It requires a considerable amount of imagination, coupled with a facility for overlooking untoward historical facts, to enable one to draw an honest and at the same time an entirely pleasing picture of the Church in the fourth and fifth centuries. And yet this may rightly be looked upon as the heroic age of Christianity; it was the period of the Church's greatest victories. It is true that, emerging from the sickening asceticism and rising above the theological squabbles of the time, are mighty men and women of didactic and also of moral renown. |There were giants in those days.| Nevertheless, the average moral character of the |Christian| Empire was raised such a slight degree above that of the pagan regime that it is barely perceptible in the records of history. Both Constantine and Constantius stained their palaces with the blood of their innocent relatives. The populace still gloated over gladiatorial combats. Courtesans were licensed in order that their trade might help to replenish the imperial treasury. The rigor of slavery was somewhat softened; yet if a man beat his bondservant to death, he was considered to be acting within his right, providing that he declared that the killing was not in his intention. For offences which to-day are treated with great leniency, slave women were then punished by having melted lead poured down their throats. Moreover, it was during the first centuries of the Christian state that the fetters of feudalism were forged, by which the poor were bound down to their hopeless wretchedness. Of the artisans the law said: |Let them not dare to aspire to any honor, even if they might deserve it, the men who are covered with the filth of labor, and let them remain forever in their own condition.|
The leaven of Christian morality was present in the lump of traditional social conditions; but it had not yet begun to work extensively. Nineteen centuries have produced only the immature results we see at present. The evolution of human kindliness is slow, though, as we may believe, inevitable. A learned and lively English writer of the beginning of the last century, referring to those Church doctors who would have the world venerate the Nicene period as the ideal age of Christianity, says that if |they could but be blindfolded (if any such precaution, in their case, were needed) and were fairly set down in the midst of the pristine Church, at Carthage, or at Alexandria, or at Rome, or at Antioch, they would be fain to make their escape, with all possible celerity, toward their own times and country; and that thenceforward we should never hear another word from them about 'venerable antiquity' or the holy Catholic Church of the first ages. The effect of such a trip would, I think, resemble that produced sometimes by crossing the Atlantic, upon those who have set out, westward, excellent Liberals, and have returned, eastward, as excellent Tories.|
There never has come to the world an opportunity to make substantial and unusual progress in its moral development, but that there have been plenty to turn the newly-acquired wisdom into foolishness. The great opportunity in the history of Christianity came in the century marked by the Nicene Council and in that succeeding it.
With the exception of the interlude during the reign of the reactionist Julian, Christianity was the established religion of the Empire. It was popular; the whole world was becoming Christian. Wealth poured into the Church: kings and princes came into its pale bringing their presents. The learned men of the world were the champions of the religion of Jesus. But truly judging from its moral effect on the age, the Church |knew not the day of her visitation.| However much honor we may owe them for settling the faith of Christianity, it must be acknowledged that the Nicene and post-Nicene Fathers spent their strength in advocating and glorifying an unnatural virginity -- a pitiable substitute for a higher social morality and purer morals for the ordinary individual. Without a first-hand acquaintance with those ancient writers, it is impossible to conceive to what a degree the idea of celibacy was exalted in their teachings. It overshadowed everything else. It overturned every establishment of reason. It vitiated all the pure springs of life. It proceeded on the assumption that everything that is natural is monstrously evil. Gibbon is too indulgent when, as it were with a smile of careless contempt, he thus characterizes this maudlin asceticism: |The chaste severity of the Fathers, in whatever related to the commerce of the two sexes, flowed from the same principle: their abhorrence of every enjoyment which might gratify the sensual, and degrade the spiritual nature of man. It was their favorite opinion, that if Adam had preserved his obedience to the Creator, he would have lived forever in a state of virgin purity, and that some harmless mode of vegetation might have peopled Paradise with a race of innocent and immortal beings. The use of marriage was permitted only to his fallen posterity, as a necessary expedient to continue the human species, and as a restraint, however imperfect, on the natural licentiousness of desire. The hesitation of the orthodox casuists on this interesting subject betrays the perplexity of men unwilling to approve an institution which they were compelled to tolerate.|
