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Home > Fathers of the Church > Letters of St. Jerome > Letter 79

Letter 79

To Salvina

A letter of consolation addressed by Jerome to Salvina (a lady of the imperial court) on the death of her husband Nebridius. After excusing his temerity in addressing a complete stranger Jerome eulogizes the virtues of Nebridius, particularly his chastity and his bounty to the poor. He next warns Salvina (in no courtier-like terms) of the dangers that will beset her as a widow and recommends her to devote all her energies to the careful training of the son and daughter who are now her principal charge. The tone of the letter is somewhat arrogant and it can hardly be regarded as one of Jerome's happiest efforts. Salvina, however, consecrated her life to deeds of piety, and became one of Chrysostom's deaconesses. Its date is 400 A.D.

1. My desire to do my duty may, I fear, expose me to a charge of self-seeking; and although I do but follow the example of Him who said: learn of me for I am meek and lowly of heart, Matthew 11:29 the course that I am taking may be attributed to a desire for notoriety. Men may say that I am not so much trying to console a widow in affliction as endeavouring to creep into the imperial court; and that, while I make a pretext of offering comfort, I am really seeking the friendship of the great. Clearly this will not be the opinion of any one who knows the commandment: you shall not respect the person of the poor, Leviticus 19:15 a precept given lest under pretext of showing pity we should judge unjust judgment. For each individual is to be judged not by his personal importance but by the merits of his case. His wealth need not stand in the way of the rich man, if he makes a good use of it; and poverty can be no recommendation to the poor if in the midst of squalor and want he fails to keep clear of wrong doing. Proofs of these things are not wanting either in scriptural times or our own; for Abraham, in spite of his immense wealth, was the friend of God and poor men are daily arrested and punished for their crimes by law. She whom I now address is both rich and poor so that she cannot say what she actually has. For it is not of her purse that I am speaking but of the purity of her soul. I do not know her face but I am well acquainted with her virtues; for report speaks well of her and her youth makes her chastity all the more commendable. By her grief for her young husband she has set an example to all wives; and by her resignation she has proved that she believes him not lost but gone before. The greatness of her bereavement has brought out the reality of her religion. For while she forgets her lost Nebridius, she knows that in Christ he is with her still.

But why do I write to one who is a stranger to me? For three reasons. First, because (as a priest is bound to do) I love all Christians as my children and find my glory in promoting their welfare. Secondly because the father of Nebridius was bound to me by the closest ties. Lastly— and this is a stronger reason than the others— because I have failed to say no to my son Avitus. With an importunacy surpassing that of the widow towards the unjust judge Luke 18:1-5 he wrote to me so frequently and put before me so many instances in which I had previously dealt with a similar theme, that he overcame my modest reluctance and made the resolve to do not what would best become me but what would most nearly meet his wishes.

2. As the mother of Nebridius was sister to the empress and as he was brought up in the bosom of his aunt, another might perhaps praise him for having so much endeared himself to the unvanquished emperor. Theodosius, indeed, procured him from Africa a wife of the highest rank, who, as her native land at this time was distracted by civil wars, became a kind of hostage for its loyalty. I ought to say at the very outset that Nebridius seems to have had a presentiment that he would die early. For amid the splendour of the palace and in the high positions to which his rank and not his years entitled him he lived always as one who believed that he must soon go to meet Christ. Of Cornelius, the centurion of the Italian band, the sacred narrative tells us that God so fully accepted him as to send to him an angel; and that this angel told him that to his merit was due the mystery whereby Peter from the narrow limits of the circumcision was conveyed to the wide field of the uncircumcision. He was the first Gentile baptized by the apostle, and in him the Gentiles were set apart to salvation. Now of this man it is written: there was a certain man in Cæsarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band, a devout man and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God always. Acts 10:1-2 All this that is said of him I claim— with a change of name only— for my dear Nebridius. So devout was this latter and so enamoured of chastity that at his marriage he was still pure. So truly did he fear God with all his house that forgetting his high position he spent all his time with monks and clergymen. So profuse were the alms which he gave to the people that his doors were continually beset with swarms of sick and poor. And assuredly he prayed to God always that what was for the best might happen to him. Therefore speedily was he taken away lest that wickedness should alter his understanding...for his soul pleased the Lord. Thus I may truthfully apply to him the apostle's words: Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that fears Him and works righteousness, is accepted with Him. Acts 10:34-35 As a soldier Nebridius took no harm from his cloak and sword-belt and troops of orderlies; for while he wore the uniform of the emperor he was enlisted in the service of God. On the other hand nothing is gained by men who while they affect coarse mantles, sombre tunics, dirt, and poverty, belie by their deeds their lofty pretensions. Of another centurion we find in the gospel this testimony from our Lord:I have not found so great faith, no not in Israel. Matthew 8:10 And, to go back to earlier times, we read of Joseph who gave proof of his integrity both when he was in want and when he was rich, and who inculcated freedom of soul both as slave and as lord. He was made next to Pharaoh and invested with the emblems of royalty; Genesis 41:42-44 yet so dear was he to God that, alone of all the patriarchs, he became the father of two tribes. Genesis 41:50-52 Daniel and the three children were set over the affairs of Babylon and were numbered among the princes of the state; yet although they wore the dress of Nebuchadnezzar, in their hearts they served God. Mordecai also and Esther amid purple and silk and jewels overcame pride with humility; and although captives were so highly esteemed as to be able to impose commands upon their conquerors.

