September - Saint Jerome

Doctor of the Church, 30th September (420)
the Bad-Tempered saint

Jerome was by several accounts a rather bad-tempered, prickly and unpleasant person, who was also unsuccessful when he tried the life of a monk. However, his reputation for disciplined holiness and biblical scholarship has survived over 1,500 years and should be of encouragement to those of us aware of our own unpleasant personal traits and habits. Heaven is populated not with the perfect, but with ordinary people who have tried their best to love God and serve humanity. If we try and are not wholly successful at overcoming our failings, think what we would be like if we did not try! Virtue comes not from our success, but from our struggle.

Jerome was born, in about the year 342, near Aquileia on the Dalmatian coast. He studied at Rome, where he was baptised. Returning to Aquileia, he tried out a life of prayer, meditation and detachment with friends in community, but after a few years left to become a hermit in the Syrian desert. Even there he was not satisfied, complaining that there were so many hermits that the desert was overcrowded! However it was there he had an experience which profoundly influenced his life. He had a dream of standing before God in judgement and being condemned for his faith in classics rather than Christ. He learned Hebrew to enable a better study of the scriptures and went to Constantinople and Antioch where he attended biblical lectures by Gregory of Nazianus and Apollinarius.

By 382, when Jerome became Secretary to Pope Damasus in Rome, he was noted for his skills in rhetoric and for advocating an uncompromising asceticism which attracted some, while alienating others. Among his more austere views was the belief that marriage was an inferior state for a Christian. His advice on raising a virtuous daughter was that she should make her own clothes (but not fine ones) and that she should spend her entire time in reading, prayer and work. However he had a following, particularly among wealthy noble Roman ladies, to whom he read and explained scripture. It was at this time he was commissioned by Pope Damasus to revise the Latin translation of the Gospels. His crusty temperament and strong views, together with a whiff of scandal, caused him to leave Rome in 385 and embark on a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine. He eventually settled in Bethlehem and began the work for which he is best known - the translation of the Bible into Latin, including translating the Old Testament from the original Hebrew. Known as the Vulgate, this remained the authorised version of the Bible for Catholics until the present century.

On a recent visit to Bethlehem, I visited Jerome’s tomb in a cave under the Church of the Nativity, and the small cave nearby which is the traditional location of his study. One could only feel admiration at the tenacity and dedication of a man who worked there for more than thirty years, in artificial light - for even in his day there was a Basilica on the site. This Basilica was of course the Church of the Nativity, built over a cave which from the first century has been celebrated as the birth-place of Jesus. Jerome’s study and the Cave of the Nativity are part of the same system and only about 30ft apart - which leads to another insight about Jerome and his work - the closest possible link between prayer and scripture. While he emphasised chastity, fasting, solitude and poverty as a rule of life, this was only a means to an end - the dialogue of the soul with God, his dedication to biblical study was even greater:

To live amongst these books, to meditate on them, to know nothing else, to seek nothing else - does this not seem to you a corner of heaven already?

He insisted that in biblical study it was essential to start by establishing the literal sense, but this was only a base from which to seek the spiritual truth which is at the heart of the matter. The ascetic life was only a condition for effectively engaging prayerfully with scripture.

In 387 Jerome was joined in Bethlehem by Paula and together they transformed it into a great monastic centre, emphasising asceticism, the centrality of scripture and the spiritual benefits of manual work. This movement had a significant influence on the evolution of monastic life, in particular on the way scripture, particularly the psalms, came to inform the monastic daily office. Paula and her daughter Eustochium, are also buried in the caves under the Church of the Nativity. Letters from Jerome, always a prolific writer, circulated widely in Italy and Gaul, winning many converts to the ascetic life (especially from well-born females) and continued to serve as sources of inspiration long after his death in 420.

Jerome was never a warm friendly person and in spite of fasting, prayer and constantly berating himself for his failings, was never as popular as his teaching. Even his writing, with a rigid rhetoric and didactic style, we would find difficult today. But his legacy remains. So perhaps we should try to see through the disagreeable and unpleasant aspects of those we meet in life and find what scope for goodness lies beneath. If a crotchety old saint like Jerome can do something useful for God there must be some hope for all of us.

Jim McLean
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 30th August 1998