A letter from Jerome (384)
Abraham is tempted in the matter of his son, and is found to be of greater faith. Joseph is sold in Egypt, and is thereby able to maintain his father and brothers. Hezekiah is terrified by the near approach of death, but he bursts into tears and his life is extended by the space of fifteen years. If the faith of the apostle Peter is shaken by Our Lord's passion, it is that amid his bitter tears he may hear the words: "Feed my sheep." Paul, that ravening wolf, that little Benjamin,(1) is blinded in a trance, but as the result he gains clear vision, and from the sudden horror of darkness around him calls upon Him as Lord whom in the past he persecuted as man.
So now, my dear Marcella, has it been with our beloved Blesilla. For nearly thirty days we have seen her tossing continually in a burning fever, that thereby she might learn to cast away all those pamperings of that body into which worms will soon burrow their way. To her also the Lord Jesus came, and He touched her hand, and behold she rises and ministers unto Him. Once there was some suspicion of indifference in her conduct: she was bound fast in the close wrappings of riches, and lay inactive in this world tomb. But Jesus was troubled in spirit, and raised His voice and cried aloud, saying: "Blesilla, come forth." At His bidding she arose and came out, and now she feasts with the Lord. The Jews may swell with threats, and seek to slay her who has been roused to life, while the apostles alone give glory: Blesilla knows that she owes her life to Him to whom she entrusted it: she knows that she now embraces the feet of Him before whose judgment just lately she trembled. Life had almost forsaken her prostrate body, and the near approach of death shook her panting frame. Of what avail at that hour was the help that relatives could give, or their words of comfort, emptier than smoke? She owes nothing to you, thankless kinsmen: she is dead to the world and lives again to Christ. Let those who are Christians rejoice: those who feel resentment show thereby that they are not Christians.
A widow who is freed from the marital bond has but one duty laid upon her, and that is to continue as a widow. It may be that some people are offended by her sombre garb: they would be offended also by John the Baptist, and yet among those born of women there has not been a greater than he. He was called God's messenger and baptized the Lord Himself, but he was clothed in camel's-hair raiment and girded with a girdle of skins. It may be that some are displeased by a widow's simple food: nothing can be more simple than locusts. Those women rather should offend a Christian's eyes, who paint their cheeks with rouge and their eyes with belladonna; whose faces are covered with powder and so disfigured by excessive whiteness that they look like idols; who find a wet furrow on their skin if perchance a careless tear escape them; whom no amount of years can convince that they are old; who heap their heads with borrowed tresses; who polish up past youthfulness in spite of the wrinkles of age; who, in fine, behave like trembling schoolgirls before a company of their own grandsons. A Christian woman should blush to win by force what should be natural beauty, or to rouse men's desires by bestowing care upon the flesh. As the apostle says: "Those that are in the flesh cannot be pleasing to Christ."(2)
In the past our dear widow used to deck herself with necklaces, and spent whole days before her glass looking for anything wrong in her appearance. Now she boldly says: "We all with unveiled face, beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image, from glory to glory, even as by the spirit of the Lord."(3) In those days lady's maids used to arrange her hair, and her poor head, which had done no harm, was imprisoned in a head-dress crammed with curls. Now it is left alone, and knows that it is sufficiently cared for when it is covered by a veil. At that time the softest down seemed hard to her limbs, and she could scarcely rest upon a pile of cushions. Now she rises in haste from her bed to pray, and with tuneful voice forestalls her comrades' "Alleluia," herself ever the first to praise her Lord. She kneels upon the ground, and with frequent tears cleanses the face that was once defiled with white lead. After prayer comes the singing of psalms; her neck grows weary, her knees totter, her eyes drop off to sleep; but her ardent spirit will hardly give them leave to rest. Her dress is of dark stuff; therefore it is scarcely soiled by lying on the ground. Her slippers are of a cheap sort; the price of gilded boots will be given as alms to the needy. Her girdle is not adorned with jewels or gold; it is made of wool, perfectly simple and clean, and it is intended to keep her dress close rather than to cut her figure into two halves. If the scorpion, jealous of her resolute purpose, with soft words persuades her to eat again of the forbidden tree, let a curse crush him instead of a boot, and let her say, as he lies dying in the dust that is his due: "Get thee behind me, Satan." The word Satan means "adversary," since Christ's adversary is the Antichrist, who finds Christ's precepts displeasing.
Pray, have we ever done anything such as the apostles did that men should have reason to be offended with us ? The apostles left their boat and their net and their aged father. The publican got up from the receipt of custom and followed the Saviour. When a disciple wished to go back home and give a message first to his people, the Master's voice forbade him. A father even was refused burial; for it is a form of duty to be undutiful for the Lord's sake. We on the other hand are called monks merely because we do not dress in silk. We are dubbed "sour puritans," because we do not get drunk or burst into loud guffaws. If our tunic is not spotlessly white, the cry goes up from the street: "Greek charlatan." Let men indulge in even sharper witticisms, if they please, and parade before us their fat-paunched friends. Our dear Blesilla will laugh at them, and will not deign to listen to the abuse of noisy frogs. She knows that her Lord was called by men Beelzebub.(4)
1. Abraham temptatur in filio et fidelior invenitur; Ioseph in Aegypto venditur, ut patrem pascat et fratres; Ezechias vicina morte terretur, ut fusus in lacrimas quindecim annorum spatio proteletur ad vitam; Petrus apostolus domini passione concutitur, ut amare flens audiat: pasce oves meas; Paulus, lupus rapax et Beniamin adulescentior, in extasi caecatur, ut videat, et repentino tenebrarum horrore circumdatus dominum vocat, quem dudum ut hominem persequebatur.
