Cafe Post and Jerome’s Ascetic Writing

I have a new piece up at the Cafe. I wrote it while in the midst of researching and writing a conference paper that I gave a few weeks ago at the instigation of Larry who then had the nerve not to show up… My retaliation was to promptly not save the file with its final pages (whoops!) which, Larry, is why I never sent it along.

In any case, here’s the first half of the paper that prompted that reflection. My topic was doing a comparison of two texts, Aelfric of Eynsham’s Letter to Sigeweard and Jerome’s Letter 53 to Paulinus of Nola; this part contains the first half on Jerome. The second half was the part on Aelfric which I’ll need to somehow reconstruct…

Both Ælfric of Eynsham and Saint Jerome are known for their biblical work. Jerome who died in 420 is, of course, best known as the translator and editor of the Vulgate, the Latin version of the Scriptures that would serve the church as the authoritative version of the Bible through the medieval period. Too, the commentaries from Jerome’s pen—whether his own work or translations and adaptations of Origen—further confirmed his place as one of the greatest interpreters of the Patristic period.

Likewise, Ælfric of Eynsham is responsible for turning large swathes of Scripture into English usually in the form of paraphrase rather than direct translation, and his many exegetical homilies and other general works kept alive the orthodox interpretation of Scripture, standing firm on its patristic roots, in the otherwise chaotic environment of the Old English homilies.

So—both of these authors are known for their command of Scripture. Both of them are known for their interpretation of Scripture and, it turns out, both of them wrote letters that serve as comprehensive introductions to the biblical canon. But here’s the kicker—in neither case were these written primarily as interpretive works. Instead, they were written as letters of ascetic instruction to nobility. The books of the Bible and the fundamental structures of Scripture are presented for a purpose: for the sake of instruction in the Christian life which, for Jerome and Ælfric is, fundamentally, the ascetic life.

Let’s turn to Jerome first.

The standard collection of Jerome’s letters contains a round 150, including a few at the end that are either suspect or spurious. Of these, 21 are specifically letters of ascetic instruction. The majority of these are written to an extended family with whom Jerome has carried on an extensive correspondence on a whole host of matters; the Paula and Eustochium to whom many of Jerome’s letters were addressed were members of this family. Based on the relationships that Jerome had with them, we can subdivide these 21 ascetical letters into two further categories.

Seventeen of these are treatises, exhortations to the ascetic life. In fact, Jerome explicitly refers to them as such and, towards the end of Letter 130 which he wrote to Demetrias in 414, he makes the following comments: “It is about thirty years since I published a treatise on the preservation of virginity in which I felt constrained to oppose certain vices and to lay bare the wiles of the devil for the instruction of the virgin to whom it was addressed. . . . I have also written short exhortations to several virgins and widows, and in these smaller works I have gathered together all that there is to be said on the subject.” (And there’s Jerome’s characteristic modesty there at the end…) For the most part the various letters treat a number of set topics: he talks about how one should and shouldn’t dress, what level of fasting is appropriate. How you should conduct yourself around people of the opposite sex, what sort of companions and servants you ought to have, the importance of disposing of your property, and the nature of the life of prayer and study to which you are called.

I’ll highlight three as being particularly exceptional and indeed, Jerome himself in his correspondence refers several times to the first two. The first is letter 22 to Eustochium. He calls her the “first virgin of noble birth in Rome” and whether that’s a historical reality or a rhetorical flourish it’s hard to tell—knowing Jerome, I’d guess the latter myself. In any case this is a very thorough letter describing what the life of virginity is supposed to look like and includes the famous passage where he dreams that Christ accuses him of being a Ciceronian rather than a Christian. In any case, this is the text that he refers as “the treatise on the preservation of virginity” in the quote I just read.

The second is letter 52 to Nepotian written in 394 on the life of the clergy. Again, Jerome saw this letter as his grand statement on clerical life and refers to it in his correspondence, refer other clergy and bishops back to this text.

The third is letter 107 to Laeta who was the daughter-in-law of Paula and sister-in-law of Eustochium. Laeta had decided to raise her daughter, also named Paula, as a consecrated virgin and asks Jerome for his advice on how to do this. He responds with this letter in 403 which lays out a whole plan of education and a course of conduct for little Paula. For an author who’s frequently judged as being misogynistic, it’s fascinating to see how large a role education and literacy play in this process down to his recommendation that she start playing with alphabet blocks as soon as possible so she can begin learning how to read and then to write.

So—of these 21 ascetic letters, 17 are best defined as treatises, exhortations to the ascetic life. The remaining 4 are encomia written to relatives on the death of these ascetics. So, Letter 52 contains instructions to Nepotian on how a cleric should live; Letter 60 is addressed to his uncle the bishop Heliodorus on the occasion of Nepotian’s death. So, here Jerome praises the dead and, in looking back over a life well lived uses this as an opportunity to both remember them to their relative and to memorialize them as a model of ascetic life. Thus, we get a very idealized image of the dead that tells us just as much about Jerome’s ascetic ideals as it does the dead person themselves.

So it’s these ascetic writings that serve as the fundamental context for Jerome’s letter 53 to Paulinus of Nola in 394. Paulinus was a wealthy senator of the best education and credentials and he had just been ordained by force in Spain that year. He had some ascetic tendencies but Jerome sought to reinforce those very much in this Letter 53 which appears to be Jerome’s first letter to him, sent in response to a letter that Paulinus had sent to him requesting advice.

