Chapter XIV (continued), Life of St Paula Book 1d
Here I must confess my mistake, for I reproved her when I saw her overdoing her generosity. I quoted the Apostle to her: 'Don't let your generosity to others result in being overburdened yourself. Let there be equality between you, so that your abundance meets their need, and their abundance meets your need' (2 Corinthians 8.14). And I also mentioned what the Saviour says in the Gospel: 'If you have two coats, give one of them to him who has none' (Luke 3.11). I told her that she should be a bit more careful, because if she kept on being so liberal there would come a time when she would have nothing left to give. However much more I kept on telling her, she simply turned aside all my reproofs with gentleness and winning words, calling God as witness that it was in his name that she was doing everything, and that it was her wish to die a beggar, and to leave not so much as a single nummus to her daughter, and that she should be buried in a shroud provided by somebody else.
"If I have to beg," she finished up by saying, "I shall find many who will be prepared to help me, but if this beggar gets nothing from me, when I could give him something if I borrowed from somebody else, and then he dies, from whom will his soul be required?"
I wanted her to be a bit more circumspect about her family properties, but her faith was so ardent, so totally given to the Saviour, that poor in spirit she followed the Lord in his poverty, giving back to him what she had received, so that she too became poor for his sake. She obtained what she wanted, for she left her daughter with huge debts by which she is still burdened, trusting not in her own resources but in the mercy of Christ for them to be redeemed.
Many matrons have the habit of paying their own publicity agents well, and are very generous to a few people while ignoring the needs of the many. Paul was entirely free of that vice. She dispensed her alms as she found necessary for each individual person, not to provide anyone with luxury, but simply to meet their needs. No poor person was turned away empty-handed. She managed this not because of her opulence but because of the prudent way she shared it out. She constantly had on her lips, 'Blessed are the merciful, for they shall find mercy' (Matthew 5.7), and 'Just as water extinguishes fire, so almsgiving extinguishes sin' (Ecclesiasticus 3.33), and 'Make for yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness so that they might receive you into everlasting mansions' (Luke 16.9), and the warning given to king Nebuchadnezzar by Daniel 'Redeem your sins by almsgiving' (Daniel 4.27).
She had no desire to invest her money in stones, destined to perish along with the earth and the world, but in living stones from which the city of the great king is built upon earth, as described in the Revelations of John under the symbols of sapphires, emeralds, jaspers and other jewels (Revelations 21.19). But, indeed, she shares these virtues with many others, and the devil knows that this is not where the greatest of virtues is to be found. For in the book of Job, after he has lost his belongings, his house and his children, the devil says to God, 'Skin for skin, all that a man has he will give for his life, but stretch forth your hand and touch his bones and his flesh, and then see if he will bless you to your face' (Job 2.4-5). We know of many people who give alms, but have not given themselves. They stretch out their hand to the poor but are in thrall to the desires of the flesh. They look clean on the outside, but inside there is nothing but dead men's bones (Matthew 23.27).
Paula was not like that. Her continence was above measure. Her body was weakened by excessive fasting and hard work. She took hardly any oil with her food, except on feast days, and from that one fact you may judge what she thought of wine and sauces, fish and milk, and honey and eggs and all the other things which are pleasant to the palate. Some people who eat these things compliment themselves on at least taking them quite frugally, and have no qualms about filling their stomachs with them, as long as they preserve their chastity.
But just as lightning strikes the highest mountains, so envy seeks to strike at virtue. It is not surprising if human beings are attacked by envy when the Lord himself was crucified by the zeal of the Pharisees, and all the saints along with him. There was a serpent even in Paradise, (Genesis 3.19), whose envy brought death into the world (Wisdom 2.24). So it was that the Lord stirred up a 'Hadad the Edomite' against Paula, [He was an enemy of Solomon (1 Kings 11.14). Jerome does not tell us who, or what, Paula's enemy was] to batter her lest she get above herself, and warn her by means of this thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12.7) that the greatness of her virtues must not make her so conceited as to believe that she was above the vices of other women. I always used to say it was best to run away from malice and retreat in the face of rage, which is what Jacob did with Esau (Genesis 21.10), and David with that most persistent of enemies, Saul (1 Samuel27). The former fled to Mesopotamia, the latter to the Philistines, preferring to surrender to enemies rather than to live with the vindictive.
