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Home > Fathers of the Church > Letters of St. Jerome > Letter 118

Letter 118

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To Julian

Jerome writes to Julian, a wealthy nobleman apparently of Dalmatia (§5), to console him for the loss of his wife and two daughters all of whom had recently died. He reminds Julian of the trials of Job and recommends him to imitate the patience of the patriarch. He also urges him to follow the example set by Pammachius and Paulinus, that is, to give up his riches and to become a monk for the sake of Christ. The date of the letter is 406 A.D.

1. At the very instant of his departure Ausonius, a son to me as he is a brother to you, gave me a late glimpse of himself but quickly hurried away again, saying good-morning and good-bye together. Yet he thought that he would return empty-handed unless he could bring you some trifle from me however hastily written. Clothed in scarlet as befitted his rank, he had already strapped on his sword-belt and sent down a requisition to have a stage-horse saddled. Still he made me send for my secretary and dictate a letter to him. This I did with such rapidity that his nimble hand could hardly keep pace with my words or manage to put down my hurried sentences. Thus hasty dictation has taken the place of careful writing; and, if I break my long silence, it is but to offer you an expression of good will. This is an impromptu letter without logical order or charm of style. You must look on me for once as a friend only; you will find, I assure you, nothing of the orator here. Bear in mind that it has been dashed off on the spur of the moment and given as a provision for the way to one in a hurry to depart.

Holy scripture says: a tale out of season is as musick in mourning. Sirach 22:6 Accordingly I have disdained the graces of rhetoric and those charms of eloquence which boys find so captivating, and have fallen back on the serious tone of the sacred writings. For in these are to be found true medicines for wounds and sure remedies for sorrow. In these a mother receives back her only son even on the bier. Luke 7:11-15 In these a crowd of mourners hears the words: the maid is not dead but sleeps. Matthew 9:24 In these one that is four days dead comes forth bound at the call of the Lord.

2. I hear that in a short space of time you have suffered several bereavements, that you have buried in quick succession two young unmarried daughters, and that Faustina, most chaste and loyal of wives, your sister in the fervour of her faith and your one comfort in the loss of your children, has suddenly fallen asleep and been taken from you. You have been like a shipwrecked man, who has no sooner reached the shore than he falls into the hands of brigands, or in the eloquent language of the prophet like one who did flee from a lion, and a bear met him; or went into the house, and leaned his hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him. Amos 5:19 Pecuniary losses have followed your bereavements; the entire province has been overrun by a barbarian enemy, and in the general devastation your private property has been destroyed, your flocks and herds have been driven off, and your poor slaves either made prisoners or else slain. To crown all, your only daughter, made all the more dear to you by the loss of the others, has for her husband a young nobleman who, to say nothing worse of him, has given you more occasion for sorrow than for rejoicing. Such is the list of the trials that have been laid upon you; such is the conflict waged by the old enemy against Julian a raw recruit to Christ's standard. If you look only to yourself your troubles are indeed great but if you look to the strong Warrior, Revelation 19:11-16 they are but child's play and the conflict is only the semblance of one. After untold trials a wicked wife was still left to the blessed Job, the devil hoping that he might learn from her to blaspheme God. You on the other hand have been deprived of an excellent one that you might learn to go without consolation in the hour of misfortune. Yet it is far harder to put up with a wife whom you dislike than it is to mourn for one whom you dearly love. Moreover when Job's children died they found a common tomb beneath the ruins of his house, and all he could do to show his parental affection was to rend his garments, to fall upon the ground and to worship, saying: Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there: the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away: it has been as the Lord pleased: blessed be the name of the Lord. Job 1:20-21 But you, to put the matter briefly, have been allowed to perform the obsequies of your dear ones; and those obsequies have been attended by many respectful kinsmen and comforting friends. Again Job lost all his wealth at once; and, as, one after another, the messengers of woe unfolded new calamities, he flinched as little as the sage of whom Horace writes: —

Shatter the world to atoms if you will.
Fearless will be the man on whom it falls.

But with you the case is different. The greater part of your substance has been left to you, and your trials have not been greater than you can bear. For you have not yet attained to such perfection that the devil has to marshal all his forces against you.

