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Home > Fathers of the Church > Letters of St. Jerome > Letter 130

Letter 130

To Demetrias

Jerome writes to Demetrias, a highborn lady of Rome who had recently embraced the vocation of a virgin. After narrating her life's history first at Rome and then in Africa, he goes on to lay down rules and principles to guide her in her new life. These which cover the whole field of ascetic practice and include the duties of study, of prayer, of fasting, of obedience, of giving up money for Christ, and of constant industry, are in substance similar to those which thirty years before Jerome had suggested to Eustochium (Letter XXII.). The tone of the letter is however milder and less fanatical; the asceticism recommended is not so severe; there is less of rhapsody and more of common sense. This letter should also be compared with the letter addressed to Demetrias by Pelagius, which is given in Vol. xi. of Jerome's works (Migne's Patr. Lat. xxx. ed.). The date is 414 A.D.

1. Of all the subjects that I have treated from my youth up until now, either with my own pen or that of my secretaries I have dealt with none more difficult than that which now occupies me. I am going to write to Demetrias a virgin of Christ and a lady whose birth and riches make her second to none in the Roman world. If, therefore, I employ language adequate to describe her virtue, I shall be thought to flatter her; and if I suppress some details on the score that they might appear incredible, my reserve will not do justice to her undoubted merits. What am I to do then? I am unequal to the task before me, yet I cannot venture to decline it. Her grandmother and her mother are both women of mark, and they have alike authority to command, faith to seek and perseverance to obtain that which they require. It is not indeed anything very new or special that they ask of me; my wits have often been exercised upon similar themes. What they wish for is that I should raise my voice and bear witness as strongly as I can to the virtues of one who— in the words of the famous orator — is to be praised less for what she is than for what she gives promise of being. Yet, girl though she is, she has a glowing faith beyond her years, and has started from a point at which others think it a mark of signal virtue to leave off.

2. Let detraction stand aloof and envy give way; let no charge of self seeking be brought against me. I write as a stranger to a stranger, at least so far as the personal appearance is concerned. For the inner man finds itself well known by that knowledge whereby the apostle Paul knew the Colossians and many other believers whom he had never seen. How high an esteem I entertain for this virgin, nay more what a miracle of virtue I think her, you may judge by the fact that being occupied in the explanation of Ezekiel's description of the temple— the hardest piece in the whole range of scripture— and finding myself in that part of the sacred edifice wherein is the Holy of Holies and the altar of incense, I have chosen by way of a brief rest to pass from that altar to this, that upon it I might consecrate to eternal chastity a living offering acceptable to God Romans 12:1 and free from all stain. I am aware that the bishop has with words of prayer covered her holy head with the virgin's bridal-veil, reciting the while the solemn sentence of the apostle: I wish to present you all as a chaste virgin to Christ. 2 Corinthians 11:2 She stood as a queen at his right hand, her clothing of wrought gold and her raiment of needlework. Such was the coat of many colours, that is, formed of many different virtues, which Joseph wore; and similar ones were of old the ordinary dress of king's daughters. Thereupon the bride herself rejoices and says: the king has brought me into his chambers, Song of Songs 1:4 and the choir of her companions responds: the king's daughter is all glorious within. Thus she is a professed virgin. Still these words of mine will not be without their use. The speed of racehorses is quickened by the applause of spectators; prize fighters are urged to greater efforts by the cries of their backers; and when armies are drawn up for battle and swords are drawn, the general's speech does much to fire his soldiers' valour. So also is it on the present occasion. The grandmother and the mother have planted, but it is I that water and the Lord that gives the increase. 1 Corinthians 3:6

3. It is the practice of the rhetoricians to exalt him who is the subject of their praises by referring to his forefathers and the past nobility of his race, so that a fertile root may make up for barren branches and that you may admire in the stem what you have not got in the fruit. Thus I ought now to recall the distinguished names of the Probi and of the Olybrii, and that illustrious Anician house, the representatives of which have seldom or never been unworthy of the consulship. Or I ought to bring forward Olybrius our virgin's father, whose untimely loss Rome has had to mourn. I fear to say more of him, lest I should intensify the pain of your saintly mother, and lest the commemoration of his virtues should become a renewing of her grief. He was a dutiful son, a loveable husband, a kind master, a popular citizen. He was made consul while still a boy; but the goodness of his character made him more illustrious as a senator. He was happy in his death for it saved him from seeing the ruin of his country; and happier still in his offspring, for the distinguished name of his great grandmother Demetrias has become yet more distinguished now that his daughter Demetrias has vowed herself to perpetual chastity.