3. These remarks are intended to show that the youth of whom I speak used his kinship to the royal family, his abundant wealth, and the outward tokens of power, as helps to virtue. For, as the preacher says, wisdom is a defence and money is a defence Ecclesiastes 7:12 also. We must not hastily conclude that this statement conflicts with that of the Lord: verily I say unto you that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven; and again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 19:23-24 Were it so, the salvation of Zacchæus the publican, described in scripture as a man of great wealth, would contradict the Lord's declaration. But that what is impossible with men is possible with God Mark 10:27 we are taught by the counsel of the apostle who thus writes to Timothy:— charge them that are rich in this world that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God who gives us richly all things to enjoy, that they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute. willing to communicate, laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come that they may lay hold on the true life. We have learned how a camel can pass through a needle's eye, how an animal with a hump on its back, when it has laid down its packs, can take to itself the wings of a dove and rest in the branches of the tree which has grown from a grain of mustard seed. Matthew 13:31-32 In Isaiah we read of camels, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah and Sheba, which carry gold and incense to the city of the Lord. Isaiah 60:6 On like typical camels the Ishmaelitish merchantmen Genesis 37:25 bring down to the Egyptians perfume and incense and balm (of the kind that grows in Gilead good for the healing of wounds Jeremiah 8:22); and so fortunate are they that in the purchase and sale of Joseph they have for their merchandise the Saviour of the world. And Æsop's fable tells us of a mouse which after eating its fill can no longer creep out as before it crept in.

4. Daily did my dear Nebridius revolve the words: they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare of the devil and into many lusts. 1 Timothy 6:9 All the money that the Emperor's bounty gave him or that his badges of office procured him he laid out for the benefit of the poor. For he knew the commandment of the Lord: If you will be perfect go and sell that you have, and give to the poor, and come and follow me. Matthew 19:21 And because he could not literally fulfil these directions, having a wife and little children and a large household, he made to himself friends of the mammon of unrighteousness that they might receive him into everlasting habitations. Luke 16:9 He did not once for all cast away his brethren, as did the apostles who forsook father and nets and ship, Matthew 4:18-22 but by an equality he ministered to the want of others out of his own abundance that afterwards their wealth might be a supply for his own want. 2 Corinthians 8:14 The lady to whom this letter is addressed knows that what I narrate is only known to me by hearsay, but she is aware also that I am no Greek writer repaying with flattery some benefit conferred upon me. Far be such an imputation from all Christians. Having food and raiment we are therewith content. 1 Timothy 6:8 Where there is cheap cabbage and household bread, a sufficiency to eat and a sufficiency to drink, these riches are superfluous and no place is left for flattery with its sordid calculations. You may conclude therefore that, where there is no motive to tell a falsehood, the testimony given is true.

