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Home > Fathers of the Church > Letters of St. Jerome > Letter 66

Letter 66

To Pammachius

Pammachius a Roman senator, had lost his wife Paulina one of Paula's daughters, while she was still in the flower of her youth. It was not till two years had elapsed that Jerome ventured to write to him; and when he did so he dwelt but little on the life and virtues of Paulina. Probably there was but little to tell. The greater part of the letter is taken up with commendation of Pammachius himself who, in spite of his high rank and position, had become a monk and was now living a life of severe self-denial. Jerome speaks approvingly of the Hospice for Strangers which, in conjunction with Fabiola, Pammachius had set up at Portus, and describes his own somewhat similar institutions at Bethlehem. He also mentions Paula, Eustochium, and the dead Blæsilla, all in terms of the highest praise. The date of the letter is 397 A.D.

1. Supposing a wound to be healed and a scar to have been formed upon the skin, any course of treatment designed to remove the mark must in its effort to improve the appearance renew the smart of the original wound. After two years of inopportune silence my condolence now comes rather late; yet even so I am afraid that my present speech may be still more inopportune. I fear lest in touching the sore spot in your heart I may by my words inflame afresh a wound which time and reflection have availed to cure. For who can have ears so dull or hearts so flinty as to hear the name of your Paulina without weeping? Even though reared on the milk of Hyrcanian tigresses they must still shed tears. Who can with dry eyes see thus untimely cut down and withered an opening rose, an undeveloped bud, which has not yet formed itself into a cup nor spread forth the proud display of its crimson petals? In her a most priceless pearl is broken. In her a vivid emerald is shattered. Sickness alone shows us the blessedness of health. We realize better what we have had when we cease to have it.

2. The good ground of which we read in the parable brought forth fruit, some an hundred-fold, some sixtyfold, and some thirtyfold. Matthew 13:8 In this threefold yield I recognize an emblem of the three different rewards of Christ which have fallen to three women closely united in blood and moral excellence. Eustochium culls the flowers of virginity. Paula sweeps the toilsome threshing floor of widowhood. Paulina keeps the bed undefiled of marriage. A mother with such daughters wins for herself on earth all that Christ has promised to give in heaven. Then to complete the team— if I may so call it— of four saints turned out by a single family, and to match the women's virtues by those of a man, the three have a fit companion in Pammachius who is a cherub such as Ezekiel describes, Ezekiel 10:8-22 brother-in-law to the first, son-in-law to the second, husband to the third. Husband did I say? Nay, rather a most devoted brother; for the language of marriage is inadequate to describe the holy bonds of the Spirit. Of this team Jesus holds the reins, and it is of steeds like these that Habakkuk sings: ride upon your horses and let your riding be salvation. With like resolve if with unlike speed they strain after the victor's palm. Their colours are different; their object is the same. They are harnessed in one yoke, they obey one driver, not waiting for the lash but answering the call of his voice with fresh efforts.

3. Let me use for a moment the language of philosophy. According to the Stoics there are four virtues so closely related and mutually coherent that he who lacks one lacks all. They are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Wisdom 8:7 While all of you possess the four, yet each is remarkable for one. You have prudence, your mother has justice, your virgin sister has fortitude, your wedded wife has temperance. I speak of you as wise, for who can be wiser than one who, despising the folly of the world, has followed Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God? 1 Corinthians 1:24 Or what better instance can there be of justice than your mother, who having divided her substance among her offspring has taught them by her own contempt of riches the true object on which to fix their affections? Who has set a better example of courage than Eustochium, who by resolving to be a virgin has breached the gates of the nobility and broken down the pride of a consular house? The first of Roman ladies, she has brought under the yoke the first of Roman families. Has there ever been temperance greater than that of Paulina, who, reading the words of the apostle: marriage is honourable in all and the bed undefiled, Hebrews 13:4 and not presuming to aspire to the happiness of her virgin sister or the continence of her widowed mother, has preferred to keep to the safe track of a lower path rather than treading on air to lose herself in the clouds? When once she had entered upon the married state, her one thought day and night was that, as soon as her union should be blessed with offspring, she would live thenceforth in the second degree of chastity, and

Though woman, foremost in the high emprise,

would induce her husband to follow a like course. She would not forsake him but looked for the day when he would become a companion in salvation. Finding by several miscarriages that her womb was not barren, she could not give up all hope of having children and had to allow her own reluctance to give way to the eagerness of her mother-in-law and the chagrin of her husband. Thus she suffered much as Rachel suffered, Genesis 35:16 although instead of bringing forth like her a son of pangs and of the right hand, the heir she had longed for was no other than her husband. I have learned on good authority that her wish in submitting herself to her husband was not to take advantage of God's primitive command Be faithful and multiply and replenish the earth Genesis 1:28 but that she only desired children that she might bring forth virgins to Christ.