If it did not inspire sadness to discover that human minds, of intelligence above the average, can be capable of such fatuity, it would provoke one to laughter to read the Fathers as they gravely asseverate that they do not consider marriage as being necessarily sinful -- providing that it were not committed more than once. Jerome, who was the great advocate of monasticism in the early Church, says that virginity is to marriage what the fruit is to the tree, or what the grain is to the chaff. Seizing upon Christ's parable of the sower, he asserts that the thirty-fold increase refers to marriage; the sixty-fold applies to widows, for the greater the difficulty in resisting the allurements of pleasure once enjoyed the greater the reward; but by the hundred-fold the crown of virginity is expressed. Was there no one to suggest to him that in the natural expectation of increase his order is reversed? As a sample of the turgid rodomontade with which those Fathers of the Church induced the women of their time to sacrifice, for the glory of God, the duties of wifehood and motherhood which the Creator ordained that they should perform, we will quote from Cyprian at length: |We come now to contemplate the lily blossom; and see, O thou, the virgin of Christ! see how much fairer is this thy flower, than any other! look at the special grace which, beyond any other flower of the earth, it hath obtained! Nay, listen to the commendation bestowed upon it by the Spouse himself, when he saith -- Consider the lilies of the field (the virgins) how they grow, and yet I say unto you that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these! Read therefore, O virgin, and read again, and often read again, this word of thy Spouse, and understand how, in the commendation of this flower, he commends thy glory. In the glory of Solomon you are to understand that, whatever is rich and great on earth, and the choicest of all, is prefigured; and in the bloom of thy lily, which is thy likeness, and that of all the virgins of Christ, the glory of virginity is intended.... Virginity hath indeed a twofold prerogative, a virtue which, in others, is single only; for while all the Church is virgin in soul, having neither spot, nor wrinkle; being incorrupt in faith, hope, and charity, on which account it is called a virgin, and merits the praise of the Spouse, what praise, think you, are our lilies worthy of, who possess this purity in body, as well as in soul, which the Church at large has in soul only! In truth, the virgins of Christ are, as we may say, the fat and marrow of the Church, and by right of an excellence altogether peculiar to themselves, they enjoy His most familiar embraces.|
The effect of this senseless exaltation of virginity, and of persuading great numbers of maidens to forswear the pleasures and the duties of matrimony, in the conviction that they thereby rendered themselves far more pleasing to God than were their mothers and married sisters, was unquestionably injurious to the morals of the time. The result was as bad for the |lilies| themselves as it was for the women who elected to abide on the natural, but despised, plane for which the Almighty intended them. Too many of the former gave scandalous proof that their ambition for virginal sanctity was unequalled by their steadfastness in the contest. Nature has a way, when insulted, of making reprisals. The writings of the Fathers are full of lamentations and exhortations which indicate that the youthful female saints of their time found it one thing to aspire to the glory of virginity and quite another to live consistently with its character. All were not satisfied with the indemnification provided by the joys of conscious holiness for the loss of those pleasures which they denied themselves by their vows. Very early there sprang up among the celibates of the Church a fashion of choosing spiritual companions, the choice usually being made from among the opposite sex. The canons of many of the first councils dealt with the agapetae who professed to be the spiritual sisters of the unmarried clergy. Even in the days of persecution this had become prevalent; Cyprian wrote severe strictures on the custom, but did not succeed in bringing about its abolishment. Jerome speaks of it in unrestrained terms: |How comes this plague of the agapetae to be in the Church? Whence come these unwedded wives, these novel concubines, these prostitutes, so I will call them, though they cling to a single partner? One house holds them, and one chamber. They often occupy the same couch, and yet they call us suspicious if we fancy anything amiss. A brother leaves his virgin sister; a virgin, slighting her unmarried brother, seeks a brother in a stranger. Both alike profess to have but one object, to find spiritual consolation from those not their kin.... It is on such that Solomon in the Book of Proverbs heaps his scorn. 'Can a man take fire in his bosom,'| he says, '|and his clothes not be burned?'| These insurrections of nature continued until Church celibacy became a fully organized system and the women devoted to perpetual virginity were shut away in convents; even then, if all reports be true, the enemy, though cast down, was not effectually destroyed.