5. It must not, however, be supposed that I praise Nebridius only for his liberality in almsgiving, although we are taught the great importance of this in the words: water will quench a flaming fire; and alms makes an atonement for sins. Sirach 3:30 I will pass on now to his other virtues each one of which is to be found but in few men. Who ever entered the furnace of the King of Babylon without being burned? Daniel 3:25 Was there ever a young man whose garment his Egyptian mistress did not seize? Was there ever a eunuch's wife contented with a childless marriage bed? Is there any man who is not appalled by the struggle of which the apostle says: I see another law in my members warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members? Romans 7:23 But wonderful to say Nebridius, though bred up in a palace as a companion and fellow pupil of the Augusti (whose table is supplied by the whole world and ministered to by land and sea); Nebridius, I say, though in the midst of abundance and in the flower of his age, showed himself more modest than a girl and never gave occasion, even the slightest, for scandalous rumours. Again though he was the friend, companion, and cousin of princes and had been educated along with them— a thing which makes even strangers intimate— he did not allow pride to inflate him or frown with contempt upon others who were less fortunate than he: no, he was kind to all, and while he loved the princes as brothers he revered them as sovereigns. He used to avow that his own health and safety were dependent upon theirs. Their attendants and all those officers of the palace who by their numbers add to the grandeur of the imperial court he had so well conciliated by showing his regard for them, that men who were in reality inferior to him were led by his attention to believe themselves his peers. It is no easy task to throw one's rank into the shade by one's virtue, or to gain the affection of men who are forced to yield you precedence. What widow was not supported by his help? What ward did not find in him a father? To him the bishops of the entire East used to bring the prayers of the unfortunate and the petitions of the distressed. Whenever he asked the Emperor for a boon, he sought either alms for the poor or ransom for captives or clemency for the afflicted. Accordingly the princes also used gladly to accede to his requests, for they knew well that their bounty would benefit not one man but many.

6. Why do I farther postpone the end? All flesh is grass and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field. Isaiah 40:6 The dust has returned to the dust. Genesis 3:19 He has fallen asleep in the Lord and has been laid with his fathers, full of days and of light and fostered in a good old age. For wisdom is the grey hair unto men. Wisdom 4:9 In a short time he has fulfilled a long time. Wisdom 4:13 In his place we now have his charming children. His wife is the heir of his chastity. To those who miss his father the tiny Nebridius shows him once more, for

Such were the eyes and hands and looks he bore.

A spark of the parent's excellence shines in the son: the child's face betrays like a mirror a resemblance in character.

That narrow frame contains a hero's heart.

And with him there is his sister, a basket of roses and lilies, a mixture of ivory and purple. Her face though it takes after that of her father inclines to be still more attractive; and, while her complexion is that of her mother, she is so like both her parents that the lineaments of each are reflected in her features. So sweet and honied is she that she is the pride of all her kinsfolk. The Emperor does not disdain to hold her in his arms, and the Empress likes nothing better than to nurse her on her lap. Everyone runs to be the first to catch her up. Now she clings to the neck of one, and now she is fondled in the arms of another. She prattles and stammers, and is all the sweeter for her faltering tongue.

7. You have, therefore, Salvina, those to nurse who may well represent to you your absent husband: Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord; and the fruit of the womb is his reward. In the place of one husband you have received two children, and thus your affection has more objects than before. All that was due to him you can give to them. Temper grief with love, for if he is gone they are still with you. It is no small merit in God's eyes to bring up children well. Hear the apostle's counsel: Let not a widow be taken into the number under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man, well reported of for good works; if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints' feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work. 1 Timothy 5:9-10 Here you learn the roll of the virtues which God requires of you, what is due to the name of widow which you bear, and by what good deeds you can attain to that second degree of chastity which is still open to you. Do not be disturbed because the apostle allows none to be chosen as a widow under threescore years old, neither suppose that he intends to reject those who are still young. Believe that you are indeed chosen by him who said to his disciple, Let no man despise your youth, 1 Timothy 4:12 your want of age that is, not your want of continence. If this be not his meaning, all who become widows under threescore years will have to take husbands. He is training a church still untaught in Christ, and making provision for people of all stations but especially for the poor, the charge of whom had been committed to himself and Barnabas. Galatians 2:9-10 Thus he wishes only those to be supported by the exertions of the church who cannot labour with their own hands, and who are widows indeed, 1 Timothy 5:3 approved by their years and by their lives. The faults of his children made Eli the priest an offense to God. On the other hand He is appeased by the virtues of such as continue in faith and charity and holiness with chastity. O Timothy, cries the apostle, keep yourself pure. 1 Timothy 5:22 Far be it from me to suspect you capable of doing anything wrong; still it is only a kindness to admonish one whose youth and opulence lead her into temptation. You must take what I am going to say as addressed not to you but to your girlish years. A widow that lives in pleasure is dead while she lives. 1 Timothy 5:6 So speaks the chosen vessel Acts 9:15 and the words are brought out from his treasure who could boldly say: Do ye seek a proof of Christ speaking in me? Yet they are the words of one who in his own person admitted the weakness of the human body, saying: The good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not that I do. Romans 7:19 And again: Therefore I keep under my body and bring it into subjection lest that by any means when I have preached to others I myself should be a castaway. 1 Corinthians 9:27 If Paul is afraid, which of us can venture to be confident? If David the friend of God and Solomon who loved God were overcome like other men, if their fall is meant to warn us and their penitence to lead us to salvation, who in this slippery life can be sure of not falling? Never let pheasants be seen upon your table, or plump turtledoves or black cock from Ionia, or any of those birds so expensive that they fly away with the largest properties. And do not fancy that you eschew meat diet when you reject pork, hare, and venison and the savoury flesh of other quadrupeds. It is not the number of feet that makes the difference but delicacy of flavour. I know that the apostle has said: every creature of God is good and nothing to be refused if it be received with thanksgiving. 1 Timothy 4:4 But the same apostle says: it is good neither to eat flesh nor to drink wine, Romans 14:21 and in another place: be not drunk with wine wherein is excess. Ephesians 5:18 Every creature of God is good— the precept is intended for those who are careful how they may please their husbands. 1 Corinthians 7:34 Let those feed on flesh who serve the flesh, whose bodies boil with desire, who are tied to husbands, and who set their hearts on having offspring. Let those whose wombs are burthened cram their stomachs with flesh. But you have buried every indulgence in your husband's tomb: over his bier you have cleansed with tears a face stained with rouge and whitelead; you have exchanged a white robe and gilded buskins for a sombre tunic and black shoes; and only one thing more is needed, perseverance in fasting. Let paleness and squalor be henceforth your jewels. Do not pamper your youthful limbs with a bed of down or kindle your young blood with hot baths. Hear what words a heathen poet puts into the mouth of a chaste widow:

