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“Jerome Letter 127 to Principia”
In memory of Marcella.
Click here to read at earlychurchtexts.com in the original Latin (with dictionary lookup links). The English translation below is from the NPNF series.
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The Monk and the Book:
Saint Jerome in the Renaissance
Jerome (The Early Church Fathers)
This letter is really a memoir of Marcella (for whom see note on Letter XXIII.) addressed to her greatest friend. After describing her history, character, and favourite studies, Jerome goes on to recount her eminent services in the cause of orthodoxy at a time when, through the efforts of Rufinus, it seemed likely that Origenism would prevail at Rome (§§9, 10). He briefly relates the fall of the city and the horrors consequent upon it (§§12, 13) which appear to have been the immediate cause of Marcella’s death (§14). The date of the letter is 412 a.d.
1. You have besought me often and earnestly, Principia, virgin of Christ, to dedicate a letter to the memory of that holy woman Marcella, and to set forth the goodness long enjoyed by us for others to know and to imitate. I am so anxious myself to do justice to her merits that it grieves me that you should spur me on and fancy that your entreaties are needed when I do not yield even to you in love of her. In putting upon record her signal virtues I shall receive far more benefit myself than I can possibly confer upon others. If I have hitherto remained silent and have allowed two years to go over without making any sign, this has not been owing to a wish to ignore her as you wrongly suppose, but to an incredible sorrow which so overcame my mind that I judged it better to remain silent for a while than to praise her virtues in inadequate language. Neither will I now follow the rules of rhetoric in eulogizing one so dear to both of us and to all the saints, Marcella the glory of her native Rome. I will not set forth her illustrious family and lofty lineage, nor will I trace her pedigree through a line of consuls and prætorian prefects. I will praise her for nothing but the virtue which is her own and which is the more noble, because forsaking both wealth and rank she has sought the true nobility of poverty and lowliness.
2. Her father’s death left her an orphan, and she had been married less than seven months when her husband was taken from her. Then as she was young, and highborn, as well as distinguished for her beauty—always an attraction to men—and her self-control, an illustrious consular named Cerealis paid court to her with great assiduity. Being an old man he offered to make over to her his fortune so that she might consider herself less his wife than his daughter. Her mother Albina went out of her way to secure for the young widow so exalted a protector. But Marcella answered: “had I a wish to marry and not rather to dedicate myself to perpetual chastity, I should look for a husband and not for an inheritance;” and when her suitor argued that sometimes old men live long while young men die early, she cleverly retorted: “a young man may indeed die early, but an old man cannot live long.” This decided rejection of Cerealis convinced others that they had no hope of winning her hand. In the gospel according to Luke we read the following passage: “there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; and she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.” It was no marvel that she won the vision of the Saviour, whom she sought so earnestly. Let us then compare her case with that of Marcella and we shall see that the latter has every way the advantage. Anna lived with her husband seven years; Marcella seven months. Anna only hoped for Christ; Marcella held Him fast. Anna confessed him at His birth; Marcella believed in Him crucified. Anna did not deny the Child; Marcella rejoiced in the Man as king. I do not wish to draw distinctions between holy women on the score of their merits, as some persons have made it a custom to do as regards holy men and leaders of churches; the conclusion at which I aim is that, as both have one task, so both have one reward.
3. In a slander-loving community such as Rome, filled as it formerly was
with people from all parts and bearing the palm for wickedness of all kinds,
detraction assailed the upright and strove to defile even the pure and the
clean. In such an atmosphere it is hard to escape from the breath of
calumny. A stainless reputation is difficult nay almost impossible to
attain; the prophet yearns for it but hardly hopes to win it: “Blessed,” he
says, “are the undefiled in the way who walk in the law of the Lord.”