4. But what am I doing? Forgetful of my purpose and filled with admiration for this young man, I have spoken in terms of praise of mere worldly advantages; whereas I should rather have commended our virgin for having rejected all these, and for having determined to regard herself not as a wealthy or a high born lady, but simply as a woman like other women. Her strength of mind almost passes belief. Though she had silks and jewels freely at her disposal, and though she was surrounded by crowds of eunuchs and serving-women, a bustling household of flattering and attentive domestics, and though the daintiest feasts that the abundance of a large house could supply were daily set before her; she preferred to all these severe fasting, rough clothing, and frugal living. For she had read the words of the Lord: they that wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. Matthew 11:8 She was filled with admiration for the manner of life followed by Elijah and by John the Baptist; both of whom confined and mortified their loins with girdles of skin, while the second of them is said to have come in the spirit and power of Elijah as the forerunner of the Lord. As such he prophesied while still in his mother's womb, Luke 1:41 and before the day of judgment won the commendation of the Judge. She admired also the zeal of Anna the daughter of Phanuel, who continued even to extreme old age to serve the Lord in the temple with prayers and fastings. Luke 2:36-37 When she thought of the four virgins who were the daughters of Philip, Acts 21:9 she longed to join their band and to be numbered with those who by their virginal purity have attained the grace of prophecy. With these and similar meditations she fed her mind, dreading nothing so much as to offend her grandmother and her mother. Although she was encouraged by their example, she was discouraged by their expressed wish and desire; not indeed that they disapproved of her holy purpose, but that the prize was so great that they did not venture to hope for it, or to aspire to it. Thus this poor novice in Christ's service was sorely perplexed. She came to hate all her fine apparel and cried like Esther to the Lord: You know that I abhor the sign of my high estate— that is to say, the diadem which she wore as queenand that I abhor it as a menstruous rag. Esther 14:16 Among the holy and highborn ladies who have seen and known her some have been driven by the tempest which has swept over Africa, from the shores of Gaul to a refuge in the holy places. These tell me that secretly night after night, though no one knew of it but the virgins dedicated to God in her mother's and grandmother's retinue, Demetrias, refusing sheets of linen and beds of down, spread a rug of goat's hair upon the ground and watered her face with ceaseless tears. Night after night she cast herself in thought at the Saviour's knees and implored him to accept her choice, to fulfil her aspiration, and to soften the hearts of her grandmother and of her mother.

5. Why do I still delay to relate the sequel? When her wedding day was now close at hand and when a marriage chamber was being got ready for the bride and bridegroom; secretly without any witnesses and with only the night to comfort her, she is said to have nerved herself with such considerations as these: What ails you, Demetrias? Why are you so fearful of defending your chastity? What you need is freedom and courage. If you are so panic-stricken in time of peace, what would you do if you were called on to undergo martyrdom? If you cannot bear so much as a frown from your own, how would you steel yourself to face the tribunals of persecutors? If men's examples leave you unmoved, at least gather courage and confidence from the blessed martyr Agnes who vanquished the temptations both of youth and of a despot and by her martyrdom hallowed the very name of chastity. Unhappy girl! You know not, you know not to whom your virginity is due. It is not long since you have trembled in the hands of the barbarians and clung to your grandmother and your mother cowering under their cloaks for safety. You have seen yourself a prisoner and your chastity not in your own power. You have shuddered at the fierce looks of your enemies; you have seen with secret agony the virgins of God ravished. Your city, once the capital of the world, is now the grave of the Roman people; and will you on the shores of Libya, yourself an exile, accept an exile for a husband? Where will you find a matron to be present at your bridal? Whom will you get to escort you home? No tongue but a harsh Punic one will sing for you the wanton Fescennine verses. Away with all hesitations! 'Perfect love' of God 'casts out fear.' 1 John 4:18 Take to yourself the shield of faith, the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation, Ephesians 6:14-17 and sally forth to battle. The preservation of your chastity involves a martyrdom of its own. Why do you fear your grandmother? Why do you dread your mother? Perhaps they may themselves wish for you a course which they do not think you wish for yourself. When by these and other arguments she had wrought herself to the necessary pitch of resolution, she cast from her as so many hindrances all her ornaments and worldly attire. Her precious necklaces, costly pearls, and glowing gems she put back in their cases. Then dressing herself in a coarse tunic and throwing over herself a still courser cloak she came in at an unlooked for moment, threw herself down suddenly at her grandmother's knees, and with tears and sobs showed her what she really was. That staid and holy woman was amazed when she beheld her granddaughter in so strange a dress. Her mother was completely overcome for joy. Both women could hardly believe that true which they had longed to be true. Their voices stuck in their throats, and, what with blushing and turning pale, with fright and with joy, they were a prey to many conflicting emotions.

