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Home > Fathers of the Church > Letters of St. Jerome > Letter 123

Letter 123

Letter CXXIII. To Ageruchia.

An appeal to the widow Ageruchia, highborn lady of Gaul, not to marry again. It should be compared with the letters to Furia (LIV.) and to Salvina (LXXIX.) The allusion to Stilicho's treaty with Alaric fixes the date to 409 A.D.

1. I must look for a new track on the old road and devise a natural treatment, the same yet not the same, for a hackneyed and well-worn theme. It is true that there is but one road; yet one can often reach one's goal by striking across country. I have several times written letters to widows in which for their instruction I have sought out examples from scripture, weaving its varied flowers into a single garland of chastity. On the present occasion I address myself to Ageruchia; whose very name (allotted to her by the divine guidance) has proved a prophecy of her after-life. Around her stand her grandmother, her mother, and her aunt; a noble band of tried Christian women. Her grandmother, Metronia, now a widow for forty years, reminds us of Anna the daughter of Phanuel in the gospel. Luke 2:36-37 Her mother, Benigna, now in the fourteenth year of her widowhood, is surrounded by virgins whose chastity bears fruit a hundredfold. The sister of Celerinus, Ageruchia's father, has nursed her niece from infancy and indeed took her into her lap the moment that she was born. Deprived of the solace of her husband she has for twenty years trained her brother's child, teaching her the lessons which she has learned from her own mother.

2. I make these brief remarks to show my young friend that in resolving not to marry again she does but perform a duty to her family; and that, while she will deserve no praise for fulfilling it, she will be justly blamed if she fails to do so. The more so that she has a posthumous son named after his father Simplicius and thus cannot plead loneliness or the want of an heir. For the lust of many shelters itself under such excuses as though the promptings of incontinence were only a desire for offspring. But why do I speak as to one who wavers when I hear that Ageruchia seeks the church's protection against the many suitors whom she meets in the palace? For the devil inflames men to vie with one another in proving the chastity of our beloved widow; and rank and beauty, youth and riches cause her to be sought after by all. But the greater the assaults that are made upon her continence, the greater will be the rewards that will follow her victory.

3. But no sooner do I clear the harbour than I find my way to the sea barred by a rock. I am confronted with the authority of the apostle Paul who in writing to Timothy thus speaks concerning widows: I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully. For some are already turned aside after Satan. 1 Timothy 5:14-15 I must accordingly begin by considering the meaning of this pronouncement and examining the context of the whole passage. I must then plant my feet in the steps of the apostle and, as the saying goes, not deviate a hair's breadth from them either to this side or to that. He had previously described his ideal widow as one who had been the wife of one man, who had brought up children, who was well reported of for good works, who had relieved the afflicted with her substance, 1 Timothy 5:9-10 whose trust had been in God, and who had continued in prayer day and night. 1 Timothy 5:5 With her he contrasted her opposite, saying: She that lives in pleasure is dead while she lives. And that he might warn his disciple Timothy with all needful admonition, he immediately added these words: the younger widows refuse: for 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 It is then for these who have outraged Christ their Spouse by committing fornication against Him (for this is the sense of the Greek word καταστρηνιάσωσι)— it is for these that the apostle wishes a second marriage, thinking digamy preferable to fornication; but this second marriage is a concession and not a command.

4. We must also take the passage clause by clause. I will, he says, that the younger women marry. Why, pray? Because I would not have young women commit fornication. That they bear children; 1 Timothy 5:14-15 for what reason? That they may not be induced by fear of the consequences to kill children whom they have conceived in adultery. That they be the heads of households. Wherefore, pray? Because it is much more tolerable that a woman should marry again than that she should be a prostitute, and better that she should have a second husband than several paramours. The first alternative brings relief in a miserable plight, but the second involves a sin and its punishment. He continues: that they give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully, a brief and comprehensive precept in which many admonitions are summed up. As for instance these: that a woman must not bring discredit upon her profession of widowhood by too great attention to her dress, that she must not draw troops of young men after her by gay smiles or expressive glances, that she must not profess one thing by her words and another by her behaviour, that she must give no ground for the application to herself of the well known line:

She gave a meaning look and slyly smiled.

