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St. Jerome: The Slow Work of Sanctity

Happy feast of St. Jerome, Doctor of the Church!

Friends, what comes to mind when we think of the saints? For starters, perhaps paintings, images in stained glass windows, and statuary. If we take an interest at all in these heroes of the faith perhaps legendary stories that we like to recount given our own particular personalities and interests. The lover of the environment recounts the story of St. Francis preaching to the birds. The intellectual calls to mind St. Thomas Aquinas lost in thought at the king of France, St. Louis IX’s, dinner table, pounding his fist on the table and saying, “and that should settle the Manichees” (Robert Barron, Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master, 22). The action lover recounts St. Lawrence, roasting on the gridiron and saying to his executioners, “I’m well done on this side. Turn me over!”

All of these vignettes say something profound to us. They speak of virtue’s perfection, of singularly minded souls devoted to the love of Christ. However, if our memory of the saints is limited to the manner in which they are depicted in stained glass and those moments of their lives where their very best shines through, they will ultimately remain for us lifeless, unattainable paradigms who are almost not human, or at the very least, not as human as us. This leaves us with the sadly mistaken view that to live a saintly life devoted to Christ is unattainable for us “commoners” and provides us with the convenient excuse that excellence is for a few, and mediocrity for the many. The beautiful thing about the saint celebrated by the Church today is that if you know anything about him, the portrait you hold in your mind of him is not of someone whose feet barely touched the ground.     

St. Jerome was born into a Christian family in the city of Stridon, in the Roman province of Dalmatia in about 347 AD. “He was given a good education and was even sent to Rome to fine-tune his studies” (Pope Benedict XVI, Church Fathers: From Clement of Rome to Augustine, 133). These studies, though unknown to him at the time, would eventually lead to pivotal work for the life of the Church. His extant corpus includes a collection of letters, and it is in these especially that we encounter the full humanity of the saint. In a way similar though not nearly as detailed as Augustine’s Confessions, Jerome writes of the indiscretions and missteps of his youth, indiscretions which would haunt him once his heart had been set on following Christ. In one letter, Jerome very candidly describes his early years as an ascetic in the desert:

How often, when I was living in the desert, in the vast solitude which gives to hermits a savage dwelling-place, parched by a burning sun, how often did I fancy myself among the pleasures of Rome! I used to sit alone because I was filled with bitterness…Now, although in my fear of hell I had consigned myself to this prison, where I had no companions but scorpions and wild beasts, I often found myself amid bevies of girls. My face was pale and my frame chilled with fasting; yet my mind was burning with desire, and the fires of lust kept bubbling up before me when my flesh was as good as dead (Letter 22.7).

Nevertheless, his prodigal youth did not prevent him from eventually making his way to the fount of life. Jerome was baptized around the year 366 and soon decided upon an ascetic life. After some time he set out “for the East and lived as a hermit in the Desert of Chalcis, south of Aleppo, devoted himself assiduously to study,” perfecting his knowledge of Greek and learned Hebrew (Ibid, cf. Jerome, Letter 125.12). As the above quote has demonstrated, deciding for a life lived for Christ does not entail instant perfection, far from it. In addition to his struggle to leave worldly pleasure behind, Jerome also struggled to remain single minded in his studies. He writes that as he made his way to the desert, he longed to read the works of Cicero again. As his body languished under the weight of asceticism, he experienced a vision where he was “dragged before the judgment seat of the Judge…Asked who and what I was I replied: I am a Christian. But He who presided said: You lie. You are a follower of Cicero and not of Christ. For ‘where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’” (Letter 22.30; cf. Matt. 6:21).

In 382 he returned to Rome, where he met Pope Damasus who, familiar with Jerome’s growing reputation as a scholar, “encouraged him, for pastoral and cultural reasons, to embark on a new Latin translation of the biblical texts” (Pope Benedict XVI, Church Fathers, 134). Consulting the original Hebrew and Greek of the Old Testament in addition “to earlier Latin versions, Jerome was able, with the assistance later of other collaborators, to produce a better translation” which “constitutes the so-called ‘Vulgate’, the ‘official’ text of the Latin Church which, after the recent revision, continues to be the ‘official’ Latin text of the Church” (Ibid., 135).

Despite the papal commissioning of this endeavor and the reputation Jerome had gained as a scholar in the Christian world, his work at translation and commentary was not without criticism. As Jerome worked tirelessly to translate and understand the Scriptures, a theologian some seven years younger stepped onto the scene whose genius was destined to outshine Jerome, upon whom nature had bestowed a “well-known difficult” and “hot-tempered character” (Pope Benedict XVI, Church Fathers, 133). The younger theologian, though not as prone to annoyance and anger as his elder, could neither be said to suffer for a lack of self-confidence when it came to scholarship. For Augustine of Hippo, like Jerome, had made his way through the Roman educational system, and when called upon to serve as a priest likewise brought his education to bear upon the careful study of Sacred Scripture. The letter correspondence that has been preserved between the two are a glimpse into the life of two saints, who for all their devotion and love for Christ, still struggle with their respective imperfections. And it is this quality which makes these two figures simultaneously relatable and beautiful, for it is in their brokenness and their struggle to overcome that we see Christ at work in them.  

