28 June 2009

'Ignorance of Scripture Is Ignorance of Christ'—St Jerome of Stridonium

Apart from St Augustine, Vidovdan (meaning not only the Martyr Vitus, but St Lazar of Serbia and the Battle of Kosovo), and (in ROCOR) the Saints of North America, today is also the feastday of St Jerome of Stridonium (347-420), the translator of the Latin Vulgate which became the Bible of the West for centuries. Fr John McGuckin calls St Jerome (his full name was Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus) ‘perhaps the most important biblical scholar of the early Western church’ (The SCM A-Z of Patristic Theology [London: SCM, 2005], p. 187). St John Cassian, in his treatise Against Nestorius, calls him ‘Jerome, the Teacher of the Catholics, whose writings shine like divine lamps throughout the whole world’ (Against Nestorius, 7.26). Here is the brief account of St Jerome’s life in Bulgakov’s Handbook:

He was born in 330 in the city of Strido within the territory of Dalmatia and Pannonia of pious and wealthy parents. Seeking an education, he visited Rome (having studied classical wisdom here), Gaul and other place. Having experienced the shallowness of secular life, he went to the east in 373 and in Antioch he accepted the vocation of a priest and began the labor of translation and explanation of Holy Scripture, while leading herewith the strict life of a hermit. During a visit to Constantinople, he heard St Gregory the Theologian and translated the Commentaries of Origen on the books of the Prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah. Having returned to Rome in 382, through his labors and asceticism he acquired a group of admirers and through his teaching contributed much to the correction of the morals of effeminate Rome. Having again settled in Palestine in 385, in a nearby cave in Bethlehem, he completed his translation of Holy Scripture into Latin and wrote his commentary on the New Testament, having studied the Hebrew and Chaldean [Aramaic] languages for this purpose. He died on September 30, 420. In 642 his relics were transferred from Bethlehem to Rome and placed in the Santa Maria Maggiore Church. It is not known where these relics are now. His honorable hand is in the church of his name in Rome.

It is interesting to me to note the enormous popularity of St Jerome among Renaissance and Counter-Reformation artists (for evidence, do a Google image search for ‘Saint Jerome’, check out this small gallery, or see the many images accompanying the Wikipedia article ‘Jerome’). Two items of note are, first, the anachronism of the cardinal’s hat and robes, and second, the presence of the lion, which, as Derwas Chitty points out, Jerome ‘was to filch from [St Gerasimus] through the ignorance of Latin pilgrims many centuries after they were both dead’ (The Desert a City [Crestwood, NY: SVS, p. 90; see my post on St Gerasimus where I discuss this here). It’s also true generally, that, as Megan Hale Williams points out, ‘No more can we imagine Jerome at work by thinking of a medieval author-portrait, the frontispiece of a Gospel for example, than we can by calling to mind an Attic funerary stele or a fresco from Pompeii advertising the culture of its wealthy subject. Jerome’s literary monasticism was a thoroughly late antique phenomenon’ (The Monk and the Book: Jerome and the Making of Christian Scholarship [Chicago: U of Chicago, 2006], p. 169). But keeping all this in mind, I can’t help but rather enjoy many of these portraits of the ascetic-scholar in a study or cave, producing those works and translations for which he is so justly renowned.

One particular masterpiece is Albrecht Dürer’s engraving, St Jerome (right), which Dame Frances Yates has argued should be read as the third in his ‘Melencolia’ series, representing the third grade in Cornelius Agrippa’s ‘inspired melancholy’ (The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age [London: Routledge, 2001], pp. 68-9). Erwin Panofsky describes St Jerome’s cell as a ‘place of enchanted beatitude’ where the space is ‘impeccably correct from a mathematical point of view’ (qtd. in Yates, p. 68). In this cell, to borrow Agrippa's words about melancholy, St Jerome ‘learns the secrets of divine matters’ (qtd. in Yates, p. 69).

