mockery of his colleagues, and became, in the flattering language of Jerome, the general in chief of Roman monks, the first of monks in the first of cities.364364   In one of his Epist. ad Pammach.: “Primus inter monachos in prima urbe ... archistrategos monachorum.” Jerome considered second marriage incompatible with genuine holiness; even depreciated first marriage, except so far as it was a nursery of brides of Christ; warned Eustochium against all intercourse with married women; and hesitated not to call the mother of a bride of Christ, like Paula, a “mother-in-law of God.”365365   Ep. xxii. ad Eustochium, “de custodia virginitatis.” Even Rufinus was shocked at the profane, nay, almost blasphemous expression, socrus Dei, and asked him from what heathen poet he had stolen it.

His intimacy with these distinguished women, whom he admired more, perhaps, than they admired him, together with his unsparing attacks upon the immoralities of the Roman clergy and of the higher classes, drew upon him much unjust censure and groundless calumny, which he met rather with indignant scorn and satire than with quiet dignity and Christian meekness. After the death of his patron Damasus, a.d. 384, he left Rome, and in August, 385, with his brother Paulinian, a few monks, Paula, and her daughter Eustochium, made a pilgrimage “from Babylon to Jerusalem, that not Nebuchadnezzar, but Jesus, should reign over him.” With religious devotion and inquiring mind he wandered through the holy places of Palestine, spent some time in Alexandria, where he heard the lectures of the celebrated Didymus; visited the cells of the Nitrian mountain; and finally, with his two female friends, in 386, settled in the birthplace of the Redeemer, to lament there, as he says, the sins of his youth, and to secure himself against others.

In Bethlehem he presided over a monastery till his death, built a hospital for all strangers except heretics, prosecuted his literary studies without cessation, wrote several commentaries, and finished his improved Latin version of the Bible—the noblest monument of his life—but entangled himself in violent literary controversies, not only with opponents of the church orthodoxy like Helvidius (against whom he had appeared before, in 384), Jovinian, Vigilantius, and Pelagius, but also with his long-tried friend Rufinus, and even with Augustine.366366   His controversy with Augustineon the interpretation of Gal. ii. 14 is not unimportant as an index of the moral character of the two most illustrous Latin fathers of the church. Jeromesaw in the account of the collision between Paul and Peter, in Antioch, an artifice of pastoral prudence, and supposed that Paul did not there reprove the senior apostle in earnest, but only for effect, to reclaim the Jews from their wrong notions respecting the validity of the ceremonial law. Augustine’s delicate sense of truth was justly offended by this exegesis, which, to save the dignity of Peter, ascribed falsehood to Paul, and he expressed his opinion to Jerome, who, however, very loftily made him feel his smaller grammatical knowledge. But they afterward became reconciled. Comp. on this dispute the letters on both sides, in Hieron. Opera, ed. Vall. tom. i. 632 sqq., and the treatise of Möhler, in his ”Vermischte Schriften,” vol. i. p. 1-18. Palladius says, his jealousy could tolerate no saint beside himself, and drove many pious monks away from Bethlehem. He complained of the crowds of monks whom his fame attracted to Bethlehem.367367   “Tantis de toto orbe confluentibus obruimur turbis monachorum.” The remains of the Roman nobility, too, ruined by the sack of Rome, fled to him for food and shelter. At the last his repose was disturbed by incursions of the barbarian Huns and the heretical Pelagians. He died in 419 or 420, of fever, at a great age. His remains were afterward brought to the Roman basilica of Maria Maggiore, but were exhibited also and superstitiously venerated in several copies in Florence, Prague, Clugny, Paris, and the Escurial.368368   The Jesuit Stilting, the author of the Vita Hieron. in the Acta Sanctorum, devotes nearly thirty folio pages to accounts of the veneration paid to him and his relics after his death.

The Roman church has long since assigned him one of the first places among her standard teachers and canonical saints. Yet even some impartial Catholic historians venture to admit and disapprove his glaring inconsistencies and violent passions. The Protestant love of truth inclines to the judgment, that Jerome was indeed an accomplished and most serviceable scholar and a zealous enthusiast for all which his age counted holy, but lacking in calm self-control and proper depth of mind and character, and that he reflected, with the virtues, the failings also of his age and of the monastic system. It must be said to his credit, however, that with all his enthusiastic zeal and admiration for monasticism, he saw with a keen eye and exposed with unsparing hand the false monks and nuns, and painted in lively colors the dangers of melancholy, hypochondria, the hypocrisy and spiritual pride, to which the institution was exposed.369369   Most Roman Catholic biographers, as Martianay, Vallarsi, Stilting, Dolci, and even the Anglican Cave, are unqualified eulogists of Jerome. See also the “Selecta Veterum testimonia de Hieronymo ejusque scriptis,” in Vallarsi’s edition, tom. xi. pp. 282-300. Tillemont, however, who on account of his Jansenist proclivity sympathizes more with Augustine, makes a move toward a more enlightened judgment, for which Stilting sharply reproves him. Montalembert (l.c. i. 402) praises him as a man of genius, inspired by zeal and subdued by penitence, of ardent faith and immense resources of knowledge; yet he incidentally speaks also of his “almost savage impetuosity of temper,” and “that inexhaustible vehemence which sometimes degenerated into emphasis and affectation.” Dr. John H. Newman, in his opinion before his transition from Puseyism to Romanism, exhibits the conflict in which the moral feeling is here involved with the authority of the Roman Church: “I do not scruple to say, that, were he not a saint, there are things in his writings and views from which I should shrink; but as the case stands, I shrink rather from putting myself in opposition to something like a judgment of the catholic(?) world in favor of his saintly perfection.” (Church of the Fathers, 263, cited by Robertson.) Luther also here boldly broke through tradition, but, forgetful of the great value of the Vulgate even to his German version of the Bible, went to the opposite extreme of unjust derogation, expressing several times a distinct antipathy to this church father, and charging him with knowing not how to write at all of Christ, but only of fasts, virginity, and useless monkish exercises. Le Clerc exposed his defects with thorough ability, but unfairly, in his ”Quaestiones Hieronymianae“ (Amstel. 1700, over 500 pages). Mosheim and Schröckh are more mild, but the latter considers it doubtful whether Jeromedid Christianity more good than harm. Among later Protestant historians opinion has become somewhat more favorable, though rather to his learning than to his moral character, which betrays in his letters and controversial writings too many unquestionable weaknesses.



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