Select Letters of St Jerome

Select Letters (Loeb Classical Library)Select Letters by St. Jerome

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

St Jerome was a major figure in Latin Christianity in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Besides revising the Latin Bible, his greatest influence lies in giving power to the rising monastic movement in the Latin world. He came from Dalmatia on the Adriatic, spent time as a hermit, then went to Rome before spending years as a monk in Bethlehem.

Although Jerome was a controversialist, little of his polemic is visible on the surface in this selection of letters. Occasionally, you can see him making oblique reference to people who might possibly criticise him for some things, and there is a devastating caricature of his erstwhile friend Rufinus in one letter as well. Furthermore, we read here Jerome’s version of the First Origenist Controversy.

For the most part, though, this selection is Jerome the ascetic, not Jerome the polemicist. We see his ideas about how to be a good monk, a good nun, a good widow, or a good clergyman set down. We see his instructions on how to educate a young girl in Christian discipline. Much is worth thinking on, chewing on, mulling over, and much is also quotable.

We also encounter Jerome here as a source for the Later Roman Empire. Basically, he reads in these letters as though the world were on the precipice, if not already falling into the abyss. Sometimes I know he is being hyperbolic, at other times it is a trope (‘She’s lucky death spared her seeing the world invaded by barbarians’), but at other times there is genuine feeling behind it. Jerome is keenly aware of the catastrophes of his age, but is this because they were that much more acute or because they serve his rhetoric well? I reckon that it is a bit of both.

This selection is well worth reading as an introduction to Jerome and his thought.

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A Saying of the Desert Fathers and the Drive to Consume

Library of the Benedictine Monastery of Admont; not quite what the Egyptians had in mind!

Perhaps the impending arrival of that High Holy Day for my American friends, Black Friday, caused this to come to mind; perhaps the proximity to Advent and, therefore, the shop-fest leading up to Christmas; perhaps it was the Holy Spirit — whatever the source, the other day a saying of the Desert Fathers (or Mothers) came to mind.

I don’t remember which collection of Sayings (Apophthegmata) or stories this particular saying comes from although I know it was not The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Sr. Benedicta Ward’s translation of the Greek alphabetical collection. Probably the Latin systematic collection (trans. by Sr. Benedicta for Penguin, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks), although part of me wonders if it was the Lausiac History of Palladius.

Now that I’ve bored you with my uncertainty of the source, the story, as I recall, is that one day one of the Desert Fathers was walking along and came upon the cell of one of the brothers. He came on inside, and there he beheld several books on a shelf. He scolded the brother for having accumulated all these books, telling him that these books are bread for the hungry, clothing for the naked, medicine for the sick.

The story is evidently part of the network of various stories, sayings, and teachings found in the different collections and recensions and translations of Apophthegmata, hagiography, travellers’ tales, letters, and so forth, that seeks to create the image of the true monk as being an uneducated peasant or a wealthy person who has rejected education for the simple life of the contemplative mystic, turning aside from Greek philosophy and the false wisdom of much theology for the true wisdom that comes directly from God.

Such ‘true’ monks no doubt existed from the beginning, but it was not until the First Origenist Controversy at the turn of the fifth century that they were held up as the paragons of true monasticism in opposition to those — such as Evagrius Ponticus — who were tainted with worldly wisdom and education. From henceforth, this dichotomy continually arises in our literature about the Desert Fathers and Mothers, from Egypt through Palestine into Syria, into the sixth century and re-emerging throughout the centuries in such quarrels as the Hesychast Controversy involving Gregory Palamas (on whom I have written this) in the 1300s.

However, take caution! Be wary of these sources. These wee, memorable Sayings claim to be the direct truth and represent the earliest layer of monastic tradition. However, the collections of the Apophthegmata are mostly fifth- and sixth-century in origin. They will be edited accordingly, following the First and even Second Origenist Controversies. And other sources, such as the sixth-century Lives of various Palestinian monks by Cyril of Scythopolis, are highly partisan in the Origenist controversies which always pitted simplicity against wordliness and philosophy.

I don’t think this saying and many of the others about learning and books actually represent an anti-intellectualist strand in earliest monasticism. I would counter that this particular saying is actually about the accumulation of wealth, what I have called ‘intellectual consumerism.’ Books in the ancient world are highly valuable objects; it costs a lot to make a book entirely by hand, whether of papyrus or vellum (the story, in Egypt, would be about papyrus books). It was a criticism of gathering up things that moth and rust can destroy, not about learning from books.

However, we do have references throughout our sources that are decidedly anti-intellectual. I would argue that these are not about learning per se but about a. pagan learning vs. Jesus who is the Truth and b. humility. Humility is a pervasive monastic virtue, and — as the Scriptures say — knowledge puffs up. Therefore, intellectual folks need to be put in our place. We are no better than our less-educated Christian brethren. And we should remember that.

When the First and Second Origenist Controversies broke out, these sayings took on a life in polemic. Suddenly, rather than being about humbling the proud — intellectual or not — they were about winning a fight, about proving that your Origenist opponents were heretics steeped in pagan learning and un-Christian philosophy, regardless of the truth.