As an obvious fan of secular literature (try looking up the literature category of this blog!), it is important for me to note that St Jerome is one witness for the higher path of devoting oneself to the study of the Scriptures. He tells quite the harrowing tale in his 22nd Letter, ‘To Eustochium’ (here):

30. Many years ago, when for the kingdom of heaven’s sake I had cut myself off from home, parents, sister, relations, and—harder still—from the dainty food to which I had been accustomed; and when I was on my way to Jerusalem to wage my warfare, I still could not bring myself to forego the library which I had formed for myself at Rome with great care and toil. And so, miserable man that I was, I would fast only that I might afterwards read Cicero. After many nights spent in vigil, after floods of tears called from my inmost heart, after the recollection of my past sins, I would once more take up Plautus. And when at times I returned to my right mind, and began to read the prophets, their style seemed rude and repellent. I failed to see the light with my blinded eyes; but I attributed the fault not to them, but to the sun. While the old serpent was thus making me his plaything, about the middle of Lent a deep-seated fever fell upon my weakened body, and while it destroyed my rest completely—the story seems hardly credible—it so wasted my unhappy frame that scarcely anything was left of me but skin and bone. Meantime preparations for my funeral went on; my body grew gradually colder, and the warmth of life lingered only in my throbbing breast. Suddenly I was caught up in the spirit and dragged before the judgment seat of the Judge; and here the light was so bright, and those who stood around were so radiant, that I cast myself upon the ground and did not dare to look up. Asked who and what I was I replied: I am a Christian. But He who presided said: Thou liest, you are a follower of Cicero and not of Christ. For ‘where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’ (Matt. 6:21). Instantly I became dumb, and amid the strokes of the lash—for He had ordered me to be scourged—I was tortured more severely still by the fire of conscience, considering with myself that verse, In the grave who shall give you thanks? Yet for all that I began to cry and to bewail myself, saying: Have mercy upon me, O Lord: have mercy upon me. Amid the sound of the scourges this cry still made itself heard. At last the bystanders, falling down before the knees of Him who presided, prayed that He would have pity on my youth, and that He would give me space to repent of my error. He might still, they urged, inflict torture on me, should I ever again read the works of the Gentiles. Under the stress of that awful moment I should have been ready to make even still larger promises than these. Accordingly I made oath and called upon His name, saying: Lord, if ever again I possess worldly books, or if ever again I read such, I have denied You. Dismissed, then, on taking this oath, I returned to the upper world, and, to the surprise of all, I opened upon them eyes so drenched with tears that my distress served to convince even the incredulous. And that this was no sleep nor idle dream, such as those by which we are often mocked, I call to witness the tribunal before which I lay, and the terrible judgment which I feared. May it never, hereafter, be my lot to fall under such an inquisition! I profess that my shoulders were black and blue, that I felt the bruises long after I awoke from my sleep, and that thenceforth I read the books of God with a zeal greater than I had previously given to the books of men.

I find here an important lesson which I feel we must not explain away, gloss over, or, worse yet, dismiss. Although I think it is possible to read Cicero without being his follower, it strikes me that 1) this can be very difficult, as proved by St Jerome’s example, and 2) even if we can so read him, we do better to avoid such distractions. As St Jerome himself famously wrote in the preface to his commentary on Isaiah (I found it here), ‘Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.’ Not so, ignorance of Shakespeare. While there can be good reasons to read, and many potential benefits to reading secular literature, we must be careful that we are not simply justifying our own whims and pleasures, particularly if we are indeed neglecting ‘the better part’.

