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Home > Fathers of the Church > Letters of St. Jerome > Letter 46

Letter 46

Paula and Eustochium to Marcella

Jerome writes to Marcella in the name of Paula and Eustochium, describing the charms of the Holy Land, and urging her to leave Rome and to join her old companions at Bethlehem. Much of the letter is devoted to disposing of the objection that since the Passion of Christ the Holy Land has been under a curse. The date of the letter is A.D. 386. It is written from Bethlehem, which now becomes Jerome's home for the remainder of his life.

1. Love cannot be measured, impatience knows no bounds, and eagerness can brook no delay. Wherefore we, oblivious of our weakness, and relying more on our will than our capacity, desire— pupils though we be— to instruct our mistress. We are like the sow in the proverb, which sets up to teach the goddess of invention. You were the first to set our tinder alight; the first, by precept and example, to urge us to adopt our present life. As a hen gathers her chickens, so did you take us under your wing. And will you now let us fly about at random with no mother near us? Will you leave us to dread the swoop of the hawk and the shadow of each passing bird of prey? Separated from you, we do what we can: we utter our mournful plaint, and more by sobs than by tears we adjure you to give back to us the Marcella whom we love. She is mild, she is suave, she is sweeter than the sweetest honey. She must not, therefore, be stern and morose to us, whom her winning ways have roused to adopt a life like her own.

2. Assuming that what we ask is for the best, our eagerness to obtain it is nothing to be ashamed of. And if all the Scriptures agree with our view, we are not too bold in urging you to a course to which you have yourself often urged us.

What are God's first words to Abraham? Get you out of your country and from your kindred unto a land that I will show you. Genesis 12:1 The patriarch— the first to receive a promise of Christ— is here told to leave the Chaldees, to leave the city of confusion and its rehoboth Genesis 10:11 or broad places; to leave also the plain of Shinar, where the tower of pride had been raised to heaven. He has to pass through the waves of this world, and to ford its rivers; those by which the saints sat down and wept when they remembered Zion, and Chebar's flood, whence Ezekiel was carried to Jerusalem by the hair of his head. Ezekiel 8:3 All this Abraham undergoes that he may dwell in a land of promise watered from above, and not like Egypt, from below, Deuteronomy 11:10 no producer of herbs for the weak and ailing, Romans 14:2 but a land that looks for the early and the latter rain from heaven. It is a land of hills and valleys, Deuteronomy 11:11 and stands high above the sea. The attractions of the world it entirely wants, but its spiritual attractions are for this all the greater. Mary, the mother of the Lord, left the lowlands and made her way to the hill country, when, after receiving the angel's message, she realized that she bore within her womb the Son of God. When of old the Philistines had been overcome, when their devilish audacity had been smitten, when their champion had fallen on his face to the earth, 1 Samuel 17:49 it was from this city that there went forth a procession of jubilant souls, a harmonious choir to sing our David's victory over tens of thousands. Here, too, it was that the angel grasped his sword, and while he laid waste the whole of the ungodly city, marked out the temple of the Lord in the threshing floor of Ornan, king of the Jebusites. Thus early was it made plain that Christ's church would grow up, not in Israel, but among the Gentiles. Turn back to Genesis, Genesis 14:18 and you will find that this was the city over which Melchizedek held sway, that king of Salem who, as a type of Christ, offered to Abraham bread and wine, and even then consecrated the mystery which Christians consecrate in the body and blood of the Saviour.

3. Perhaps you will tacitly reprove us for deserting the order of Scripture, and letting our confused account ramble this way and that, as one thing or another strikes us. If so, we say once more what we said at the outset: love has no logic, and impatience knows no rule. In the Song of Songs the precept is given as a hard one: Regulate your love towards me. And so we plead that, if we err, we do so not from ignorance but from feeling.