Lastly, that Paul may compress into a few words all the reasons for such marriages, he shows the motive of his command by saying: for some are already turned aside after Satan. Thus he allows to the incontinent a second marriage, or in case of need a third, simply that he may rescue them from Satan, preferring that a woman should be joined to the worst of husbands rather than to the devil. To the Corinthians he uses somewhat similar language: I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn. 1 Corinthians 7:8-9 Why, O apostle, is it better to marry? He answers immediately: because it is worse to burn.

5. Apart from these considerations, that which is absolutely good and not merely relatively so is to be as the apostle, that is loose, not bound; free, not enslaved; caring for the things of God, not for the things of a wife. Immediately afterwards he adds: The wife is bound by the law to her husband as long as her husband lives, but if her husband be fallen asleep, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord. But she is happier if she so abide, after my judgment: and I think also that I have the spirit of God. This passage corresponds with the former in meaning, because the spirit of the two is the same. For though the epistles are different, they are the work of one author. While her husband lives the woman is bound, and when he is dead, she is loosed. Marriage then is a bond, and widowhood is the loosing of it. The wife is bound to the husband and the husband to the wife; and so close is the tie that they have no power over their own bodies, but each stands indebted to the other. They who are under the yoke of wedlock have not the option of choosing continence. When the apostle adds the words only in the Lord, he excludes heathen marriages of which he had spoken in another place thus: be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship has righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what concord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has he that believes with an infidel? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? 2 Corinthians 6:14-16 We must not plough with an ox and an ass together; Deuteronomy 22:10 nor weave our wedding garment of different colours. He at once takes back the concession he made, and, as if repenting of his opinion, withdraws it by saying: She is happier if she so abide, that is, unmarried; and declares that in his judgment this course is preferable. And that this may not be made light of as a merely human utterance, he claims for it the authority of the Holy Spirit, so that we are listening not to a fellowman making concessions to the weakness of the flesh but to the Holy Spirit using the apostle for his mouthpiece.

6. Again, no widow of youthful age must quiet her qualms of conscience by the plea that he gives commandment that no widow is to be taken into the number under three-score years old. 1 Timothy 5:9 He does not by this arrangement urge unmarried girls or youthful widows to marry, seeing that even of the married he says: the time is short: it remains that they that have wives be as though they had none. No, he is speaking of widows who have relations able to support them, who have sons and grandsons to be responsible for their maintenance. The apostle commands these latter to show piety at home, and to requite their parents and to relieve them adequately; that the church may not be charged, but may be free to relieve those that are widows indeed. Honour widows, he writes, that are widows indeed, that is, such as are desolate and have no relations to help them, who cannot labour with their hands, who are weakened by poverty and overcome by years, whose trust is in God and their only work prayer. From which it is easy to infer that the younger widows, unless they are excused by ill health, are either left to their own exertions or else are consigned to the care of their children or relations. The word 'honour' in this passage implies either alms or a gift, as also in the verse immediately following: Let the elders...be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine. 1 Timothy 5:17 So also in the gospel when the Lord discusses that commandment of the Law which says: Honour your father and your mother, Exodus 20:12 He declares that it is to be interpreted not of mere words which while offering an empty show of regard may still leave a parent's wants unrelieved, but of the actual provision of the necessaries of life. The Lord commanded that poor parents should be supported by their children and that these should pay them back when old those benefits which they had themselves received in their childhood. The scribes and pharisees on the other hand taught the children to answer their parents by saying: It is Corban, that is to say, a gift Mark 7:11 which I have promised to the altar and engaged to present to the temple: it will relieve you as much there, as if I were to give it you directly to buy food. So it frequently happened that while father and mother were destitute their children were offering sacrifices for the priests and scribes to consume. If then the apostle compels poor widows— yet only those who are young and not broken down by sickness— to labour with their hands that the church, not charged with their maintenance, may be able to support such widows as are old, what plea can be urged by one who has abundance of this world's goods, both for her own wants and those of others, and who can make to herself friends of the mammon of unrighteousness able to receive her into everlasting habitations? Luke 16:9