What to take away from this? Besides being cautious of what you read, be humble and buy fewer books at the least, I would say. 😉

Secondary Sources Informing This Post:

Daniel Hombergen, The Second Origenist Controversy: A new perspective on Cyril of Scythopolis’ monastic biographies as historical sources for sixth-century origenism. Studia Anselmiana.

AMC Casiday, Tradition and Theology in St. John Cassian.

Origen and the Development of Orthodoxy

I have been reading Origen’s On First Principles recently, and a thought came to me which had come to me before (you can thank me for being suitably vague later). This newly-recurring thought is that Origen and “Origenism” are the formative source and root for Christian controversy and Orthodoxy.

Now, you’re probably going to tell me that it’s actually biblical interpretation, such as the interrelation of Proverbs 8:22 with John 1. And you’d be right. But whose biblical interpretation do you think everyone was arguing about?

Origen’s.

Case One: Arianism. Origen’s Christology, as represented both in On First Principles and his Commentary on John is subordinationist, and, although he does not believe, “There was when he was not,” he at times calls Christ “created” and could be read through an Arian viewpoint, especially given the lack of homoousios theology. However, in On First Principles, Origen is also fond of the image of the Son being like the rays of light from the sun — this is an image favoured by Athanasius, the great opponent of Arianism. Hm…

Case Two: Pneumatomachianism (aka Macedonianism, literally “Spirit-fighter-ism“). Origen’s theology of the Holy Spirit is relatively undeveloped, in my opinion. When, in On First Principles, he comes to discussing the Spirit, he gets himself sidetracked with a discussion about spirit more broadly. He once again has a subordinationist view, saying that the Father’s being overflows into the Son who overflows into the Spirit.  The Spirit at times feels more like a personification of spirit, not necessarily a self-subsisting person or hypostasis.

This ambiguity of the treatment of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity ended up with Origenists such as the Pneumatomachians arguing against the Spirit’s divinity and other Origenists such as Didymus the Blind in On the Holy Spirit arguing for the Spirit’s divinity.

Case Three: The First Origenist Controversy. This controversy was specifically about Origen and some of his less … mainline … teachings and his approach to Sacred Scripture; some people (Epiphanius of Salamis, Jerome) were certain that he was an out-and-out heretic and deserved condemnation, and that his allegorical interpretations went too far. Others (John Chrysostom, John Cassian, Rufinus of Aquileia) argued that Origen was largely orthodox. In the heat of it all, Chrysostom ended up dead, Rufinus and Jerome ruined their friendship, and the golden age of Egyptian monasticism was gone forever.

His defenders found precisely where he was worth fighting for, and his opponents found the places where he was worth attacking. What constitutes orthodoxy was, as a result, more clearly defined, but, thanks, in the West at least, largely to Rufinus’ translations of Origen and John Cassian’s work in Gaul, allegorical readings of Scripture were never fully lost.

Case Four: The Cappadocian Fathers. Gregory Thaumaturgus was a student of Origen, and the Cappadocians (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa) were students of Thaumaturgus. They were also involved in the later stages of both the Arian and Pneumatomachian Controversies. Gregory of Nyssa was able to produce theological writings after the triumph of Nicene Orthodoxy in 381.

Within the bounds of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan understanding of the Trinity, these three Orthodox Fathers par excellence produced Trinitarian theology that follows the trajectory set out by Origen. Origen, unlike his Platonist predecessors, rooted the being of God (His ontology) in being a Father, not in being a Creator. This meant that there never was a time when the Father lacked the Son. It also meant that the Godhead is a distinct being from creation who depends not at all upon the created order. It also means that the very root and source of the universe is rooted in communion (see John Zizioulas, Being As Communion to have your mind blown on this count). These were points taken up by Athanasius, but their nuances were really explored and set forth for us by the Cappadocians.

Case Five: The Second Origenist Controversy. This was a controversy about a number of Origen’s cosmological statements that were being espoused by a group of “fanatical” Palestinian monks. In 553, in meetings before the Fifth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople II), Justinian and the Fathers determined that certain Origenist statements were outside the bounds of orthodoxy, and in the Acts of the Council itself, Origen and Evagrius are condemned outright as heretics.

This meant that such teachings as celestial bodies having souls or apocatastasis (seriously, get into Patristics for the awesome terminology) which teaches that at the end of all things God will reconcile all rational beings to Himself (presumably the Devil as well — Evagrius certainly thinks so) — such teachings are officially outside of orthodoxy. It also means that very few of Origen’s writings survive, and far fewer of Evagrius Ponticus’ — although one of his writings survived under St. Basil the Great’s name, another under Nilus. People will circulate what they wish, no matter how many books you burn.

In the end, so many of the big controversies of the early centuries of Christianity revolved around Origen, his understanding of Scripture and of God, and the Church’s understanding of Origen. He’s not exactly one of the early Christian theologians for one to start with, but he’s definitely worth reading, and certainly important.