I’m picking up where I left off with Caesaria and Radegund, but going back in time, heading to the beginning of the 5th century…
Radegund and Caesaria were part of a larger movement sweeping through the church, a movement that would shape the contours of the Western Church for several centuries. The principles of this monastic movement were forged in the deserts of the East, in Egypt and Palestine. Their communication to the Latin-speaking West begins with the great translator Jerome. Jerome is one of those teachers known as the “Church Fathers”; from this term, “Fathers” (pater in Latin) we derive the label for both the kind of theology that they did and the period in which they wrote: patristic. The patristic period is usually defined as the first five or six centuries after Christ and these writers receive special emphasis in certain church circles because they lived within the same fundamental thought-world as the very first Christians. They existed within that Greco-Roman milieu that brought the church to birth and were native inhabitants of the languages and customs in which the church arose. For centuries, then, especially since the rise of historical consciousness in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Church Fathers have held a special status because they still lived on the far side of what Lessing referred to as the great ditch of history that separates our present age from the time of Jesus, his disciples, and the first generations of the Church.
One of the questions that has arisen in recent years, though, asks the very obvious question: where were the women? If we revere the writing and thinking of the Church Fathers—where were the Church Mothers? What were they writing or thinking or doing? Despite some of our conceptions about the place of women in the Late Antique world, there were women writing works of theology and spirituality; one of them—Proba—will appear later within the circle of Cassiodorus. What we learn from Jerome and his letters, though, is that large sections of the work of the Church Fathers would never have been accomplished if it were not for the encouragement, support, and considerable financial assistance of the Church Mothers.
In particular, Jerome lived and worked in close relationship with a set of interrelated families guided by wealthy Roman matriarchs. While we have letters that Jerome wrote to popes and theologians, most of his letters were written to these women and their relations. He served them as a spiritual advisor and as a translator. Most of the biblical commentaries for which Jerome is known were either written by him or translated from Greek sources at the behest of three women in particular, Paula, Eustochium, and Marcella. Paula was the great matriarch of the XXX clan. Widowed at age ? After bearing five children, she embraced the new ascetic spirituality coming from the East, fostering it among her children and grandchildren, before embracing it wholeheartedly to the point where she moved to Bethlehem to build and then rule the women in the double monastery where Jerome would also live and work.
One of our best windows into the lives of the Church Mothers are the letters of Jerome where he described how they served God. Among his many letters, some are explicitly formational. In these works he lays out a vision for how exemplary members of the various roles within the church ought to be educated and behave. Other letters are encomia, letters of praise written to grieving family members on the death of a loved one, recounting their fame, their virtues, and their qualities. These tend to be somewhat idealized portraits—Jerome is likely exaggerating to a degree—but still provide valuable insights into how the devout women of the period lived and served. The letters that appear back-to-back with modern editions of Jerome’s letters neatly encapsulate the advice he gave and what he witnessed in the lives of the great Mothers of the Church and the emphasis that he and they placed upon the psalms. The three themes we found in Caesaria’s letter to Radegund, the centrality of the psalms, the importance of literacy, and the connection between the psalms and the gospels are found within these letters as well. The first is Letter 107, written to Laeta, the daughter-in-law of the matriarch Paula who wishes to raise her daughter (also named Paula after her grandmother) as a virgin of the church. The second is Letter 108 is his encomium of Paula upon her death, written to her grieving daughter Eustochium.
Letter 107 is a broadly directive letter giving Laeta directions in a host of areas about the best way to raise her little daughter for her role as a virgin within the church. He gives instruction on what sort of friends and maids she is to have, and what kinds of toys she is to be given to play with. In particular, Jerome is very insistent upon the importance of literacy—literacy with a clear purpose:
Get for her a set of letters made of boxwood or of ivory and called each by its proper name. Let her play with these, so that even her play may teach her something. And not only make her grasp the right order of the letters and see that she forms their names into a rhyme, but constantly disarrange their order and put the last letters in the middle and the middle ones at the beginning that she may know them all by sight as well as by sound. Moreover, so soon as she begins to use the styl[us] upon the wax, and her hand is still faltering, either guide her soft fingers by laying your hand upon hers, or else have simple copies cut upon a tablet; so that her efforts confined within these limits may keep to the lines traced out for her and not stray outside of these. Offer prizes for good spelling and draw her onwards with little gifts such as children of her age delight in. . . . The very words which she tries bit by bit to put together and to pronounce ought not to be chance ones, but names specially fixed upon and heaped together for the purpose, those for example of the prophets or the apostles or the list of patriarchs from Adam downwards as it is given by Matthew and Luke. In this way while her tongue will be well-trained, her memory will be likewise developed.
Jerome advises that the young Paula be taught to read and write from the earliest age, and focused upon the Scriptures. The training of the memory is important and Jerome will become even more specific about how that facility ought to be put to use: “And let it be her task daily to bring to you the flowers which she has culled from scripture. Let her learn by heart so many verses in the Greek, but let her be instructed in the Latin also.” Because the Scriptures were found in Latin and Greek, Jerome thinks it best for her to have equal command of both languages.