Consider too that no one is to be elected a widow, except she has been the wife of one husband. We sometimes fancy it to be the distinctive mark of the priesthood that none but monogamists shall be admitted to the altar. But not only are the twice-married excluded from the priestly office, they are debarred from receiving the alms of the church. A woman who has resorted to a second marriage is held unworthy to be supported by the faithful. And even the layman is bound by the law of the priest, for his conduct must be such as to admit of his election to the priesthood. If he has been twice married, he cannot be so elected. Therefore, as priests are chosen from the ranks of laymen, the layman also is bound by the commandment, fulfilment of which is indispensable for the attainment of the priesthood.

7. We must distinguish between what the apostle himself desires and what he is compelled to acquiesce in. If he allows me to marry again, this is due to my own incontinence and not to his wish. For he wishes all men to be as he is, and to think the things of God, and when once they are loosed no more to seek to be bound. But when he sees unstable men in danger through their incontinence of falling into the abyss of lust, he extends to them the offer of a second marriage; that, if they must wallow in the mire, it may be with one and not with many. The husband of a second wife must not consider this a harsh saying or one that conflicts with the rule laid down by the apostle. The apostle is of two minds: first, he proclaims a command, I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. Next. he makes a concession, But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn. 1 Corinthians 7:8-9 He first shows what he himself desires, then that in which he is forced to acquiesce. He wishes us— after one marriage— to abide even as he, that is, unmarried, and sets before us in his own apostolic example an instance of the blessedness of which he speaks. If however he finds that we are unwilling to do as he wishes, he makes a concession to our incontinence. Which then of the two alternatives do we choose for ourselves? The one which he prefers and which is in itself good? Or the one which in comparison with evil is tolerable, yet as it is only a substitute for evil is not altogether good? Suppose that we choose that course which the apostle does not wish but to which he only consents against his will, allowing those who seek lower ends to have their own way; in this case we carry out not the apostle's wish but our own. We read in the old testament that the daughters of the priests who have been married once and have become widows are to eat of the priests' food and that when they die they are to be buried with the same ceremonies as their father and mother. If on the other hand they take other husbands they are to be kept apart both from their father and from the sacrifices and are to be counted as strangers. Leviticus 22:12-13

8. These restraints on marriage are observed even among the heathen; and it is our condemnation if the true faith cannot do for Christ what false ones do for the devil, who has substituted for the saving chastity of the gospel a damning chastity of his own. The Athenian hierophant disowns his manhood and weakens his passions by a perpetual restraint. The holy office of the flamen is limited to those who have been once married, and the attendants of the flamens' wives must also have had but one husband. Only monogamists are allowed to share in the sacred rites connected with the Egyptian bull. I need say nothing of the vestal virgins and those of Apollo, the Achivan Juno, Diana, and Minerva, all of whom waste away in the perpetual virginity required by their vocation. I will just glance at the queen of Carthage who was willing to burn herself rather than marry king Iarbas; at the wife of Hasdrubal who taking her two children one in each hand cast, herself into the flames beneath her rather than surrender her honour; and at Lucretia who having lost the prize of her chastity refused to survive the defilement of her soul. I will not lengthen my letter by quoting the many instances of the like virtue which you can read to your profit in my first book against Jovinian. I will merely relate one which took place in your own country and which will show you that chastity is held in high honour even among wild and barbarous and cruel peoples. Once the Teutons who came from the remote shores of the German Ocean overran all parts of Gaul, and it was only when they had cut to pieces several Roman armies that Marius at last defeated them in an encounter at Aquæ; Sextiæ. By the conditions of the surrender three hundred of their married women were to be handed over to the Romans. When the Teuton matrons heard of this stipulation they first begged the consul that they might be set apart to minister in the temples of Ceres and Venus; and then when they failed to obtain their request and were removed by the lictors, they slew their little children and next morning were all found dead in each other's arms having strangled themselves in the night.