3. Long ago this wealthy proprietor and still wealthier father was made by a sudden stroke destitute and bereaved. But as, in spite of all that befell him, he had not sinned before God or spoken foolishly, the Lord — exulting in the victory of his servant and regarding Job's patience as His own triumph — said to the devil: Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that fears God and eschews evil? And still he holds fast his integrity? Job 2:3 He finely adds the last clause because it is difficult for innocence to refrain from murmuring when it is overborne by misfortune; and to avoid making a shipwreck of faith when it sees that its sufferings are unjustly inflicted. The devil answered the Lord and said: Skin for skin, yea, all that a man has will he give for his life. But put forth your hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face. Job 2:4-5 See how crafty the adversary is, and how hardened in sin his evil days have made him! He knows the difference between things external and internal. He knows that even the philosophers of the world call the former ἀ διάφορα, that is indifferent, and that the perfection of virtue does not consist in losing or disdaining them. It is the latter, those that are internal and objects of preference, the loss of which inevitably causes chagrin. Wherefore he boldly contradicts what God has said and declares that Job deserves no praise at all; since he has yielded up no part of himself but only what is outside himself, since he has given for his own skin the skins of his children, and since he has but laid down his purse to secure the health of his body. From this your sagacity may perceive that your trials have so far only reached the point at which you give hide for hide, skin for skin, and are ready to give all that you have for your life. The Lord has not yet stretched forth His hand upon you, or touched your flesh, or broken your bones. Yet it is when such afflictions as these are laid upon you that it is hard not to groan and not to 'bless' God to His face, that is to curse Him. The word 'bless' is used in the same way in the books of Kings where it is said of Naboth that he 'blessed' God and the king and was therefore stoned by the people. But the Lord knew His champion and felt sure that this great hero would even in this last and severest conflict prove unconquerable. Therefore He said: Behold he is in your hand; but save his life. Job 2:6 The holy man's flesh is placed at the devil's disposal, but his vital powers are withheld. For if the devil had smitten that on which sensation and mental judgment depend, the guilt arising from a misuse of these faculties I would have lain at the door not of him who committed the sin but of him who had overthrown the balance of his mind.

4. Others may praise you if they will, and celebrate your victories over the devil. They may eulogize you for the smiling face with which you bore the loss of your daughters, or for the resolution with which, forty days after they fell asleep, you exchanged your mourning for a white robe to attend the dedication of a martyr's bones; unconcerned for a bereavement which was the concern of the whole city, and anxious only to share in a martyr's triumph. Nay, say they, when you bore your wife to burial, it was not as one dead but as one setting forth on a journey. But I shall not deceive you with flattering words or take the ground from under your feet with slippery praises. Rather will I say what it is good for you to hear: My son, if you come to serve the Lord, prepare your soul for temptation, Sirach 2:1 and when you shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, I am an unprofitable servant; I have done that which was my duty to do. Say to God: the children that you have taken from me were Your own gift. The hand-maiden that You have taken to Yourself Thou also lent to me for a season to be my solace. I am not aggrieved that You have taken her back, but thankful rather that You have previously given her to me.