The two butted heads on various topics. For starters, Augustine, though adamant in his gratitude for the translation work Jerome was doing (see Augustine of Hippo, Letter 71.6), did not find it without its problems. Perhaps forewarned about Jerome’s irritable character, the otherwise eloquent Augustine awkwardly tries to combine critique and flattery in his early letters to Jerome. For example, he had heard about problems with Jerome’s translation of the prophet Jonah. He writes: “a certain bishop, one of our brethren, having introduced in the church over which he presides the reading of your version, came upon a word in the book of the prophet Jonah, of which you have given a very different rendering from that which had been of old familiar to the senses and memory of all the worshippers, and had been chanted for so many generations in the church” (Augustine, Letter 71.5). The mistranslation had caused an uproar in the Church, such that the bishop, Augustine writes Jerome, the renowned translator of Scripture, “was compelled to correct your version in that passage as if it had been falsely translated, as he desired not to be left without a congregation—a calamity which he narrowly escaped. From this we are also led to think that you may be occasionally mistaken” (Ibid.). Ultimately, Augustine’s advice to Jerome is to be more careful in his work of translation: “You would therefore confer upon us a much greater boon if you gave an exact Latin translation of the Greek Septuagint version” (Ibid., 71.6).

In addition, Augustine found occasion to critique Jerome’s interpretation of the passage in Galatians where Paul writes that he had called out Peter’s hypocrisy (Galatians 2:11-13). Jerome had written that Peter could in no way have been wrong, but was rather involved in some form of role-playing that would provide Paul with the opportunity to proclaim the truth of their being no need for Gentile converts to Christianity to keep all the tenets of the Mosaic Law as practiced by the Jews (e.g., circumcision and kosher dietary law) (Jerome, Letter 112.4).

In response to both criticisms (including others), Jerome, obviously annoyed as his younger contemporary, responded to Augustine beginning: “ I have received by Cyprian, deacon, three letters, or rather three little books, at the same time, from your Excellency, containing what you call sundry questions, but what I feel to be animadversions on opinions which I have published, to answer which, if I were disposed to do it, would require a pretty large volume” (Letter 112.1). After attempting to respond to Augustine’s criticisms, often cautioning the younger theologians not to be so confident in his critiques of others (see, e.g., Letter 112.4-5 & 19), Jerome concludes the letter, basically asking Augustine not to bother him and to let him work in peace: “In closing this letter, I beseech you to have some consideration for a soldier who is now old and has long retired from active service, and not to force him to take the field and again expose his life to the chances of war. Do you, who are young, and who have been appointed to the conspicuous seat of pontifical dignity, give yourself to teaching the people, and enrich Rome with new stores from fertile Africa. I am contented to make but little noise in an obscure corner of a monastery, with one to hear me or read to me” (Letter 112.22).

In the same year, (404 AD), Jerome had sent a letter to Augustine, expressing frustration that Augustine’s criticisms of Jerome’s work had been made public prior to Jerome receiving correspondence directly from Augustine (this was an unfortunate mistake of the times, being as it was without any official and secure postal system). To begin, Jerome admonishes Augustine to be open and honest with him, writing, “True friendship, can harbor no suspicion; a friend must speak to his friend as freely as to his second self” (Jerome, Letter 105.2). In addition, Jerome accuses Augustine of having done this in an effort to advance his own reputation by taking down a more senior scholar: “Some of my acquaintances…suggested to me that this had not been done by you in a guileless spirit, but through desire for praise and celebrity…intended to become famous at my expense; that many might know that you challenged me, and I feared to meet you; that you had written as a man of learning, and I had by silence confessed my ignorance, and had at last found one who knew how to stop my garrulous tongue” (Ibid.).

Why do I spend so much time recounting parts of this seemingly petty exchange between these two much revered saints, these two doctors of the Church? Precisely because sometimes it was just that. The exchange demonstrates that these two men were clearly not without their shortcomings however dedicated they were to Christ and His Church. Moreover, it demonstrates that growth in holy friendship is hard work that requires honesty, sometimes involves criticism of one another so that we might keep one another focused on the only thing that matters, Christ, and, perhaps above all, an authentic humility that truly desires the mutual pursuit of the Truth that is Christ. Accordingly, in a letter written a year later (405 AD), perhaps sensing any sort of potential friendship between the two to be in grave danger, Augustine writes to Jerome again: “again, I beseech you to correct boldly whatever you see needful to censure in my writings. For although, so far as the titles of honor which prevail in the Church are concerned, a bishop’s rank is above that of a presbyter, nevertheless in many things Augustine is in inferior to Jerome” (Augustine, Letter 82.33).