9. Shall then a highborn lady do what these barbarian women refused to do even as prisoners of war? After losing a first husband, good or bad as the case may be, shall she make trial of a second, and thus run counter to the judgment of God? And in case that she immediately loses this second, shall she take a third? And if he too is called to his rest, shall she go on to a fourth and a fifth, and by so doing identify herself with the harlots? No, a widow must take every precaution not to overstep by an inch the bounds of chastity. For if she once oversteps them and breaks through the modesty which becomes a matron, she will soon riot in every kind of excess; so much so that the prophet's words shall be true of her You have a whore's forehead, you refuse to be ashamed. Jeremiah 3:3

What then? Do I condemn second marriages? Not at all; but I commend first ones. Do I expel twice-married persons from the church? Far from it; but I urge those who have been once married to lives of continence. The Ark of Noah contained unclean animals as well as clean. It contained both creeping things and human beings. In a great house there are vessels of different kinds, some to honour and some to dishonour. 2 Timothy 2:20 In the gospel parable the seed sown in the good ground brings forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. The hundredfold which comes first betokens the crown of virginity; the sixtyfold which comes next refers to the work of widows; while the thirtyfold— indicated by joining together the points of the thumb and forefinger — denotes the marriage-tie. What room is left for double marriages? None. They are not counted. Such weeds do not grow in good ground but among briers and thorns, the favourite haunts of those foxes to whom the Lord compares the impious Herod. Luke 13:32 A woman who marries more than once fancies herself worthy of praise because she is not so bad as the prostitutes, because she compares favourably with these victims of indiscriminate lust by surrendering herself to one alone and not to a number.

10. The story which I am about to relate is an incredible one; yet it is vouched for by many witnesses. A great many years ago when I was helping Damasus bishop of Rome with his ecclesiastical correspondence, and writing his answers to the questions referred to him by the councils of the east and west, I saw a married couple, both of whom were sprung from the very dregs of the people. The man had already buried twenty wives, and the woman had had twenty-two husbands. Now they were united to each other as each believed for the last time. The greatest curiosity prevailed both among men and women to see which of these two veterans would live to bury the other. The husband triumphed and walked before the bier of his often-married wife, amid a great concourse of people from all quarters, with garland and palm-branch, scattering spelt as he went along among an approving crowd. What shall we say to such a woman as that? Surely just what the Lord said to the woman of Samaria: You have had twenty-two husbands, and he by whom you are now buried is not your husband. John 4:18

11. I beseech you therefore, my devout daughter in Christ, not to dwell on those passages which offer succour to the incontinent and the unhappy but rather to read those in which chastity is crowned. It is enough for you that you have lost the first and highest kind, that of virginity, and that you have passed through the third to the second; that is to say, having formerly fulfilled the obligations of a wife, that you now live in continence as a widow. Think not of the lowest grade, nay of that which does not count at all, I mean, second marriage; and do not seek for far fetched precedents to justify you in marrying again. You cannot too closely imitate your grandmother, your mother, and your aunt; whose teaching and advice as to life will form for you a rule of virtue. For if many wives in the lifetime of their husbands come to realize the truth of the apostle's words: all things are lawful unto me but all things are not expedient, 1 Corinthians 6:12 and make eunuchs of themselves for the kingdom of heaven's sake Matthew 19:12 either by consent after their regeneration through the baptismal laver, or else in the ardour of their faith immediately after their marriage; why should not a widow, who by God's decree has ceased to have a husband, joyfully cry again and again with Job: the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away, Job 1:21 and seize the opportunity offered to her of having power over her own body instead of again becoming the servant of a man. Assuredly it is much harder to abstain from enjoying what you have than it is to regret what you have lost. Virginity is the easier because virgins know nothing of the promptings of the flesh, and widowhood is the harder because widows cannot help thinking of the license they have enjoyed in the past. And it is harder still if they suppose their husbands to be lost and not gone before; for while the former alternative brings pain, the latter causes joy.

