Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series II/Volume VI/The Letters of St. Jerome/Letter 128

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Letter CXXVIII. To Gaudentius.

Gaudentius had written from Rome to ask Jerome’s advice as to the bringing up of his infant daughter; whom after the religious fashion of the day he had dedicated to a life of virginity. Jerome’s reply may be compared with his advice to Laeta (Letter CVII.) which it closely resembles. It is noticeable also for the vivid account which it gives of the sack of Rome by Alaric in a.d. 410. The date of the letter is a.d. 413.

1. It is hard to write to a little girl who cannot understand what you say, of whose mind you know nothing, and of whose inclinations it would be rash to prophesy. In the words of a famous orator “she is to be praised more for what she will be than for what she is.”[1] For how can you speak of self-control to a child who is eager for cakes, who babbles on her mother’s knee, and to whom honey is sweeter than any words? Will she hear the deep things of the apostle when all her delight is in nursery tales? Will she heed the dark sayings of the prophets when her nurse can frighten her by a frowning face? Or will she comprehend the majesty of the gospel, when its splendour dazzles the keenest intellect? Shall I urge her to obey her parents when with her chubby hand she beats her smiling mother? For such reasons as these my dear Pacatula must read some other time the letter that I send her now. Meanwhile let her learn the alphabet, spelling, grammar, and syntax. To induce her to repeat her lessons with her little shrill voice, hold out to her as rewards cakes and mead and sweetmeats.[2] She will make haste to perform her task if she hopes afterwards to get some bright bunch of flowers, some glittering bauble, some enchanting doll. She must also learn to spin, shaping the yarn with her tender thumb; for, even if she constantly breaks the threads, a day will come when she will no longer break them. Then when she has finished her lessons she ought to have some recreation. At such times she may hang round her mother’s neck, or snatch kisses from her relations. Reward her for singing psalms that she may love what she has to learn. Her task will then become a pleasure to her and no compulsion will be necessary.

2. Some mothers when they have vowed a daughter to virginity clothe her in sombre garments, wrap her up in a dark cloak, and let her have neither linen nor gold ornaments. They wisely refuse to accustom her to what she will afterwards have to lay aside. Others act on the opposite principle. “What is the use,” say they, “of keeping such things from her? Will she not see them with others? Women are fond of finery and many whose chastity is beyond question dress not for men but for themselves. Give her what she asks for, but shew her that those are most praised who ask for nothing. It is better that she should enjoy things to the full and so learn to despise them than that from not having them she should wish to have them.” “This,” they continue, “was the plan which the Lord adopted with the children of Israel. When they longed for the fleshpots of Egypt He sent them flights of quails and allowed them to gorge themselves until they were sick.[3] Those who have once lived worldly lives more readily forego the pleasures of sense than such as from their youth up have known nothing of desire.” For while the former—so they argue—trample on what they know, the latter are attracted by what is to them unknown. While the former penitently shun the insidious advances which pleasure makes, the latter coquet with the allurements of sense and fancying them to be as sweet as honey find them to be deadly poison. They quote the passage which says that “the lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb;”[4] which is sweet indeed in the eater’s mouth but is afterwards found more bitter than gall.[5] This they argue, is the reason that neither honey nor wax is offered in the sacrifices of the Lord,[6] and that oil the product of the bitter olive is burned in His temple.[7] Moreover it is with bitter herbs that the passover is eaten,[8] and “with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”[9] He that receives these shall suffer persecution in the world. Wherefore the prophet symbolically sings: “I sat alone because I was filled with bitterness.”[10]

3. What then, I reply? Is youth to run riot that self-indulgence may afterwards be more resolutely rejected? Far from it, they rejoin: “let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide.[11] Is any called being circumcised,”—that is, as a virgin?—“let him not become uncircumcised”[12]—that is, let him not seek the coat of marriage given to Adam on his expulsion from the paradise of virginity.[13] “Is any called in uncircumcision,”—that is, having a wife and enveloped in the skin of matrimony? let him not seek the nakedness of virginity[14] and of that eternal chastity which he has lost once for all. No, let him “possess his vessel in sanctification and honour,”[15] let him drink of his own wells not out of the dissolute cisterns[16] of the harlots which cannot hold within them the pure waters of chastity.[17] The same Paul also in the same chapter, when discussing the subjects of virginity and marriage, calls those who are married slaves of the flesh, but those not under the yoke of wedlock freemen who serve the Lord in all freedom.[18]