At the very outset of the letter, Jerome thanks Paulinus for the little gifts that he had sent along with his letter, then says this: “A true intimacy cemented by Christ Himself is not one which depends upon material considerations, or upon the presence of the persons, or upon and insincere and exaggerated flattery; but one such as ours, wrought by a common fear of God and a joint study of the divine Scriptures.” He then draws on a whole host of examples of both classical scholars and biblical characters who travelled great distances to attain knowledge. He sharpens his point with the observation that “want of education in a clergyman prevents him from doing good to anyone but himself and, much as the virtue of his life may build up Christ’s church, he does it an injure as great by failing to resist those who are trying to pull it down.” It’s not enough to be virtuous. You have to use knowledge to refute the heresies that threaten the church.

Jerome then goes through a whole chain of passages that emphasize that getting wisdom is difficult and hidden.  Jerome writes, “These instances have just been touched upon by me (the limits of a letter forbid a more discursive treatment of them) to convince you that in the holy scriptures you can make no progress unless you have a guide to show you the way.” The pay-off here is that it doesn’t matter how smart you are, when it comes to Scripture you need direction.

Let me be real clear on one point here—Jerome is clearly denying from his perspective a Reformation-notion of the perpecuity of the Scriptures which suggests that the meaning of the Scriptures is plain and accessible to anyone who is reading in the Holy Spirit. Instead, he’s balancing in the middle of two interrelated theological controversies—the fight against Origenism (or more specifically, the teasing out of what Origen got wrong and what Origen got right) and the Anthropomorphic controversy which, in reaction to an overly subtle Origenism took the opposite road into a naïve literalism. Jerome is thoroughly invested in Origen’s hermeneutics and categories which assert that the primary meaning of the Scriptures, especially the Old Testament is at the Spiritual level of the text and that can only be discern through training.

Jerome’s rehearsal of the books of Scripture follow. While he begins by making references to the contents of each Scriptural book, then gives some basic fundamental directions as to where the spiritual and/or typological level of the book can be found. For instance he writes the following concerning Leviticus: “The meaning of Leviticus is of course self-evident, although every sacrifice that it describes, nay more every word that it contains, the description of Aaron’s vestments, and all of the regulations connected with the Levites are symbols of things heavenly!” So it’s completely self-evident but it all points to heavenly symbols. Clearly, Jerome and I mean two different things by the word self-evident!

Another example regards the books labeled today as 1 and 2nd Kings: “The 3rd and 4th books of Kings called in Hebrew Maláchim give the history of the kingdom of Judah from Solomon to Jeconiah, and of that of Israel from Jeroboam the son of Nebat to Hoshea who was carried away into Assyria. If you merely regard the narrative, the words are simple enough, but if you look beneath the surface at the hidden meaning of it, you find a description of the small numbers of the church and of the wars which the heretics wage against it.”

So, what he’s doing here is giving Paulinus a set of hermeneutical skeleton keys—they’re the briefest outline of pointers towards unlocking the spiritual meaning of text where the meat really lies.

After going through all of the canon, then Jerome concludes the letter with a more or less standard exhortation for Paulinus to divest himself of this wealth. Sell what you’ve got and give it to the poor—you can’t be a real Christian if you’re tied to your possessions.

So, the leetr’s overall shape is a quick intro, an exhortation on the difficulty in searching out wisdom, a sketch of the canon with hermeneutical pointers to the spiritual sense of the text, and a concluding exhortation to holy poverty and alms-giving.

The rhetorical function of the canon list here is to point Paulinus to the real meaning of the Scriptures, to the spiritually beneficial contents and some basic directions on what that is and how to dig it out. Does Jerome believe that Paulinus is going to go and read through all of these books? Absolutely yes, no question. He exhorts him to “live among these books, to meditate upon them, to know nothing else, to seek nothing else.” And this is entirely in line with his understanding of the ascetic life. To be an ascetic is to be saturated in the text of the Scriptures and to understand its spiritual meanings. In his letter to Laeta, he lays down for her the order in which little Paula should begin memorizing the books of Scripture. Not reading, memorizing. As he writes to Eustochium, “Read often, learn all that you can. Let sleep overcome you, the roll still in your hands; when your head falls, let it be on the sacred page.” As he eulogizes Paula, Eustochium’s mother he writes, “The holy Scriptures she knew by heart, and said of the history contained in them that it was the foundation of the truth; but, though she loved even this, she still preferred to seek for the underlying spiritual meaning and made this the keystone of the spiritual building she raised within her soul.” Again in Jerome’s second letter to Paulinis, written a year later while it largely goes over the ascetic principles for the letter to Nepotian hits again the necessity of reading Scripture and the necessity of grasping the Spiritual sense. He says, rephrasing Paul, “This veil rests not only on the face of Moses, but on the evangelists and apostles as well.” So it’s only through spiritual exegesis that proper reading happens.

So, to sum up Jerome here, for Jerome, meditation on the written word of Scripture is central to the ascetic life and calling. Origenist principles of sacred reading are fundamentally required to get the deepest meanings out of Scripture. Thus Jerome’s rehearsal of the canon to Paulinus focuses on directing him to where these readings can be found.

(To be continued…)