Well, then, to bring forward something still more out of place, we must go back to yet remoter times. Tradition has it that in this city, nay, more, on this very spot, Adam lived and died. The place where our Lord was crucified is called Calvary, because the skull of the primitive man was buried there. So it came to pass that the second Adam, that is the blood of Christ, as it dropped from the cross, washed away the sins of the buried protoplast, the first Adam, and thus the words of the apostle were fulfilled: Awake, you that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light. Ephesians 5:14

It would be tedious to enumerate all the prophets and holy men who have been sent forth from this place. All that is strange and mysterious to us is familiar and natural to this city and country. By its very names, three in number, it proves the doctrine of the trinity. For it is called first Jebus, then Salem, then Jerusalem: names of which the first means down-trodden, the second peace, and the third vision of peace. For it is only by slow stages that we reach our goal; it is only after we have been trodden down that we are lifted up to see the vision of peace. Because of this peace Solomon, the man of peace, was born there, and in peace was his place made. King of kings, and lord of lords, his name and that of the city show him to be a type of Christ. Need we speak of David and his descendants, all of whom reigned here? As Judæa is exalted above all other provinces, so is this city exalted above all Judæa. To speak more tersely, the glory of the province is derived from its capital; and whatever fame the members possess is in every case due to the head.

4. You have long been anxious to break forth into speech; the very letters we have formed perceive it, and our paper already understands the question you are going to put. You will reply to us by saying: it was so of old, when the Lord loved the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob, and when her foundations were in the holy mountains. Even these verses, however, are susceptible of a deeper interpretation. But things are changed since then. The risen Lord has proclaimed in tones of thunder: Your house is left unto you desolate. With tears He has prophesied its downfall: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you that killest the prophets, and stone them which are sent unto you; how often would I have gathered your children together even as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and you would not. Behold your house is left unto you desolate. Matthew 23:37-38 The veil of the temple has been rent; Matthew 27:51 an army has encompassed Jerusalem, it has been stained by the blood of the Lord. Now, therefore, its guardian angels have forsaken it and the grace of Christ has been withdrawn. Josephus, himself a Jewish writer, asserts that at the Lord's crucifixion there broke from the temple voices of heavenly powers, saying: Let us depart hence. These and other considerations show that where grace abounded there did sin much more abound. Romans 5:20 Again, when the apostles received the command: Go ye and teach all nations, Matthew 28:19 and when they said themselves: It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you, but seeing ye put it from you...lo we turn to the Gentiles, Acts 13:46 then all the spiritual importance of Judæa and its old intimacy with God were transferred by the apostles to the nations.

5. The difficulty is strongly stated, and may well puzzle even those proficient in Scripture; but for all that, it admits of an easy solution. The Lord wept for the fall of Jerusalem, Luke 19:41 and He would not have done so if He did not love it. He wept for Lazarus because He loved him. John 11:35-36 The truth is that it was the people who sinned and not the place. The capture of a city is involved in the slaying of its inhabitants. If Jerusalem was destroyed, it was that its people might be punished; if the temple was overthrown, it was that its figurative sacrifices might be abolished. As regards its site, lapse of time has but invested it with fresh grandeur. The Jews of old reverenced the Holy of Holies, because of the things contained in it— the cherubim, the mercy-seat, the ark of the covenant, the manna, Aaron's rod, and the golden altar. Hebrews 9:3-5 Does the Lord's sepulchre seem less worthy of veneration? As often as we enter it we see the Saviour in His grave clothes, and if we linger we see again the angel sitting at His feet, and the napkin folded at His head. Long before this sepulchre was hewn out by Joseph, its glory was foretold in Isaiah's prediction, his rest shall be glorious, Isaiah 11:10 meaning that the place of the Lord's burial should be held in universal honor.