Once upon a time a rich young man boasted that he had fulfilled all the requirements of the law, but the Lord said to him (as we read in the gospel): One thing you lack, if you will be perfect, go your way, sell whatsoever you have, and give to the poor; and come and follow me. Mark 10:21 He who declared that he had done all things gave way at the first onset to the power of riches. Wherefore they who are rich find it hard to enter the kingdom of heaven, a kingdom which desires for its citizens souls that soar aloft free from all ties and hindrances. Go your way, the Lord says, and sell not a part of your substance but all that you have, and give to the poor; not to your friends or kinsfolk or relatives, not to your wife or to your children. I will even go farther and say: keep back nothing for yourself because you fear to be some day poor, lest by so doing you share the condemnation of Ananias and Sapphira; Acts 5:1-10 but give everything to the poor and make to yourself friends of the mammon of unrighteousness that they may receive you into everlasting habitations. Luke 16:9 Obey the Master's injunction follow me, Matthew 9:9 and take the Lord of the world for your possession; that you may be able to sing with the prophet, The Lord is my portion, and like a true Levite Numbers 18:20-24 may possess no earthly inheritance. I cannot but advise you thus if you wish to be perfect, if you desire to attain the pinnacle of the apostles' glory, if you wish to take up your cross and to follow Christ. When once you have put your hand to the plough you must not look back; Luke 9:62 when once you stand on the housetop you must think no more of your clothes within; to escape your Egyptian mistress Genesis 39:12 you must abandon the cloak that belongs to this world. Even Elijah, in his quick translation to heaven could not take his mantle with him, but left in the world the garments of the world. Such conduct, you will object, is for him who would emulate the apostles, for the man who aspires to be perfect. But why should not you aspire to be perfect? Why should not you who hold a foremost place in the world hold a foremost place also in Christ's household? Is it because you have been married? Peter was married too, but when he forsook his ship and his nets he forsook his wife also. The Lord who wills that all men shall be saved and prefers the repentance of a sinner to his death has, in His almighty providence, removed from you this excuse. Your wife can no longer draw you earthwards, but you can follow her as she draws you heavenwards. Provide good things for your children who have gone home before you to the Lord. Do not let their portions go to swell their sister's fortune, but use them to ransom your own soul and to give sustenance to the needy. These are the necklaces your daughters expect from you; these are the jewels they wish to see sparkle on their foreheads. The money which they would have wasted in buying silks may well be considered saved when it provides cheap clothing for the poor. They ask you for their portions. Now that they are united to their spouse they are loth to appear poor and undistinguished: they desire to have the ornaments that befit their rank.

5. Nor may you excuse yourself on the score of your noble station and the responsibilities of wealth. Look at Pammachius and at Paulinus that presbyter of glowing faith both of whom have offered to the Lord not only their riches but themselves. In spite of the devil and his shuffling they have by no means given skin for skin, but have consecrated their own flesh and bones, yea and their very souls unto the Lord. Surely these may lead you to higher things both by their example and by their preaching, that is, by their deeds and words. You are of noble birth, so are they: but in Christ they are made nobler still. You are rich and held in repute, so once were they: but now instead of being rich and held in repute they are poor and obscure, yet, because it is for Christ's sake, they are really richer and more famous than ever. You too, it is true, show yourself beneficent, you are said to minister to the wants of the saints, to entertain monks, and to present large sums of money to churches. This however is only the ABC of your soldiership. You despise money; the world's philosophers have done the same. One of these — to say nothing of the rest — cast the price of many possessions into the sea, saying as he did so To the bottom with you, you provokers of evil lusts. I shall drown you in the sea that you may never drown me in sin. If then a philosopher— a creature of vanity whom popular applause can buy and sell — laid down all his burden at once, how can you think that you have reached virtue's crowning height when you have yielded up but a portion of yours? It is you yourself that the Lord wishes for, a living sacrifice...acceptable unto God. Romans 12:1 Yourself, I say, and not what you have. And therefore, as he trained Israel by subjecting it to many plagues and afflictions, so does He now admonish you by sending you trials of different kinds. For whom the Lord loves he chastens, and scourges every son whom he receives. Hebrews 12:6 The poor widow did but cast two mites into the treasury; yet because she cast in all that she had it is said of her that she surpassed all the rich in offering gifts to God. Mark 12:43-44 Such gifts are valued not by their weight but by the good-will with which they are made. You may have spent your substance upon numbers of people, and a portion of your fellows may have reason to rejoice in your bounty; yet those who have received nothing at your hands are still more numerous. Neither the wealth of Darius nor the riches of Crœsus would suffice to satisfy the wants of the world's poor. But if you once give yourself to the Lord and resolve to follow the Saviour in the perfection of apostolic virtue, then you will come to see what your place has hitherto been, and how you have lagged in the rear of Christ's army. Hardly had you begun to mourn for your dead daughters when the fear of Christ dried the tears of paternal affection upon your cheeks. It was a great triumph of faith, true. But how much greater was that won by Abraham who was content to slay his only son, of whom he had been told that he was to inherit the world, yet did not cease to hope that after death Isaac would live again. Hebrews 11:17-19 Jephthah too offered up his virgin daughter, and for this is placed by the apostle in the roll of the saints. I would not therefore have you offer to the Lord only what a thief may steal from you or an enemy fall upon, or a proscription confiscate, what is liable to fluctuations in value now going up and now down, what belongs to a succession of masters who follow each other as fast as in the sea wave follows wave, and — to say everything in a word — what, whether you like it or not, you must leave behind you when you die. Rather offer to God that which no enemy can carry off and no tyrant take from you, which will go down with you into the grave, nay on to the kingdom of heaven and the enchantments of paradise. You already build monasteries and support in the various islands of Dalmatia a large number of holy men. But you would do better still if you were to live among these holy men as a holy man yourself. Be holy, says the Lord, for I am holy. The apostles boasted that they had left all things and had followed the Saviour. Luke 18:28 We do not read that they left anything except their ship and their nets; yet they were crowned with the approval of Him who was to be their judge. Why? Because in offering up themselves they had indeed left all that they had.