The undefiled in the way of this world are those whose fair fame no breath
of scandal has ever sullied, and who have earned no reproach at the hands of
their neighbours. It is this which makes the Saviour say in the gospel:
“agree with,” or be complaisant to, “thine adversary whilst thou art in the
way with him.” Who ever heard a slander of Marcella that deserved the
least credit? Or who ever credited such without making himself guilty of
malice and defamation? No; she put the Gentiles to confusion by shewing them
the nature of that Christian widowhood which her conscience and mien alike
set forth. For women of the world are wont to paint their faces with rouge
and white-lead, to wear robes of shining silk, to adorn themselves with
jewels, to put gold chains round their necks, to pierce their ears and hang
in them the costliest pearls of the Red Sea, and to scent themselves
with musk. While they mourn for the husbands they have lost they rejoice at
their own deliverance and freedom to choose fresh partners—not, as God
wills, to obey these but to rule over them.
4. Her delight in the divine scriptures was incredible. She was for ever
singing, “Thy words have I hid in mine heart that I might not sin against
thee,” as well as the words which describe the perfect man, “his delight
is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and
night.” This meditation in the law she understood not of a review of the
written words as among the Jews the Pharisees think, but of action according
to that saying of the apostle, “whether, therefore, ye eat or drink or what
soever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” She remembered also the
prophet’s words, “through thy precepts I get understanding,” and felt
sure that only when she had fulfilled these would she be permitted to
understand the scriptures. In this sense we read elsewhere that “Jesus began
both to do and teach.” For teaching is put to the blush when a man’s
conscience rebukes him; and it is in vain that his tongue preaches poverty
or teaches alms-giving if he is rolling in the riches of Crœsus and if, in
spite of his threadbare cloak, he has silken robes at home to save from the
5. In those days no highborn lady at Rome had made profession of the
monastic life, or had ventured—so strange and ignominious and degrading did
it then seem—publicly to call herself a nun. It was from some priests of
Alexandria, and from pope Athanasius, and subsequently from Peter, who,
to escape the persecution of the Arian heretics, had all fled for refuge to
Rome as the safest haven in which they could find communion—it was from
these that Marcella heard of the life of the blessed Antony, then still
alive, and of the monasteries in the Thebaid founded by Pachomius, and of
the discipline laid down for virgins and for widows. Nor was she ashamed to
profess a life which she had thus learned to be pleasing to Christ. Many
years after her example was followed first by Sophronia and then by others,
of whom it may be well said in the words of Ennius:
6. Marcella then lived the ascetic life for many years, and found herself old before she bethought herself that she had once been young. She often quoted with approval Plato’s saying that philosophy consists in meditating on death. A truth which our own apostle indorses when he says: “for your salvation I die daily.” Indeed according to the old copies our Lord himself says: “whosoever doth not bear His cross daily and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Ages before, the Holy Spirit had said by the prophet: “for thy sake are we killed all the day long: we are counted as sheep for the slaughter.” Many generations afterwards the words were spoken: “remember the end and thou shalt never do amiss,” as well as that precept of the eloquent satirist: “live with death in your mind; time flies; this say of mine is so much taken from it.” Well then, as I was saying, she passed her days and lived always in the thought that she must die. Her very clothing was such as to remind her of the tomb, and she presented herself as a living sacrifice, reasonable and acceptable, unto God.
7. When the needs of the Church at length brought me to Rome in company with the reverend pontiffs, Paulinus and Epiphanius—the first of whom ruled the church of the Syrian Antioch while the second presided over that of Salamis in Cyprus,—I in my modesty was for avoiding the eyes of highborn ladies, yet she pleaded so earnestly, “both in season and out of season” as the apostle says, that at last her perseverance overcame my reluctance. And, as in those days my name was held in some renown as that of a student of the scriptures, she never came to see me that she did not ask me some question concerning them, nor would she at once acquiesce in my explanations but on the contrary would dispute them; not, however, for argument’s sake but to learn the answers to those objections which might, as she saw, be made to my statements. How much virtue and ability, how much holiness and purity I found in her I am afraid to say; both lest I may exceed the bounds of men’s belief and lest I may increase your sorrow by reminding you of the blessings that you have lost. This much only will I say, that whatever in me was the fruit of long study and as such made by constant meditation a part of my nature, this she tasted, this she learned and made her own. Consequently after my departure from Rome, in case of a dispute arising as to the testimony of scripture on any subject, recourse was had to her to settle it. And so wise was she and so well did she understand what philosophers call τό πρέπον, that is, the becoming, in what she did, that when she answered questions she gave her own opinion not as her own but as from me or some one else, thus admitting that what she taught she had herself learned from others. For she knew that the apostle had said: “I suffer not a woman to teach,” and she would not seem to inflict a wrong upon the male sex many of whom (including sometimes priests) questioned her concerning obscure and doubtful points.