"That would be all very well," she replied, "if the devil did not wage war against the servants and handmaids of Christ everywhere, and was not there before them whatever land they might flee to. Besides, I am kept here by my love of the holy places. I would not be able to find another Bethlehem anywhere else on earth. Why should I not be able to overcome malice by patience, break down my pride by humility and by offering the other cheek to anyone who hits me (Matthew 5.39)? As the Apostle Paul says, "Overcome evil with good" (Romans 12.21). Didn't the apostles rejoice when they suffered persecution for Christ's sake (Acts 5.41)? Didn't the Saviour himself humble himself, taking the form of a servant, and become obedient unto death, even the death of the cross, that by his passion he might save us (Philippians 2.7-8)? If Job had not striven in the battle and won, he would not have been given the crown of righteousness, nor heard the Lord say, 'Do you think I should have spoken differently to you, so that you might have appeared to be in the right?' (Job 40.8). In the Gospel it is those who suffer persecution for righteousness' sake that are said to be blessed (Matthew 5.10). May my conscience always be clear, so long as it is not because of my sins that I am suffering. The troubles of this world are sure grounds for obtaining a reward."
When the devil was being more than usually impertinent and provoking her to a real quarrel, she sang from the Psalter, 'When the sinners attacked me I was dumb, refraining even from good words' (Psalms 39.2), and 'I became even as a deaf man and heard nothing, and as a dumb man I did not open my mouth, for I was like a man that does not hear, and in whose mouth are no reproofs' (Psalms 38.13-14). In temptations she turned over in her mind the words from Deuteronomy, 'The Lord your God is testing you, to see whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul' (Deuteronomy 13.3). In times of difficulty and sorrow she thought of the words of Isaiah, 'From the time you are weaned and taken from your mother's breast, you may expect nothing but trouble upon trouble, but also hope upon hope. Yet a little while shall these things be, because of lying lips and a deceitful tongue.' (Isaiah 28.9).
She found comfort in these words of Scripture, taking 'weaned' to mean 'arrived at mature age'. She understood that those who endured trouble upon trouble were those who had earned the right to hope upon hope, knowing that 'trouble gives rise to patience, and patience to trial, and trial to hope, and hope is not disappointed' (Romans 5.3-5), and 'What if our outer man perish? Our inner man is renewed. And the trifling and short-lived troubles of the present time are working towards an enormous glory for you who do not pin your hopes on things that are visible, but on the things which are not visible. For the things that are seen are temporal, the things that are not seen are eternal' (2 Corinthians 4.16-18).
"The time cannot long be delayed for the help of the Lord to be present among us," she would say, "even when to our human impatience it seems tardy. For 'In an acceptable time I listened to you, and in the day of salvation I came to your aid' (Isaiah 49.8). The lying lips and tongues of the wicked are not to be feared, for we rejoice in the help of the Lord. It is to him we must listen, warning us through the Prophet, 'Do not be afraid of the hostility of the people; do not let their blasphemies instil fear. For the moth shall eat them up like a garment, and the worm shall devour them like wool' (Isaiah 51.8), and, 'In patience you shall possess your souls' (Luke 21.19), and, 'The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us' (Romans 8.16). We should endure tribulation after tribulation, and be patient in everything that happens to us, for 'The patient man is of great understanding, but the timid and weak-minded man displays the height of folly' (Proverbs 14.29)."
When weary and weighed down with ill-health, she would say: 'When I am weak, then am I strong' (2 Corinthians 12.10), and 'We have this treasure in earthen vessels' (2 Corinthians 4.4), until 'this mortality shall take on immortality, and this corruptible flesh shall take on incorruption' (1 Corinthians 15.53), and 'Inasmuch as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so also shall his consolation' (2 Corinthians 1.7). In sorrow she used to sing, 'Why so cast down, O my soul, and why so troubled? Hope in God and put your trust in him, for he is the help of my countenance and my God' (Psalms 42.5). If she was in any kind of danger she would say, 'He who would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me, for he who would save his soul shall lose it, and he who would lose his soul for my sake shall save it' (Luke 9.23-24).
When she was told that her family funds were seriously depleted, and her patrimony in ruins, she said 'What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his soul, or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?' (Matthew 16.26), and, 'Naked I came forth from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. As the Lord pleases, so is it done. Blessed be the name of the Lord' (Job 1.21), and, 'Love not the world nor the things of this world, for all that is of this world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but of the world. And the world passes away and the lust thereof' (1 John 2.15-16). I know that when she received letters about her children's illnesses, especially those of Toxotius whom she loved above all, she first of all said with admirable self-control 'I was troubled but said nothing' (Psalms 77.4), and then burst out with 'He who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me' (Matthew 10.37). And she prayed to the Lord, saying, 'Preserve, O lord, the children of those appointed to die, who die daily in their own bodies for your sake' (Psalms 79.11).