6. I say all this not in disparagement of your good works or because I wish to under-rate your generosity in almsgiving, but because I do not wish you to be a monk among men of the world and a man of the world among monks. I shall require every sacrifice of you for I hear that your mind is devoted to the service of God. If some friend, or follower, or kinsman tries to combat this counsel of mine and to recall you to the pleasures of a handsome table, be sure that he is thinking less of your soul than of his own belly, and remember that death in a moment terminates both elegant entertainments and all other pleasures provided by wealth. Within the short space of twenty days you have lost two daughters, the one eight years old and the other six; and do you suppose that one so old as you are yourself can live much longer? David tells you how long a time you can look for: the days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow. Happy is he and to be held worthy of the highest bliss whom old age shall find a servant of Christ and whom the last day shall discover fighting for the Saviour's cause. He shall not be ashamed when he speaks with his enemies in the gate. On his entrance into paradise it shall be said to him: you in your lifetime received evil things but nowhere you are comforted. The Lord will not avenge the same sin twice. Lazarus, formerly poor and full of ulcers, whose sores the dogs licked and who barely managed to live, poor wretch, on the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table, is now welcomed into Abraham's bosom and has the joy of finding a father in the great patriarch. It is difficult nay impossible for a man to enjoy both the good things of the present and those of the future, to satisfy his belly here and his mind yonder, to pass from the pleasures of this life to the pleasures of that, to be first in both worlds, and to be held in honour both on earth and in heaven.

7. And if in your secret thoughts you are troubled because I who give you this advice am not myself what I desire you to be, and because you have seen some after beginning well fall midway on their journey; I shall briefly plead in reply that the words which I speak are not mine but those of the Lord and Saviour, and that I urge upon you not the standard which is possible to myself but the ideal which every true servant of Christ must wish for and realize. Athletes as a rule are stronger than their backers; yet the weaker presses the stronger to put forth all his efforts. Look not upon Judas denying his Lord but upon Paul confessing Him. Jacob's father was a man of great wealth; yet, when Jacob went to Mesopotamia, he went alone and destitute leaning upon his staff. When he felt weary he had to lie down by the wayside and, delicately nurtured as he had been by his mother Rebekah, was forced to content himself with a stone for a pillow. Yet it was then that he saw the ladder set up from earth to heaven, and the angels ascending and descending on it, and the Lord above it holding out a helping hand to such as fall and encouraging the climbers to fresh efforts by the vision of Himself. Therefore is the spot called Bethel or the house of God; for there day by day there is ascending and descending. When they are careless, even holy men lose their footing; and sinners, if they wash away their stains with tears regain their place. I say this not that those coming down may frighten you but that those going up may stimulate you. For evil can never supply a model and even in worldly affairs incentives to virtue come always from the brighter side.

But I have forgotten my purpose and the limits set to my letter. I should have liked to say a great deal more. Indeed all that I can say is inadequate alike to satisfy the seriousness of the subject and the claims of your rank. But here is our Ausonius beginning to be impatient for the sheets, hurrying the secretaries, and in his impatience at the neighing of his horse, accusing my poor wits of slowness. Remember me, then, and prosper in Christ. And one thing more; follow the example set you at home by the holy Vera, who like a true follower of Christ does not fear to endure the hardships of pilgrimage. Find in a woman your 'leader in this high emprise.'

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. <>.

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