Today is the liturgical Memorial of Saint Jerome. He gave the Church the Latin Vulgate as he translated the Sacred Scriptures from the ancient languages into Latin. The following focuses on a portion of an epistle which Jerome wrote to Saint Rusticus of Narbonne. The letter’s theme is very monastic, although in some parts, monasticism in a primitive sense mentioning occupations like weaving baskets. But Saint Jerome takes this to a very spiritual direction as well, recommending that the Psalter be memorized word for word. While that seems like quite an undertaking in this day and age, considering that the Psalter in the Liturgy of the Hours is now spread out over a four week period, it was nevertheless quite common among those spiritual giants we now call the early desert Fathers. The epistle’s overall message waves the same banner that monasticism waves today – ora et labora. Here are Saint Jerome’s thoughts.
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Others may think what they like and follow each his own inclination. But to me a city is a prison and a desert paradise. Why do we long for the bustle of cities, we who bear the name of Solitary? To fit him for the leadership of the Jewish people, Moses was trained for forty years in the wilderness; and it was not until after these that the shepherd of sheep became a shepherd of men. The apostles were fishers on Lake Gennesaret before they became fishers of men. But at the Lord's call they had forsaken all that they had: father, net, and ship, and bore their cross daily without so much as a rod in their hands.
I say these things that, in case you desire to enter the ranks of the clergy, you may learn what you must afterwards teach, that you may offer a reasonable sacrifice to Christ, that you may not think yourself a finished soldier while still a raw recruit, or suppose yourself a master while you are as yet only a learner. It does not become one of my humble abilities to pass judgment upon the clergy or to speak to the discredit of those who are ministers in the churches. They have their own rank and station and must keep it.
The first point to be considered is whether you ought to live by yourself or in a monastery with others. For my part, I would like you to live in a community so as not to be thrown altogether on your resources. For if you set out upon a road that is new to you without a guide, you are sure to turn aside immediately either to the right or to the left, to lay yourself open to the assaults of error, to go too far or else not far enough, to weary yourself with running too fast or to loiter by the way and fall asleep. In loneliness pride quickly creeps upon a man; if he has fasted for a little while and has seen no one, he fancies himself a person of some note; forgetting who he is, from where he comes, and where he goes, he lets his thoughts riot within and outwardly indulges in rash speech. Contrary to the apostle's wish he judges another man's servants, puts forth his hand to grasp whatever his appetite desires, sleeps as long he pleases, fears no one, does what he likes, fancies everyone inferior to himself, spends more of his time in cities than in his cell, and, while with the brothers he affects to be retiring, rubs shoulders with the crowd in the streets. Do I condemn a solitary life? By no means; in fact I have often commended it. But I wish to see the monastic schools turn out soldiers who have no fear of the rough training of the desert, who have exhibited the spectacle of a holy life for a considerable time, who have made themselves last that they might be first, who have not been overcome by hunger or satiety, whose joy is in poverty, who teach virtue by their appearance.
If you embrace a life consecrated to God, I prefer that you do not live with your mother. You will avoid making her sad by your refusal of her choice foods, or throwing oil on the fire by accepting them. Always keep in your hands and beneath your eyes the Bible, learning the Psalter word for word, praying unceasingly, keeping your mind in an alert state, and not open to vain thoughts. Keep both body and spirit oriented towards the Lord. Control anger with patience; love the knowledge of Scripture and you will no longer love the sins of the flesh. If your mind does not abandon various passions, they will install themselves in your heart and get a hold of you and lead you to more grave faults. Attend to manual labor so that the devil always finds you occupied. If the apostles who had the right to live the Gospel labored with their own hands that they might be accountable to no man, and bestowed relief upon others whose carnal things they had a claim to reap as having sown unto them spiritual things, why do you not provide a supply to meet your needs?
Make creels of reeds or weave baskets out of pliant osiers. Hoe your land; mark out your garden into even plots; and when you have sown your legumes or set your plants bring in the water for irrigation, that you may see with your own eyes the lovely vision of the poet:
Art draws fresh water from the hilltop near
Till the stream plashing down among the rocks
Cools the parched meadows and allays their thirst.
Graft unfruitful stocks with buds and shoots that you may shortly be rewarded for your toil by plucking sweet apples from them. Construct also hives for bees, for to these the proverbs of Solomon send you, and you may learn from these tiny insects how to order a monastery and to discipline a kingdom. Weave nets for catching fish, and transcribe books, that your hands may earn your food and your mind may be satisfied with reading. Always remember that when idle you are at the mercy of your passions. In Egypt the monasteries make it a rule to receive no one who is not willing to work; for they regard labor as necessary not only for the support of the body but also for the salvation of the soul. Do not let your mind stray into harmful thoughts.