I have been told of a certain gossip-monger (that most dangerous specimen of the human race) who under the pretence of being kind told her that there were certain people who thought that because of her excessive zeal she must be mad, and that she should have her head seen to. Her reply was, 'We have become a spectacle to the world, and to Angels, and to the human race' (1 Corinthians 4.9), and, 'We have become fools for Christ, but the foolishness of God is wiser than men' (1 Corinthians 1.25). Hence the Saviour says to the Father, 'You know my foolishness' (Psalms 69.5), and 'I am become an object of wonder to many people, but you are my strong helper' (Psalms 71.7), and, 'I am become as it were a beast of burden before you, but I am always with you' (Psalms 73.22-23). In the Gospels we learn that even his friends wanted to bind him as being someone of a disturbed mind (Mark 3.21), saying he had a demon and was a Samaritan (John 8.48), and, 'He casts out demons in the name of Beelzebub, the prince of demons' (Matthew 12.24).
But she took heed of the exhortation of the Apostle, 'This is what we rejoice in, the witness of our own conscience, in holiness and sincerity, and in the grace of God which upholds us in this world' (2 Corinthians 1.12). And she listened to what the Lord said to the disciples, 'Therefore the world has hated you, because you are not of this world. If you were of this world, the world would love you as its own' (John 15.19). And she spoke to the Lord in the words of the psalm: 'You know the secrets of my heart (Psalms 44.21); all this has come upon us, but we have not forgotten you or acted wickedly against your covenant or turned our hearts away from you' (ibid.17-18), and, 'For your sake are we killed all the day long, we have become as sheep for the slaughter (ibid.22), but you O Lord are my helper, I shall not fear what men can do to me' (Psalms 118.6). She read also the words of Solomon, 'My son, trust in the Lord and he will be your strength, and you shall fear no one but him' (Proverbs 7.2).
With these texts and many others she clothed herself in the armour of God against all adversities, and especially against the envy of those who denigrated her. She suffered insults patiently, and soothed the fury of those who raged against her. To the last day of her life these two things were conspicuous, her own patience, and the malice of others towards her. Jealousy gnaws away at the person who practises it, and turns its own fury in upon itself.
I shall now treat of the order of her monastery and of how she turned abstinence of those holy souls to her own profit. What she sowed in the flesh she reaped in the spirit, for earthly gifts she received in exchange spiritual gifts, she gave up fleeting pleasures and gained eternity. She gave the governance of the men's monastery into the hands of the men themselves, then gathered together a number of virgins from different provinces, some of them noble, some middle class, and some from the lowest class. She divided them into three companies or monasteries, and although they worked and dined separately, they all joined together for psalms and prayers.
After the singing of the Alleluia (the sign for them to come together), no one was allowed to stay behind. She was always first, or at least among the first, and the she would wait until the others had all arrived. She encouraged them to work conscientiously not through fear but by her modesty and example. They sang the psalter according to the rule in the morning, the third hour, the sixth, the ninth, at vespers, and in the middle of the night. The sisters had to know the psalms thoroughly, and during the rest of the day they had to learn some portion of the Scriptures.
On Sundays they went to the church near where they lived, each company proceeding in a line behind their mother superior. They went back in the same way, after which they would devote themselves to their allotted duties, and make garments either for themselves or for others. Anyone who was noble was not allowed to bring with them anyone from their household, lest they start remembering all the things they used to do, and start scratching at the thoughts of their former undisciplined childish waywardness, keeping it alive by constantly talking about it.
They all wore the same kind of dress. Linen was not used except for drying the hands. They were separated so strictly from men that she would not even allow eunuchs to come near them, to avoid giving occasion to the scandalous tongues that love to carp in order to draw attention away from their own misdoings.
She had various means of correcting people who came late for the psalms, or were slack in their work. If a sister was a bit temperamental she was gentle with her, but if she was fairly placid, her rebukes were quite firm. In this way she imitated the Apostle who said, 'What would you? Shall I visit you with a rod, or shall it be with gentleness and kindness?' (1 Corinthians 4.21). None was allowed to possess anything except food and clothing, in obedience to Paul who said, 'Having food and clothing, therewith be content' (1 Timothy 6.8). If they were to get into the habit of possessing more than that it could give rise to the vice of avarice, which is never satisfied with what it has got. The more one has the more one wants, and it is the same for both rich and poor. If any were quarrelling among themselves she reconciled them by her persuasive counselling. She disciplined the unruly desires of the flesh among the younger ones by doubling their fasts, preferring that their stomachs should suffer rather than their souls.
If she noticed anyone taking too much trouble about their appearance, she would frown disapprovingly and tell them that too much care over cleanliness of body and dress argued a certain uncleanliness of soul. Bawdy and improper words should never soil a virgin's lips. They are the sign of a lascivious mind, and it is through the outer man that the vices of the inner man are made clear. Anyone wordy and garrulous, or provocative, or forever stirring up trouble, would be reproved for quite a few times, but if she failed to mend her ways she would be put in the lowest place, outside the company of the other sisters altogether. She would be made to pray at the doorway of the refectory, and to take her food separately from the others, in the hope that where verbal correction had failed, shame might succeed.