6. How, then, you will say, do we read in the apocalypse written by John: The beast that ascends out of the bottomless pit shall...kill them [that is, obviously, the prophets], and their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified? If the great city where the Lord was crucified is Jerusalem, and if the place of His crucifixion is spiritually called Sodom and Egypt; then as the Lord was crucified at Jerusalem, Jerusalem must be Sodom and Egypt. Holy Scripture, I reply first of all, cannot contradict itself. One book cannot invalidate the drift of the whole. A single verse cannot annul the meaning of a book. Ten lines earlier in the apocalypse it is written: Rise and measure the temple of God, and the altar, and them that worship therein. But the court which is without the temple leave out and measure it not; for it is given unto the Gentiles; and the holy city shall they tread under foot forty and two months. Revelation 11:2 The apocalypse was written by John long after the Lord's passion, yet in it he speaks of Jerusalem as the holy city. But if so, how can he spiritually call it Sodom and Egypt? It is no answer to say that the Jerusalem which is called holy is the heavenly one which is to be, while that which is called Sodom is the earthly one tottering to its downfall. For it is the Jerusalem to come that is referred to in the description of the beast, which shall ascend out of the bottomless pit, and shall make war against the two prophets, and shall overcome them and kill them, and their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city. Revelation 11:7-8 At the close of the book it is farther described thus: And the city lies four-square, and the length of it and the breadth are the same as the height; and he measured the city with the golden reed twelve thousand furlongs. The length and the breadth and the height of it are equal. And he measured the walls thereof, an hundred and forty and four cubits, according to the measure of a man, that is, of the angel. And the building of the wall of it was of jasper; and the city was pure gold Revelation 21:16-18 — and so on. Now where there is a square there can be neither length nor breadth. And what kind of measurement is that which makes length and breadth equal to height? And how can there be walls of jasper, or a whole city of pure gold; its foundations and its streets of precious stones, and its twelve gates each glowing with pearls?

7. Evidently this description cannot be taken literally (in fact, it is absurd to suppose a city the length, breadth and height of which are all twelve thousand furlongs), and therefore the details of it must be mystically understood. The great city which Cain first built and called after his son Genesis 4:17 must be taken to represent this world, which the devil, that accuser of his brethren, that fratricide who is doomed to perish, has built of vice cemented with crime, and filled with iniquity. Therefore it is spiritually called Sodom and Egypt. Thus it is written, Sodom shall return to her former estate, Ezekiel 16:55 that is to say, the world must be restored as it has been before. For we cannot believe that Sodom and Gomorrha, Admah and Zeboim Deuteronomy 29:23 are to be built again: they must be left to lie in ashes forever. We never read of Egypt as put for Jerusalem: it always stands for this world. To collect from Scripture the countless proofs of this would be tedious: I shall adduce but one passage, a passage in which this world is most clearly called Egypt. The apostle Jude, the brother of James, writes thus in his catholic epistle: I will, therefore, put you in remembrance, though ye once knew this how that Jesus, having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed them that believed not. Jude 5 And, lest you should fancy Joshua the son of Nun to be meant, the passage goes on thus: And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he has reserved in everlasting chains, under darkness, unto the judgment of the great day. Jude 6 Moreover, to convince you that in every place where Egypt, Sodom and Gomorrha are named together it is not these spots, but the present world, which is meant, he mentions them immediately in this sense. Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, he writes, and the cities about them, in like manner giving themselves over to fornication and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire. Jude 7 But what need is there to collect more proofs when, after the passion and the resurrection of the Lord, the evangelist Matthew tells us: The rocks rent, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city and appeared unto many? Matthew 27:51, 53 We must not interpret this passage straight off, as many people absurdly do, of the heavenly Jerusalem: the apparition there of the bodies of the saints could be no sign to men of the Lord's rising. Since, therefore, the evangelists and all the Scriptures speak of Jerusalem as the holy city, and since the psalmist commands us to worship the Lord at his footstool; allow no one to call it Sodom and Egypt, for by it the Lord forbids men to swear because it is the city of the great king. Matthew 5:35