4. We read that the wife of Phinehas the priest, on hearing that the ark of the Lord had been taken, was seized suddenly with the pains of travail and that she brought forth a son Ichabod and died a mother in the hands of the women who nursed her. Rachel's son is called Benjamin, that is 'son of excellence' or 'of the right hand'; but the son of the other, afterwards to be a distinguished priest of God, derives his name from the ark. The same thing has come to pass in our own day, for since Paulina fell asleep the Church has posthumously borne the monk Pammachius, a patrician by his parentage and marriage, rich in alms, and lofty in lowliness. The apostle writes to the Corinthians, You see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men, not many noble are called. 1 Corinthians 1:26 The conditions of the nascent church required this to be so that the grain of mustard seed might grow up little by little into a tree, Matthew 13:31 and that the leaven of the gospel might gradually raise more and more the whole lump of the church. Matthew 13:33 In our day Rome possesses what the world in days gone by knew not of. Then few of the wise or mighty or noble were Christians; now many wise powerful and noble are not Christians only but even monks. And among them all my Pammachius is the wisest, the mightiest, and the noblest; great among the great, a leader among leaders, he is the commander in chief of all monks. He and others like him are the offspring which Paulina desired to have in her life time and which she has given us in her death. Sing, O barren, you that did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you that did not travail with child; Isaiah 54:1 for in a moment you have brought forth as many sons as there are poor men in Rome.

5. The glowing gems which in old days adorned the neck and face of Paulina now purchase food for the needy. Her silk dresses and gold brocades are exchanged for soft woollen garments intended to keep out the cold and not to expose the body to vain admiration. All that formerly ministered to luxury is now at the service of virtue. That blind man holding out his hand, and often crying aloud when there is none to hear, is the heir of Paulina, is co-heir with Pammachius. That poor cripple who can scarcely drag himself along, owes his support to the help of a tender girl. Those doors which of old poured forth crowds of visitors, are now beset only by the wretched. One suffers from a dropsy, big with death; another mute and without the means of begging, begs the more appealingly because he cannot beg; another maimed from his childhood implores an alms which he may not himself enjoy. Still another has his limbs rotted with jaundice and lives on after his body has become a corpse. To use the language of Virgil:

Had I a hundred tongues, a hundred lips,
I could not tell men's countless sufferings.

Such is the bodyguard which accompanies Pammachius wherever he walks; in the persons of such he ministers to Christ Himself; and their squalor serves to whiten his soul. Thus he speeds on his way to heaven, beneficent as a giver of games to the poor, and kind as a provider of shows for the needy. Other husbands scatter on the graves of their wives violets, roses, lilies, and purple flowers; and assuage the grief of their hearts by fulfilling this tender duty. Our dear Pammachius also waters the holy ashes and the revered bones of Paulina, but it is with the balm of almsgiving. These are the confections and the perfumes with which he cherishes the dead embers of his wife knowing that it is written: Water will quench a flaming fire; and alms makes an atonement for sins. Sirach 3:30 What great power compassion has and what high rewards it is destined to win, the blessed Cyprian sets forth in an extensive work. It is proved also by the counsel of Daniel who desired the most impious of kings— had he been willing to hear him— to be saved by showing mercy to the poor. Daniel 4:27 Paulina's mother may well be glad of Paulina's heir. She cannot regret that her daughter's wealth has passed into new hands when she sees it still spent upon the objects she had at heart. Nay, rather she must congratulate herself that without any exertion of her own her wishes are being carried out. The sum available for distribution is the same as before: only the distributor is changed.

6. Who can credit the fact that one, who is the glory of the Furian stock and whose grandfathers and great grandfathers have been consuls, moves amid the senators in their purple clothed in sombre garb, and that, so far from blushing when he meets the eyes of his companions, he actually derides those who deride him! There is a shame that leads to death and there is a shame that leads to life. It is a monk's first virtue to despise the judgments of men and always to remember the apostle's words:— If I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ. Galatians 1:10 In the same sense the Lord says to the prophets that He has made their face a brazen city and a stone of adamant and an iron pillar, to the end that they shall not be afraid of the insults of the people but shall by the sternness of their looks discompose the effrontery of those who sneered at them. A finely strung mind is more readily overcome by contumely than by terror. And men whom no tortures can overawe are sometimes prevailed over by the fear of shame. Surely it is no small thing for a man of birth, eloquence, and wealth to avoid the company of the powerful in the streets, to mingle with the crowd, to cleave to the poor, to associate on equal terms with the untaught, to cease to be a leader and to become one of the people. The more he humbles himself, the more he is exalted. Luke 14:11