What I say I do not say as universally applicable; my treatment of the subject is only partial. I speak of some only, not of all. However my words are addressed to those of both sexes, and not only to “the weaker vessel.”[19] Are you a virgin? Why then do you find pleasure in the society of a woman? Why do you commit to the high seas your frail patched boat, why do you so confidently face the great peril of a dangerous voyage? You know not what you desire, and yet you cling to her as though you had either desired her before or, to put it as leniently as possible, as though you would hereafter desire her. Women, you will say, make better servants than men. In that case choose a misshapen old woman, choose one whose continence is approved in the Lord. Why should you find pleasure in a young girl, pretty, and voluptuous? You frequent the baths, walk abroad sleek and ruddy, eat flesh, abound in riches, and wear the most expensive clothes; and yet you fancy that you can sleep safely beside a death-dealing serpent. You tell me perhaps that you do not live in the same house with her. This is only true at night. But you spend whole days in conversing with her. Why do you sit alone with her? Why do you dispense with witnesses? By so doing if you do not actually sin you appear to do so, and (so important is your influence) you embolden unhappy men by your example to do what is wrong. You too, whether virgin or widow, why do you allow a man to detain you in conversation so long? Why are you not afraid to be left alone with him? At least go out of doors to satisfy the wants of nature, and for this at any rate leave the man with whom you have given yourself more liberty than you would with your brother, and have behaved more immodestly than you would with your husband. You have some question, you say, to ask concerning the holy scriptures. If so, ask it publicly; let your maids and your attendants hear it. “Everything that is made manifest is light.”[20] He who says only what he ought does not look for a corner to say it in; he is glad to have hearers for he likes to be praised. He must be a fine teacher, on the other hand, who thinks little of men, does not care for the brothers, and labours in secret merely to instruct just one weak woman!

3a. I have wandered for a little from my immediate subject to discuss the procedure of others in such a case as yours; and while it is my object to train, nay rather to nurse, the infant Pacatula, I have in a moment drawn upon myself the hostility of many women who are by no means daughters of peace.[21] But I shall now return to my proper theme.

A girl should associate only with girls, she should know nothing of boys and should dread even playing with them. She should never hear an unclean word, and if amid the bustle of the household she should chance to hear one, she should not understand it. Her mother’s nod should be to her as much a command as a spoken injunction. She should love her as her parent, obey her as her mistress, and reverence her as her teacher. She is now a child without teeth and without ideas, but, as soon as she is seven years old, a blushing girl knowing what she ought not to say and hesitating as to what she ought, she should until she is grown up commit to memory the psalter and the books of Solomon; the gospels, the apostles and the prophets should be the treasure of her heart. She should not appear in public too freely or too frequently attend crowded churches. All her pleasure should be in her chamber. She must never look at young men or turn her eyes upon curled fops; and the wanton songs of sweet voiced girls which wound the soul through the ears must be kept from her. The more freedom of access such persons possess, the harder is it to avoid them when they come; and what they have once learned themselves they will secretly teach her and will thus contaminate our secluded Danaë by the talk of the crowd. Give her for guardian and companion a mistress and a governess, one not given to much wine or in the apostle’s words idle and a tattler, but sober, grave, industrious in spinning wool[22] and one whose words will form her childish mind to the practice of virtue. For, as water follows a finger drawn through the sand, so one of soft and tender years is pliable for good or evil; she can be drawn in whatever direction you choose to guide her. Moreover spruce and gay young men often seek access for themselves by paying court to nurses or dependants or even by bribing them, and when they have thus gently effected their approach they blow up the first spark of passion until it bursts into flame and little by little advance to the most shameless requests. And it is quite impossible to check them then, for the verse is proved true in their case: “It is ill rebuking what you have once allowed to become ingrained.”[23] I am ashamed to say it and yet I must; high born ladies who have rejected more high born suitors cohabit with men of the lowest grade and even with slaves. Sometimes in the name of religion and under the cloak of a desire for celibacy they actually desert their husbands in favour of such paramours. You may often see a Helen following her Paris without the smallest dread of Menelaus. Such persons we see and mourn for but we cannot punish, for the multitude of sinners procures tolerance for the sin.