8. The land is accursed, you say, because it has drunk in the blood of the Lord. On what grounds, then, do men regard as blessed those spots where Peter and Paul, the leaders of the Christian host, have shed their blood for Christ? If the confession of men and servants is glorious, must there not be glory likewise in the confession of their Lord and God? Everywhere we venerate the tombs of the martyrs; we apply their holy ashes to our eyes; we even touch them, if we may, with our lips. And yet some think that we should neglect the tomb in which the Lord Himself is buried. If we refuse to believe human testimony, let us at least credit the devil and his angels. Matthew 25:41 For when in front of the Holy Sepulchre they are driven out of those bodies which they have possessed, they moan and tremble as if they stood before Christ's judgment-seat, and grieve, too late that they have crucified Him in whose presence they now cower. If— as a wicked theory maintains— this holy place has, since the Lord's passion, become an abomination, why was Paul in such haste to reach Jerusalem to keep Pentecost in it? Acts 20:16 Yet to those who held him back he said: What mean ye to weep and to break my heart? For I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem, for the name of the Lord Jesus. Acts 21:13 Need I speak of those other holy and illustrious men who, after the preaching of Christ, brought their votive gifts and offerings to the brethren who were at Jerusalem?

9. Time forbids me to survey the period which has passed since the Lord's ascension, or to recount the bishops, the martyrs, the divines, who have come to Jerusalem from a feeling that their devotion and knowledge would be incomplete and their virtue without the finishing touch, unless they adored Christ in the very spot where the gospel first flashed from the gibbet. If a famous orator blames a man for having learned Greek at Lilybæum instead of at Athens, and Latin in Sicily instead of at Rome (on the ground, obviously, that each province has its own characteristics), can we suppose a Christian's education complete who has not visited the Christian Athens?

10. In speaking thus we do not mean to deny that the kingdom of God is within us, Luke 17:21 or to say that there are no holy men elsewhere; we merely assert in the strongest manner that those who stand first throughout the world are here gathered side by side. We ourselves are among the last, not the first; yet we have come hither to see the first of all nations. Of all the ornaments of the Church our company of monks and virgins is one of the finest; it is like a fair flower or a priceless gem. Every man of note in Gaul hastens hither. The Briton, sundered from our world, no sooner makes progress in religion than he leaves the setting sun in quest of a spot of which he knows only through Scripture and common report. Need we recall the Armenians, the Persians, the peoples of India and Arabia? Or those of our neighbor, Egypt, so rich in monks; of Pontus and Cappadocia; of Cæle-Syria and Mesopotamia and the teeming east? In fulfilment of the Saviour's words, Wherever the body is, there will the eagles be gathered together, Luke 17:37 they all assemble here and exhibit in this one city the most varied virtues. Differing in speech, they are one in religion, and almost every nation has a choir of its own. Yet amid this great concourse there is no arrogance, no disdain of self-restraint; all strive after humility, that greatest of Christian virtues. Whosoever is last is here regarded as first. Matthew 19:30 Their dress neither provokes remark nor calls for admiration. In whatever guise a man shows himself he is neither censured nor flattered. Long fasts help no one here. Starvation wins no deference, and the taking of food in moderation is not condemned. To his own master each one stands or falls. Romans 14:4 No man judges another lest he be judged of the Lord. Matthew 7:1 Backbiting, so common in other parts, is wholly unknown here. Sensuality and excess are far removed from us. And in the city there are so many places of prayer that a day would not be sufficient to go round them all.

11. But, as every one praises most what is within his reach, let us pass now to the cottage-inn which sheltered Christ and Mary. Luke 2:7 With what expressions and what language can we set before you the cave of the Saviour? The stall where he cried as a babe can be best honored by silence; for words are inadequate to speak its praise. Where are the spacious porticoes? Where are the gilded ceilings? Where are the mansions furnished by the miserable toil of doomed wretches? Where are the costly halls raised by untitled opulence for man's vile body to walk in? Where are the roofs that intercept the sky, as if anything could be finer than the expanse of heaven? Behold, in this poor crevice of the earth the Creator of the heavens was born; here He was wrapped in swaddling clothes; here He was seen by the shepherds; here He was pointed out by the star; here He was adored by the wise men. This spot is holier, me-thinks, than that Tarpeian rock which has shown itself displeasing to God by the frequency with which it has been struck by lightning.

