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Letter XXIII. To Marcella.

Jerome writes to Marcella to console her for the loss of a friend who, like herself, was the head of a religious society at Rome. The news of Lea’s death had first reached Marcella when she was engaged with Jerome in the study of the 73d psalm. Later in the day he writes this letter in which, after extolling Lea, he contrasts her end with that of the consul-elect, Vettius Agorius Prætextatus, a man of great ability and integrity, whom he declares to be now “in Tartarus.” Written at Rome in 384 a.d.

1. To-day, about the third hour, just as I was beginning to read with you the seventy-second psalm678678    In the English Version Ps. lxxiii.—the first, that is, of the third book—and to explain that its title belonged partly to the second book and partly to the third—the previous book, I mean, concluding with the words “the prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended,”679679    Ps. lxxii. 20. and the next commencing with the words “a psalm of Asaph”680680    Ps. lxxiii. title.—and just as I had come on the passage in which the righteous man declares: “If I say, I will speak thus; behold I should offend against the generation of thy children,”681681    Ps. lxxiii. 15. a verse which is differently rendered in our Latin version:682682    I.e. the Old Latin Version superseded by Jerome’s Vulgate.—suddenly the news came that our most saintly friend Lea had departed from the body. As was only natural, you turned deadly pale; for there are few persons, if any, who do not burst into tears when the earthen vessel breaks.683683    2 Cor. iv. 7. But if you wept it was not from doubt as to her future lot, but only because you had not rendered to her the last sad offices which are due to the dead. Finally, as we were still conversing together, a second message informed us that her remains had been already conveyed to Ostia.

2. You may ask what is the use of repeating all this. I will reply in the apostle’s words, “much every way.”684684    Rom. iii. 2. First, it shows that all must hail with joy the release of a soul which has trampled Satan under foot, and won for itself, at last, a crown of 42tranquillity. Secondly, it gives me an opportunity of briefly describing her life. Thirdly, it enables me to assure you that the consul-elect,685685    One of the most distinguished men of his day, Prætextatus, had filled the high position of Prefect of Rome. As such he ironically assured Damasus that, if he could hope to obtain the papacy, he would immediately embrace the Christian religion (Jerome, “Against John of Jerusalem,” § 8). that detractor of his age,686686    De suis sæculis detrahentem. The text is clearly corrupt, and no satisfactory emendation has yet been suggested. is now in Tartarus.687687    So the author of II. Peter speaks of God “tartartizing the angels that sinned” (ii. 4).

Who can sufficiently eulogize our dear Lea’s mode of living? So complete was her conversion to the Lord that, becoming the head of a monastery, she showed herself a true mother688688    I.e. her conduct justified her official title. to the virgins in it, wore coarse sackcloth instead of soft raiment, passed sleepless nights in prayer, and instructed her companions even more by example than by precept. So great was her humility that she, who had once been the mistress of many, was accounted the servant of all; and certainly, the less she was reckoned an earthly mistress the more she became a servant of Christ. She was careless of her dress, neglected her hair, and ate only the coarsest food. Still, in all that she did, she avoided ostentation that she might not have her reward in this world.689689    Cf. Matt. vi. 2.

3. Now, therefore, in return for her short toil, Lea enjoys everlasting felicity; she is welcomed into the choirs of the angels; she is comforted in Abraham’s bosom. And, as once the beggar Lazarus saw the rich man, for all his purple, lying in torment, so does Lea see the consul, not now in his triumphal robe but clothed in mourning, and asking for a drop of water from her little finger.690690    Luke xvi. 19–24. How great a change have we here! A few days ago the highest dignitaries of the city walked before him as he ascended the ramparts of the capitol like a general celebrating a triumph; the Roman people leapt up to welcome and applaud him, and at the news of his death the whole city was moved. Now he is desolate and naked, a prisoner in the foulest darkness, and not, as his unhappy wife691691    Paulina, chief priestess of Ceres. falsely asserts, set in the royal abode of the milky way.692692    In the Roman mythology the abode of gods and heroes. Cf. Ovid, M. i. 175, 176. On the other hand Lea, who was always shut up in her one closet, who seemed poor and of little worth, and whose life was accounted madness,693693    Wisd. v. 4. now follows Christ and sings, “Like as we have heard, so have we seen in the city of our God.”694694    Ps. xlviii. 8.

4. And now for the moral of all this, which, with tears and groans, I conjure you to remember. While we run the way of this world, we must not clothe ourselves with two coats, that is, with a twofold faith, or burthen ourselves with leathern shoes, that is, with dead works; we must not allow scrips filled with money to weigh us down, or lean upon the staff of worldly power.695695    Matt. x. 10. We must not seek to possess both Christ and the world. No; things eternal must take the place of things transitory;696696    2 Cor. iv. 18. and since, physically speaking, we daily anticipate death, if we wish for immortality we must realize that we are but mortal.


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