The effect of this laudation of virginity upon the women who chose to remain in the world was equally detrimental to good morals. The natural result of the system might have been easily imagined, if the good sense of the teachers of that age had not been dulled by the conception of the human body as being hopelessly evil. Out of a large family of girls, one, |Priscilla,| or |Agnes,| has been induced, by the fervid representations of some apostle of celibacy as to the glorious sanctity of virginity, to devote herself to this |higher life.| What will be the effect upon the |Marthas| and the |Elizabeths| who decide to remain in the world? Believing, as they also do, in the greater sanctity of virginity, they will necessarily consider themselves less pure and chaste than they would if such a comparison with their seraphic sister had not been thrust upon them. A line of demarcation is drawn between the once united band. On the one side stand chastity and angelic purity personified in the professed virgin; on the other side is marriage, not forbidden, but merely tolerated; a little lower down, according to the Nicene scale, is concubinage, and lower still, but on the same side, is prostitution. The |Marthas| and the |Elizabeths| were given the alternative of either following the example of |Agnes| -- - against which their good sense rebelled -- or of considering themselves only at the top of a class at the bottom of which were the notoriously impure. No greater injustice than this was ever done to womanhood.
In a society where the chaste love of a wife for her husband and the privileges and duties of a mother were regarded as placing a woman upon an inferior moral grade, it is not surprising to find that a large proportion accepted the rating of their time and lived down to it. Largely in consequence, then, of the substitution of a fantastic holiness for unromantic goodness, though the Church grew strong in the world, morals remained much what they had been under paganism. True, there were many of those professed virgins whose names are recorded in history, and who, as the result of what seems to have been a prodigious contest, maintained their character and withal achieved a noble and deserved reputation; but it is at least open to question whether or not the influence of these shining marks of sanctity was not offset by the otherwise pernicious effect of the system.
Before we proceed to the individual mention of some of these early saints, we will glance at the secular women who were their contemporaries.
Constantine had thoroughly orientalized the imperial court, and all the officials and aristocracy of the empire followed the fashion according to the degree of their ability. Gorgeous apparel, trains of eunuchs, barbaric splendor, and ostentatious titles replaced the white toga and the stately, though severe, grandeur of the Roman citizen of former times. The Roman spirit was dying out in sloth and effeminacy; it was fitting that a new capital of the Empire should be erected in the East, for the new times were strange and unrelated to the manes of the Roman ancestors. Nobility of thought had likewise perished, at least from the secular life of the Empire. As Duruy says: |Courts have sometimes been schools of elegance in manners, refinement in mind, and politeness in speech. Literature and art have received from them valuable encouragement. But at the epoch of which we are writing, poetry and art -- those social forces by which the soul is elevated -- no longer exist. With an Asiatic government and a religion soon to become intolerant, great subjects of thought are prohibited. There is no discussion of political affairs, for the emperor gives absolute commands; no history, for the truth is concealed or condemned to a complaisance which is odious to honest men; no eloquence, for nowhere can it be employed except in disgraceful adulation of the sovereign.... Only the Church is to have mighty orators, -- but in the interests of heaven, not earth; and so, in this empire now exposed to countless perils, the little mental activity now existing in civil society will occupy itself only with court intrigues, the subtleties of philosophers aspiring to be theologians, or the petty literature of some belated and feeble admirers of the early Muses.|
The three sons of Constantine, among whom, by will, he divided the Empire, were adherents of the Christian religion; but Constantius, who soon became the sole ruler, though a weighty factor in the evolution of the Church's doctrine, was no very edifying example of the moral effect of her teaching. His jealousy and implacability almost exterminated the race of Constantine, numerously represented as that sturdy emperor had left himself. The closest ties of relationship did not avail to save the lives of those who might stand in the way of the new ruler's ambitions. Constantina, the sister of Constantius, had been married to Hannibalianus, his cousin, but in spite of this double relationship the latter cruelly perished.