Theft was regarded as something almost sacrilegious. Among worldly people it may be regarded as something not very serious or nothing to worry about, here in the monastery it was thought to be the most grave sort of offence.
How can I adequately describe her considerate and painstaking care for the sick, whom she nursed with wonderfully whole-hearted attention to detail? It was only when other people were sick that she showed any sign of wholesale relaxation of the rules - she even allowed the sick to eat meat! - but if she herself was ill she allowed herself no indulgence whatsoever. This was one area where there was no possibility of equal treatment for all; to herself she showed no mercy, clemency was reserved for others.
No young woman, however healthy and lively, would have fasted as much as she did, with her broken down and decrepit old body. I can testify that she was absolutely unyielding in this respect; she would not spare herself and would not listen to anyone advising her otherwise.
I will tell you about something which I was involved in. In the debilitating heat of one July she fell ill with a burning fever. We almost despaired of her life, but by the mercy of God she rallied a little, and the doctor advised that she should drink a little wine to refresh her body, warning her that to continue drinking water might make her dropsical. I secretly begged the blessed pope Epiphanius to urge her, compel her even, to drink the wine, but she was so discerning and clever that she immediately saw through what he was saying, and with a sly smile realised that the advice he was giving her was not his but mine. This blessed bishop spent quite a long time with her, but when he came out and I asked him how he had got on, his reply was, "Old man though I am, she almost persuaded me that I should never drink wine"!
I tell you all this not because I approve of anyone taking unreasonable burdens upon themselves beyond their strength, for does not Scripture warn us not to burden ourselves above our power (Ecclesiasticus 13.2)? I simply want to show how single-minded she was in her ardour of spirit and faithfulness of soul. She was forever singing, 'My soul thirsts for you, my flesh also in every possible way' (Psalms 63.1).
It is always difficult to avoid going to extremes. The philosophers are quite right to say that 'virtue lies in the mean, it is excess which constitutes vice'. [Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, ii.6] We could put this more succinctly by saying, 'Nothing to excess'. But she was unyielding in her contempt for food, and at the same time exceedingly shaken by grief at any deaths of anyone she knew, especially her children. Indeed, in the deaths of her husband as well as her children she was in danger of dying from grief herself. She would sign her mouth and breast with the cross, in an attempt to alleviate a mother's distress, but she would still be overcome with emotion; however great her faith, her parental yearning was stronger. It was a physical thing which she could not banish, even though her faith remain firm. Once she had let this depression take hold of her, it went on for such a long time that her life seemed to be in danger and we were very concerned about her. And she found pleasure in saying over and over again, 'Wretch that I am! Who shall liberate me from the body of this death?" (Romans 7.24).
You will probably say, dear reader, that I have now changed my praise for criticism. But I call Jesus to witness, whom she served and whom I desire to serve, that I am in no way telling things other than the way they were. I am simply writing as a Christian man about a Christian woman. I am simply telling you the truth. I am writing a history not a panegyric, though what are faults in her might well seem to be virtues in anyone else. I simply speak of her faults as I saw them, and as all of us, her brothers and sisters lovingly saw them. We love her still, and lament her loss.
And so she had finished her course, she has kept the faith and now enjoys the crown of righteousness (2 Timothy 4.7-8), having followed the Lamb whithersoever he went (Revelations 14.4). Her thirst has been satisfied, and she sings with joy, 'As we heard, so have we seen, in the city of the power of the Lord, in the city of our God' (Psalms 48.8). What a blessed exchange! - she who wept now laughs for ever. Once she looked down on broken cisterns, but now she has found the fountain of life (Jeremiah 2.13). She used to wear a hair shirt, but now she is clothed in white garments, and sings, 'You have put off my sackcloth and girded me with joy' (Psalms 30.11). She ate ashes as it were bread and mingled her tears with her weeping (Psalms 102.9), saying, 'My tears have been my meat, day and night' (Psalms 42.3), but now she eats the bread of Angels for ever, and sings, 'O taste and see how gracious the Lord is!' (Psalms 34.8), and, 'My heart is bursting forth with the word of blessedness. I tell of my works to the king' (Psalms 45.1). And the words of Isaiah, or rather the words of the Lord through the mouth of Isaiah, are fulfilled in her: 'Behold, those who serve me shall eat, but you will be hungry, they shall drink, but you will be thirsty, they shall rejoice, but you will be cast down. Behold those who serve me shall shout aloud for joy, but you shall cry out in the sorrow of your hearts, and howl for your sadness of spirit' (Isaiah 65.13-14).
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