12. The creation of the first man should teach us to reject more marriages than one. There was but one Adam and but one Eve; in fact the woman was fashioned from a rib of Adam. Genesis 2:21-22 Thus divided they were subsequently joined together in marriage; in the words of scripture the two shall be one flesh, not two or three. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife. Certainly it is not said to his wives. Paul in explaining the passage refers it to Christ and the church; Ephesians 5:31-32 making the first Adam a monogamist in the flesh and the second a monogamist in the spirit. As there is one Eve who is the mother of all living, Genesis 3:20 so is there one church which is the parent of all Christians. And as the accursed Lamech made of the first Eve two separate wives, Genesis 4:19 so also the heretics sever the second into several churches which, according to the apocalypse of John, ought rather to be called synagogues of the devil than congregations of Christ. Revelation 2:9 In the Book of Songs we read as follows:— there are threescore queens, and fourscore concubines, and virgins without number. My dove, my undefiled is but one; she is the only one of her mother, she is the choice one of her that bare her. Song of Songs 6:8-9 It is to this choice one that the same John addresses an epistle in these words, the elder unto the elect lady and her children. So too in the case of the ark which the apostle Peter interprets as a type of the church, 1 Peter 3:20-21 Noah brings in for his three sons one wife apiece and not two. Genesis 7:13 Likewise of the unclean animals pairs only are taken, male and female, to show that digamy has no place even among brutes, creeping things, crocodiles and lizards. And if of the clean animals there are seven taken of each kind, Genesis 7:2 that is, an uneven number; this points to the palm which awaits virginal chastity. For on leaving the ark Noah sacrificed victims to God Genesis 8:20 not of course of the animals taken by twos for these were kept to multiply their species, but of those taken by sevens some of which had been set apart for sacrifice.

13. It is true that the patriarchs had each of them more wives than one and that they had numerous concubines besides. And as if their example was not enough, David had many wives and Solomon a countless number. Judah went in to Tamar thinking her to be a harlot; Genesis 38:12-18 and according to the letter that kills the prophet Hosea married not only a whore but an adulteress. Hosea 1:2-3 If these instances are to justify us let us neigh after every woman that we meet; Jeremiah 5:8 like the people of Sodom and Gomorrha let us be found by the last day buying and selling, marrying and giving in marriage; Luke 17:27-29 and let us only end our marrying with the close of our lives. And if both before and after the deluge the maxim held good: be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth: what has that to do with us upon whom the ends of the ages have come, unto whom it is said, the time is short, 1 Corinthians 7:29 and now the axe is laid unto the root of the trees; that is to say, the forests of marriage and of the law must be cut down by the chastity of the gospel. There is a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing. Ecclesiastes 3:5 Owing to the near approach of the captivity Jeremiah is forbidden to take a wife. Jeremiah 16:2 In Babylon Ezekiel says: my wife is dead and my mouth is opened. Neither he who wished to marry nor he who had married could in wedlock prophesy freely. In days gone by men rejoiced to hear it said of them: your children shall be like olive plants round about your table, and you shall see your children's children. But now it is said of those who live in continence: he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit; 1 Corinthians 6:17 and my soul follows hard after you: your right hand upholds me. Then it was said an eye for an eye; now the commandment is whosoever shall smite you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. Matthew 5:38-39 In those days men said to the warrior: gird your sword upon your thigh, O most mighty; now it is said to Peter: put up again your sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. Matthew 26:52

