Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Crotchety Old Saint

One of the Renaissance Popes, standing before a painting of St. Jerome who was clothed in sackcloth and holding a rock with which to beat his chest, observed that it was fitting that Jerome held that stone because without it one could hardly consider him a saint!

Jerome was a complex man. Born c. 342 in Stridonius, a small town at the head of the Adriatic Sea, his full name was Eusebius Hieronymus Sophronius. He was well-instructed in the Christian faith by his family, then sent off to Rome for grammar and rhetoric. His native tongue was the Illyrian dialect, but he became fluent in both Greek and Latin and read widely. He apparently wasn't a bad speaker and could even have become a lawyer. As a young man he enjoyed life and cooled down a bit in his earlier religious fervor. Nevertheless, Pope Liberius baptized him at age 18, and Jerome himself attests that he and his friends used to visit the tombs of the Apostles and martyrs on Sundays. He enjoyed deciphering the inscriptions on the walls of the catacombs!

He and a boyhood friend, Bonosus, travelled to his native Aquileia where he made friends with some of the monks in the monastery there, especially Rufinus. From there they went on to Gaul, landing in Trier (Trèves), and it was here that Jerome decided to devote himself wholly to God. He spent a number of years in scholarly studies and copying texts, eventually ending up back in Aquileia. In the late 4th century, he decided to go East, passing through Athens, Bithynia, Galatia, Pontus, Cappadocia, and Cilicia, arriving in 373 at Antioch. He and the three friends who accompanied him stayed in the city only a short time, then relocated to the desert of Chalcis, about 50 miles southeast of Antioch. Jerome stayed there four years, studying and practicing austerity. He befriended a monk who had been a Jew and who became his mentor in the study of Hebrew. Later he spoke of how hard it was to learn "...this language of hissing and broken-winded words. What labor it cost me, what difficulties I went through, how often I despaired and left off, and how I began to learn again..." Along with this, he faced the human challenges of every person who has ever embarked upon the eremitical life, as his letters to his friend, Eustochium, daughter of Paula, reflect: "...burnt up with the heat of the sun, so scorching that it frightens even the monks who live there, I seemed to myself to be in the midst of the delights and crowds of Rome...In this exile and prison to which through fear of Hell I had voluntarily condemned myself, with no other company but scorpions and wild beasts, I many times imagined myself watching the dancing of Roman maidens as if I had been in the midst of them. My face was pallid with fasting, yet my will felt the assaults of desire...I threw myself in spirit at the feet of Jesus, watering them with my tears, and tamed my flesh by fasting whole weeks..."

Jerome moved among some of the greatest Christian writers and leaders of that era. He and Augustine of Hippo were buddies and shared many mutually-praising letters back and forth. He knew Ambrose. He knew the famous Cappadocian Fathers: Basil; Gregory Nazianzus, under whose tutelage he studied Scripture in Constantinople in the 380's; and Gregory of Nyssa. While back in Rome after leaving Constantinople, Jerome attended a council of Pope Damasus, who was so impressed with him that, after the council, Damasus appointed Jerome as his secretary. Damasus then asked Jerome to undertake a complete new translation of the Gospels and the Psalter into Latin from the Greek and Latin. Along with this project, he also took under his wing a new group of Roman ladies of nobility who had become Christian ascetics, a number of whom were later canonized saints, notably St. Paula. Jerome was particularly close to the latter and to her two daughters, Blesilla and Eustochium.

For all his reputation for holiness and asceticism and great learning, Jerome also had another, less pleasant side. He made a lot of enemies, both of folks whom he had condemned, as well as Christians of taste and tolerance. They were often turned off by Jerome's biting sarcasm and even ruthlessness in taking people to task. One example, and my personal favorite, is Jerome's diatribe against worldly women who, he says, "...paint their cheeks with rouge and their eyelids with antimony, whose plastered faces, too white for human beings, look like idols; and if in a moment of forgetfulness they shed a tear it makes a furrow where it rolls down the painted cheek; women to whom years do not bring the gravity of age, who load their heads with other people's hair, enamel a lost youth upon the wrinkles of age, and affect a maidenly timidity in the midst of a troop of grandchildren..." Yowser!! He surely wouldn't have had any stock in Maybelline or Revlon! Methinks he and the likes of Joan Rivers or Phyllis Diller might not have hit it off too well!

