Life No 26, Book 1d
The Life of St Marcella, widow, 325 - 410.
[Celebrated in the Roman Martyrology on January 31]
by Jerome, presbyter and divine.(a letter written to Principia, a Roman lady)
Chapter IEnd of Book 1
You have often earnestly asked me, O Principia, virgin of Christ, to write a memoir of that holy woman Marcella, and set out her good ness in detail the goodness so that others may know about her as well and follow her example. I have delighted in the thought of her virtues for a very long time, and I must say that I am somewhat grieved that you have been so insistent, as though you thought I needed such urging, for I yield nothing to you in my respect for her, and I am certain that by putting on record her exceeding great virtues I shall gain much more benefit than I shall be able to convey. It is just that I have held my peace and remained silent for the last two years not as a deliberate ploy, as you wrongly seem to think, but simply because I have been overcome by such an incredible sadness oppressing my soul that I thought it better to stay silent for the present rather than try to produce something while in a state of being totally unable to give her the praise she deserved. And even now I do not intend to eulogise her according to the rules of rhetoric, cherished though she is by you, by me, by all the saints and by the whole city of Rome. I will not write about her illustrious family or her lofty pedigree, stretching back through a long line of proconsuls and praetorian prefects. I will praise only what belongs inalienably to her, and which is so much the more noble in that she showed her contempt for nobility and wealth by embracing the greater nobility of poverty and humility.
Her father had already died when she married, but then she also lost her husband after only seven months. She was young, highborn, eminently respectable, and above all of great beauty, which is always an attraction for men, and so she was then pursued most vigorously by one Cerealis, of an illustrious consular family. As an old man his wealth promised to be available for her as a daughter rather than a wife, and Albina, Marcella's mother, did everything she possibly could to get such a powerful protector for their widowed household. But Marcella had her objections.
"If I really wanted to marry," she said, "rather than wanting to dedicate myself to perpetual chastity, I would be seeking a husband, not an inheritance."
"Yes, but don't forget old men can sometimes live quite long," said Cerealis, "while young men can die quite early."
"A young man may die early," she cleverly replied, "but an old man can't live long."
This put him in his place so firmly that it became obvious to others that there was no hope of persuading her to marry.
We read in the Gospel according to St Luke about Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher, who was of an advanced age. She had lived with her husband seven years from her virginity and was a widow of eighty-four years. She departed not from the temple night and day, serving God in fasting and prayer (Luke 2.36-37). Not surprising that such great devotion earned the reward of seeing the Saviour. Now let us compare her seven years with Marcella's seven months. Anna hoped for Christ, Marcella held him fast, Anna acknowledged him at birth, Marcella believed in him crucified, Anna accepted him as a little child, Marcella rejoiced in his reign in heaven. I can't make any distinction between these two holy women. There are some who do foolishly discuss the differences among holy men and leaders of the church, but my aim is to stress that those whose labours are the same enjoy the same rewards.
In a community riddled with gossip, living in a city made up of people from all over the world who are full of every kind of vice, honest people are easily maligned, and the pure and clean defiled. It is difficult for anyone at all to escape the breath of slander. In difficult or impossible circumstances, even the Prophet can do no more than hope for a favourable outcome, rather than presume he will get it, when he says, 'Blessed are those who are undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord' (Psalms 119.1). By 'undefiled in the way' he means people living in the world whom no hint of ugly rumour has ever stained, and who have never maligned their neighbours (Psalms 15.3). About people such as this the Saviour says in the Gospel, 'Look kindly on your adversary, and agree with him while you are in the way with him' (Matthew 5.25). Who ever heard anything derogatory about Marcella worthy of credit? For people to believe any such rumour was to lay themselves open to the charge of malice and defamation of character.