Constantina was a woman of whom it would be interesting to know more than the few references which history affords. She must have been a person of able as well as ambitious character, for her father had invested her with the title of Augusta. After his death, she deemed that the purple ought not to clothe a woman with mere powerless dignity, but that the right was hers to take a hand in the affairs of the Empire. In this view of her privileges she lacked the support of her three brothers: the situation was sufficiently disturbed by their own inharmonious claims. But after the death of Constans and Constantine, the way was cleared for Constantina to push her own interests. This she did by creating a puppet emperor out of Vetranio, a good-natured and obliging old general who was commanding in Illyricum. Constantina herself bound the diadem upon his brow; but during an interview with Constantius, a menacing shout of the soldiers induced Vetranio hastily to divest himself of the purple and thankfully accept his life with an honorable exile. Constantina had the diplomacy to make her peace with her brother as soon as she saw the fruitlessness of this scheme. She probably had deserted Vetranio before he had ceased trying to reign for her. Later on, she was married to Gallus, who, with his brother Julian, alone of the princes of the house of Constantine had survived the suspicion and the cruelty of Constantius. Gallus was appointed Caesar of the Eastern provinces, and thus Constantina's ambitions were appeased. But as is frequently the case with those who are ambitious of political power, though intensely eager for the purple, she was entirely unworthy of the position. The historians of the time give this woman an exceedingly bad name, and doubtless the people of Antioch, where she and her husband established their court, agreed that it was abundantly deserved. She is described, not as a woman, but as one of the infernal furies, tormented with an insatiate thirst for human blood. That, of course, we may consider an extravagance of rhetoric on the part of Ammianus; but there is an ugly story of a pearl necklace which Constantina received from the mother-in-law of one Clematius of Alexandria. The ornament procured the death of Clematius, who had incurred the malice of his relative by disappointing her of his love. The rapacity and cruelty of Constantina, joined with the mad profligacy of her husband, ended by ruining them both. The displeasure of Constantius was aroused, and that was usually only appeased by the death of its object. He sent urgent messages inviting Gallus to visit him in the West, for the purpose of consulting on the affairs of the Empire; and it was especially urged that the Caesar should bring his wife, |that beloved sister whom the emperor ardently desired to see.| Constantina |knew perfectly of what her brother was capable|; she was not deceived by his protestations of affection for herself. But while she might be able to pacify him on the ground of her sex and their relationship, it was certain death for Gallus to put himself in the power of the tyrant of the East. Constantina set out alone to make her plea to her brother, but died on the way. There was nothing that her husband could do but obey the |invitation| of the emperor; but he was not allowed to see the face of Constantius. On the road, he was seized, and, after a mock trial, in which no sort of defence could have saved him, was beheaded.
Julian, the brother of Gallus, alone of the progeny of Constantine remained. His life was constantly in danger from the suspicions of Constantius; but it was preserved, and thereby paganism was destined to have one more trial, or rather one more dying struggle. That Julian escaped the dangers to which he was exposed was probably owing in a large measure to the friendship of Eusebia, the wife of the emperor. He afterward repaid this kindness by an eloquent, and we may be assured sincere, eulogium upon her character.
Eusebia was a native of Thessalonica, in Macedonia. Her family was of consular rank. She became the second wife of Constantius in the year 352, and seems to have enjoyed in matters political a considerable influence with her husband, which she always employed meritoriously. Her beauty is frequently spoken of by the ancient authors as being remarkable; but what is still more worthy of notice is the fact that, in an age when there were so many divided interests, the historians of all parties agree in the praise of her moral character. True, there is a hint somewhere that her kindness to Julian sprung from a tenderer motive than friendship; but all else that is known of her, as well as the frozen nature of Julian himself, sufficiently refutes such a suggestion.