4. The world sinks into ruin: yes! but shameful to say our sins still live and flourish. The renowned city, the capital of the Roman Empire, is swallowed up in one tremendous fire; and there is no part of the earth where Romans are not in exile. Churches once held sacred are now but heaps of dust and ashes; and yet we have our minds set on the desire of gain. We live as though we are going to die tomorrow; yet we build as though we are going to live always in this world.[24] Our walls shine with gold, our ceilings also and the capitals of our pillars; yet Christ dies before our doors naked and hungry in the persons of His poor. The pontiff Aaron, we read, faced the raging flames, and by putting fire in his censer checked the wrath of God. The High Priest stood between the dead and the living, and the fire dared not pass his feet.[25] On another occasion God said to Moses, “Let me alone.…that I may consume this people,”[26] shewing by the words “let me alone” that he can be withheld from doing what he threatens. The prayers of His servant hindered His power. Who, think you, is there now under heaven able to stay God’s wrath, to face the flame of His judgment, and to say with the apostle, “I could wish that I myself were accursed for my brethren”?[27] Flocks and shepherds perish together, because as it is with the people, so is it with the priest.[28] Of old it was not so. Then Moses spoke in a passion of pity, “yet now if thou wilt forgive their sin—; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book.”[29] He is not satisfied to secure his own salvation, he desires to perish with those that perish. And he is right, for “in the multitude of people is the king’s honour.”[30]

Such are the times in which our little Pacatula is born. Such are the swaddling clothes in which she draws her first breath; she is destined to know of tears before laughter and to feel sorrow sooner than joy. And hardly does she come upon the stage when she is called on to make her exit. Let her then suppose that the world has always been what it is now. Let her know nothing of the past, let her shun the present, and let her long for the future.

These thoughts of mine are but hastily mustered. For my grief for lost friends has known no intermission and only recently have I recovered sufficient composure to write an old man’s letter to a little child. My affection for you, brother Gaudentius, has induced me to make the attempt and I have thought it better to say a few words than to say nothing at all. The grief that paralyses my will will excuse my brevity; whereas, were I to say nothing, the sincerity of my friendship might well be doubted.


Footnotes[edit]

  1. Spes in ea magis laudanda est quam res. Cic. de Rep. Jerome again quotes the words in Letter CXXX. § 1.
  2. cf. Hor. 1 S. i. 25, 26.
  3. Numb. xi. 4, 20, 31.
  4. Prov. v. 3.
  5. Rev. x. 9, 10.
  6. Lev. ii. 11.
  7. Ex. xxvii. 20.
  8. Ex. xii. 8.
  9. 1 Cor. v. 8.
  10. Jer. xv. 17, LXX.
  11. 1 Cor. vii. 24.
  12. 1 Cor. vii. 18.
  13. Gen. iii. 21.
  14. Gen. iii. 25.
  15. 1 Thess. iv. 4.
  16. Jer. ii. 13, Cisternas dissipates.
  17. Prov. v. 15.
  18. 1 Cor. vii. 21, 22.
  19. 1 Pet. iii. 7.
  20. Eph. v. 13, R.V.
  21. Male pacatæ, a pun on Pacatula, which means ‘Little Peaceful.’
  22. Lanifica. Cf. the well-known epitaph on a Roman matron: “She stayed at home and spun wool.”
  23. Already quoted in Letter CVII. § 8.
  24. cf. Letter CXXIII. 15.
  25. Nu. xvi. 46–48, Vulg.
  26. Ex. xxxii. 10.
  27. Rom. ix. 3.
  28. Isa. xxiv. 2.
  29. Ex. xxxii. 32.
  30. Prov. xiv. 28.