She put the heathen to shame because she made it patently obvious to all, by her moral sense and by the way she dressed, what Christian widowhood entailed. Pagans take great pains to paint their faces with rouge and white lead, to wear silken garments, to bedazzle with jewellery, to wear gold necklaces, to pierce their ear lobes from which to hang the most costly pearls from the Red Sea, to perfume themselves with musk, and although in mourning for their husbands, they take to themselves others at their own choice, not in accordance with the commandments of God, but simply in order to avoid having to obey. They choose poorer men, husbands in name only, who are willing to put up with rivals, because they know that if they object they will be sent packing.
Marcella, however, wore clothes simply in order to protect herself from the cold, not to display her body to advantage. She wore nothing of gold, not even a seal ring, preferring to spend her money on feeding the poor rather than keeping it in her own purse. She went nowhere unless accompanied by her mother. Whatever the demands of a large house might make upon her she would not even see clerics or monks without witnesses. Her servants were always virgins and widows, chosen for their seriousness, for she was well aware that the morals of the mistress are often judged by the behaviour of her maids.
She had an incredible love of the divine Scriptures, and was forever singing, 'I have hidden your words in my heart that I may not sin against you' (Psalms 119.11). She held before her eyes the image of the perfect man: 'His delight is in the law of the Lord, and in his law does he meditate day and night (Psalms 1.2). Her kind of meditation did not consist in repeating the words over and over like the Pharisees of the Jews, but in learning how to put them into practice in accordance with the words of the Apostle, ' In eating or drinking or in whatever you do, do all for the glory of the Lord' (1 Corinthians 10.31), and the words of the Prophet, 'By your commandments I have gained understanding' (Psalms 118.104). In other words, it was by keeping the commandments that she earned the ability to understand the Scriptures. She also meditated on the words, '…that Jesus began both to do and to teach' (Acts 1.1), a clear statement that would bring a blush to the cheek of people whose conscience told them that it was of no use merely talking about poverty and almsgiving while rolling in the riches of Croesus, and no use parading in a threadbare cloak if they carefully looked after their silken garments at home.
She fasted moderately, in that she ate no meat and was familiar with wine more from its aroma than its taste, using it only 'for her stomach's sake and her often infirmities' (1 Timothy 5.23). She rarely appeared in public, and avoided the houses of the prominent patrician women for fear of being drawn back into a way of life which she had already put behind her. She visited the basilicas of the apostles and martyrs to pray in solitude apart from a crush of people, and was obedient to the wishes of her mother, to the extent that sometimes she would do things that she really would rather have not done. For her mother was keen on keeping up family ties, and in the absence of sons and grandchildren she formed the intention of leaving everything to her nephews and nieces, but Marcella would have preferred to remember the poor. She could not go against her mother, however, so her necklaces and other personal effects were earmarked for those who were already rich, so that she renounced the ability to dispose of her own wealth, rather than give her mother cause to be upset.
None of the high-born ladies of Rome at that time had embraced the monastic way of life. Such an innovation they would not have dared to embark upon. It was thought to be a rather reprehensible existence, and no one would have wished to make a public profession of it. But at that time it so happened that pope Athanasius of Alexandria was in Rome, [Between the years 348-346. So Marcella was only a teenager through most of that time] where he had fled to escape from the persecution of the Arian heretics, Rome being the safest haven in which to find communion. From this man first, and later from Peter, another Alexandrian priest, [Athanasius' successor in the see in the year 373] she learned about the life of the blessed Antony, still alive at that time, [Antony died in 356] and the monasteries of Pachomius in the Thebaid. She learned too that widows and virgins also followed this discipline. She did not feel ashamed to profess anything that was pleasing to Christ. And her example was followed many years later by Sophronia and many others after her, to whom might rightly be applied the words of the Poet Ennius, 'Would that never in Pellon's woods'. [A Roman poet and dramatist 239 BC - 169 BC. It is not clear what point Jerome was trying to make in quoting this brief line from Ennius' play, Medea]
The venerable Paula enjoyed her friendship, and it was in her care that Paula's daughter, that glorious virgin Eustochium, was trained. To be given the charge of such an outstanding pupil gives some indication of the qualities of the teacher.