6. I must needs give way here and not attempt to describe what defies description. In the effort to explain the greatness of that joy past all belief, the flow of Tully's eloquence would run dry and the bolts poised and hurled by Demosthenes would become spent and fall short. Whatever mind can conceive or speech can interpret of human gladness was seen then. Mother and child, grandmother and granddaughter kissed each other again and again. The two elder women wept copiously for joy, they raised the prostrate girl, they embraced her trembling form. In her purpose they recognized their own mind, and congratulated each other that now a virgin was to make a noble house more noble still by her virginity. She had found they said, a way to benefit her family and to lessen the calamity of the ruin of Rome. Good Jesus! What exultation there was all through the house! Many virgins sprouted out at once as shoots from a fruitful stem, and the example set by their patroness and lady was followed by a host both of clients and servants. Virginity was warmly espoused in every house and although those who made profession of it were as regards the flesh of lower rank than Demetrias they sought one reward with her, the reward of chastity. My words are too weak. Every church in Africa danced for joy. The news reached not only the cities, towns, and villages but even the scattered huts. Every island between Africa and Italy was full of it, the glad tidings ran far and wide, disliked by none. Then Italy put off her mourning and the ruined walls of Rome resumed in part their olden splendour; for they believed the full conversion of their fosterchild to be a sign of God's favour towards them. You would fancy that the Goths had been annihilated and that that concourse of deserters and slaves had fallen by a thunderbolt from the Lord on high. There was less elation in Rome when Marcellus won his first success at Nola after thousands of Romans had fallen at the Trebia, Lake Thrasymenus, and Cannæ;. There was less joy among the nobles cooped up in the capitol, on whom the future of Rome depended, when after buying their lives with gold they heard that the Gauls had at length been routed. The news penetrated to the coasts of the East, and this triumph of Christian glory was heard of in the remote cities of the interior. What Christian virgin was not proud to have Demetrias as a companion? What mother did not call Juliana's womb blessed? Unbelievers may scoff at the doubtfulness of rewards to come. Meantime, in becoming a virgin you have gained more than you have sacrificed. Had you become a man's bride but one province would have known of you; while as a Christian virgin you are known to the whole world. Mothers who have but little faith in Christ are unhappily wont to dedicate to virginity only deformed and crippled daughters for whom they can find no suitable husbands. Glass beads, as the saying goes, are thought equal to pearls. Men who pride themselves on their religion give to their virgin daughters sums scarcely sufficient for their maintenance, and bestow the bulk of their property upon sons and daughters living in the world. Quite recently in this city a rich presbyter left two of his daughters who were professed virgins with a mere pittance, while he provided his other children with ample means for self-indulgence and pleasure. The same thing has been done, I am sorry to say, by many women who have adopted the ascetic life. Would that such instances were rare, but unfortunately they are not. Yet the more frequent they are the more blessed are those who refuse to follow an example which is set them by so many.

7. All Christians are loud in their praises of Christ's holy yokefellows, because they gave to Demetrias when she professed herself a virgin the money which had been set apart as a dowry for her marriage. They would not wrong her heavenly bridegroom; in fact they wished her to come to Him with all her previous riches, that these might not be wasted on the things of the world, but might relieve the distress of God's servants.

Who would believe it? That Proba, who of all persons of high rank and birth in the Roman world bears the most illustrious name, whose holy life and universal charity have won for her esteem even among the barbarians, who has made nothing of the regular consulships enjoyed by her three sons, Probinus, Olybrius, and Probus,— that Proba, I say, now that Rome has been taken and its contents burned or carried off, is said to be selling what property she has and to be making for herself friends of the mammon of unrighteousness, that these may receive her into everlasting habitations! Luke 16:9 Well may the church's ministers, whatever their degree, and those monks who are only monks in name, blush for shame that they are buying estates, when this noble lady is selling them.

Hardly had she escaped from the hands of the barbarians, hardly had she ceased weeping for the virgins whom they had torn from her arms, when she was overwhelmed by a sudden and unbearable bereavement, one too which she had had no cause to fear, the death of her loving son. Yet as one who was to be grandmother to a Christian virgin, she bore up against this death-dealing stroke, strong in hope of the future and proving true of herself the words of the lyric:

Should the round world in fragments burst, its fall
May strike the just, may slay, but not appal.

We read in the book of Job how, while the first messenger of evil was yet speaking, there came also another; Job 1:16 and in the same book it is written: is there not a temptation— or as the Hebrew better gives it— a warfare to man upon earth? Job 7:1 It is for this end that we labour, it is for this end that we risk our lives in the warfare of this world, that we may be crowned in the world to come. That we should believe this to be true of men is nothing wonderful, for even the Lord Himself was tempted, and of Abraham the scripture bears witness that God tempted him. Genesis 22:1 It is for this reason also that the apostle says: we glory in tribulations....knowing that tribulation works patience; and patience experience; and experience hope; and hope makes not ashamed; Romans 5:3-5 and in another passage: Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword? As it is written, For your sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Romans 8:35-36 The prophet Isaiah comforts those in like case in these words: ye that are weaned from the milk, you that are drawn from the breasts, look for tribulation upon tribulation, but also for hope upon hope. For, as the apostle puts it the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. Romans 8:18 Why I have here brought together all these passages the sequel will make plain.

Proba who had seen from the sea the smoke of her native city and had committed her own safety and that of those dear to her to a fragile boat, found the shores of Africa even more cruel than those which she had left. For one lay in wait for her of whom it would be hard to say whether he was more covetous or heartless, one who cared for nothing but wine and money, one who under pretence of serving the mildest of emperors stood forth as the most savage of all despots. If I may be allowed to quote a fable of the poets, he was like Orcus in Tartarus. Like him too he had with him a Cerberus, not three headed but many headed, ready to seize and rend everything within his reach. He tore betrothed daughters from their mothers' arms and sold high-born maidens in marriage to those greediest of men, the merchants of Syria. No plea of poverty induced him to spare either ward or widow or virgin dedicated to Christ. Indeed he looked more at the hands than at the faces of those who appealed to him. Such was the dread Charybdis and such the hound-girt Scylla which this lady encountered in fleeing from the barbarians; monsters who neither spared the shipwrecked nor heeded the cry of those made captive. Cruel wretch! at least imitate the enemy of the Roman Empire. The Brennus of our day took only what he found, but you seek what you cannot find.

