Jerome is not one of the warn fuzzy saints. Someone has called him a porcupine saint. He could be very prickly, especially with people who disagreed with him. But perhaps there is much we can learn from por¬cupine saints if we pay close atten¬tion to their stories. This is certainly true of St. Jerome.
Jerome was born around 340 in or near present-day Croatia. His world was vastly different from ours, yet it was similar in an important way: It was in transition. The Roman empire, which stretched from Portu¬gal to Iraq, was faltering economi¬cally and militarily Within Jerome's lifetime, invaders would shatter his homeland in the Balkans and sack Rome itself.
Jerome's parents were moder¬ately well-off Christians who were more concerned about property and careers than about prayer and mis¬sion. When Jerome was twelve, they sent him to Rome to pursue the clas¬sical, pagan course of studies that would prepare him for government service. Jerome liked his courses and did well. He began to build a per¬sonal library by buying and copying books. (This was the era of hand¬ publishing.)
During his six or so years in Rome, young Jerome was torn in various directions. He engaged in some sex¬ual experimentation but also made some good Christian friends. Even¬tually, he decided to be baptized. (In this period, many Christian par¬ents delayed baptism for their chil¬dren until adulthood.) Even though Jerome's sexual adventures did not end abruptly after his baptism, they did begin to fill him with remorse and feelings of shame.
Catching the Vision, Having received an excellent secular educa¬tion, Jerome headed off to Trier-in modern-day Germany-where there were opportunities for government employment. Being a Christian was no hindrance to Jerome's career plans, for three centuries of per¬secution had ended in the Roman empire shortly before his birth. Pre¬dictably, this development brought mixed results for the church. While it was easier for people to seek bap¬tism, many of the newcomers were going with the social flow and were not serious about adopting gospel values. In the church, concern with power, status, money, fine foods, and fashionable clothes rose, while concern with following Christ fell.
This cooling of fervor provoked a reaction. Beginning in Egypt and Syria, men and women who wanted to make a wholehearted response to Jesus left families, lands, and jobs and went off to seek God in prayer and fasting. At first, this radi¬cal lifestyle, which had roots in the earliest period of the church (Mark 10:17-31; 1 Corinthians 7:32-35), had no definite form. Some hermits lived in the desert; some gathered in loose communities. Other Chris¬tians, especially a few wealthy ones, stayed at home but dropped out of the social scene and took up a quiet life of prayer and Scripture reading. Those who were unmarried or wid¬owed stayed single.
By the time Jerome arrived at Trier, this powerful movement had reached western Europe. And when Jerome met some people there who were involved in it, he was captivated He caught the vision of setting aside an ordinary career and pursuing a way of life geared toward total sell-giving to God. But since the movement had no established monasteries or writ¬ten rules of life, Jerome had to find his own way of living out this vision. What form should his response to Christ take? Where? With whom?
Into the Desert. Jerome's new direction did not resolve all his inner conflicts. On the one hand, he dreamed of leaving everything and going to live among hermits. This, he thought, would help him bring his unruly desires under con¬trol. At the same time, he was now caught up in studying theology and Scripture, in which he sensed a real vocation. Furthermore, the pagan writers-Cicero, Virgil, and oth¬ers-whom he lead learned to love at school, continued to be his favor¬ite reading.
After some years, Jerome decided to make the break. He accepted a wealthy friend's invitation to Antioch in Syria, planning to go on from there into the desert. But he brought his books with him-pagan authors and all. This made good sense for a scholar but was a little odd for some¬one planning to abandon the world!
Jerome's moment of decision came through a dream. He saw him¬self being brought before God, the supreme judge, who demanded to know what he was. `A Christian," he timidly answered. "You lie!" the Judge declared. "You are a disciple of Cicero, not of Christ!" Terrified, Jerome promised to stop reading the pagan authors. Whether the dream was truly inspired or a reflection of Jerome's uneasy conscience, it helped him to make a choice. He set aside the classics entirely for more than a decade.
At long last, Jerome set out into the Syrian desert. He entered into this solitude, praying constantly and weeping over his sins. Though tormented by tempting visions of sexual escapades in Rome, he made progress in bringing his sexual pas¬sions under control. “After my copi¬ous weeping, after firing my eyes on heaven, I sometimes felt myself min¬gling with the ranks of angels," he wrote a friend. To another he wrote: "Believe me, here I see a strangely brighter light; here I rejoice to throw off the burden of flesh and soar to the pure radiance of heaven-" Jerome had more contact with the outside world than was gener¬ally expected of a hermit. He kept reading from his library of Scrip¬ture and theology books, which he had brought along. (One biog-rapher remarks that his cave must have been roomier than most.) He wrote letters. He hired secretaries to copy manuscripts. He began to learn Hebrew, which very few Chris¬tians knew, so that he could better study the Old Testament. Eventually the unresolved tensions between Jerome's scholarly pursuits and his desire for solitude would have to be resolved.