8. I am told that my place with her was immediately taken by you, that you attached yourself to her, and that, as the saying goes, you never let even a hair’s-breadth come between her and you. You both lived in the same house and occupied the same room so that every one in the city knew for certain that you had found a mother in her and she a daughter in you. In the suburbs you found for yourselves a monastic seclusion, and chose the country instead of the town because of its loneliness. For a long time you lived together, and as many ladies shaped their conduct by your examples, I had the joy of seeing Rome transformed into another Jerusalem. Monastic establishments for virgins became numerous, and of hermits there were countless numbers. In fact so many were the servants of God that monasticism which had before been a term of reproach became subsequently one of honour. Meantime we consoled each other for our separation by words of mutual encouragement, and discharged in the spirit the debt which in the flesh we could not pay. We always went to meet each other’s letters, tried to outdo each other in attentions, and anticipated each other in courteous inquiries. Not much was lost by a separation thus effectually bridged by a constant correspondence.
9. While Marcella was thus serving the Lord in holy tranquillity, there arose in these provinces a tornado of heresy which threw everything into confusion; indeed so great was the fury into which it lashed itself that it spared neither itself nor anything that was good. And as if it were too little to have disturbed everything here, it introduced a ship freighted with blasphemies into the port of Rome itself. The dish soon found itself a cover; and the muddy feet of heretics fouled the clear waters of the faith of Rome. No wonder that in the streets and in the market places a soothsayer can strike fools on the back or, catching up his cudgel, shatter the teeth of such as carp at him; when such venomous and filthy teaching as this has found at Rome dupes whom it can lead astray. Next came the scandalous version of Origen’s book On First Principles, and that ‘fortunate’ disciple who would have been indeed fortunate had he never fallen in with such a master. Next followed the confutation set forth by my supporters, which destroyed the case of the Pharisees and threw them into confusion. It was then that the holy Marcella, who had long held back lest she should be thought to act from party motives, threw herself into the breach. Conscious that the faith of Rome—once praised by an apostle—was now in danger, and that this new heresy was drawing to itself not only priests and monks but also many of the laity besides imposing on the bishop who fancied others as guileless as he was himself, she publicly withstood its teachers choosing to please God rather than men.
10. In the gospel the Saviour commends the unjust steward because, although he defrauded his master, he acted wisely for his own interests. The heretics in this instance pursued the same course; for, seeing how great a matter a little fire had kindled, and that the flames applied by them to the foundations had by this time reached the housetops, and that the deception practised on many could no longer be hid, they asked for and obtained letters of commendation from the church, so that it might appear that till the day of their departure they had continued in full communion with it. Shortly afterwards the distinguished Anastasius succeeded to the pontificate; but he was soon taken away, for it was not fitting that the head of the world should be struck off during the episcopate of one so great. He was removed, no doubt, that he might not seek to turn away by his prayers the sentence of God passed once for all. For the words of the Lord to Jeremiah concerning Israel applied equally to Rome: “pray not for this people for their good. When they fast I will not hear their cry; and when they offer burnt-offering and oblation, I will not accept them; but I will consume them by the sword and by the famine and by the pestilence.” You will say, what has this to do with the praises of Marcella? I reply, She it was who originated the condemnation of the heretics. She it was who furnished witnesses first taught by them and then carried away by their heretical teaching. She it was who showed how large a number they had deceived and who brought up against them the impious books On First Principles, books which were passing from hand to hand after being ‘improved’ by the hand of the scorpion. She it was lastly who called on the heretics in letter after letter to appear in their own defence. They did not indeed venture to come, for they were so conscience-stricken that they let the case go against them by default rather than face their accusers and be convicted by them. This glorious victory originated with Marcella, she was the source and cause of this great blessing. You who shared the honour with her know that I speak the truth. You know too that out of many incidents I only mention a few, not to tire out the reader by a wearisome recapitulation. Were I to say more, ill natured persons might fancy me, under pretext of commending a woman’s virtues, to be giving vent to my own rancour. I will pass now to the remainder of my story.