Virtue, indeed, is always exposed to envy, and cavillers may marvel at the secret agreement by which Proba purchased the chastity of her numerous companions. They may allege that the count who could have taken all would not have been satisfied with a part; and that she could not have questioned his claim since in spite of her rank she was but a slave in his despotic hands. I perceive also that I am laying myself open to the attacks of enemies and that I may seem to be flattering a lady of the highest birth and distinction. Yet these men will not be able to accuse me when they learn that hitherto I have said nothing about her. I have never either in the lifetime of her husband or since his decease praised her for the antiquity of her family or for the extent of her wealth and power, subjects which others might perhaps have improved in mercenary speeches. My purpose is to praise the grandmother of my virgin in a style befitting the church, and to thank her for having aided with her goodwill the desire which Demetrias has formed. For the rest my cell, my food and clothing, my advanced years, and my narrow circumstances sufficiently refute the charge of flattery. In what remains of my letter I shall direct all my words to Demetrias herself, whose holiness ennobles her as much as her rank, and of whom it may be said that the higher she climbs the more terrible will be her fall.

For the rest

This one thing, child of God, I lay on you;
Yea before all, and urge it many times:

Love to occupy your mind with the reading of scripture. Do not in the good ground of your breast gather only a crop of darnel and wild oats. Do not let an enemy sow tares among the wheat when the householder is asleep Matthew 13:25 (that is when the mind which ever cleaves to God is off its guard); but say always with the bride in the song of songs: By night I sought him whom my soul loves. Tell me where you feed, where you make your flock to rest at noon; and with the psalmist: my soul follows hard after you: your right hand upholds me; and with Jeremiah: I have not found it hard....to follow you, for there is no grief in Jacob neither is there travail in Israel. When you were in the world you loved the things of the world. You rubbed your cheeks with rouge and used whitelead to improve your complexion. You dressed your hair and built up a tower on your head with tresses not your own. I shall say nothing of your costly earrings, your glistening pearls from the depths of the Red Sea, your bright green emeralds, your flashing onyxes, your liquid sapphires,— tones which turn the heads of matrons, and make them eager to possess the like. For you have relinquished the world and besides your baptismal vow have taken a new one; you have entered into a compact with your adversary and have said: I renounce you, O devil, and your world and your pomp and your works. Observe, therefore, the treaty that you have made, and keep terms with your adversary while you are in the way of this world. Otherwise he may some day deliver you to the judge and prove that you have taken what is his; and then the judge will deliver you to the officer— at once your foe and your avenger— and you will be cast into prison; into that outer darkness Matthew 8:12 which surrounds us with the greater horror as it severs us from Christ the one true light. John 8:12 And you shall by no means come out thence till you have paid the uttermost farthing, Matthew 5:25-26 that is, till you have expiated your most trifling sins; for we shall give account of every idle word in the day of judgment. Matthew 12:36

8. In speaking thus I do not wish to utter an ill-omened prophecy against you but only to warn you as an apprehensive and prudent monitor who in your case fears even what is safe. What says the scripture? If the spirit of the ruler rise up against you, leave not your place. We must always stand under arms and in battle array, ready to engage the foe. When he tries to dislodge us from our position and to make us fall back, we must plant our feet firmly down, and say with the psalmist, he has set my feet upon a rock and the rocks are a refuge for the conies. In this latter passage for 'conies' many read 'hedgehogs.' Now the hedgehog is a small animal, very shy, and covered over with thorny bristles. When Jesus was crowned with thorns and bore our sins and suffered for us, it was to make the roses of virginity and the lilies of chastity grow for us out of the brambles and briers which have formed the lot of women since the day when it was said to Eve, in sorrow you shall bring forth children; and your desire shall be to your husband and he shall rule over you. Genesis 3:16 We are told that the bridegroom feeds among the lilies, Song of Songs 2:16 that is, among those who have not defiled their garments, for they have remained virgins Revelation 14:4 and have hearkened to the precept of the Preacher: let your garments be always white. Ecclesiastes 9:8 As the author and prince of virginity He says boldly of Himself: I am the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valleys. Song of Songs 2:1 The rocks then are a refuge for the conies who when they are persecuted in one city flee into another Matthew 10:23 and have no fear that the prophetic words refuge failed me will be fulfilled in their case. The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats, and their food are the serpents which a little child draws out of their holes. Meanwhile the leopard lies down with the kid and the lion eats straw like the ox; Isaiah 11:6-8 not of course that the ox may learn ferocity from the lion but that the lion may learn docility from the ox.

But let us turn back to the passage first quoted, If the spirit of the ruler rise up against you, leave not your place, a sentence which is followed by these words: for yielding pacifies great offenses. Ecclesiastes 10:4 The meaning is, that if the serpent finds his way into your thoughts you must keep your heart with all diligence Proverbs 4:23 and sing with David, cleanse thou me from secret faults: keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins, and come not to the great transgression which is sin in act. Rather slay the allurements to vice while they are still only thoughts; and dash the little ones of the daughter of Babylon against the stones where the serpent can leave no trail. Be wary and vow a vow unto the Lord: let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright and I shall be innocent from the great transgression. For elsewhere also the scripture testifies, I will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation. Numbers 14:18 That is to say, God will not punish us at once for our thoughts and resolves but will send retribution upon their offspring, that is, upon the evil deeds and habits of sin which arise out of them. As He says by the mouth of Amos: for three transgressions of such and such a city and for four I will not turn away the punishment thereof. Amos 1:3

