Eli Stone

Eli Stone is a Research Assistant for the Alcuin Institute for Catholic Culture.

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St. Jerome: Defender of the Religious Ideal

Of the many saints in the history of the Church, perhaps none have been so influential as St. Jerome. For the past 1,500 years (and even to this day), his Latin Vulgate has formed the spiritual life of the Church in the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, and through countless commentaries and devotional works. For these reasons, he was highly esteemed in the Middle Ages, especially as the patron of scriptural studies, but also as one of the “Four Doctors” or “Four Pillars” of the Western Church (along with Sts. Augustine, Ambrose, and Gregory the Great).

In more recent times, however, St. Jerome has been regarded as a bit too “rough around the edges”—a sort of “Oscar the Grouch” of Christianity. Of course, Jerome had such a reputation during his own time; his exacting critical methods, the harsh critiques of others’ work, and his passionate zeal for correcting erroneous scriptural passages won him many enemies. Even his correspondence with the great St. Augustine is, in many places, layered with varying degrees of tension and apparent strife. To many, Jerome can come across as (and is sometimes politely dismissed as) something of a “crabby old man.”

Such an appraisal, in my estimation, is far from accurate. Though blunt and (at times) quite forceful in his argumentation, St. Jerome has a far different side to him; this is most especially seen in his letters to women, or his consolatory letters to friends grieving loved ones. In such letters, we find a remarkable tenderness as Jerome conveys his affection for his friends, always seeking to direct them to God. In true priestly fashion, we see that Jerome is quite ready to adapt his tone, style, and diction to the particular needs of his audience; the staff to guide a wandering sheep, the rod to rebuke the prowling wolves. In some cases, however, even the sheep need the rod—such was the case with the young Heliodorus.

A promising novice whom Jerome knew, Heliodorus had decided to abandon his monastic vows and return to his secular life in Rome. St. Jerome, in his letter, begins by expressing his sorrow at Heliodorus’s departure, and recounting his deliberation about how to best express himself. But Jerome quickly passes over the pleasantries: “Offended love does well to be angry. You have spurned my petition; perhaps you will listen to my remonstrance. What keeps you, effeminate soldier, in your father's house?” Harsh words, perhaps—but they match the gravity of Heliodorus’s sin.

Jerome chastises Heliodorus for “abandoning his post” as an “enlisted soldier for Christ.” As a professed monk, Heliodorus has publicly promised (to Christ and His Church!) to live a life of penance, asceticism, and prayer. But now he has gone back on his vows—grave matter in any circumstance, but most especially a grave sin when committed against God Himself. So, St. Jerome’s excoriation of Heliodorus is not a result of ill-temper, but is an example of fraternal correction—a stinging antiseptic, but intended to call him to repentance.

Lest we think Jerome heartless, he goes on: “I am not ignorant of the fetters which you may plead as hindrances. My breast is not of iron nor my heart of stone. I was not born of flint or suckled by a tigress. I have passed through troubles like yours myself.” He goes on to recount the many pleas of family, old friends, and familiar folk who so often try to dissuade young novices to abandon their call to religious life. Christ Himself warned, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the service in the Kingdom of God” (Lk. 9:62). Jerome, speaking to the many who would hold back Heliodorus, echoes Christ’s injunction: “If they believe in Christ let them bid me God-speed, for I go to fight in His name. And if they do not believe, ‘let the dead bury their dead.’”

Jerome’s use of militaristic language may seem to us moderns a bit brash and “extremist”—but recall, Holy Scripture itself is full of such language, throughout the Old Testament into the New, from St. Paul to Revelation—even the words of Christ Himself. To St. Jerome, spiritual warfare is real, and though Heliodorus’s cowardice by no means entails a lost battle for Christ’s Kingdom, it does put Heliodorus at risk of forfeiting the spoils of battle—namely, an inheritance in Heaven.

Far from merely tearing down and belittling Heliodorus for his error, Jerome encourages him and bids him return: “I invite you now; come, and come quickly. Do not call to mind old ties; the desert is for those who have left all. Nor let the hardships of our former travels deter you. You believe in Christ, believe also in His words: ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you.’ Take neither scrip nor staff. He is rich enough who is poor — with Christ. […] My brother, it is affection which has urged me to speak thus; that you who now find the Christian life so hard may have your reward in that day.”