Augustine’s efforts here proved not to be in vain. Jerome obliged, and the two worked to build more solid footing for their friendship in Christ. How did they do this? Not by worrying about who was potentially making the other look bad, or who was showing themselves to be the holier or more learned. They did this by focusing on the one thing that mattered, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, especially as revealed in the words of Sacred Scripture. In a letter written some eleven years later from Jerome to Augustine (416 AD), it is clear that these earlier tensions have been overcome, and Jerome explains how: “in any discussion between us, the object aimed at by both of us is advancement in learning” (Jerome, Letter 134.1). Not only this, but the curmudgeonly Scripture scholar seems to have developed a decided liking and admiration of the younger Bishop over time: “Certainly, whatever can be said on the topics there discussed, and whatever can be drawn by commanding genius from the fountain of sacred Scripture regarding them, has been in these letters stated in your positions, and illustrated by your arguments” (Ibid.). What lies behind these words of praise is not only the epistolary discussions they had engaged in, but also the fact that as a true friend in the fight for Truth, Augustine had come to the defense of Jerome when he came under the attack of the Pelagians. Thus, Jerome writes: “Be it ours, therefore, rather to rid the Church of that most pernicious heresy which always feigns repentance, in order that it may have liberty to teach in our churches, and may not be expelled and extinguished, as it would be if it disclosed its real character in the light of day” (Ibid.).

A couple of years later (418 AD), Jerome now nearing the end of his life (d. 420 AD), wrote one final letter to Augustine, with by now a fully developed admiration for this once annoying young theologian who Jerome has seen grow into a mature bishop and a divine instrument to be reckoned with by all who would seek to undermined the Truth of the Christian Faith.

At all times I have esteemed your Blessedness with becoming reverence and honor, and have loved the Lord and Savior dwelling in you. But now we add, if possible, something to that which has already reached a climax, and we heap up what was already full, so that we do not suffer a single hour to pass without the mention of your name, because you have, with the ardor of unshaken faith, stood your ground against opposing storms… (Jerome, Letter 141).

Then, in his final words to Augustine, Jerome then pens some of the greatest praise perhaps ever to have been written, one Doctor of the Church to another:

Go on and prosper! You are renowned throughout the whole world; Catholics revere and look up to you as the restorer of the ancient faith, and — which is a token of yet more illustrious glory— all heretics abhor you. They persecute me also with equal hatred, seeking by imprecation to take away the life which they cannot reach with the sword. May the mercy of Christ the Lord preserve you in safety and mindful of me, my venerable lord and most blessed father (Ibid.).

What a change we see here! What growth in love! From, ‘leave me alone you young know-it-all,’ to be “mindful of me, my venerable lord and most blessed father.” “Father,” the older Jerome addresses the younger Augustine. Why? Not out of some feigned deference for title. Augustine had already taken that off the table as we saw above in a quote from an earlier letter. Out of love, precisely the love they shared for one another in Christ who they had come to know in the Scriptures. Thus, we saw Jerome write that he loves the ‘Savior dwelling within Augustine.’

So, where does all this leave us? What are the “practical takeaways” here, if you want? First, none of us this side of eternity are perfect. We are all, as theologian David Clairmont says, “works-in-progress” (David Clairmont, Moral Struggle and Religious Ethics: On the Person as Classic in Comparative Theological Contexts, 12). Not even those reverenced officially as saints by the Church. Growth in holiness is a lifetime’s worth of hard work. This reality should, if nothing else, instill a profound humility within us. Second, it cannot be done alone. We need good friends who are running in the direction of Christ to grow in holiness. Third, we do this by keeping one another accountable, by making sure that we all have our focus trained on Christ, and by meeting one another time and again through, with, and in the Word made present to us in Sacrament and Scripture through the life of the Church. It is imperative that as we strive for holiness that our measure for progress isn’t something we make up as we go, which is the fourth point. Rather, we must always look to the Church as Teacher and Mother to lead us on our journey. She contains within her the voices of thousands of saints who have made this journey before us to help us on our way. In today’s day and age, there is absolutely no excuse for making it up on our own. For instance, the links within this post will lead you to the letters quoted, and through them you can find other works written by Augustine and Jerome among other great minds in our Church’s history. Read them, read the Catechism, but above all, spend time with Christ daily in the Scriptures. 

