St. Jerome (340 – 420) is one of the most interesting personalities among the fathers of the early Church. We generally envision saints as fairly moderate and gentle persons. It is safe to say that St. Jerome never believed in moderation. He was one of the most brilliant and well educated men of his time, a man who lived and wrote with incredible energy and passion. St. Jerome’s Latin translation of the scriptures, which is a literary and scholarly tour de force even by today’s standards, would become the intellectual standard for western civilization.
In many respects, St. Jerome embodies very basic conflicts and contradictions among Christian scholars and educated clergy. St. Jerome’s knowledge and love of secular – in his case – pagan literature gives him a great appreciation of literature and skill in communication. However, the moral conflict of this literature with the Christian ideal and the values portrayed in scripture create a real tension. As one of the founders of western literary criticism and biblical archaeology, St. Jerome establishes a secular “scientific” standard for deciding which texts are inspired and whether to consider the Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures, the Septuagint, as less authoritative than the Hebrew original.
In addition, virginity and celibacy were very important to St. Jerome. He and other fathers of the Church would establish sexual abstinence as the ideal Christian lifestyle, in keeping with the pre-eminence celibacy enjoyed in certain non-Christian religions of the day. Temptations of the “flesh” became the work of the devil. Such impulses, which we today consider in a more measured and moderate way as the product of genetics, socialization, and choice, were for St. Jerome forces to be conquered through prayer, fasting, and physical punishment of the body. Today we would call it “aversion” therapy.
This tradition of seeing the natural as the lesser part of our being is not in keeping with our being made in the image and likeness of God. The fear of our erotic and sexually creative dimension, as part of our fallen and corrupted nature, appears to challenge the appropriateness of the Word becoming flesh and the redemption of humanity in the death and resurrection of Christ.
Clearly, when we look at the excesses and exploitation of people in the Graeco-Roman world, the corrective action of St. Jerome in a lifestyle that witnessed to a coming of the kingdom of justice, peace, and dignity – the sober controlled Christian life – is an understandable ideal.
Perhaps, a great deal of our problem as citizens of the era of psychology and human potential is grappling with such an outsized cauldron of talent and passion. In many respects, although he did his best to stay within certain boundaries, the combination of the terms “Saint” and “Jerome” in reference to the same person should encourage the outlandish and the fire of divine genius in us all.Read More