In speaking thus I do not mean to sever the law from the gospel, as Marcion falsely does. No, I receive one and the same God in both who, as the time and the object vary, is both the Beginning and the End, who sows that He may reap, who plants that He may have somewhat to cut down, and who lays the foundation that in the fullness of time He may crown the edifice. Besides, if we are to deal with symbols and types of things to come, we must judge of them not by our own opinions but in the light of the apostle's explanations. Hagar and Sarah, or Sinai and Zion, are typical of the two testaments. Galatians 4:22-26 Leah who was tender-eyed and Rachel whom Jacob loved Genesis 29:17-18 signify the synagogue and the church. So likewise do Hannah and Peninnah of whom the former, at first barren, afterwards exceeded the latter in fruitfulness. In Isaac and Rebekah we see an early example of monogamy: it was only to Rebekah that the Lord revealed Himself in the hour of childbirth and she alone went of herself to enquire of the Lord. Genesis 25:22-23 What shall I say of Tamar who bore twin sons, Pharez and Zarah? Genesis 38:27-30 At their birth was broken down that middle wall of partition which typified the division existing between the two peoples; Ephesians 2:14 while the binding of Zarah's hand with the scarlet thread even then marked the conscience of the Jews with the stain of Christ's blood. And how shall I speak of the whore married by the prophet who is a figure either of the church as gathered in from the Gentiles or— an interpretation which better suits the passage— of the synagogue? First adopted from among the idolaters by Abraham and Moses, this has now denied the Saviour and proved unfaithful to Him. Therefore it has long been deprived of its altar, priests, and prophets and has to abide many days for its first husband. For when the fullness of the Gentiles shall have come in, all Israel shall be saved. Romans 11:25-26

14. I have tried to compress a great deal into a limited space as a draughtsman does when he delineates a large country in a small map. For I wish to deal with other questions, the first of which I shall give in Anna's words to her sister Dido:

Why waste your youth alone in ceaseless grief
Unblest with offspring, sweetest gift of love?
Think you the buried dead require this?

To whom the sufferer thus briefly replies:

'Twas you, my sister, you, who were the first
To plunge my frenzied soul into this woe.
Why could I not have lived a virgin life
Like some wild creature innocent of care?
Alas! I pledged my soul unto the dead:
I vowed a vow and I have broken it.

You set before me the joys of wedlock. I for my part will remind you of Dido's sword and pyre and funeral flames. In marriage there is not so much good to be hoped for as there is evil which may happen and must be feared. Passion when indulged always brings repentance with it; it is never satisfied, and once quenched it is soon kindled anew. Its growth or decay is a matter of habit; led like a captive by impulse it refuses to obey reason. But you will argue, 'the management of wealth and property requires the superintendence of a husband.' Do you mean to say that the affairs of those who live single are ruined; and that, unless you make yourself as much a slave as your own servants, you will not be able to govern your household? Do not your grandmother, your mother and your aunt enjoy even more than their old influence and respect, looked up to as they are by the whole province and by the leaders of the churches? Do not soldiers and travellers manage their domestic affairs and give entertainments to one another with no wives to help them? Why can you not have grave and elderly servants or freed-men, such as those who have nursed you in your childhood, to preside over your house, to answer public calls, to pay taxes; men who will look up to you as a patroness, who will love you as a nursling, who will revere you as a saint? Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you. Matthew 6:33 If you are careful for raiment the gospel bids you consider the lilies; and, if for food, to go back to the fowls which sow not neither do they reap; yet your heavenly father feeds them. How many virgins and widows there are who have looked after their property for themselves without thereby incurring any stain of scandal!