9. I cull these few flowers in passing from the fair field of the holy scriptures. They will suffice to warn you that you must shut the door of your breast and fortify your brow by often making the sign of the cross. Thus alone will the destroyer of Egypt find no place to attack you; thus alone will the first-born of your soul escape the fate of the first-born of the Egyptians; thus alone will you be able with the prophet to say: my heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed; I will sing and give praise. Awake up, my glory; awake, psaltery and harp. For, sin stricken as she is, even Tyre is bidden to take up her harp Isaiah 23:15-16 and to do penance; like Peter she is told to wash away the stains of her former foulness with bitter tears. Howbeit, let us know nothing of penitence, lest the thought of it lead us into sin. It is a plank for those who have had the misfortune to be shipwrecked; but an inviolate virgin may hope to save the ship itself. For it is one thing to look for what you have cast away, and another to keep what you have never lost. Even the apostle kept under his body and brought it into subjection, lest having preached to others he might himself become a castaway. 1 Corinthians 9:27 Heated with the violence of sensual passion he made himself the spokesman of the human race: O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? and again, I know that in me, that is in my flesh, dwells no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good, I find not. For the good that I would, I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do; and once more: they that are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh, but in the spirit, if so be that the spirit of God dwell in you. Romans 8:8-9

10. After you have paid the most careful attention to your thoughts, you must then put on the armour of fasting and sing with David: I chastened my soul with fasting, and I have eaten ashes like bread, and as for me when they troubled me my clothing was sackcloth. Eve was expelled from paradise because she had eaten of the forbidden fruit. Elijah on the other hand after forty days of fasting was carried in a fiery chariot into heaven. For forty days and forty nights Moses lived by the intimate converse which he had with God, thus proving in his own case the complete truth of the saying, man does not live by bread only but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord. The Saviour of the world, who in His virtues and His mode of life has left us an example to follow, was, immediately after His baptism, taken up by the spirit that He might contend with the devil, Matthew 4:1 and after crushing him and overthrowing him might deliver him to his disciples to trample under foot. For what says the apostle? God shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly. Romans 16:20 And yet after the Saviour had fasted forty days, it was through food that the old enemy laid a snare for him, saying, If you be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. Matthew 4:3 Under the law, in the seventh month after the blowing of trumpets and on the tenth day of the month, a fast was proclaimed for the whole Jewish people, and that soul was cut off from among his people which on that day preferred self-indulgence to self-denial. In Job it is written of behemoth that his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly. Our foe uses the heat of youthful passion to tempt young men and maidens and sets on fire the wheel of our birth. He thus fulfils the words of Hosea, they are all adulterers, their heart is like an oven; an oven which only God's mercy and severe fasting can extinguish. These are the fiery darts Ephesians 6:16 with which the devil wounds men and sets them on fire, and it was these which the king of Babylon used against the three children. But when he made his fire forty-nine cubits high he did but turn to his own ruin the seven weeks which the Lord had appointed for a time of salvation. Leviticus 25:8 And as then a fourth bearing a form like the son of God slackened the terrible heat Daniel 3:25 and cooled the flames of the blazing fiery furnace, until, menacing as they looked, they became quite harmless, so is it now with the virgin soul. The dew of heaven and severe fasting quench in a girl the flame of passion and enable her soul even in its earthly tenement to live the angelic life. Therefore the chosen vessel Acts 9:15 declares that concerning virgins he has no commandment of the Lord. 1 Corinthians 7:25 For you must act against nature or rather above nature if you are to forswear your natural function, to cut off your own root, to cull no fruit but that of virginity, to abjure the marriage-bed, to shun intercourse with men, and while in the body to live as though out of it.

11. I do not, however, lay on you as an obligation any extreme fasting or abnormal abstinence from food. Such practices soon break down weak constitutions and cause bodily sickness before they lay the foundations of a holy life. It is a maxim of the philosophers that virtues are means, and that all extremes are of the nature of vice; and it is in this sense that one of the seven wise men propounds the famous saw quoted in the comedy, In nothing too much. You must not go on fasting until your heart begins to throb and your breath to fail and you have to be supported or carried by others. No; while curbing the desires of the flesh, you must keep sufficient strength to read scripture, to sing psalms, and to observe vigils. For fasting is not a complete virtue in itself but only a foundation on which other virtues may be built. The same may be said of sanctification and of that chastity without which no man shall see the Lord. Each of these is a step on the upward way, yet none of them by itself will avail to win the virgin's crown. The gospel teaches us this in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins; the former of whom enter into the bridechamber of the bridegroom, while the latter are shut out from it because not having the oil of good works they allow their lamps to fail. Matthew 25:1-12 This subject of fasting opens up a wide field in which I have often wandered myself, and many writers have devoted treatises to the subject. I must refer you to these if you wish to learn the advantages of self-restraint and on the other hand the evils of over-feeding.

12. Follow the example of your Spouse: Luke 2:51 be subject to your grandmother and to your mother. Never look upon a man, especially upon a young man, except in their company. Never know a man whom they do not know. It is a maxim of the world that the only sure friendship is one based on an identity of likes and dislikes. You have been taught by their example as well as instructed by the holy life of your home to aspire to virginity, to recognize the commandments of Christ, to know what is expedient for you and what course you ought to choose. But do not regard what is your own as absolutely your own. Remember that part of it belongs to those who have communicated their chastity to you and from whose honourable marriages and beds undefiled Hebrews 13:4 you have sprung up like a choice flower. For you are destined to produce perfect fruit if only you will humble yourself under the mighty hand of God, 1 Peter 5:6 always remembering that it is written: God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble. 1 Peter 5:5 Now where there is grace, this is not given in return for works but is the free gift of the giver, so that the apostles' words are fulfilled: it is not of him that wills nor of him that runs, but of God that shows mercy. Romans 9:16 And yet it is ours to will and not to will; and all the while the very liberty that is ours is only ours by the mercy of God.