In the time of Eusebia the Church was torn by the contentions between the orthodox and the followers of Arius. Constantius, as the imperial arbiter of eternal truth as well as of the temporal destinies of his subjects, sought to obtain peace by banishing the principal disputants, as he did Athanasius and Liberius of Rome. Eusebia's chief connection with these events, though herself an Arian, seems to have been influenced by her charitable inclination. When Liberius was going away into exile she sent him five hundred pieces of gold with which to defray his expenses. This however, rather churlishly as it would seem, he sent back with the message that she |take it to the emperor, for he may want it to pay his troops.|
In this connection there is an incident recorded by Theodoret which indicates that the clergy, especially the bishops, of those times found resolute champions among the ladies, as they have in all ages. Two years after the exile of Liberius, Constantius went to Rome. |The ladies of rank urged their husbands to petition the emperor for the restoration of the shepherd to his flock: they added, that if this were not granted, they would desert them, and go themselves after their great pastor. Their husbands replied, that they were afraid of incurring the resentment of the emperor. 'If we were to ask him,' they continued, 'being men, he would deem it an unpardonable offence; but if you were yourselves to present the petition, he would at any rate spare you, and would either accede to your request, or else dismiss you without injury.' These noble ladies adopted this suggestion, and presented themselves before the emperor in all their customary splendor of array, that so the sovereign, judging their rank from their dress, might count them worthy of being treated with courtesy and kindness. Thus entering the presence, they besought him to take pity on the condition of so large a city, deprived of its shepherd, and made an easy prey to the attacks of wolves. The emperor replied, that the flock possessed a shepherd capable of tending it, and that no other was needed in the city. For after the banishment of the great Liberius, one of his deacons, named Felix, had been appointed bishop. He preserved inviolate the doctrines set forth in the Nicene confession of faith, yet he held communion with those who had corrupted that faith. For this reason none of the citizens of Rome would enter the house of prayer while he was in it. The ladies mentioned these facts to the emperor. Their persuasions were successful; and he commanded that the great Liberius should be recalled from exile, and that the two bishops should conjointly rule the Church. This latter arrangement did not suit the people, so Felix retired to another city.|
Liberius generally refused to acknowledge Arians as Christians; whether or not he had the boldness to refuse that name to the empress is not told us. It is certain that Eusebia's kindness to Julian was worthy of a Christian, even though it succored one who was to be the arch-enemy of the faith. She befriended and protected him when he was summoned to a court where it was to the interest of every courtier to report every action and every chance word to Constantius. She may have been desirous of making a friend of the heir-apparent, being herself childless; but it is easy to believe that |the good and beautiful Eusebia,| as Julian calls her, was both sincere and disinterested in her kindness. She brought it about that the emperor gave his permission to the young man, who had hitherto been a prisoner, to retire to a beautiful estate which he had inherited from his mother.
The fortunes of Julian were in good hands at the court. Constantius was greatly influenced by the eunuchs who surrounded him, and who were the bureaucratic officers of those times; but Eusebia was stronger than all others combined. When the emperor complained that the unaided rule was too much for him, she suggested that he raise his young kinsman to the Caesarian dignity. Her advice was followed; and the imperial purple, and with it the hand of Helena, the sister of Constantius, were conferred upon Julian. As a wedding gift, Eusebia, with the most refined consideration possible, presented him with a valuable collection of the best Greek authors. It is likely that he felt more appreciative gratitude for the books than he did either for the official dignity or the highborn bride. As Caesar, it was intended by Constantius that he should be no more than a figure; and for his wife it is doubtful if he ever felt any real affection. As historians have remarked, in his numerous writings Julian sometimes mentions the Helen of Homer, but never once his own Helen. She must have been considerably older than her husband, and was probably a Christian, as were her brothers. That there was no offspring of this marriage was imputed to the arts of Eusebia, who, according to Ammianus Marcellinus, exercised a close and unnatural supervision over the household of her protege. Inasmuch as there appears no motive for a wish on the part of the empress that Helena should be childless, we are inclined, as Gibbon says, |to hope that the public malignity imputed the effects of accident as the guilt of Eusebia.| The empress died in the year 360, immediately before Julian broke with Constantius and began to rule on his own authority.