The unbelieving reader might well wonder why I should go on for so long singing the praises of mere women, but let him call to mind those holy women who were companions of the Lord and ministered to him of their substance, (Luke 8.3) and the three Marys standing before the Cross, (Matthew 27.55) especially Mary Magdalene who for her zeal and diligence was called a Tower. [Magdala means "tower"] She was privileged to witness the resurrection before any of the apostles. Does not this convict the unbeliever of pride, rather than convict me of folly? I try to judge people not by their sex but by the capabilities of their souls, and give greater respect to those who do not presume on their status or their wealth. It is for that reason that Jesus loved John the evangelist above the others. The high priest knew John because of his social position, so John was not afraid to give instructions for Peter to be allowed in to the courtyard (John 18.15-16). Alone of all the apostles, he was not afraid of standing by the cross, where he received the mother of the Saviour into his keeping. The virgin son received the virgin mother as a legacy from the Lord.
For many years, then, Marcella lived an ascetic life and was quite advanced in years before she was able to remind herself that she had once been young. She highly approved of that saying of Plato that the true philosophy was to meditate on death. Likewise, the Apostle says, 'I die daily for your salvation' (1 Corinthians, 15.31). And the Lord himself says, 'If anyone will not take up the cross daily and follow me, he cannot be my disciple' (Luke 9.23). And much earlier than that the holy Spirit spoke through the Prophet, 'For your sake we are killed all the day long. We are become as sheep for the slaughter' (Psalms 44.22). Many generations afterwards there were these words spoken: 'Think always of the day of your death and you will not fall into sin' (Ecclesiasticus 7.36). Persius the Satyrist also says, 'Live with the thought of death in mind. Time flies, hence this warning'. [Persius was a Stoic writer, born 34, died 62] So then, she lived always with the thought that she must die. She dressed in such a way as to remind her of the grave, offering herself as a rational, living sacrifice, pleasing to God (Romans 12.1).
There came a time when the affairs of the church demanded that I should go to Rome, along with Paulinus, bishop of Syrian Antioch, and Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis in Cyprus. [There was a Synod in Rome in the year 382] I was modestly trying to avoid the company of the highborn ladies, but Marcella was determined, 'in season and out of season' (2 Timothy 4.2), to overcome my modesty by her persistence. She seemed convinced that there was no name more renowned for knowledge of the Scriptures than mine, so she never came to see me without asking questions about the Scriptures. She didn't always agree with me, but would often suggest different interpretations, not contentiously, but in order to have answers for anyone who might make such remarks to her.
I hesitate to say too much about the virtues I discerned in her, or the intellectual brilliance, or holiness or purity, lest I say something you would find it difficult to believe in, or depress you because I would be reminding you of attributes you do not possess. But I will just say this: whatever I have learned over a long period of study, and by daily meditation made part of my very being, this she drank in, learned thoroughly and possessed for herself - so thoroughly, in fact, that after I had left Rome, if there were any dispute arising about any Scriptural text, it was she who would be called upon to settle the matter. And she was extremely prudent, and understood very well what the philosophers call to prepon, that is, the quality of acting modestly, so that when asked for her opinion she always replied as if she were not offering her own views but as if they were what I, or some other person, had said. She understood very well the saying of the Apostle, 'I do not permit women to teach' (1 Timothy 2.12), lest she seem to belittle the male sex, including the priests, if they asked her about obscure and ambiguous matters.
I have been told that you, Principia, had taken my place as her companion, and that not even so much as a finger's breadth, as the saying goes, was ever allowed to come between you. You shared the same house, the same room, so that it was well known to everyone in the city that you had found a mother and she a daughter. You found some land on the outskirts of the city for a monastery, and you chose the countryside as a sort of desert. You lived for a long time like that. Many others were converted and imitated your example, and it gave us great pleasure to know that in this way Rome had become a second Jerusalem. The number of monasteries of both monks and virgins increased so quickly that a city which had previously been of ill reputation began to asquire a reputation of glory.