St. Jerome’s Letter 14 (to Heliodorus) provides an excellent window into the mind of the great saint. Throughout his writings, it is evident that much of Jerome’s “prickliness” stems from the fact that he finds many Christians lax in the practice of their faith. After the cessation of Roman persecution, and as it became socially acceptable (and even materially profitable) to become a Christian, mass “conversions” had filled the pure wheat-fields of the Church with so much chaff and tares. With the great “popularization” of Christianity came a general relaxation in the strictness of Christian observance, and many newly-professed Christians came to see the pious examples and ascetical practices of the Desert Fathers as unnecessary to the Christian life.

Such laxity in practice even threatened the purity of Church teaching. In Jerome’s Treatise on the Perpetual Virgin Mary, he responds (quite forcefully) to the heresies of Helvidius, who claimed—contrary to the Church—that Mary did not remain a virgin all her life. In his Against Jovinian, Jerome takes up the pen against Jovinian, who taught—against the words of St. Paul and Christ Himself—that celibacy afforded no advantages to the spiritual life over marriage. After himself emulating the ascetical life of Christ and seeing its benefits in his life (and the lives of the countless others he advised), it is a small wonder that St. Jerome was so zealous to promote the ascetic and monastic lifestyle—one which had served as a powerful model of holiness to Christians (and has for centuries).

If, then, we find St. Jerome’s writings to be “harsh” or “demanding,” we may do well to examine our own preconceptions of the Christian life. Rooted as he is in the biblical text, Jerome never bids us do anything that is not, in some way, contained in Scripture or enjoined directly by Christ. He hardly writes a thought without some reference to the written Tradition of the Church (an example for all of us to follow). His Treatises provide excellent rebuttals to Protestant talking-points, and his Letters contain inestimable treasures of both consolation and exhortation to any who are considering religious life.

The debt that the Church owes St. Jerome is immeasurable, and every faithful Catholic would do well to regard him as a dear friend in faith, a zealous ascetic, and a great defender of the Christian religious ideal.

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Faith of our Fathers: St. Justin Martyr