I will pass on one more lesson from St Jerome, equally uncompromising, this from his Life of St Paul of Thebes (Carolinne White, trans., Early Christian Lives [London: Penguin, ], pp. 83-4):

17 At the end of this little work I would like to ask those who own so much land that they do not know it all, those who cover their homes in marble, those who thread the wealth of whole estates on one string, ‘What did this old man [St Paul of Thebes] ever lack, naked as he was? You drink from jewelled cups but he was satisfied with the cupped hands that nature had given him. You weave gold into your tunics but he did not even have the shabbiest garment belonging to your slave. But then, paradise lies open to him, poor as he was, while hell will welcome you in your golden clothes. He was clothed with Christ despite his nakedness: you who are dressed in silks have lost the garment of Christ. Paul who lies covered in the vilest dust will rise again in glory: heavy stone tombs press down upon you, you who will burn together with your wealth. Have a care, I ask you, for yourselves, have a care at least for the riches you love. Why do you wrap your dead in cloths of gold? Why does your ostentation not cease amidst the grief and tears? Or are the corpses of the rich unable to rot except in clothes of silk?’

18 I beg you, whoever you are who reads this, to remember the sinner Jerome: should the Lord grant him his wish, he would far rather choose Paul’s tunic, together with his rewards, than the purple robes of kings, together with their punishments.

For more on St Jerome, see this post, and this one. There is a nice appreciation of St Jerome’s letters, particularly ‘To Eustochium’, here, and Felix Culpa has posted some lovely and revealing comments of St Jerome on Galatians 5:22-23 here. I also recommend this post at The Summa Mamas for the nice colouring of Dürer’s engraving as well as the cute poem dealing with some of the oft-noted foibles of the Saint. Finally, I would be remiss not to point out Kevin Edgecomb’s no doubt inspired translations of St Jerome’s own Prologues to the various books of the Vulgate, here.

Although I have no reason to believe he would ever condescend to read this blog, today is the nameday of His Grace, Bishop Jerome of Manhattan (ROCOR's own scholarly polyglot!), and I would like to wish ‘Many years!’ to His Grace.


Gabriel said...

What? No posts for Metropolitan Jonah of Moscow, the Prophet Amos, or the Martyrs of the Turkish Yoke? I jest...

For those on the Julian, when taking into account the usual Sunday Resurrectional service, today was a veritable liturgical potpourri. I can't recall the last time so many major Saints and commemorations had their feastdays fall together.

aaronandbrighid said...

Yes, I definitely would have liked to do one on the Prophet Amos today (or the Prophet Elisha yesterday)! But I had too many other things to post, as one can see...

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I assure you my translations are not inspired!

But I did, while doing those, manage to pick up on Jerome's discursive style and other interesting tidbits of Hieronymiana.

For one thing, though he may not have been reading Cicero anymore, he never forgot him. He'd still quote from Cicero. It's obvious that he knew him very well.

Also, St Jerome didn't work alone. As he describes in some of the prologues to his translations, he typically hired a secretary, someone to take dictation. He translated on the fly, as it were, and had these hired scribes to do the busy work of the writing.

Fun stuff!

aaronandbrighid said...

Yes, in the St Paul of Thebes post, I pointed out that even though St Jerome was aiming for a simple style, he can't avoid literary allusions. I mentioned noticing one of my favourite lines from Virgil, among others.

Interesting point about the scribes. They manage never to turn up in the artistic depictions it seems.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Right, and even though St Paul had a number of co-authors, they never appear in his icons, either. The only case I know of is St Prochoros with St John. There are very likely others, though.

St John Chrysostom and St Augustine both had squads of scribes trained in shorthand, which is how we ended up with so many of their sermons preserved.

Another title that should be in my List of Shame (i.e., shamefully unread) is Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible by Karel van der Toorn. I've read various articles on scribal practice, none of which comes to mind (they're usually pretty boring). Then there's the very interesting book by Stanely Stowers Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity, which was a good read, showing that scribes were involved in most letter writing, reformulating statements and so on. That was the way they did things. It impressed upon me, in addition to the aforementioned multiple co-authors of St Paul, that it would obviously be impossible to determine "Paul's style", as so many claim to have done, and which of the letters are therefore forgeries. The idea that Paul was like some misanthropic professor, squirreled away in his study scribbling away all by his lonesome, has as much to do with Paul as typing on a laptop computer does.