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Home > Fathers of the Church > Letters of St. Jerome > Letter 55

Letter 55

To Amandus

A very interesting letter. Amandus a presbyter of Burdigala (Bourdeaux) had written to Jerome for an explanation of three passages of scripture, viz. Matthew 6:34, 1 Corinthians 6:18, 1 Corinthians 15:25, 26, and had in the same letter on behalf of a 'sister' (supposed by Thierry to have been Fabiola) put the following question: 'Can a woman who has divorced her first husband on account of his vices and who has during his lifetime under compulsion married again, communicate with the Church without first doing penance?' Jerome in his reply gives the explanations asked for but answers the farther question, that concerning the 'sister,' with an emphatic negative. Written about the year 394 A.D.

1. A short letter does not admit of long explanations; compressing much matter into a small space it can only give a few words to topics which suggest many thoughts. You ask me what is the meaning of the passage in the gospel according to Matthew, take no thought for the morrow. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. Matthew 6:34 In the holy scriptures the morrow signifies the time to come. Thus in Genesis Jacob says: So shall my righteousness answer for me tomorrow. Again when the two tribes of Reuben and Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh had built an altar and when all Israel had sent to them an embassy, they made answer to Phinehas the high priest that they had built the altar lest tomorrow it might be said to their children, you have no part in the Lord. You may find many similar passages in the old instrument. While then Christ forbids us to take thought for things future, He has allowed us to do so for things present, knowing as He does the frailty of our mortal condition. His remaining words sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof are to be understood as meaning that it is sufficient for us to think of the present troubles of this life. Why need we extend our thoughts to contingencies, to objects which we either cannot obtain or else having obtained must soon relinquish? The Greek word κακία rendered in the Latin version wickedness has two distinct meanings, wickedness and tribulation, which latter the Greek call κακωσίν and in this passage tribulation would be a better rendering than wickedness. But if any one demurs to this and insists that the word κακία must mean wickedness and not tribulation or trouble, the meaning must be the same as in the words the whole world lies in wickedness and as in the Lord's prayer in the clause, deliver us from evil: the purport of the passage will then be that our present conflict with the wickedness of this world should be enough for us.

2. Secondly, you ask me concerning the passage in the first epistle of the blessed apostle Paul to the Corinthians where he says: every sin that a man does is without the body; but he that commits fornication sins against his own body. 1 Corinthians 6:18 Let us go back a little farther and read on until we come to these words, for we must not seek to learn the whole meaning of the section, from the concluding parts of it, or, if I may so say, from the tail of the chapter. The body is not for fornication but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body. And God has both raised up the Lord and will also raise up us [with Him] by his own power. Do you not know that your bodies are the members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid. What! Do you not know that he which is joined to an harlot is one body? For two, says he, shall be one flesh. But he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit. Flee fornication. Every sin that a man does is without the body; but he that commits fornication sins against his own body, 1 Corinthians 6:13-18 and so on. The holy apostle has been arguing against excess and has just before said meats for the belly and the belly for meats: but God shall destroy both it and them. 1 Corinthians 6:13 Now he comes to treat of fornication. For excess in eating is the mother of lust; a belly that is distended with food and saturated with draughts of wine is sure to lead to sensual passion. As has been elsewhere said the arrangement of man's organs suggests the course of his vices. Accordingly all such sins as theft, manslaughter, pillage, perjury, and the like can be repented of after they have been committed; and, however much interest may tempt him, conscience always smites the offender. It is only lust and sensual pleasure that in the very hour of penitence undergo once more the temptations of the past, the itch of the flesh, and the allurements of sin; so that the very thought which we bestow on the correction of such transgressions becomes in itself a new source of sin. Or to put the matter in a different light: other sins are outside of us; and whatever we do we do against others. But fornication defiles the fornicator both in conscience and body; and in accordance with the words of the Lord, for this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they two shall be one flesh, he too becomes one body with a harlot and sins against his own body by making what is the temple of Christ the body of a harlot. Not to pass over any suggestion of the Greek commentators, I shall give you one more explanation. It is one thing, they say, to sin with the body, and another to sin in the body. Theft, manslaughter, and all other sins except fornication we commit with our hands outside ourselves. Fornication alone we commit inside ourselves in our bodies and not with our bodies upon others. The preposition 'with' denotes the instrument used in sinning, while the preposition 'in' signifies the sphere of the passion is ourselves. Some again give this explanation that according to the scripture a man's body is his wife and that when a man commits fornication he is said to sin against his own body that is against his wife inasmuch as he defiles her by his own fornication and causes her though herself free from sin to become a sinner through her intercourse with him.