Jerome's scorn wasn't limited to women. Certain men of the Roman clergy got their equal opportunity for scorn also: "...All their anxiety is about their clothes...You would take them for bridegrooms rather than for clerics; all they think about is knowing the names and houses and doings of rich ladies..." Ouch! And that didn't even include their fancy vestments!

Jerome, honestly, really overdid it: whether in person or in his correspondence, and even though, most of the time, his criticisms were somewhat valid. As you might guess, no mercy was wasted upon Jerome in return. His reputation was attacked by various and sundry people. They didn't like his bluntness; they didn't even like the way he walked or the way he smiled! Jerome, especially because of his association with the ladies under his direction, was the object of scandalous chatter. Jerome finally got fed up with it all, and left Rome in August, 385, to go back East. With the help of Paula and some of the other women who also left to go to the Holy Land, Jerome established a monastery for men near the place of Christ's birth in Bethlehem, as well as houses for three women's communities.

In this more peaceful phase of Jerome's life, things were good, and Jerome waxed bucolically: "...Here bread and herbs, planted with our own hands, and milk, all country fare, furnish us plain and healthy food. In summer the trees give us shade. In autumn the air is cool and the falling leaves restful. In spring our psalmody is sweeter for the singing of the birds. We have plenty of wood when winter snow and cold are upon us. Let Rome keep its crowds, let its arenas run with blood, its circuses go mad, its theaters wallow in sensuality..." Jerome continued his study and writing, especially as need arose when others challenged various Church teachings: Mary's virginity after Jesus' birth; clerical celibacy; the veneration of saints' relics; the teachings of Origen, etc. He also hired Bar Ananias, a distinguished Jewish scholar who helped him continue his Hebrew studies. This inspired him to tackle the translation of most of the books of the Hebrew Scriptures from the original. In the process he even studied Chaldaic. The fruit of his many years of scholarly labor on the Latin translation of the Scriptures came to be known as The Vulgate [versio vulgata = a commonly used translation], adopted by the Council of Trent in the 16th century as the authentic and authoritive Church text.

Jerome's dear friend, Paula, died in 404 and six years later he learned of Alaric the Goth's sack of the city of Rome. He grew more and more distraught as refugees from Rome wandered eastward. He was, at the time, working on a commentary on Ezekiel, but as he himself notes: "...I have put aside my commentary on Ezekiel and almost all study. For today we must translate the precepts of the Scriptures into deeds; instead of speaking saintly words, we must act them..." Not long after, around 418, Jerome fell ill. By this time he was worn out from from his work, his austerity, his sadness. His sight and voice were rapidly failing, his body little more than a shadow. At age 78 he died peacefully on September 30, 420. Initially Jerome was buried under the basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. In the 13th century his remains were moved to the Sistine Chapel of the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Had I done my homework better when I visited Santa Maria Maggiore in 1998, I could have visited the Crypt of the Nativity or Bethlehem Crypt where Jerome is buried. Perhaps next time! Especially since I'm as crotchety an old man sometimes as he was!

Things I didn't know about St. Jerome:
- he introduced the "Alleluia" chant into the Sunday Mass
- he's largely responsible for the daily celebration of the Divine Office
- he was the one who wrote the following famous lines. Jerome wrote this to Pope Damasus as part of his passionate declaration of his loyalty to the Church and to the Pope. The first sentence was drummed into every Catholic boy or girl of my era: "Outside the Church there is no salvation. Anyone outside the house of the Lamb is unclean; anyone outside the Church cannot be holy..." I had difficulty with that then, and certainly don't believe it now. Thank God, at least the good nuns at school only quoted the first sentence to us...!

As is often said, the saints are to be admired, but not always to be imitated. Sorry, Jerome: I have tremendous respect and admiration for you, but I still don't agree with you! But then, I can imagine Jerome's rejoinder in typical style: "Even if someone paints a picture of you wearing sackcloth and with a rock in your hand, I doubt that anyone would ever mistake you for a saint!" Touché!

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