13. Again in selecting for yourself eunuchs and maids and servingmen look rather to their characters than to their good looks; for, whatever their age or sex, and even if mutilation ensures in them a compulsory chastity, you must take account of their dispositions, for these cannot be operated on save by the fear of Christ. When you are present buffoonery and loose talk must find no place. You should never hear an improper word; if you do hear one, you must not be carried away by it. Abandoned men often make use of a single light expression to try the gates of chastity. Leave to worldlings the privileges of laughing and being laughed at. One who is in your position ought to be serious. Cato the Censor, in old time a leading man in your city, (the same who in his last days turned his attention to Greek literature without either blushing for himself as censor or despairing of success on account of his age) is said by Lucilius to have laughed only once in his life, and the same remark is made about Marcus Crassus. These men may have affected this austere mien to gain for themselves reputation and notoriety. For so long as we dwell in the tabernacle of this body and are enveloped with this fragile flesh, we can but restrain and regulate our affections and passions; we cannot wholly extirpate them. Knowing this the psalmist says: be ye angry and sin not; which the apostle explains thus: let not the sun go down upon your wrath. Ephesians 4:26 For, if to be angry is human, to put an end to one's anger is Christian.

14. I think it unnecessary to warn you against covetousness since it is the way of your family both to have riches and to despise them. The apostle too tells us that covetousness is idolatry, Ephesians 5:5 and to one who asked the Lord the question: Good Master what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life? He thus replied: If you will be perfect, go and sell that you have and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me. Such is the climax of complete and apostolic virtue— to sell all that one has and to distribute to the poor, and thus freed from all earthly encumbrance to fly up to the heavenly realms with Christ. To us, or I should rather say to you, a careful stewardship is entrusted, although in such matters full freedom of choice is left to every individual, whether old or young. Christ's words are if you will be perfect. I do not compel you, He seems to say, I do not command you, but I set the palm before you, I show you the prize; it is for you to choose whether you will enter the arena and win the crown. Let us consider how wisely Wisdom has spoken. Sell that you have. To whom is the command given? Why, to him to whom it was said, if you will be perfect. Sell not a part of your goods but all that you have. And when you have sold them, what then? Give to the poor. Not to the rich, not to your kinsfolk, not to minister to self indulgence; but to relieve need. It does not matter whether a man is a priest or a relation or a connection, you must think of nothing but his poverty. Let your praises come from the stomachs of the hungry and not from the rich banquets of the overfed. We read in the Acts of the Apostles how, while the blood of the Lord was still warm and believers were in the fervour of their first faith, they all sold their possessions and laid the price of them at the apostles' feet (to show that money ought to be trampled underfoot) and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need. Acts 4:34-35 But Ananias and Sapphira proved timid stewards, and what is more, deceitful ones; therefore they brought on themselves condemnation. For having made a vow they offered their money to God as if it were their own and not His to whom they had vowed it; and keeping back for their own use a part of that which belonged to another, through fear of famine which true faith never fears, they drew down on themselves suddenly the avenging stroke, which was meant not in cruelty towards them but as a warning to others. Acts 5:1-10 In fact the apostle Peter by no means called down death upon them as Porphyry foolishly says. He merely announced God's judgment by the spirit of prophecy, that the doom of two persons might be a lesson to many. From the time of your dedication to perpetual virginity your property is yours no longer; or rather is now first truly yours because it has come to be Christ's. Yet while your grandmother and mother are living you must deal with it according to their wishes. If, however, they die and rest in the sleep of the saints (and I know that they desire that you should survive them); when your years are riper, and your will steadier, and your resolution stronger, you will do with your money what seems best to you, or rather what the Lord shall command, knowing as you will that hereafter you will have nothing save that which you have here spent on good works. Others may build churches, may adorn their walls when built with marbles, may procure massive columns, may deck the unconscious capitals with gold and precious ornaments, may cover church doors with silver and adorn the altars with gold and gems. I do not blame those who do these things; I do not repudiate them. Everyone must follow his own judgment. And it is better to spend one's money thus than to hoard it up and brood over it. However your duty is of a different kind. It is yours to clothe Christ in the poor, to visit Him in the sick, to feed Him in the hungry, to shelter Him in the homeless, particularly such as are of the household of faith, Galatians 6:10 to support communities of virgins, to take care of God's servants, of those who are poor in spirit, who serve the same Lord as you day and night, who while they are on earth live the angelic life and speak only of the praises of God. Having food and raiment they rejoice and count themselves rich. They seek for nothing more, contented if only they can persevere in their design. For as soon as they begin to seek more they are shown to be undeserving even of those things that are needful.

The preceding counsels have been addressed to a virgin who is wealthy and a lady of rank.