He, my first spouse, has robbed me of my loves.
So be it: let him keep them in the tomb.

If common glass is worth so much, what must be the value of a pearl of price? If in deference to a law of nature a Gentile widow can condemn all sensual indulgence, what must we expect from a Christian widow who owes her chastity not to one who is dead but to one with whom she shall reign in heaven?

8. Do not, I pray you, regard these general remarks— applying as they do to all young women— as intended to insult you or to take you to task. I write in a spirit of apprehension, yet pray that you may never know the nature of my fears. A woman's reputation is a tender plant; it is like a fair flower which withers at the slightest blast and fades away at the first breath of wind. Especially is this so when she is of an age to fall into temptation and the authority of a husband is wanting to her. For the very shadow of a husband is a wife's safeguard. What has a widow to do with a large household or with troops of retainers? As servants, it is true, she must not despise them, but as men she ought to blush before them. If a grand establishment requires such domestics, let her at least set over them an old man of spotless morals whose dignity may guard the honour of his mistress. I know of many widows who, although they live with closed doors, have not escaped the imputation of too great intimacy with their servants. These latter become objects of suspicion when they dress above their degree, or when they are stout and sleek, or when they are of an age inclined to passion, or when knowledge of the favour in which they are secretly held betrays itself in a too confident demeanour. For such pride, however carefully concealed, is sure to break out in a contempt for fellow-servants as servants. I make these seemingly superfluous remarks that you may keep your heart with all diligence Proverbs 4:23 and guard against every scandal that may be broached concerning you.

9. Take no well-curled steward to walk with you, no effeminate actor, no devilish singer of poisoned sweetness, no spruce and smooth-shorn youth. Let no theatrical compliments, no obsequious adulation be associated with you. Keep with you bands of widows and virgins; and let your consolers be of your own sex. The character of the mistress is judged by that of the maid. So long as you have with you a holy mother, so long as an aunt vowed to virginity is at your side, you ought not to neglect them and at your own risk to seek the company of strangers. Let the divine scripture be always in your hands, and give yourself so frequently to prayer that such shafts of evil thoughts as ever assail the young may thereby find a shield to repel them. It is difficult, nay more it is impossible, to escape the beginnings of those internal motions which the Greeks with much significance call προπάθειαι that is 'predispositions to passion.' The fact is that suggestions of sin tickle all our minds, and the decision rests with our own hearts either to admit or to reject the thoughts which come. The Lord of nature Himself says in the gospel:out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. Matthew 15:19 It is clear from the testimony of another book that the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth, Genesis 8:21 and that the soul wavers between the works of the flesh and of the spirit enumerated by the apostle, Galatians 5:19-23 desiring now the former and now the latter. For

From faults no mortal man is wholly free;
The best is he who has but few of them.