During this time we consoled our separation from each other by frequent letters, so that what we could not achieve in the flesh we achieved in the spirit. We always looked out for each other's letters, were always trying to help each other, and treated each other with respect. We did not lose much therefore by our separation from each other, seeing that we kept up such a vigorous correspondence.
But in the midst of this scene of tranquillity in the Lord's service, a terrible storm of heresy began to disturb our Eastern provinces, causing a great deal of uproar, and reaching such a pitch of madness that it spared neither themselves or any of those on the side of what is right and good. [This was the controversy caused by Rufinus' translation into Latin of Origen's Peri Archon (On First Principles)] And as if it were not enough to have upset everything here, it launched a ship full of blasphemies into the harbour of Rome itself. The provisions it contained soon found a buyer, [Invenitque protinus patella operculum, lit. "the dish soon found a cover", a metaphor familiar to Jerome's readers, but not to us] and the diet of the citizens of Rome was contaminated by it, as was the fountain of Rome's pure faith by the heretics' dirty feet. No wonder, then, that false prophets were able to beat the buttocks of the ignorant in the squares and market places, or pick up a cudgel and break their teeth. It was a poisonous and spurious teaching that they were introducing into Rome.
This was when that infamous book On First Principles appeared, and also that 'fortunate disciple' who could have been counted fortunate indeed if he had never become involved with such a teacher. [[The 'fortunate disciple' was one Macarius, a writer to whom Rufinus had dedicated his translation of Origen] I then wrote a refutation which threw the company of the Pharisees into confusion.[Presumably the Roman clergy who sided with Rufinus] The holy Marcella had up till then remained silent, not wishing to be seen as though she were putting herself forward. But then she sensed that the faith of Rome, which the Apostle said was spoken of throughout the whole world (Romans 1.8), was in danger. Even the priests, many of the monks and especially the laity were being drawn into agreement with the heretics. Even the bishop was inclined to agree with them, being a simple man who judged others according to the measure of his own naiveté. Marcella then spoke out in public, preferring to please God rather than men.
The Saviour in the Gospel praises the unjust steward, who deceived his lord in order to save himself (Luke 16.8). Similarly, the heretics observed how a small spark had soon spread fire up to the housetops, and were aware how many people they had deceived, so they asked for, and obtained, letters from the church authorities, before they went on elsewhere, to the effect that they were in true communion with the Church. Not long after this Anastasius, a brilliant man, succeeded to the pontificate. [In the year 398]. Rome was not allowed to have him for very long. It was right that he should have been spared from having to be the pontiff during the sacking of the chief city of the world. [Rome was sacked by Alaric the Goth in 410] He was taken up to heaven so that he would not have been able to attempt by his prayers to stay the hidden sentence of the Lord, like that pronounced to Jeremiah: 'Do not pray for this people, nor seek to do them good. However much they fast I will not listen to their prayers. However many victims and sacrifices they offer me I will not accept them. I will consume them by the sword, by famine and by pestilence' (Jeremiah 14.11-12).
Did I hear you ask what all that has got to do with the praise of Marcella? Well, she was the principal cause of the heretics being condemned. She it was who brought into the public domain witnesses who had listened to their teaching and been corrupted into heretical error by it. She pointed out how many had been deceived by reading that infamous book, On First Principles, edited by the hand of a scorpion. [The scorpion is Rufinus, whom Jerome accused of editing the book in such a way as to conceal some of the worst of Origen's 'errors']. When summoned by frequent letters to come out and defend themselves in public, the heretics refused. They felt so guilty that they preferred to be condemned in their absence rather than defeated in public. Marcella was the cause of this glorious victory. You, Principia, also played an important part along with her to the benefit of all, and you know that I am telling the truth. You know that there are many things that I have not said a great deal about, lest I tire the reader with wearisome repetitions, and appear to the malicious minded to be praising someone merely as an excuse to give vent to my own spleen. But I must go on to the rest of my tale.