7. A pearl will shine in the midst of squalor and a gem of the first water will sparkle in the mire. This is what the Lord promised when He said: Them that honour me I will honour. 1 Samuel 2:30 Others may understand this of the future when sorrow shall be turned into joy and when, although the world shall pass away, the saints shall receive a crown which shall never pass. But I for my part see that the promises made to the saints are fulfilled even in this present life. Before he began to serve Christ with his whole heart, Pammachius was a well known person in the senate. Still there were many other senators who wore the badges of proconsular rank. The whole world is filled with similar decorations. He was in the first rank it is true, but there were others in it besides him. Whilst he took precedence of some, others took precedence of him. The most distinguished privilege loses its prestige when lavished on a crowd, and dignities themselves become less dignified in the eyes of good men when held by persons who have no dignity. Thus Tully finely says of Cæsar, when he wished to advance some of his adherents, he did not so much honour them as dishonour the honourable positions in which he placed them. Today all the churches of Christ are talking of Pammachius. The whole world admires as a poor man one whom heretofore it ignored as rich. Can anything be more splendid than the consulate? Yet the honour lasts only for a year and when another has succeeded to the post its former occupant gives way. Each man's laurels are lost in the crowd and sometimes triumphs themselves are marred by the shortcomings of those who celebrate them. An office which was once handed down from patrician to patrician, which only men of noble birth could hold, of which the consul Marius— victor though he was over Numidia and the Teutons and the Cimbri— was held unworthy on account of the obscurity of his family, and which Scipio won before his time as the reward of valour,— this great office is now obtained by merely belonging to the army; and the shining robe of victory now envelops men who a little while ago were country boors. Thus we have received more than we have given. The things we have renounced are small; the things we possess are great. All that Christ promises is duly performed and for what we have given up we have received an hundredfold. Matthew 19:29 This was the ground in which Isaac sowed his seed, Genesis 26:12 Isaac who in his readiness to die Genesis xxii bore the cross of the Gospel before the Gospel came.

8. If you will be perfect, the Lord says, go and sell that you have and give to the poor....and come and follow me. Matthew 19:21 If you will be perfect. Great enterprises are always left to the free choice of those who hear of them. Thus the apostle refrains from making virginity a positive duty, because the Lord in speaking of eunuchs who had made themselves such for the kingdom of heaven's sake finally said: He that is able to receive it, let him receive it. Matthew 19:12 For, to quote the apostle, it is not of him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God that shows mercy. Romans 9:16 If you will be perfect. There is no compulsion laid upon you: if you are to win the prize it must be by the exercise of your own free will. If therefore you will to be perfect and desire to be as the prophets, as the apostles, as Christ Himself, sell not a part of your substance (lest the fear of want become an occasion of unfaithfulness, and so you perish with Ananias and Sapphira Acts v) but all that you have. And when you have sold all, give the proceeds not to the wealthy or to the high-minded but to the poor. Give each man enough for his immediate need but do not give money to swell what a man has already. You shall not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treads out the grain, 1 Corinthians 9:9 and the labourer is worthy of his reward. 1 Timothy 5:18 Again they which wait at the altar are partakers with the altar. 1 Corinthians 9:13 Remember also these words: having food and raiment let us be therewith content. 1 Timothy 6:8 Where you see smoking dishes, steaming pheasants, massive silver plate, spirited nags, long-haired boy-slaves, expensive clothing, and embroidered hangings, give nothing there. For he to whom you would give is richer than you the giver. It is moreover a kind of sacrilege to give what belongs to the poor to those who are not poor. Yet to be a perfect and complete Christian it is not enough to despise wealth or to squander and fling away one's money, a thing which can be lost and found in a single moment. Crates the Theban did this, so did Antisthenes and several others, whose lives show them to have had many faults. The disciple of Christ must do more for the attainment of spiritual glory than the philosopher of the world, than the venal slave of flying rumours and of the people's breath. It is not enough for you to despise wealth unless you follow Christ as well. And only he follows Christ who forsakes his sins and walks hand in hand with virtue. We know that Christ is wisdom. He is the treasure which in the scriptures a man finds in his field. Matthew 13:44 He is the peerless gem which is bought by selling many pearls. Matthew 13:45 But if you love a captive woman, that is, worldly wisdom, and if no beauty but hers attracts you, make her bald and cut off her alluring hair, that is to say, the graces of style, and pare away her dead nails. Deuteronomy 21:11-12 Wash her with the nitre of which the prophet speaks, Jeremiah 2:22 and then take your ease with her and say Her left hand is under my head, and her right hand does embrace me. Then shall the captive bring to you many children; from a Moabitess she shall become an Israelitish woman. Christ is that sanctification without which no man shall see the face of God. Christ is our redemption, for He is at once our Redeemer and our Ransom. Christ is all, that he who has left all for Christ may find One in place of all, and may be able to proclaim freely, The Lord is my portion.