And, to quote the same poet,

At moles men cavil when they mark fair skins.

To the same effect in different words the prophet says:— I am so troubled that I cannot speak, and in the same book, Be angry and sin not. So Archytas of Tarentum once said to a careless steward: I should have flogged you to death had I not been in a passion. For the wrath of man works not the righteousness of God. James 1:20 Now what is here said of one form of perturbation may be applied to all. Just as anger is human and the repression of it Christian, so it is with other passions. The flesh always lusts after the things of the flesh, and by its allurements draws the soul to partake of deadly pleasures; but it is for us Christians to restrain the desire for sensual indulgence by an intenser love for Christ. It is for us to break in the mettlesome brute within us by fasting, in order that it may desire not lust but food and amble easily and steadily forward having for its rider the Holy Spirit.

10. Why do I write thus? To show you that you are but human and subject, unless you guard against them, to human passions. We are all of us made of the same clay and formed of the same elements. Whether we wear silk or rags we are all at the mercy of the same desire. It does not fear the royal purple; it does not disdain the squalor of the mendicant. It is better then to suffer in stomach than in soul, to rule the body than to serve it, to lose one's balance than to lose one's chastity. Let us not lull ourselves with the delusion that we can always fall back on penitence. For this is at best but a remedy for misery. Let us shrink from incurring a wound which must be painful to cure. For it is one thing to enter the haven of salvation with ship safe and merchandise uninjured, and another to cling naked to a plank and, as the waves toss you this way and that, to be dashed again and again on the sharp rocks. A widow should be ignorant that second marriage is permitted; she should know nothing of the apostle's words:— It is better to marry than to burn. 1 Corinthians 7:9 Remove what is said to be worse, the risk of burning, and marriage will cease to be regarded as good. Of course I repudiate the slanders of the heretics; I know that marriage is honourable...and the bed undefiled. Hebrews 13:4 Yet Adam even after he was expelled from paradise had but one wife. The accursed and blood-stained Lamech, descended from the stock of Cain, was the first to make out of one rib two wives; and the seedling of digamy then planted was altogether destroyed by the doom of the deluge. It is true that in writing to Timothy the apostle from fear of fornication is forced to countenance second marriage. His words are these:— I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully. But he immediately adds as a reason for this concession; for some are already turned aside after Satan. 1 Timothy 5:14-15 Thus we see that he is offering not a crown to those who stand but a helping hand to those who are down. What must a second marriage be if it is looked on merely as an alternative to the brothel! For some, he writes, are already turned aside after Satan. The upshot of the whole matter is that, if a young widow cannot or will not contain herself, she had better take a husband to her bed than the devil.

A noble alternative truly which is only to be embraced in preference to Satan! In old days even Jerusalem went a-whoring and opened her feet to every one that passed by. Ezekiel 16:25 It was in Egypt that she was first deflowered and there that her teats were bruised. Ezekiel 23:3 And afterwards when she had come to the wilderness and, impatient of the delays of her leader Moses, had said when maddened by the stings of lust: these be your gods, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt, Exodus 32:4 she received statutes that were not good and commandments that were altogether evil whereby she should not live Ezekiel 20:25 but should be punished through them. Is it surprising then that when the apostle had said in another place of young widows: when they have begun to wax wanton against Christ they will marry, having damnation because they have cast off their first faith, 1 Timothy 5:11-12 he granted to such as should wax wanton statutes of digamy that were not good and commandments that were altogether evil? For the reason which he gives for allowing a second husband would justify a woman in marrying a third or even, if she liked, a twentieth. He evidently wished to show them that he was not so much anxious that they should take husbands as that they should avoid paramours. These things, dearest daughter in Christ, I impress upon you and frequently repeat, that you may forget those things which are behind and reach forth unto those things which are before. Philippians 3:13 You have widows like yourself worthy to be your models, Judith renowned in Hebrew story and Anna the daughter of Phanuel famous in the gospel. Both these lived day and night in the temple and preserved the treasure of their chastity by prayer and by fasting. One was a type of the Church which cuts off the head of the devil and the other first received in her arms the saviour of the world and had revealed to her the holy mysteries which were to come. Luke 2:36-38 In conclusion I beg you to attribute the shortness of my letter not to want of language or scarcity of matter but to a deep sense of modesty which makes me fear to force myself too long upon the ears of a stranger, and causes me to dread the secret verdict of those who read my words.

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/3001079.htm>.

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