15. Do not associate with young women or cleave to them, for it is on account of such that the apostle makes his concession of second marriage, and so you may be shipwrecked in what appears to be calm water. If Paul can say to Timothy, the younger widows refuse, 1 Timothy 5:11 and again love the elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters, with all purity, what plea can you urge for refusing to hear my admonitions? Avoid all persons to whom a suspicion of evil living may attach itself, and do not content yourself with the trite answer, 'my own conscience is enough for me; I do not care what people say of me.' That was not the principle on which the apostle acted. He provided things honest not only in the sight of God but in the sight of all men; that the name of God might not be blasphemed among the Gentiles. Romans 2:24 Though he had power to lead about a sister, a wife, 1 Corinthians 9:5 he would not do so, for he did not wish to be judged by an unbeliever's conscience. 1 Corinthians 10:29 And, though he might have lived by the gospel, 1 Corinthians 9:14 he laboured day and night with his own hands, that he might not be burdensome to the believers. If meat, he says, make my brother to offend. I will eat no flesh while the world stands. 1 Corinthians 8:13 Let us then say, if a sister or a brother causes not one or two but the whole church to offend, 'I will not see that sister or that brother.' It is better to lose a portion of one's substance than to imperil the salvation of one's soul. It is better to lose that which some day, whether we like it or not, must be lost to us and to give it up freely, than to lose that for which we should sacrifice all that we have. Which of us can add— I will not say a cubit for that would be an immense addition— but the tenth part of a single inch to his stature? Why are we careful what we shall eat or what we shall drink? Let us take no thought for the morrow: sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Jacob in his flight from his brother left behind in his father's house great riches and made his way with nothing into Mesopotamia. Moreover, to prove to us his powers of endurance, he took a stone for his pillow. Yet as he lay there he beheld a ladder set up on the earth reaching to heaven and behold the Lord stood above it, and the angels ascended and descended on it; Genesis 28:11-13 the lesson being thus taught that the sinner must not despair of salvation nor the righteous man rest secure in his virtue. To pass over much of the story (for there is no time to explain all the points in the narrative) after twenty years he who before had passed over Jordan with his staff returned into his native land with three droves of cattle, rich in flocks and herds and richer still in children. Genesis 32:7, 10 The apostles likewise travelled throughout the world without either money in their purses, or staves in their hands, or shoes on their feet; Matthew 10:9-10 and yet they could speak of themselves as having nothing and yet possessing all things. 2 Corinthians 6:10 Silver and gold, say they, have we none, but such as we have give we you: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk. Acts 3:6 For they were not weighed down with the burden of riches. Therefore they could stand, as Elijah, in the crevice of the rock, they could pass through the needle's eye, and behold the back parts of the Lord.

But as for us we burn with covetousness and, even while we declaim against the love of money, we hold out our skirts to catch gold and never have enough. There is a common saying about the Megarians which may rightly be applied to all who suffer from this passion: They build as if they are to live forever; they live as if they are to die tomorrow. We do the same, for we do not believe the Lord's words. When we attain the age which all desire we forget the nearness of that death which as human beings we owe to nature and with futile hope promise to ourselves a long length of years. No old man is so weak and decrepit as to suppose that he will not live for one year more. A forgetfulness of his true condition gradually creeps upon him; so that— earthly creature that he is and close to dissolution as he stands— he is lifted up into pride, and in imagination seats himself in heaven.

16. But what am I doing? Whilst I talk about the cargo, the vessel itself founders. He that lets is taken out of the way, and yet we do not realize that Antichrist is near. Yes, Antichrist is near whom the Lord Jesus Christ shall consume with the spirit of his mouth. 2 Thessalonians 2:7-8 Woe unto them, he cries, that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days. Matthew 24:19 Now these things are both the fruits of marriage.

I shall now say a few words of our present miseries. A few of us have hitherto survived them, but this is due not to anything we have done ourselves but to the mercy of the Lord. Savage tribes in countless numbers have overrun all parts of Gaul. The whole country between the Alps and the Pyrenees, between the Rhine and the Ocean, has been laid waste by hordes of Quadi, Vandals, Sarmatians, Alans, Gepids, Herules, Saxons, Burgundians, Allemanni and— alas! For the commonweal!— even Pannonians. For Assur also is joined with them. The once noble city of Moguntiacum has been captured and destroyed. In its church many thousands have been massacred. The people of Vangium after standing a long siege have been extirpated. The powerful city of Rheims, the Ambiani, the Altrebatæ, the Belgians on the skirts of the world, Tournay, Spires, and Strasburg have fallen to Germany: while the provinces of Aquitaine and of the Nine Nations, of Lyons and of Narbonne are with the exception of a few cities one universal scene of desolation. And those which the sword spares without, famine ravages within. I cannot speak without tears of Toulouse which has been kept from falling hitherto by the merits of its reverend bishop Exuperius. Even the Spains are on the brink of ruin and tremble daily as they recall the invasion of the Cymry; and, while others suffer misfortunes once in actual fact, they suffer them continually in anticipation.