9. I see clearly that you have a warm affection for divine learning and that far from trying— like some rash persons— to teach that of which you are yourself ignorant you make it your first object to learn what you are going to teach. Your letters in their simplicity are redolent of the prophets and savour strongly of the apostles. You do not affect a stilted eloquence, nor boylike balance shallow sentences in clauses neatly-turned. The quickly frothing foam disappears with equal quickness; and a tumour though it enlarges the size of the body is injurious to health. It is moreover a shrewd maxim, this of Cato, Fast enough if well enough. Long ago it is true in the days of our youth we laughed outright at this dictum when the finished orator used it in his exordium. I fancy you remember the mistake shared by the speaker in our Athenæum and how the whole room resounded with the cry taken up by the students Fast enough if well enough. According to Fabius crafts would be sure to prosper if none but craftsmen were allowed to criticise them. No man can adequately estimate a poet unless he is competent himself to write verse. No man can comprehend philosophers, unless he is acquainted with the various theories that they have held. Material and visible products are best appraised by those who make them. To what a cruel lot we men of letters are exposed you may gather from the fact that we are forced to rely on the judgment of the public; and many a man is in company a formidable opponent who would certainly be despised could he be seen alone. I have touched on this in passing to make you content, if possible, with the ear of the learned. Disregard the remarks which uneducated persons make concerning your ability; but day by day imbibe the marrow of the prophets, that you may know the mystery of Christ and share this mystery with the patriarchs.

10. Whether you read or write, whether you wake or sleep, let the herdsman's horn of Amos always ring in your ears. Let the sound of the clarion arouse your soul, let the divine love carry you out of yourself; and then seek upon your bed him whom your soul loves, Song of Songs 3:1 and boldly say: I sleep, but my heart wakes. Song of Songs 5:2 And when you have found him and taken hold of him, let him not go. And if you fall asleep for a moment and He escapes from your hands, do not immediately despair. Go out into the streets and charge the daughters of Jerusalem: then shall you find him lying down in the noontide weary and drunk with passion, or wet with the dew of night by the flocks of his companions, or fragrant with many kinds of spices, amid the apples of the garden. There give to him your breasts, let him suck your learned bosom, let him rest in the midst of his heritage, his feathers as those of a dove overlaid with silver and his inward parts with the brightness of gold. This young child, this mere boy, who is fed on butter and honey, Isaiah 7:14-15 and who is reared among curdled mountains, quickly grows up to manhood, speedily spoils all that is opposed to him in you, and when the time is ripe plunders [the spiritual] Damascus and puts in chains the king of [the spiritual] Assyria.

11. I hear that you have erected a hospice for strangers at Portus and that you have planted a twig from the tree of Abraham upon the Ausonian shore. Like Æneas you are tracing the outlines of a new encampment; only that, whereas he, when he reached the waters of the Tiber, under pressure of want had to eat the square flat cakes which formed the tables spoken of by the oracle, you are able to build a house of bread to rival this little village of Bethlehem wherein I am staying; and here after their long privations you propose to satisfy travellers with sudden plenty. Well done. You have surpassed my poor beginning. You have reached the highest point. You have made your way from the root to the top of the tree. You are the first of monks in the first city of the world: you do right therefore to follow the first of the patriarchs. Let Lot, whose name means 'one who turns aside' choose the plain Genesis 13:5-11 and let him follow the left and easy branch of the famous letter of Pythagoras. But do you make ready for yourself a monument like Sarah's Genesis 23:19 on steep and rocky heights. Let the City of Books be near; and when you have destroyed the giants, the sons of Anak, Joshua 15:14 make over your heritage to joy and merriment. Abraham was rich in gold and silver and cattle, in substance and in raiment: his household was so large that on an emergency he could bring a picked body of young men into the field, and could pursue as far as Dan and then slay four kings who had already put five kings to flight. Genesis 14:13-16 Frequently exercising hospitality and never turning any man away from his door, he was accounted worthy at last to entertain God himself. He was not satisfied with giving orders to his servants and hand-maids to attend to his guests, nor did he lessen the favour he conferred by leaving others to care for them; but as though he had found a prize, he and Sarah his wife gave themselves to the duties of hospitality. With his own hands he washed the feet of his guests, upon his own shoulders he brought home a fat calf from the herd. While the strangers dined he stood by to serve them, and set before them the dishes cooked by Sarah's hands— though meaning to fast himself.