Not much is known about the life of St. Justin Martyr. A second-century apologist and martyr born around 100 A.D., Justin first began life as a pagan Greek. Dissatisfied with his early studies, he began wandering among the fashionable philosophical schools of his day—from Stoics to Peripatetics to Pythagoreans. Finally, Justin felt some sense of rest in Platonism, but upon hearing of the existence of some prophets who, centuries before, had been animated by the Spirit of the One True God, he became intrigued. In studying the Christian faith and witnessing the virtuous and ascetic lives led by the Christian faithful, Justin was converted and began to teach Christianity as the “true philosophy.” At one point opening his own school in Rome, Justin came to earn the disfavor of the Roman authorities, and was beheaded for his Christian faith in the 160s A.D. His written work survived him, and he is most known for his two Apologies (“Defenses” of the Christian faith), and his later Dialogue with Trypho, a spirited disputation with a Jew over whether Christ is truly the Jewish Messiah.
In both the First and Second Apology, St. Justin Martyr seeks to dissuade the Roman emperor Antonius Pius and the Roman Senate from continuing the persecution of Christians of his own day. In order to do this, Justin appeals to justice, arguing that the moral and civic virtue of the Christian people makes it manifestly unfair to punish them. Justin argues that the conduct of Christians—including their respect for civil law, abstinence from all crimes and disturbance of the peace, offering prayers for the emperors and governors, and the charitable work of the Church for the poor and needy—rather than earning death sentences, ought to win the praise and favor of the Roman authorities. The life of a Christian, Justin argues, represents that of a model citizen, even better than many other Roman citizens who live their lives undisturbed. And so, justice demands that the persecution of Christians cease. To build his case, Justin offers a brief summary of various misunderstood points of the Christian faith—allegations of atheism, sorcery, and cannibalism, in particular—many of which had been leveled against Christians as justification for Roman violence. In the course of his arguments, however, Justin frequently compares the teaching of Christians with those of other, earlier Greek and Roman thinkers. By pointing out the similarities between, say, the teachings of Plato and those of Christ, Justin seeks to demonstrate that Christianity is not opposed to, but rather harmonious with, many elements of existing Greco-Roman culture and values. In light of Justin’s goals, and the widespread religious pluralism of his day, it would have perhaps been easier for Justin to mention only the similarities of these religious traditions—opting to neglect the radical differences between the Christian and the Pagan in order to “smooth over” diplomatic relations. Justin, however, refused to do this; instead, he confidently supports the divergence of Christian faith from many points of Roman religion, especially denouncing the worship of multiple “gods”—whom Justin frequently refers to as “demons.” Throughout his writings, Justin does not only seek to claim that, but also why, giving his Roman audience the opportunity to see that, while Christian tradition diverges from Roman tradition, it does not do so arbitrarily, but for good and compelling reasons. As Justin’s own conversion was prompted by his learning of the Old Testament prophets, he frequently makes reference to them in his own arguments. If various nomadic and unusual historical figures were, at different times and places across the centuries, capable of foretelling the events of Christ’s birth, life, and death—if this is all true, then surely, Justin argues, these ought to be considered divine signs of authenticity. But perhaps the most compelling evidence in favor of Christianity that Justin finds lies not in the Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament, but rather in the Greek “prophets”: the poets and philosophers. Immediately before the above passage, Justin explains that the “seed of Reason [Logos] is implanted in every race of men” (II Apology, IIX). This means that all cultures are bound together by access to the same fundamental and transcendental realities such as Truth, Beauty, Uprightness, and the like. These realities are accessible to all by reason; thus those who have the opportunity to exercise their reason most—for example, lawyers and philosophers—often come into contact with these realities, and can “speak well” regarding them. In the works of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Virgil, one can find a plethora of truths and insights into the nature of reality, God, and the mystery of mankind. Justin, however, makes a monopolizing claim for the Christian faith: “whatever either lawgivers or philosophers uttered well, they elaborated by finding and contemplating some part of the Word.” That is to say, whatever truths the Greek poets and philosophers encountered through the use of their reason, those truths have their origin in the eternal Word—Jesus Christ. This point is generally summed up in the contemporary maxim “all truth is God’s truth,” though for Justin the idea is more nuanced. Often, different thinkers will come to different conclusions, and this was no less the case with the Greeks. The reason for this, Justin argues, is because their contemplation of the Word was restricted to only those things which could be known by reason, and so their knowledge of the truth was piecemeal: “since they did not know the whole of the Word, which is Christ, they often contradicted themselves.” The corollary to this is that now, since the Word has been made known through Christ and the Incarnation, we have access to the whole of the Word—through the testimony of the Church, the Scriptures, and the Sacraments. We no longer need suffer the contradictions that arise when we try to probe the mysteries of reality, for Reality Himself has come to us! “And those who by human birth were more ancient than Christ, when they attempted to consider and prove things by reason, were brought before the tribunals as impious persons and busybodies.” Here, Justin points out that the affinity between certain Greco-Roman philosophers and later Christians is not limited to their shared quest for truth, but also the great sufferings that they both undergo. In particular, Justin alludes to Socrates, who “was accused of the very same crimes as ourselves [specifically, atheism and the corruption of the youth]. For they said that he was introducing new divinities, and did not consider those to be gods whom the state recognized.” But though Justin sees in Socrates a great friend of the Christian faith, he nevertheless points out the deficiencies in the Greek attempt to comprehend God’s essence by reason alone: “he exhorted them to become acquainted with the God who was to them unknown, by means of the investigation of reason, saying that it is [not] easy to find the Father and Maker of all.” According to the Greeks, only one who had studied philosophy—arduously trying to hone and perfect his thinking for the better part of his life—would have the ability to peek behind the veil of reality and contemplate God; and even then, they would only have a glimpse. In a society where most were slaves, or illiterate, or too poor to afford an education, this meant that almost nobody would have access to God. “But these things our Christ did through His own power.” That is, Christ Himself, in His own person, makes manifest to us the mystery of the Father, as He explains in John’s Gospel: “Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father” (14:9). Not only that, but Christ Himself declares the mysteries of God to all men: “The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has declared Him” (Jn. 1:18). This means that, as Justin points out, “not only philosophers and scholars” can be taught to understand the mysteries of God, “but also artisans and people entirely uneducated.” The contrast made between Christ and Socrates here is subtle, but important. As Justin points out, many Greek philosophers were killed for their teachings—some of which, as in the case of Socrates, were true. This made educating an uneducated, illiterate society both difficult and dangerous: “it is neither easy to find the Father and Maker of all, nor, having found Him, is it safe to declare Him to all.” But what the Greeks were unable (and, in many respects, unwilling) to accomplish, Christ brought about through His perfect teaching and example. Both Socrates and Christ died for teaching the truth, but only Christ rose from the dead, “since He is a power of the ineffable Father, not the mere instrument of human reason.” St. Justin Martyr thus stands out as an early defender of the implicit harmony between Greco-Roman thought and Christian faith. What these “prophets” knew in part, Christ made known in full, not only to the most erudite and sophisticated, but also (and especially) to the simple and lowly. This line of thought allowed later Christians to engage more deeply with the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition; a conversation which subsequently shaped the Western world over the next 1500 years. In many ways, then, St. Justin Martyr can be truly credited as a forerunner to some of the most robust thinkers of the Christian faith, as the trailblazing apologist of a Christianity that could indeed be called “true philosophy.”