Julian led a forlorn hope in the cause of the old gods. This at least may be said for him: there was nothing in the treatment which he received from those who professed to be Christians to hold his faith to their religion. One only had befriended him, and she was regarded as a heretic. The historians of the time endeavor to picture Julian as leading a crusade of persecution against Christianity. Theodoret speaks of his |mad fury|; but inasmuch as he is constrained to recount stories which rather illustrate the triviality of the mind of the historian than the cruelty of the persecutor, it is evident that the glory of martyrdom was not won to any considerable extent under Julian. We are inclined to think that one of these narratives exemplifies the latter's patience more than any other of his characteristics. There was a woman named Publia, who had become the prioress of a company of virgins. One day these women, seeing the emperor coming, struck up the psalm which recites how |the idols of the nations are of silver and gold,| and, after describing their insensibility, adds |like them be they that make them and all those that put their trust in them.| Julian required them at least to hold their peace while he was passing by. Publia did not, however, pay the least attention to his orders, except to urge her choir to put still greater energy into their chaunt; and when again the emperor passed by she told them to strike up: |Let God arise and let his enemies be scattered.| At last Julian commanded one of his escort to box her ears. |She however took outrage for honor, and kept up her attack upon him with her spiritual songs, just as the composer and teacher of the song laid the wicked spirit that vexed Saul.|
Before we leave this brief reference to the secular matrons of the early Church in order to turn our attention to the sacred virgins, it is necessary to summon the testimony of Jerome. This learned and eloquent Father is the great authority on the women of his time. Only those vowed to celibacy enjoyed his highest approbation; yet he had many friends among the married ladies of Rome. Jerome was a satirist. His pen was caustic when it dealt with persons or matters that did not meet his approval. He was the Juvenal of his age, but he wrote in prose, and not for the sake of satire, but as the champion of orthodoxy and virginity. Many of his writings are in the form of letters to ladies who were his friends. The one to Eustochium, the daughter of Paula, is the most striking of all. In this epistle Jerome sets forth the motives which should actuate those who adopt the monastic life. It also gives us a vivid picture of Roman society as it then was -- the luxury, profligacy, and hypocrisy prevalent among both men and women. This letter was written at Rome in the year 384. |I write to you thus, Lady Eustochium (I am bound to call my Lord's bride 'lady'), to show you by my opening words that my object is not to praise the virginity which you follow, and of which you have proved the value, or yet to recount the drawbacks of marriage, such as pregnancy, the crying of infants, the torture caused by a rival, the cares of household management, and all those fancied blessings which death at last cuts short. Not that married women are as such outside the pale; they have their own place, the marriage that is honorable and the bed undefiled. My purpose is to show you that you are fleeing from Sodom and should take warning by Lot's wife.| Such is the tone and tenor of Jerome's correspondence with the women of his acquaintance. Among many other things, he cautions Eustochium not to court the society of married ladies, and not to |look too often on the life which you despised to become a virgin!| Many glimpses are given of the characteristics of that life which was to be so carefully avoided. The pride of those who are the wives of men in high position, and also their delight in troops of callers, are noticed. They are pictured as they are carried about the streets in gorgeous litters, with rows of eunuchs walking in front. Their dress is mentioned: red cloaks, robes inwrought with threads of gold, and creaking shoes. Jerome is even so unsparing as to refer to those who |paint their eyes and lips with rouge and cosmetics; whose chalked faces, unnaturally white, are like those of idols; upon whose cheeks every chance tear leaves a furrow; who fail to realize that years make them old; who heap their heads with hair not their own; who smooth their faces, and rub out the wrinkles of age; and who, in the presence of their grandsons, behave like trembling school-girls.| Some of Jerome's strictures are suggestive of modern feminine habits. Speaking of Blaesilla, after she had become a widow and was determined to persevere in that estate, he says that in days gone by she had been extremely fastidious in her dress, and had spent whole days before her mirror endeavoring to correct its deficiencies. Her head, |which had done no harm, was forced into a waving head-dress.| But all this is changed. Now |no gold and jewels adorn her girdle; it is made of wool, plain, and scrupulously clean. It is intended to keep her clothes right, and not to cut her waist in two.|
Eustochium, as a professed virgin of the Church, is warned not to trifle with verse, nor to make herself gay with lyric songs. |And do not, out of affectation, follow the sickly taste of married ladies who, now pressing their teeth together, now keeping their lips wide apart, speak with a lisp, and purposely clip their words, because they fancy that to pronounce them naturally is a mark of country breeding.|
In another place the Father of asceticism says: |To-day you may see women cramming their wardrobes with dresses, changing their gowns from day to day, and for all that unable to vanquish the moths. Now and then one more scrupulous wears out a single dress; yet, while she appears in rags, her boxes are full. Parchments are dyed purple, gold is melted into lettering, manuscripts are decked with jewels, while Christ lies at the door naked and dying. When they hold out a hand to the needy they sound a trumpet; when they invite to a love-feast they engage a crier. I lately saw the noblest lady in Rome -- I suppress her name, for I am no satirist -- with a band of eunuchs before her in the basilica of the blessed Peter. She was giving money to the poor, a coin apiece; and this with her own hand, that she might be accounted more religious. Hereupon a by no means uncommon incident occurred. An old woman, 'full of age and rags,' ran forward to get a second coin, but when her turn came she received, not a penny, but a blow hard enough to draw blood from her guilty veins.| Rome had always successfully withstood the rhetorical lashings of her censors; had it not been for this power of resistance, the castigations of a Jerome surely would have sufficed to hold the natural frivolity of the women of his time at least within the bounds of modesty.