The storm passed from East to West threatening grievous shipwreck to many. And thus were the words of Jesus fulfilled: 'When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on the earth?' (Luke 18.8). 'The love of many grew cold' (Matthew 24.12), though some who loved the true faith aligned themselves with us, to the great danger of their very lives, for great forces were brought to bear against them. Think how 'Barnabas himself was carried away by their dissimulation' (Galatians 2.13), just as a present day Barnabas was prepared to commit murder, if not in actual fact then certainly in will and desire. [The reference is to certain prominent churchmen who defended Origen's principles]Then behold, the wind of the Lord blew away the tempest, fulfilling the words of the prophet, 'You will take away their spirit and they shall fail, and be turned again to their dust' (Psalms 104.29). 'In that day all their thoughts shall perish' (Psalms 146.4). Remember the words of the Gospel also: 'You fool, this night your soul shall be taken away from you. Who then will own all those things you have gathered together?' (Luke 12.20).
White these things were happening in Jebus, [The Canaanite name for Jeruslaem] terrible news came from the West. Rome had been besieged [By Alaric the Goth, in 408] and the citizens forced to pay protection money. Then they were attacked again. Having lost their money they were also threatened with losing their lives. My voice fails me, and my words are choked with sobs. The city was taken, that city which ruled the whole world, and the people perished with hunger even before being put to the sword. There was scarcely anyone who remained alive to be taken captive. In their frenzied hunger people had resorted to horrible practices in order to eat. They tore each other limb from limb, the mother spared not the infant at the breast, ingesting back into herself that which she had lately brought forth. 'Moab is taken by night. By night her walls have fallen' (Isaiah 15.1). 'O Lord, the heathen have come into your inheritance, they have polluted your holy temple, they have turned Jerusalem into an apple orchard. The bodies of your saints have become food for the birds of the air, the flesh of your saints for the beasts of the earth. They have spilt blood like water on every side of Jerusalem and there is none to give them burial' (Psalms 79.1-3).
Who can tell the horror of that night, who can declaim the funeral oration, or who can shed sufficient tears to match their grief? The ancient city falls, city supreme for countless ages. Lifeless bodies lie in profusion in her streets, and in the houses. Everywhere the image of death. [Virgil's Aeneid, Book 2]
And in the midst of all the confusion bloodstained victors forced their way into Marcella's house.
Let it now be my privilege to tell what I have heard, and repeat what has been seen by holy men who were present in the midst of it all, and who say that you also, Principia, were with her in that perilous hour. She is said to have confronted the intruders with no fear. They demanded money. She pointed to her threadbare clothing to show that she had no treasure hidden away, but they would not believe that she could be so voluntarily poor. She was beaten with cudgels and whips, but she is said to have felt no pain. She threw herself at their feet and pleaded with tears that you would not be taken away from her. She pleaded that you in your youthfulness would not be subjected to the same torture which she in her old age did not fear to suffer. And Christ softened their hard hearts to provide a moment of kindness to offset their bloodstained swords, for these barbarians took you both to the basilica of St Paul, to bring one of you to safety but the other to the tomb.
Marcella is said to have broken out into praise of God with great joy for keeping you from harm. Being taken captive had not made her poor for she had been poor already. She had been able to go without her daily bread because Christ had satisfied her needs. She felt no hunger, but in word and deed she proclaimed, 'Naked I came forth from my mother's womb, and naked I shall return. As it seems good to the Lord, so is it done. Blessed be the name of the Lord' (Job 1.21). After a few days she fell asleep in the Lord, whole and vigorous in spirit, leaving you as the heir of her poverty, or rather the poor through you. She died in your arms, giving up her spirit before your very eyes. As you wept she smiled, having a good conscience of a life well spent for a reward in the life to come.
For you, O venerable Marcella, and for you, my daughter Principia, I have dictated this letter in the space of one brief night, not in order to display my own eloquence, but to express my heartfelt gratitude to you both. My only desire has been to please both God and my readers.
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