17. I say nothing of other places that I may not seem to despair of God's mercy. All that is ours now from the Pontic Sea to the Julian Alps in days gone by once ceased to be ours. For thirty years the barbarians burst the barrier of the Danube and fought in the heart of the Roman Empire. Long use dried our tears. For all but a few old people had been born either in captivity or during a blockade, and consequently they did not miss a liberty which they had never known. Yet who will hereafter credit the fact or what histories will seriously discuss it, that Rome has to fight within her own borders not for glory but for bare life; and that she does not even fight but buys the right to exist by giving gold and sacrificing all her substance? This humiliation has been brought upon her not by the fault of her Emperors who are both most religious men, but by the crime of a half-barbarian traitor who with our money has armed our foes against us. Of old the Roman Empire was branded with eternal shame because after ravaging the country and routing the Romans at the Allia, Brennus with his Gauls entered Rome itself. Nor could this ancient stain be wiped out until Gaul, the birth-place of the Gauls, and Gaulish Greece, wherein they had settled after triumphing over East and West, were subjugated to her sway. Even Hannibal who swept like a devastating storm from Spain into Italy, although he came within sight of the city, did not dare to lay siege to it. Even Pyrrhus was so completely bound by the spell of the Roman name that destroying everything that came in his way, he yet withdrew from its vicinity and, victor though he was, did not presume to gaze upon what he had learned to be a city of kings. Yet in return for such insults— not to say such haughty pride— as theirs which ended thus happily for Rome, one banished from all the world found death at last by poison in Bithynia; while the other returning to his native land was slain in his own dominions. The countries of both became tributary to the Roman people. But now, even if complete success attends our arms, we can wrest nothing from our vanquished foes but what we have already lost to them. The poet Lucan describing the power of the city in a glowing passage says:

If Rome be weak, where shall we look for strength?

We may vary his words and say:

If Rome be lost, where shall we look for help?

Or quote the language of Virgil:

Had I a hundred tongues and throat of bronze
The woes of captives I could not relate
Or ev'n recount the names of all the slain.

Even what I have said is fraught with danger both to me who say it and to all who hear it; for we are no longer free even to lament our fate, and are unwilling, nay, I may even say, afraid to weep for our sufferings.

Dearest daughter in Christ, answer me this question: will you marry amid such scenes as these? Tell me, what kind of husband will you take? One that will run or one that will fight? In either case you know what the result will be. Instead of the Fescennine song, the hoarse blare of the terrible trumpet will deafen your ears and your very brideswomen may be turned into mourners. In what pleasures can you hope to revel now that you have lost the proceeds of all your possessions, now that you see your small retinue under close blockade and a prey to the inroads of pestilence and famine? But far be it from me to think so meanly of you or to harbour any suspicions of one who has dedicated her soul to the Lord. Though nominally addressed to you my words are really meant for others such as are idle, inquisitive and given to gossip. These wander from house to house and from one married lady to another, 1 Timothy 5:13 their god is their belly and their glory is in their shame, Philippians 3:19 of the scriptures they know nothing except the texts which favour second marriages, but they love to quote the example of others to justify their own self-indulgence, and flatter themselves that they are no worse than their fellow-sinners. When you have confounded the shameless proposals of such women by explaining the true drift of the apostle's meaning; then to show you by what mode of life you can best preserve your widowhood, you may read with advantage what I have written. I mean my treatise on the preservation of virginity addressed to Eustochium and my two letters to Furia and Salvina. Of these two latter you may like to know that the first is daughter-in-law to Probus some time consul, and the second daughter to Gildo formerly governour of Africa. This tract on monogamy I shall call by your name.

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/3001123.htm>.

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