12. Read the apocalypse of John, and consider what is sung therein of the woman arrayed in purple, and of the blasphemy written upon her brow, of the seven mountains, of the many waters, and of the end of Babylon. Come out of her, my people, so the Lord says, that you be not partakers of her sins, and that you receive not of her plagues. Revelation 18:4 Turn back also to Jeremiah and pay heed to what he has written of like import: Flee out of the midst of Babylon, and deliver every man his soul. Jeremiah 51:6 For Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and has become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit. Revelation 18:2 It is true that Rome has a holy church, trophies of apostles and martyrs, a true confession of Christ. The faith has been preached there by an apostle, heathenism has been trodden down, the name of Christian is daily exalted higher and higher. But the display, power, and size of the city, the seeing and the being seen, the paying and the receiving of visits, the alternate flattery and detraction, talking and listening, as well as the necessity of facing so great a throng even when one is least in the mood to do so— all these things are alike foreign to the principles and fatal to the repose of the monastic life. For when people come in our way we either see them coming and are compelled to speak, or we do not see them and lay ourselves open to the charge of haughtiness. Sometimes, also, in returning visits we are obliged to pass through proud portals and gilded doors and to face the clamor of carping lackeys. But, as we have said above, in the cottage of Christ all is simple and rustic: and except for the chanting of psalms there is complete silence. Wherever one turns the laborer at his plough sings alleluia, the toiling mower cheers himself with psalms, and the vine-dresser while he prunes his vine sings one of the lays of David. These are the songs of the country; these, in popular phrase, its love ditties: these the shepherd whistles; these the tiller uses to aid his toil.

13. But what are we doing? Forgetting what is required of us, we are taken up with what we wish. Will the time never come when a breathless messenger shall bring the news that our dear Marcella has reached the shores of Palestine, and when every band of monks and every troop of virgins shall unite in a song of welcome? In our excitement we are already hurrying to meet you: without waiting for a vehicle, we hasten off at once on foot. We shall clasp you by the hand, we shall look upon your face; and when, after long waiting, we at last embrace you, we shall find it hard to tear ourselves away. Will the day never come when we shall together enter the Saviour's cave, and together weep in the sepulchre of the Lord with His sister and with His mother? John 19:25 Then shall we touch with our lips the wood of the cross, and rise in prayer and resolve upon the Mount of Olives with the ascending Lord. Acts 1:9, 12 We shall see Lazarus come forth bound with grave clothes, John 11:43-44 we shall look upon the waters of Jordan purified for the washing of the Lord. Matthew 3:13 Thence we shall pass to the folds of the shepherds, Luke 2:8 we shall pray together in the mausoleum of David. 1 Kings 2:10 We shall see the prophet, Amos, upon his crag blowing his shepherd's horn. We shall hasten, if not to the tents, to the monuments of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and of their three illustrious wives. We shall see the fountain in which the eunuch was immersed by Philip. Acts 8:36 We shall make a pilgrimage to Samaria, and side by side venerate the ashes of John the Baptist, of Elisha, 2 Kings 13:21 and of Obadiah. We shall enter the very caves where in the time of persecution and famine the companies of the prophets were fed. 1 Kings 18:3-4 If only you will come, we shall go to see Nazareth, as its name denotes, the flower of Galilee. Not far off Cana will be visible, where the water was turned into wine. John 2:1-11 We shall make our way to Tabor, Matthew 17:1-9 and see the tabernacles there which the Saviour shares, not, as Peter once wished, with Moses and Elijah, but with the Father and with the Holy Ghost. Thence we shall come to the Sea of Gennesaret, and when there we shall see the spots where the five thousand were filled with five loaves, and the four thousand with seven. The town of Nain will meet our eyes, at the gate of which the widow's son was raised to life. Hermon too will be visible, and the torrent of Endor, at which Sisera was vanquished. Our eyes will look also on Capernaum, the scene of so many of our Lord's signs— yes, and on all Galilee besides. And when, accompanied by Christ, we shall have made our way back to our cave through Shiloh and Bethel, and those other places where churches are set up like standards to commemorate the Lord's victories, then we shall sing heartily, we shall weep copiously, we shall pray unceasingly. Wounded with the Saviour's shaft, we shall say one to another: I have found Him whom my soul loves; I will hold Him and will not let Him go.

About this page

Source. Translated by W.H. Fremantle, G. Lewis and W.G. Martley. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3001046.htm>.

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