11. The whirlwind passed from the West into the East and threatened in its passage to shipwreck many a noble craft. Then were the words of Jesus fulfilled: “when the son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?” The love of many waxed cold. Yet the few who still loved the true faith rallied to my side. Men openly sought to take their lives and every expedient was employed against them. So hotly indeed did the persecution rage that “Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation;” nay more he committed murder, if not in actual violence at least in will. Then behold God blew and the tempest passed away; so that the prediction of the prophet was fulfilled, “thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust. In that very day his thoughts perish,” as also the gospel-saying, “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?”
12. Whilst these things were happening in Jebus a dreadful rumour came
from the West. Rome had been besieged and its citizens had been forced
to buy their lives with gold. Then thus despoiled they had been besieged
again so as to lose not their substance only but their lives. My voice
sticks in my throat; and, as I dictate, sobs choke my utterance. The City
which had taken the whole world was itself taken; nay more famine was
beforehand with the sword and but few citizens were left to be made
captives. In their frenzy the starving people had recourse to hideous food;
and tore each other limb from limb that they might have flesh to eat. Even
the mother did not spare the babe at her breast. In the night was Moab
taken, in the night did her wall fall down. “O God, the heathen have
come into thine inheritance; thy holy temple have they defiled; they have
made Jerusalem an orchard. The dead bodies of thy servants have they
given to be meat unto the fowls of the heaven, the flesh of thy saints unto
the beasts of the earth. Their blood have they shed like water round about
Jerusalem; and there was none to bury them.”
13. Meantime, as was natural in a scene of such confusion, one of the bloodstained victors found his way into Marcella’s house. Now be it mine to say what I have heard, to relate what holy men have seen; for there were some such present and they say that you too were with her in the hour of danger. When the soldiers entered she is said to have received them without any look of alarm; and when they asked her for gold she pointed to her coarse dress to shew them that she had no buried treasure. However they would not believe in her self-chosen poverty, but scourged her and beat her with cudgels. She is said to have felt no pain but to have thrown herself at their feet and to have pleaded with tears for you, that you might not be taken from her, or owing to your youth have to endure what she as an old woman had no occasion to fear. Christ softened their hard hearts and even among bloodstained swords natural affection asserted its rights. The barbarians conveyed both you and her to the basilica of the apostle Paul, that you might find there either a place of safety or, if not that, at least a tomb. Hereupon Marcella is said to have burst into great joy and to have thanked God for having kept you unharmed in answer to her prayer. She said she was thankful too that the taking of the city had found her poor, not made her so, that she was now in want of daily bread, that Christ satisfied her needs so that she no longer felt hunger, that she was able to say in word and in deed: “naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
14. After a few days she fell asleep in the Lord; but to the last her powers
remained unimpaired. You she made the heir of her poverty, or rather the
poor through you. When she closed her eyes, it was in your arms; when she
breathed her last breath, your lips received it; you shed tears but she
smiled conscious of having led a good life and hoping for her reward
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Jerome Letter 127 Latin text with English translation
Letter 127 to Principia
Epistle 127 to Principia
CXXVII ad Principiam
In memory of Marcella
Jerome and Roman women
Fall of Rome 410
Migne Latin Text
Patrologiae Latinae Cursus Completus
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