15. But what I am now going to say will be addressed to the virgin alone. I shall take into consideration, that is, not your circumstances but yourself. In addition to the rule of psalmody and prayer which you must always observe at the third, sixth, and ninth hours, at evening, at midnight, and at dawn, you should determine how much time you will bind yourself to give to the learning and reading of scripture, aiming to please and instruct the soul rather than to lay a burden upon it. When you have spent your allotted time in these studies, often kneeling down to pray as care for your soul will impel you to do; have some wool always at hand, shape the threads into yarn with your thumb, attach them to the shuttle, and then throw this to weave a web, or roll up the yarn which others have spun or lay it out for the weavers. Examine their work when it is done, find fault with its defects, and arrange how much they are to do. If you busy yourself with these numerous occupations, you will never find your days long; however late the summer sun may be in setting, a day will always seem too short on which something remains undone. By observing such rules as these you will save yourself and others, you will set a good example as a mistress, and you will place to your credit the chastity of many. For the scripture says: the soul of every idler is filled with desires. Nor may you excuse yourself from toil on the plea that God's bounty has left you in want of nothing. No; you must labour with the rest, that being always busy you may think only of the service of the Lord. I shall speak quite plainly. Even supposing that you give all your property to the poor, Christ will value nothing more highly than what you have wrought with your own hands. You may work for yourself or to set an example to your virgins; or you may make presents to your mother and grandmother to draw from them larger sums for the relief of the poor.

16. I have all but passed over the most important point of all. While you were still quite small, bishop Anastasius of holy and blessed memory ruled the Roman church. In his days a terrible storm of heresy came from the East and strove first to corrupt and then to undermine that simple faith which an apostle has praised. Romans 1:8 However the bishop, rich in poverty and as careful of his flock as an apostle, at once smote the noxious thing on the head, and stayed the hydra's hissing. Now I have reason to fear— in fact a report has reached me to this effect— that the poisonous germs of this heresy still live and sprout in the minds of some to this day. I think, therefore, that I ought to warn you, in all kindness and affection, to hold fast the faith of the saintly Innocent, the spiritual son of Anastasius and his successor in the apostolic see; and not to receive any foreign doctrine, however wise and discerning you may take yourself to be. Men of this type whisper in corners and pretend to inquire into the justice of God. Why, they ask, was a particular soul born in a particular province? What is the reason that some are born of Christian parents, others among wild beasts and savage tribes who have no knowledge of God? Wherever they can strike the simple with their scorpion-sting and form an ulcer fitted to their purpose, there they diffuse their venom. Is it for nothing, think you,— thus they arguethat a little child scarcely able to recognize its mother by a laugh or a look of joy, which has done nothing either good or evil, is seized by a devil or overwhelmed with jaundice or doomed to bear afflictions which godless men escape, while God's servants have to bear them? Now if God's judgments, they say, are true and righteous altogether, and if there is no unrighteousness in Him, we are compelled by reason to believe that our souls have pre-existed in heaven, that they are condemned to and, if I may so say, buried in human bodies because of some ancient sins, and that we are punished in this valley of weeping for old misdeeds. This according to them is the prophet's reason for saying: Before I was afflicted I went astray, and again, Bring my soul out of prison. They explain in the same way the question of the disciples in the gospel: Who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? John 9:2 and other similar passages.

This godless and wicked teaching was formerly ripe in Egypt and the East; and now it lurks secretly like a viper in its hole among many persons in those parts, defiling the purity of the faith and gradually creeping on like an inherited disease till it assails a large number. But I am sure that if you hear it you will not accept it. For you have preceptresses under God whose faith is a rule of sound doctrine. You will understand what I mean, for God will give you understanding in all things. You must not ask me on the spot to give you a refutation of this dreadful heresy and of others worse still; for were I to do so I should criticize where I ought to forbid, and my present object is not to refute heretics but to instruct a virgin. However, I have defeated their wiles and counterworked their efforts to undermine the truth in a treatise which by God's help I have written; and if you desire to have this, I shall send it to you promptly and with pleasure. I say, if you desire to have it, for as the proverb says, wares proffered unasked are little esteemed, and a plentiful supply brings down prices, which are always highest where scarcity prevails.

17. Men often discuss the comparative merits of life in solitude and life in a community; and the preference is usually given to the first over the second. Still even for men there is always the risk that, being withdrawn from the society of their fellows, they may become exposed to unclean and godless imaginations, and in the fullness of their arrogance and disdain may look down upon everyone but themselves, and may arm their tongues to detract from the clergy or from those who like themselves are bound by the vows of a solitary life. Of such it is well said by the psalmist, as for the children of men their teeth are spears and arrows and their tongue a sharp sword. Now if all this is true of men, how much more does it apply to women whose fickle and vacillating minds, if left to their own devices, soon degenerate. I am myself acquainted with anchorites of both sexes who by excessive fasting have so impaired their faculties that they do not know what to do or where to turn, when to speak or when to be silent. Most frequently those who have been so affected have lived in solitary cells, cold and damp. Moreover if persons untrained in secular learning read the works of able church writers, they only acquire from them a wordy fluency and not, as they might do, a fuller knowledge of the scriptures. The old saying is found true of them, although they have not the wit to speak, they cannot remain silent. They teach to others the scriptures that they do not understand themselves; and if they are fortunate enough to convince them, they take upon themselves airs as men of learning. In fact, they set up as instructors of the ignorant before they have gone to school themselves. It is a good thing therefore to defer to one's betters, to obey those set over one, to learn not only from the scriptures but from the example of others how one ought to order one's life, and not to follow that worst of teachers, one's own self-confidence. Of women who are thus presumptuous the apostle says that they are carried about with every wind of doctrine, Ephesians 4:14 ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. 2 Timothy 3:7