While Jerome wants little Paula to memorize pieces of Scripture every day, this discovery ought to take place within a clear program for biblical knowledge. There is a specific order that Jerome believes best for encountering and understanding the many parts of Scripture:
Let her treasures be not silks or gems but manuscripts of the holy scriptures; and in these let her think less of gilding, and Babylonian parchment, and arabesque patterns, than of correctness and accurate punctuation. Let her begin by learning the psalter, and then let her gather rules of life out of the proverbs of Solomon. From the Preacher [Ecclesiastes] let her gain the habit of despising the world and its vanities. Let her follow the example set in Job of virtue and of patience. Then let her pass on to the gospels never to be laid aside when once they have been taken in hand. Let her also drink in with a willing heart the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles. As soon as she has enriched the storehouse of her mind with these treasures, let her commit to memory the prophets, the heptateuch [the first seven books of the Bible], the books of Kings and of Chronicles, the rolls also of Ezra and Esther. When she has done all these she may safely read the Song of Songs but not before: for, were she to read it at the beginning, she would fail to perceive that, though it is written in fleshly words, it is a marriage song of a spiritual bridal. And not understanding this she would suffer hurt from it. Let her avoid all apocryphal writings, and if she is led to read such not by the truth of the doctrines which they contain but out of respect for the miracles contained in them; let her understand that they are not really written by those to whom they are ascribed, that many faulty elements have been introduced into them, and that it requires infinite discretion to look for gold in the midst of dirt. Cyprian’s writings let her have always in her hands. The letters of Athanasius and the treatises of Hilary she may go through without fear of stumbling. Let her take pleasure in the works and wits of all in whose books a due regard for the faith is not neglected. But if she reads the works of others let it be rather to judge them than to follow them.
This is nothing less than a full program of instruction, moving through the Scriptures and also through the most important writings of the orthodox Church Fathers. Many clergy have a worse education than that which Jerome prescribes for this little girl! Note, though, the sequence in which the Bible is studied. Jerome insists that she begin with the Psalms. After the Psalm come the wisdom literature of the Old Testament; immediately thereafter she is presented with the Gospels “never to be laid aside.” Let’s also note his intention in directing her to these books. As he mentions in connection with the prophets, he is not intend solely that she read them—he expects that large portions (if not the totality) be committed to memory.
The Psalms are the first books to be encountered, the first books to be learned. That is because they will form a central aspect of little Paula’s devotions for the rest of her life. Jerome prescribes the round of what would become the standardized Divine Office as the monastic movement matured:
She ought to rise at night to recite prayers and psalms; to sing hymns in the morning; at the third, sixth, and ninth hours to take her place in the line to do battle for Christ; and, lastly, to kindle her lamp and to offer her evening sacrifice. In these occupations let her pass the day, and when night comes let it find her still engaged in them. Let reading follow prayer with her, and prayer again succeed to reading. Time will seem short when employed on tasks so many and so varied.
All of these hours of prayer are, as the first mention intimates, sessions with the Psalms. Every day, at every point of the day, she is to pause and sing psalms to God. Not only will this habit form her in worship, it will also ensure that the psalms become a central vocabulary of both thought and praise.
If Jerome’s Letter 107 describes what he thinks the ideal monastic upbringing looks like, Letter 108 is an ideal depiction of the monastic life well lived. He describes the elder Paula’s life in glowing terms and, though no doubt exaggerating a bit, cannot be too far from the mark as he writes to her own daughter who lived with her and succeeded her as head of the women’s monastery in Bethlehem. This is a very lengthy letter not least because he gives a description of Paula’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land in excruciating detail. After describing this journey, and the generosity of Paula, he describes how she ordered the double monastery that she built. Although the women were dived into three groups along class lines, they all worshiped together: “At dawn, at the third, sixth, and ninth hours, at evening, and at midnight they recited the psalter each in turn. No sister was allowed to be ignorant of the psalms, and all had every day to learn a certain portion of the holy scriptures.” The memorization that Jerome enjoined on the younger Paula is affirmed in his depiction of the elder Paula: “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 raised within her soul.” At the center of these remained the Psalms. While the memorization of Scripture in both Latin and Greek is mention in the Letter 107, both Paula and her daughter Eustochium took it one step further when it came to the Psalms. Jerome writes:
I will mention here another fact which to those who are envious may well seem incredible. While I myself beginning as a young man have with much toil and effort partially acquired the Hebrew tongue and study it now unceasingly lest if I leave it, it also may leave me; Paula, on making up her mind that she too would learn it, succeeded so well that she could chant the psalms in Hebrew and could speak the language without a trace of the pronunciation peculiar to Latin. The same accomplishment can be seen to this day in her daughter Eustochium. . .
Jerome could hardly be exaggerating here; as he was writing the letter to Eustochium herself (as well as for a larger audience), he could hardly make up the fact that she and her mother both had the psalms memorized in Hebrew!
Jerome’s letters 107 and 108 became important sources for the monastic movement in the West. The educational program and the ideal of the ascetic life that he puts forth in his directions for the younger Paula and the depiction of the life of the elder Paula were to inspire generations of Christians for centuries. It’s quite likely that these very letters gave inspiration to Caesaria and Radegund as they administered convents of their own. And, again, at the center is the constant experience of the psalms, the literacy necessary to dig the most out of them, and the connection between the psalms and the person of Jesus revealed in the gospels.