3. I find joined to your letter of inquiries a short paper containing the following words: ask him, (that is me,) whether a woman who has left her husband on the ground that he is an adulterer and sodomite and has found herself compelled to take another may in the lifetime of him whom she first left be in communion with the church without doing penance for her fault. As I read the case put I recall the verse they make excuses for their sins. We are all human and all indulgent to our own faults; and what our own will leads us to do we attribute to a necessity of nature. It is as though a young man were to say, I am over-borne by my body, the glow of nature kindles my passions, the structure of my frame and its reproductive organs call for sexual intercourse. Or again a murderer might say, I was in want, I stood in need of food, I had nothing to cover me. If I shed the blood of another, it was to save myself from dying of cold and hunger. Tell the sister, therefore, who thus enquires of me concerning her condition, not my sentence but that of the apostle. Do you not know, brethren (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives? For the woman which has an husband is bound by the law to her husband, so long as he lives; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then, if, while her husband lives, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress. Romans 7:1-3 And in another place: the wife is bound by the law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord. 1 Corinthians 7:39 The apostle has thus cut away every plea and has clearly declared that, if a woman marries again while her husband is living, she is an adulteress. You must not speak to me of the violence of a ravisher, a mother's pleading, a father's bidding, the influence of relatives, the insolence and the intrigues of servants, household losses. A husband may be an adulterer or a sodomite, he may be stained with every crime and may have been left by his wife because of his sins; yet he is still her husband and, so long as he lives, she may not marry another. The apostle does not promulgate this decree on his own authority but on that of Christ who speaks in him. For he has followed the words of Christ in the gospel: whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causes her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced, commits adultery. Matthew 5:32 Mark what he says: whosoever shall marry her that is divorced commits adultery. Whether she has put away her husband or her husband her, the man who marries her is still an adulterer. Wherefore the apostles seeing how heavy the yoke of marriage was thus made said to Him: if the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry, and the Lord replied, he that is able to receive it, let him receive it. And immediately by the instance of the three eunuchs he shows the blessedness of virginity which is bound by no carnal tie. Matthew 19:10-12

4. I have not been able quite to determine what it is that she means by the words has found herself compelled to marry again. What is this compulsion of which she speaks? Was she overborne by a crowd and ravished against her will? If so, why has she not, thus victimized, subsequently put away her ravisher? Let her read the books of Moses and she will find that if violence is offered to a betrothed virgin in a city and she does not cry out, she is punished as an adulteress: but if she is forced in the field, she is innocent of sin and her ravisher alone is amenable to the laws. Deuteronomy 22:23-27 Therefore if your sister, who, as she says, has been forced into a second union, wishes to receive the body of Christ and not to be accounted an adulteress, let her do penance; so far at least as from the time she begins to repent to have no farther intercourse with that second husband who ought to be called not a husband but an adulterer. If this seems hard to her and if she cannot leave one whom she has once loved and will not prefer the Lord to sensual pleasure, let her hear the declaration of the apostle: ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord's table and of the table of devils, 1 Corinthians 10:21 and in another place: what communion has light with darkness? And what concord has Christ with Belial? 2 Corinthians 6:14-15 What I am about to say may sound novel but after all it is not new but old for it is supported by the witness of the old testament. If she leaves her second husband and desires to be reconciled with her first, she cannot be so now; for it is written in Deuteronomy: When a man has taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he has found some uncleanness in her; then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife. And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement and gives it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; or if the latter husband die which took her to be his wife; her former husband, which sent her away may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the Lord: and you shall not cause the land to sin, which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 Wherefore, I beseech you, do your best to comfort her and to urge her to seek salvation. Diseased flesh calls for the knife and the searing-iron. The wound is to blame and not the healing art, if with a cruelty that is really kindness a physician to spare does not spare, and to be merciful is cruel.

5. Your third and last question relates to the passage in the same epistle where the apostle in discussing the resurrection, comes to the words: for he must reign, till he has put all things under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. For he has put all things under his feet. But when he says, all things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him. And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him that God may be all in all. 1 Corinthians 15:25-28 I am surprised that you have resolved to question me about this passage when that reverend man, Hilary, bishop of Poictiers, has occupied the eleventh book of his treatise against the Arians with a full examination and explanation of it. Yet I may at least say a few words. The chief stumbling-block in the passage is that the Son is said to be subject to the Father. Now which is the more shameful and humiliating, to be subject to the Father (often a mark of loving devotion as in the psalm truly my soul is subject unto God ) or to be crucified and made the curse of the cross? For cursed is everyone that hangs on a tree. Galatians 3:13 If Christ then for our sakes was made a curse that He might deliver us from the curse of the law, are you surprised that He is also for our sakes subject to the Father to make us too subject to Him as He says in the gospel: No man comes unto the Father but by me, John 14:6 and I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. John 12:32 Christ then is subject to the Father in the faithful; for all believers, nay the whole human race, are accounted members of His body. But in unbelievers, that is in Jews, heathens, and heretics, He is said to be not subject; for these members of His body are not subject to the faith. But in the end of the world when all His members shall see Christ, that is their own body, reigning, they also shall be made subject to Christ, that is to their own body, that the whole of Christ's body may be subject unto God and the Father, and that God may be all in all. He does not say that the Father may be all in all but that God may be, a title which properly belongs to the Trinity and may be referred not only to the Father but also to the Son and to the Holy Ghost. His meaning therefore is that humanity may be subject to the Godhead. By humanity we here intend not that gentleness and kindness which the Greeks call philanthropy but the whole human race. Moreover when he says that God may be all in all, it is to be taken in this sense. At present our Lord and Saviour is not all in all, but only a part in each of us. For instance He is wisdom in Solomon, generosity in David, patience in Job, knowledge of things to come in Daniel, faith in Peter, zeal in Phinehas and Paul, virginity in John, and other virtues in others. But when the end of all things shall come, then shall He be all in all, for then the saints shall severally possess all the virtues and all will possess Christ in His entirety.

About this page

Source. Translated by W.H. Fremantle, G. Lewis and W.G. Martley. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3001055.htm>.

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