12. The regard which I feel for you, my dear brother, makes me remind you of these things; for you must offer to Christ not only your money but yourself, to be a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service, Romans 12:1 and you must imitate the son of man who came not to be ministered unto but to minister. Matthew 20:28 What the patriarch did for strangers that our Lord and Master did for His servants and disciples. Skin for skin, yea, all that a man has will he give for his life. But, says the devil, touch his flesh and he will curse you to your face. Job 2:4-5 The old enemy knows that the battle with impurity is a harder one than that with covetousness. It is easy to cast off what clings to us from without, but a war within our borders involves far greater peril. We have to unfasten things joined together, we have to sunder things firmly united. Zacchæus was rich while the apostles were poor. He restored fourfold all that he had taken and gave to the poor the half of his remaining substance. He welcomed Christ as his guest, and salvation came unto his house. Luke 19:2-9 And yet because he was little of stature and could not reach the apostolic standard of height, he was not numbered with the twelve apostles. Now as regards wealth the apostles gave up nothing at all, but as regards will they one and all gave up the whole world. If we offer to Christ our souls as well as our riches, he will gladly receive our offering. But if we give to God only those things which are without while we give to the devil those things which are within, the division is not fair, and the divine voice says: Have you not sinned in offering aright, and yet not dividing aright?

13. That you, the leader of the patrician order, first set the example of turning monk should not be to you an occasion of boasting but rather one of humility, knowing as you do that the Son of God became the Son of man. However low you may abase yourself, you cannot be more lowly than Christ. Even supposing that you walk barefooted, that you dress in sombre garb, that you rank yourself with the poor, that you condescend to enter the tenements of the needy, that you are eyes to the blind, hands to the weak, feet to the lame, that you carry water and hew wood and make fires— even supposing that you do all this, where are the chains, the buffets, the spittings, the scourgings, the gibbet, the death which the Lord endured? And even when you have done all the things I have mentioned, you are still surpassed by your sister Eustochium as well as by Paula: for considering the weakness of their sex they have done more work relatively if less absolutely, than you. I myself was not at Rome but in the desert— would that I had continued there— at the time when your father-in-law Toxotius was still alive and his daughters were still given up to the world. But I have heard that they were too dainty to walk in the muddy streets, that they were carried about in the arms of eunuchs, that they disliked crossing uneven ground, that they found a silk dress a burden and felt sunshine too scorching. But now, squalid and sombre in their dress, they are positive heroines in comparison with what they used to be. They trim lamps, light fires, sweep floors, clean vegetables, put heads of cabbage in the pot to boil, lay tables, hand cups, help dishes and run to and fro to wait on others. And yet there is no lack of virgins under the same roof with them. Is it then that they have no servants upon whom they can lay these duties? Surely not. They are unwilling that others should surpass them in physical toil whom they themselves surpass in rigour of mind. I say all this not because I doubt your mental ardour but that I may quicken the pace at which you are running, and in the heat of battle may add warmth to your warmth.

14. I for my part am building in this province a monastery and a hospice close by; so that, if Joseph and Mary chance to come to Bethlehem, they may not fail to find shelter and welcome. Indeed, the number of monks who flock here from all quarters of the world is so overwhelming that I can neither desist from my enterprise nor bear so great a burden. The warning of the gospel has been all but fulfilled in me, for I did not sufficiently count the cost of the tower I was about to build; Luke 14:28 accordingly I have been constrained to send my brother Paulinian to Italy to sell some ruinous villas which have escaped the hands of the barbarians, and also the property inherited from our common parents. For I am loth, now that I have begun it, to give up ministering to the saints, lest I incur the ridicule of carping and envious persons.

15. Now that I have come to the conclusion of my letter I recall my metaphor of the four-horse team, and recollect that Blæsilla would have made a fifth had she been spared to share your resolve. I had almost forgotten to mention her, the first of you all to go to meet the Lord. You who once were five I now see to be two and three. Blæsilla and her sister Paulina rest in sweet sleep: you with the two others on either side of you will fly upward to Christ more easily.

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/3001066.htm>.

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