The moral influence of Jerome illustrated the danger of insisting on perfection with the result of falling below the average of possible attainment. In his letters to Paula, Eustochium, Marcella, and Asella, women who delighted him by manifesting an astounding resolution in mortifying the flesh, he continually laments those who, professing to have made an offering of their virginity to Christ, were in reality a scandal to the Church.
Paula was a Roman lady of the highest rank and greatest wealth. The genealogy of her father ascended through the highest names in Grecian history; her mother, Blassilla, numbered the Scipios and the Gracchi among her ancestors. Paula was Cornelia reincarnated in the fourth century of Christianity; the only differences are that the former maintained a chaste widowhood inspired by fuller hopes than earthly renown, and instead of entertaining men of learning at Misenum she studied Hebrew with Jerome in a squalid cave at Bethlehem. This devout lady had much to resign in order that she might enter upon a life of poverty. One of the most magnificent houses of Rome was hers, and she drew her revenues from the city of Nicopolis, the whole of which she owned. She was born in the year 347, ten years after the death of Constantine. At the age of seventeen she was married to Toxotius, who was a descendant of the illustrious Julian family. She was the mother of five daughters and one son. It seems likely that she owed her conversion to Christianity to the holy Marcella, one of that circle of ascetic women to whom the letters of Jerome were addressed. Until the time of her husband's death, the life of Paula in her magnificent palace on the Aventine was similar to that of other wealthy Roman ladies, except that her means enabled her to excel all others in elegance. On her conversion, and as the best proof of its reality, in the estimation of those days, she distributed a quarter of her immense estate to the poor. The ideas then prevalent would not permit her to deem herself an earnest Christian unless she entirely relinquished her habits of luxury. This she did, and devoted herself to the care of the indigent and the nursing of the infirm. Her piety would not even allow her sufficiently to sustain her bodily strength for these noble labors. She lived on bread and a little oil, on many days denying herself even that until after sunset. Her dress was the rough garb of the slave; her couch was a mat of straw, covered with haircloth.
There was, however, one enjoyment which Paula allowed herself: she was one of a circle of ladies, all ascetics like herself, who were devoted to the study of literature. There was Marcella, who was the first of the highborn Roman ladies to embrace the monastic life, and of whom Jerome gives this account: |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 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 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 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.|
Marcella may indeed be termed the prioress of the community of ascetics which gathered in her house and in that of Paula on the Aventine hill. She studied Hebrew with Jerome, and became so proficient in Scriptural exposition that, after the latter's departure for the Holy Land, even the clergy would bring to her for solution such questions as were too difficult for them. When Alaric and his Goths sacked the city of Rome, the prayers and the evident holiness of Marcella induced the barbarians to spare her life and the honor of the virgin Principia, who dwelt with her, and they even left her house unmolested.
Another shining light in that Aventine circle was Asella, who had been dedicated to the Church from her tenth year. Her fastings may be said to have been almost unintermittent, so that Jerome thought it was only by the grace of God that she survived until her fiftieth year without weakening her digestion. |Lying on the dry ground did not affect her limbs, and the rough sackcloth that she wore failed to make her skin either foul or rough. With a sound body and a still sounder soul she sought all her delight in solitude, and found for herself a monkish hermitage in the centre of busy Rome.|
Among the good women of that day were also Albina and Marcellina, who were the sisters of Saint Ambrose. Marcellina made a public profession of virginity before a great congregation which gathered on Christmas day in the Church of Saint Peter. She received the veil from the hands of the bishop Liberius. In a work addressed to her Ambrose repeats the instructions which his sister received from the bishop at that time. The work is of no little interest, as it clearly sets forth the idea which governed the lives of professed nuns of that early date.