18. Avoid the company of married women who are devoted to their husbands and to the world, that your mind may not become unsettled by hearing what a husband says to his wife, or a wife to her husband. Such conversations are filled with deadly venom. To express his condemnation of them the apostle has taken a verse of a profane writer and has pressed it into the service of the church. It may be literally rendered at the expense of the metre: evil communications corrupt good manners. No; you should choose for your companions staid and serious women, particularly widows and virgins, persons of approved conversation, of few words, and of a holy modesty. Shun gay and thoughtless girls, who deck their heads and wear their hair in fringes, who use cosmetics to improve their skins and affect tight sleeves, dresses without a crease, and dainty buskins; and by pretending to be virgins more easily sell themselves into destruction. Moreover, the character and tastes of a mistress are often inferred from the behaviour of her attendants. Regard as fair and lovable and a fitting companion one who is unconscious of her good looks and careless of her appearance; who does not expose her breast out of doors or throw back her cloak to reveal her neck; who veils all of her face except her eyes, and only uses these to find her way.

19. I hesitate about what I am going to say but, as often happens, whether I like it or not, it must be said; not that I have reason to fear anything of the kind in your case, for probably you know nothing of such things and have never even heard of them, but that in advising you I may warn others. A virgin should avoid as so many plagues and banes of chastity all ringletted youths who curl their hair and scent themselves with musk; to whom may well be applied the words of Petronius Arbiter, too much perfume makes an ill perfume. I need not speak of those who by their pertinacious visits to virgins bring discredit both on themselves and on these; for, even if nothing wrong is done by them, no wrong can be imagined greater than to find oneself exposed to the calumnies and attacks of the heathen. I do not here speak of all, but only of those whom the church itself rebukes, whom sometimes it expels, and against whom the censure of bishops and presbyters is not seldom directed. For, as it is, it is almost more dangerous for giddy girls to show themselves in the abodes of religion than even to walk abroad. Virgins who live in communities and of whom large numbers are assembled together, should never go out by themselves or unaccompanied by their mother. A hawk often singles out one of a flight of doves, pounces on it and tears it open till it is gorged with its flesh and blood. Sick sheep stray from the flock and fall into the jaws of wolves. I know some saintly virgins who on holy days keep at home to avoid the crowds and refuse to go out when they must either take a strong escort, or altogether avoid all public places.

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. My language then gave offense to a great many, for everyone applied what I said to himself and instead of welcoming my admonitions turned away from me as an accuser of his deeds. Was it any use, do you ask, thus to arm a host of remonstrants and to show by my complaints the wounds which my conscience received? Yes, I answer, for, while they have passed away, my book still remains. 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. So that I am reduced to the alternative of repeating exhortations which seem superfluous or of omitting them to the serious injury of this treatise. The blessed Cyprian has left a noble work on virginity; and many other writers, both Greek and Latin, have done the same. Indeed the virginal life has been praised both with tongue and pen among all nations and particularly among the churches. Most, however, of those who have written on the subject have addressed themselves to such as have not yet chosen virginity, and who need help to enable them to choose aright. But I and those to whom I write have made our choice; and our one object is to remain constant to it. Therefore, as our way lies among scorpions and adders, among snares and banes, let us go forward staff in hand, our loins girded and our feet shod; Exodus 12:11 that so we may come to the sweet waters of the true Jordan, and enter the land of promise and go up to the house of God. Then shall we sing with the prophet: Lord, I have loved the habitation of your house and the place where your honour dwells; and again: one thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.

Happy is the soul, happy is the virgin in whose heart there is room for no other love than the love of Christ. For in Himself He is wisdom and chastity, patience and justice and every other virtue. Happy too is she who can recall a man's face without the least sigh of regret, and who has no desire to set eyes on one whom, after she has seen him, she may find herself unwilling to give up. Some there are, however, who by their ill-behaviour bring discredit on the holy profession of virginity and upon the glory of the heavenly and angelic company who have made it. These must be frankly told either to marry if they cannot contain, or to contain if they will not marry. It is also a matter for laughter or rather for tears, that when mistresses walk abroad they are preceded by maids better dressed than themselves; indeed so usual has this become that, if of two women you see one less neat than the other, you take her for the mistress as a matter of course. And yet these maids are professed virgins. Again not a few virgins choose sequestered dwellings where they will not be under the eyes of others, in order that they may live more freely than they otherwise could do. They take baths, do what they please, and try as much as they can to escape notice. We see these things and yet we put up with them; in fact, if we catch sight of the glitter of gold, we are ready to account of them as good works.

20. I end as I began, not content to have given you but a single warning. Love the holy scriptures, and wisdom will love you. Love wisdom, and it will keep you safe. Honour wisdom, and it will embrace you round about. Let the jewels on your breast and in your ears be the gems of wisdom. Let your tongue know no theme but Christ, let no sound pass your lips that is not holy, and let your words always reproduce that sweetness of which your grandmother and your mother set you the example. Imitate them, for they are models of virtue.

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/3001130.htm>.

Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is feedback732 at newadvent.org. (To help fight spam, this address might change occasionally.) Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.

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