2. Ita et nunc, mi Marcella, Blesillam nostram vidimus ardore febrium per triginta ferme dies iugiter aestuasse, ut sciret reiciendas delicias corporis, quod Paulo post vermibus exarandum sit. venit et ad hanc dominus Iesus tetigitque manum eius et ecce surgens ministrant ei. redolebat aliquid neglegentiae et divitiarum fasciis conligata in saeculi iacebat sepulchro, sed confremuit Iesus et conturbatus in spiritu clamavit dicens: Belsilla, exi foras. quae vocata surrexit et egressa cum domino vescitur. Iudaei minentur et tumeant, quaerant occidere suscitatam, soli apostoli glorientur: scit se vitam suam ei debere. cui credidit; scit se eius amplexare pedes, cuius Paulo ante iudicium pertimescebat. corpus paene iacebat exanime et anhelos artus mors vicina quatiebat. ubi tunc errant auxilia propinquorum, ubi verba omni inaniora fumo? nihil tibi debet, o ingrate cognatio, quae mundo periit et Christo revixit. qui Christianus est, gaudeat; qui irascitur, non esse se indicat Christianum.
3. Vidua, quae soluta est vinculo maritali, nihil necesse habet nisi perseverare, at scandalizat quempiam vestis fuscior: scandalizet Iohannes, quo inter natos mulierum maior nullus fuit, qui angelus dictus ipsum quoque dominum baptizavit, qui camelorum vestitus tegumine zona pellicia cingebatur. cibi displicent viliores: nihil vilius est locustis. illae Christianos oculos potius scandalizent, quae purpurisso et quibusdam fucis ora oculosque depingunt, quarum facies gypseae et nimio candore deformes idola mentiuntur, quibus si forte inprovidens lacrimarum stilla eruperit, sulco defluit, quas nec numerus annorum potest docere, quod vetulae sunt, quae capillis alienis verticem instruunt et praeteritam inventutem in rugis anilibus poliunt, quae denique ante nepotum gregem trementes virgunculae conponuntur. erubescat mulier Christiana, si naturae cogit decorum, si carnis curam facit ad concupiscentiam, in qua qui sunt, secundum apostolum Christo placere non possunt.
4. Vidua nostra ante monilibus ornabatur et die tota, quid sibi deesset, quaerebat ad speculum; nunc loquitur confidenter: nos autem omnes revelata facie gloriam domini speculantes in eandem imaginem transformamur a Gloria in gloriam, quasi a domini spiritu. tunc crines ancillulae disponebant et mitellis crispantibus vertex artabatur innoxius; nunc neglectum caput scit sibi tantum sufficere, quod velatur. illo tempore plumarum quoque dura mollities videbatur et in extructis toris iacere vix poterat; nunc ad orandum festina consurgit et modulate voce ceteris alleluia praeripiens prior incipit laudare dominum sum. flectuntur genua super nudam
humum et crebris lacrimis facies psimithio ante sordidata purgatur. post orationem psalmi concrepant et lassa cervix, poplites vacillantes in somnumque vergentes oculi nimio mentis ardore vix inpetrant, ut quiescent. pulla est tunica: minus, cum humi iacuerit, sordidatur. soccus vilior: auratorum pretium calceorum egentibus largietur. cingulum non auro gemmisque distinctum est, sed laneum et tota simplicitate purissimum et quod posit adstringere magis vestimenta quam scindere. si huic proposito invidet scorpius et sermone blando de indebita rursum arbore comedere persuadet, inlidatur ei pro solea anathema et in suo morienti pulvere dicatur: vade retro, satanas, quod interpretatur ‘adverse’; adversarius quippe Christi est antichristus, cui praecepta displicent Christi.
5. Oro te, quid tale umquam, quale apostoli, fecimus, ut merito scandalizentur? patrem senem cum navicula et rete dimittunt; publicanus a teloneo surgit et sequitur salvatorem; volens discipulus reverti domum et suis ante renuntiare magistri voce prohibetur; sepultura non datur patri et pietatis genus est inpium esse pro domino. nos, quia serica veste non utimur, monachi iudicamur, quia ebrii non sumus nec cachinno ora dissolvimus, continentes vocamur et tristes. si tunica non canduerit, statim illud e trivio: inpostor et Graecus est. cavillentur vafriora licet et pingui aqualiculo farsos circumferant hominess: Blesilla nostra ridebit nec dignabitur loquacium ranarum audire convicia, cum dominus eius dictus sit Beelzebub.
After comparing her suffering and testing to major biblical figures, Jerome describes Christ's appearance to call the widow Blesilla to him in her last illness, and defends the ascetic life she had espoused. Blesilla was the daughter of Paula, close friend and religious associate of Jerome and Marcella, and she was the widow of Furius whose sister Furia also corresponded with Jerome (ep.54). Blesilla's death was attributed by Jerome's enemies to excessive ascetic practices, and the anti-monastic outcry drove Jerome to leave Rome.
(1) Paul belonged to the tribe of Benjamin and Benjamin is described as a ravening wolf: cf. Genesis, xlix, 27. Paul, a Benjamite, acted like a wolf in persecuting the Church: cf. p.279.
(2) Romans, viii, 8.
(3) 2 Corinthians, iii, 18.
(4) Matthew, x, 25.
Sancti Eusebii Hieronymi Epistulae, ed. Isidorus Hilberg, 3 v. (New York: Johnson, 1970, repr.1910-18), ep.38; translation and annotation from F.A.Wright, Select Letters of St. Jerome (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1933, repr.1980), pp.158-67.