Well, you may say, “these guys were professional theologians and Scripture scholars, I don’t have time to do all that studying, all that praying!” True, most of us will never have the luxury of spending hours in study, but time wasn’t exactly readily available to Augustine, who was a bishop who spent most of his days hearing disputes among his parishioners, and yet, for love of Christ was able to spend his nights writing 5 million words about our faith. Nor was time a luxury for Jerome, who ran two monasteries and still made the time to translate the Scriptures so that the masses might have access to this divine gift. None of us are too busy to spend some time with Christ in the Scriptures daily. If you need a place to start, a good practice is to simply read the daily Mass readings which can be found many places online. And, when you make the time to do it, as Jerome says, pray, read, and then pray again. “If you pray,” Jerome writes, “you speak with the Spouse; if you read, it is he who speaks to you” (Letter 22.25). The fact of the matter is we spend time with those we love, not just spilling our guts to them, but listening to them out of a desire for wanting to know the one whom we love more intimately. As Jerome famously said, “Ignorance of Scripture, is ignorance of Christ” (Commentary on Isaiah). We are hard pressed to claim that we love Him if we will not take even a few moments a day listening to Him so that we might know Him more intimately, and that in knowing Him more intimately, we might come to love Him more deeply.

Your servant in Christ,


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2 years ago

Wow and wow. I think that this is the perfect example of creating a parallel society where we are all focused on Christ and Heaven regardless of the troubled world we are living in. We have the ability to change these times by living good lives!

Juan Rodriguez
Juan Rodriguez
2 years ago

I love the image of St. Jerome, a wise old man who worked tirelessly for the better of others. You paint a great image of the young conquering the old. I see this at work and I see this in my sons. The young are passionate to correct the old until they are met with that fate. It’s almost a requirement in order for us to grow up not only in our behavior but also our intellect. But then a new image appears, a man that asks for mercy, the other, of submission to the understanding of GOD.
Thank you for making those two Saints as real as possible. I see sainthood as untenable today, for saints are opposed to the truth of this world and had a greater faith in GOD’s truth. Today, “we must go along to get along” or our comfortable lives will be taken away.
I appreciated your writing, not only on the points you make and the images you create but also the reflection you leave behind.

2 years ago
Reply to  Juan Rodriguez

Thank you for your thoughtful engagement, I very much appreciate that.

In reading your response I feel as though I should have been a bit clearer about the dynamic at work between these two giants of our faith as I would hate for it to be thought of as a contest between the two. It’s not so much that either of them wins and the other loses, though Jerome thought this was what the younger Augustine had in mind (and notice that it was due to the gossip of others that Jerome thought this: “Some of my acquaintances…suggested to me that this had not been done by you in a guileless spirit, but through desire for praise and celebrity…intended to become famous at my expense).

It’s important to see that the focus of both men is Christ, which is what helps both of them overcome whatever pettiness was initially present between the two. It is for this reason that later Jerome writes to Augustine, “in any discussion between us, the object aimed at by both of us is advancement in learning.” It was never about winning an argument, but about learning together, learning more about Christ whom both had fallen deeply in love with, and in time, grew to love in one another.

So, if viewed from a worldly perspective, Jerome is the elder and Augustine the youngster who ought to defer to his elder, which is what in some sense annoys Jerome initially. At the same time, Augustine outranks Jerome as a bishop to a priest, which throws a neat little wrinkle into the dynamic (and which also pretty clearly irritates Jerome in his letters to Augustine). If the relationship stayed at this level, one would have to out due the other, either the older putting the younger in his place or the Bishop using his authority to silence the priest, but that’s precisely not what happens (these men are saints for a reason lol!). In fact, Augustine isn’t even interested in dialoguing on this level which is why he writes to Jerome: “For although, so far as the titles of honor which prevail in the Church are concerned, a bishop’s rank is above that of a presbyter, nevertheless in many things Augustine is in inferior to Jerome.”

Instead, rather than one “conquering” the other, what happens is that both are “conquered,” if you want, by the love of Christ, such that they are able to recognize the presence of Christ in one another, which is why Jerome says to Augustine: “At all times I have esteemed your Blessedness with becoming reverence and honor, and have loved the Lord and Savior dwelling in you.” What transpires between the two is what’s beautiful here because in their respective transformations, we see an inbreaking of heaven, as it were. Because both men were willing to imitate the humility of Christ (Philippians 2:6-11) and see the other man as superior to themselves, any distinctions that the world would care about or rank them according to, are in effect abolished. What happens is what Paul writes about in Galatians: “…for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28).

Understood this way, the lesson these men, these doctors of the Church provide us with, is timeless. They both tell us to leave the cares of the world behind, titles, power, fame, honor, and pursue Christ, fall in love with Christ and grow in love with one another in Christ. It seems to me that we are in no worse a position to do that than either of them were. Here’s some advice from Augustine on this very point to close:

“And you all say, ‘The times are troubled, the times are hard, the times are wretched.’ Live good lives, and you will change the times by living good lives; you will change the times, and then you’ll have nothing to grumble about” (Sermon 311.8).