Paula also numbered among her companions Fabiola, a woman noble both in character and race, who, after a stormy youth, found peace in the haven of ascetic devotion. Jerome describes her life in his seventy-seventh letter. Fabiola was censured for putting away one husband and marrying again while the man whom she divorced was yet alive. Jerome's defence of her divorce shows such liberality of thought on the rights of women in this regard that part of it is worth quoting. He says: |I will urge only this one plea, which is sufficient to exonerate a chaste matron and a Christian woman. The Lord gave commandment that a wife must not be put away 'except it be for fornication, and that, if put away, she must remain unmarried.' Now a commandment which is given to men logically applies to women also. For it cannot be that, while an adulterous wife is to be put away, an incontinent husband is to be retained.... The laws of Caesar are different, it is true, from the laws of Christ.... Earthly laws give a free rein to the unchastity of men, merely condemning seduction and adultery; lust is allowed to range unrestrained among brothels and slave-girls, as if the guilt were constituted by the rank of the person assailed and not by the purpose of the assailant. But with us Christians what is unlawful for women is equally unlawful for men.| It is only in very modern times that the secular law has conformed to this just opinion, and even now the social treatment received by the sinner is guided by a view the opposite of that expressed by Jerome.
So Fabiola took another husband, and therein she was held to have sinned deeply. Repentance, however, soon followed -- a life-long penitence, an expiation offered by a continual sacrifice of good works. The whole of her property she gave to the poor; among other good deeds she founded a hospice for the shelter of the destitute. She resided for a while with Jerome, Paula, and Eustochium at Bethlehem, but returned to Rome to die. Her funeral was a reminder of the old-time triumphs. All the streets, porches, and roofs from which a view could be obtained of the procession were insufficient to accommodate the spectators.
Into this circle of holy women came Jerome, the most learned and the most brilliant man of his time. He was their equal in birth, and he, like them, had disposed of his property in charity to the poor. He became their friend, their teacher, their oracle. So assured was he of his ascendency over his friends that he often gave his advice in a manner which savored of arrogance.
In the year 385 Jerome bade farewell to these devoted friends and sailed away to the land which was consecrated by the life and sufferings of Christ. He desired retirement, in order that he might be free to meditate and to prosecute his great work of translating the Scriptures. From the ship in which the journey was made he addressed a letter to Asella. It seems that slanderous tongues had foolishly assailed him in regard to his friendship with those women whose attractions could not have been other than spiritual. He admits that, of all the ladies of Rome, one only had the power to subdue him, and that one was Paula. He had been able to withstand countenances beautified both by nature and also by art; with Paula alone, |who was squalid with dirt,| and whose eyes were dimmed with continual weeping, was his name associated. Calumny on this subject was too absurd to be treated with seriousness. The reference to Paula's personal untidiness gives us the occasion to remark that, contrary to the generally accepted axiom regarding the religious worth of cleanliness, those ancient nuns were taught to believe that the bath was rather conducive to ungodliness. It was a dangerous subserviency to the flesh: its eschewment was doubtless a powerful safeguard to chastity.
Two years after the departure of their friend, Paula and Eustochium gratified a wish which they had long cherished, to visit the Holy Land. A most graphic picture of Paula leaving her children and friends is given us in one of Jerome's letters. They realized, what was not, perhaps, openly acknowledged, that it was a final good-bye. We are shown the young girls clinging to their mother in the endeavor to dissuade her from her purpose. But the sails are unfurled and the stout-armed rowers are in their places; Rufina, a maiden just entering womanhood, with quiet sobs, beseeches her mother to wait until she should be married. As the vessel moves away, little Toxotius, the youngest-born and her only son, stretches out his tiny hand and pleads with his mother to come back. But no entreaty could turn Paula from her pious though hardly commendable purpose. |She overcame her love for her children by her love for God.| That was the favorable judgment of the time. A less enthusiastic, but saner, age can hardly bestow such unmitigated praise.
After a journey through all the places made famous by Scripture, in every one of which they were received with great honor, Paula and her daughter made their home at Bethlehem, where Jerome already had his cell. There she built a convent; and for eighteen years she devoted her life to the training of the many virgins who resorted to her company, attracted by the fame of her holiness. At her death, the manner of which was truly edifying, it was found that Paula had disposed of the whole of her property in charity. Though it is probable that these ascetic women were to a large extent under the influence of motives less exalted than that mentioned above, much good intention must be laid to their credit; and doubtless their extreme self-denial was not without a salutary effect in a sensual world. At the end of his description of her death, which he wrote for her daughter, Jerome says: |And now, Paula, farewell, and aid with your prayers the old age of your votary.|