As it turned out, however, Jerome was forced out of his cave before reaching that point. Neighbouring monks became upset with him over a theological dispute, and his health deteriorated under the rigours of his fasting and penances. After only a couple of years, Jerome returned to Antioch, his desert experiment a failure. Though shattered and disil¬lusioned, he held on to his dream of getting away from ordinary life in order to pursue prayer and contem¬plation.
Opportunity in Defeat. Back in Antioch, then in Rome, Jerome con¬tinued his theological research and writing. As his scholarly reputation increased, he took part in high-level theological consultations and worked closely with Pope Damasus.
To his delight, Jerome discovered in Rome some wealthy Christian women who were trying to abandon the world and devote themselves to prayer. He quickly became their encourager, guide, and Scripture teacher.
But Jerome remained conflicted. He longed for withdrawal from the world, yet here he was in a large city, in a whirlwind of church busi¬ness. Once again, controversy prod¬ded him to take the next step. Some Christians took issue with Jerome for encouraging Roman women to reject a worldly lifestyle. They found his approach extreme and accused him of suggesting that there was something wrong with marriage, a charge that he rejected. Many Roman Christians were offended by Jerome's criticism of their loose liv¬ing. When his friend Pope Damasus died, the clergy pressured Jerome to leave the city.
Jerome was hardly happy about this rejection. He had harsh things to say about the priests of Rome, calling them "a senate of Pharisees." But he took the defeat as an oppor¬tunity. He persuaded Paula, one of the wealthy women he had been teaching, to leave Rome and travel with him to the Holy Land. There they settled in Bethlehem and estab¬lished his and hers monastic houses. Paula expended her inheritance on building and supporting the twin communities and led her commu¬nity of women with sensitivity and humility.
In Bethlehem, Jerome at last found the life he had been seeking. Distant from worldly affairs, he lived in a set¬ting that facilitated prayer, study, and writing-close to the Church of the Nativity, the site of Jesus' birth.
Things were not quite perfect, of course. Over the years, guests from every direction found their way to Bethlehem, seeking to experience Jerome and Paula's monastic life and discuss Scripture with the eminent scholar. Caring for the visitors kept them busy and drained Paula's bank account down to nothing. When the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410, a wave of refugees washed up, fright¬ened and impoverished, in Palestine, where Jerome received them with kindness. (Paula had died in 404.)
Jerome created disturbances for himself by getting embroiled in various theological disputes. In his usual way, he sometimes made ene¬mies by his sharply worded attacks on opponents. Strangely, while he was often hurt by their hostility he seemed unaware that he had provoked it by his own harsh lan¬guage.
Nevertheless, Bethlehem was a fruitful place for Jerome. Here he produced many commentaries on Scripture and, most important, trans¬lated the Old Testament into Latin from the original Hebrew. This work disturbed many people, including St. Augustine, because it altered the time-honoured translations they were used to. But Jerome's more accurate rendering, which became known as the Vulgate ("common-language" translation), was a great service to the church. It became the main ver¬sion of Scripture used by Christians in Western Europe for more than a thousand years.
Life Lessons from Jerome. Jerome's zigzag path to Bethlehem is instructive for every Christian who wants to find the best way to live out a wholehearted response to God in our own changing world. This can seem especially daunting for those of us who feel called to the lay life and must struggle with questions about how to live out an intense response to the gospel amid family, work, and social responsibilities.
Jerome stands as an encourage¬ment to hold onto our desire and keep searching for the path God has for us. Partly through attempts and failures, God guided Jerome as he felt his way toward a life that would incorporate both his call to prayer and his call to interact with the world. In a similar way, we can trust that the Lord will guide us through the complexities of our own callings.
Another lesson has to do with Jerome's regrettably bad-tempered way of responding to opponents and those who did not share his particu¬lar vision for discipleship. Most of us are conscious of our personality defects and relationship problems. We may feel that our shortcomings disqualify us from serving Christ. How can such imperfect persons as ourselves be of any use to the church?
Without slacking off on our prayers and efforts to change, we can take Jerome as an encourage-ment that God's power is not lim¬ited by our weakness. This porcu¬pine saint is a witness that even a chronically imperfect person can make an important contribution in God’s service.
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