How “an irascible, morbidly sensitive, old curmudgeon” models love of woman
The other day, a dear friend shared that she has been struggling in her relationship with the Blessed Virgin Mary. When she compares their virtues and ambitions, she finds that she has nothing in common with Our Lady. This is not an unfamiliar puzzle, but it saddens me that women do not feel closer to the model of their sex. We dig, distressed, into female thought: into Edith Stein, or Hildegard, or Emily Wilson, hoping to discover with finality what it means to be a woman of the Faith. In a world where the genders seem at each other’s throats, it is hard to imagine what they are both supposed to look like, much more to know how they were made to relate to one another. So, I have gone to the Church Fathers to escape modern bias and wrestle with these questions.
We remember St. Jerome primarily for his work as a translator and typically neglect his life in the fourth century Roman community. Yet his dependence on the patronage and friendship of women might answer many of our questions regarding the place of women in Christian community.
First, I want to note that I think it is beautiful that such a large portion of the corpus of a Doctor of the Church reflects his close friendships with women. We have over forty letters by him to over twenty women, and they show that he was both teacher and friend. With apparent familiarity, St. Jerome answers their questions about Scripture and Christian living. In a letter to one spiritual directee, Asella, St. Jerome expressed that “study had brought about constant companionship, companionship comfortableness, and comfortableness a sense of mutual trust.” These relationships were reciprocally enriching and reveal to the modern Church another way for man and woman to relate.
St. Jerome became popular in Rome after he attempted to live in isolation in the desert; but he found he was not called to a life of such intense asceticism. But this time abroad equipped him with spiritual gifts that Rome so desperately needed. His breadth of knowledge from his travels drew Romans to him for spiritual as well as intellectual advice. Following Origen’s precedent, he extolled parents to educate their daughters as well as their sons, so women flocked to him for instruction. When St. Jerome left Rome to tour monasteries in Egypt and found one in the Holy Land, patrician Roman women financially supported and accompanied him. He remained in this new monastery outside of Bethlehem until his death, and there he taught his followers’ daughters, grand-daughters, and even a great-granddaughter.
It is sad that it is so difficult today to imagine what it would be like to inhabit this circle of admirers, to appreciate a teacher so holistically. We are so suspicious of intimacy, and our modern eyes tempt us to take offense to his writing on gender. In a letter to a Spanish nobleman who with his wife wanted to live the rest of his days in complete continence, St. Jerome writes: “You have with you one who was once your partner in the flesh, but is now your partner in the spirit, once your wife but now your sister, once a woman but now a man, once an inferior but now an equal.” Rather than taking issue with his praise of women insofar as they are like men, we should recognize that St. Jerome means to show how women can be like Christ and how they are especially adored by Him as His bride.
Let us look more closely at the women St. Jerome knew. They were active, interesting, and worthy of our emulation. He highlights for us forgotten saints such as Marcella, a woman of deep interiority as well as extroverted grit. St. Marcella created an educational community for women that incorporated relationships with learning about the Christian life, as St. Jerome practiced and recommended. When St. Marcella was martyred for the Faith, St. Jerome wrote to her student Principia: “You she made the heir of her poverty, or rather the poor through you. When she closed her eyes, it was in your arms; when she breathed her last breath, your lips received it; you shed tears but she smiled conscious of having led a good life and hoping for her reward hereafter.” Does this sound like a man who failed to understand and love women? Could anyone hope for greater friendship?
Yet those who wish to paint the saints as misogynists often reference these same correspondences. In 384, St. Jerome wrote a letter to Marcella as he and others attended to Blesilla, a widow who had recently taken ill. He writes of the superficial, vain woman Blesilla used to be and who she is now, as she struggles to live but fights her illness without fear or resentment: “She knows she owes her life to Him to whom she entrusted it … those who feel resentment show thereby that they are not Christians.” The following passage, St. Jerome’s exhortation on feminine vanity, often appears in articles and papers that attack his attitude toward women, but I think he highlights an important challenge for women—one Blesilla overcame—when he calls out those
“who paint their cheeks with rouge and their eyes with belladonna; whose faces are covered with powder and so disfigured by excessive whiteness that they look like idols; who find a wet furrow on their skin if perchance a tear should escape them; whom no amount of years can convince that they are old… who, in fine, behave like trembling schoolgirls before a company of their own grandsons.”
Such women are not free like Blesilla to mourn and to prepare for death—they are afraid to age, afraid to let go of the beauty that lent them earthly power in their youth. They are resentful that such gifts were only on loan, and none of their relationships—with men, women, and God—evade the poison of their idolatry. Furthermore, they reject woman as God designed her.
St. Jerome expands the audience for this exhortation from women like Blesilla to everyone as he discusses how Christians are received by other people in the world. The world responds with hostility and mockery when Christians do not do as the world does: “We are called monks merely because we don’t dress in silk. We are dubbed ‘sour puritans’ because we do not get drunk or burst into loud guffaws.” So, the Christian should stop hoping that if she practices the Faith in good form, the world will receive her kindly. “Our dear Blessilla will laugh at them,” St. Jerome writes to St. Marcella, “and will not deign to listen to the abuse of noisy frogs. She knows that her Lord was called by men Beelzebub.” Thus man and woman alike suffer confrontation as they try to live according to their divine nature.
But St. Jerome’s writing on marriage and chastity points to an even greater truth about women. Woman’s virginity, he says, makes real the maritally-based redemption by Christ and grants her a unique closeness with the Blessed Mother and Her Son. In a few letters, he writes that virginity is consecrated in the persons of Mary and Christ. While perpetual virginity is not every woman’s vocation, it is important to the Church in every age as it makes real the Church’s union with Christ; it reflects the truth that the bride is still awaiting her groom. The mothers of virgins are “now the mother-in-law of God,” St. Jerome writes.
How harmful it is to women and the Church to construe these teachings of St. Jerome—who fostered such beautiful relationships with women, among women, between woman and spouse, and between women and their adorer, Christ—as anti-woman. For my fellow Catholic women: let us love without fear of earthly judgment, remember that we are made for so much more than this world offers, and pursue the kinds of relationships St. Jerome models for us, knowing the world will do everything it can to keep us apart.
Today on St. Jerome’s feast let us celebrate the bright and bold women we know. Let us treasure them, challenge them, and with them praise God.
Lizzie Self is a senior in the Program of Liberal Studies and theology, minoring in Constitutional Studies. She would be delighted to spend more time falling in love with the saints, though duty (her thesis) calls. Send your favorite readings by the Church Fathers to email@example.com.
If you would like to inquire after the sources for this piece, please contact Lizzie.
Featured art: Il Garofalo (1481-1559), “Madonna and Child and St. Jerome”