Fathers of the Church
Letter XIV: to Heliodorus, Monk
by Jerome in 373 or 374 | translated by W. H. Fremantle, M.A., G. Lewis, M.A., W. G. Martley, M.A
1. So conscious are you of the affection which exists between us that you cannot but recognize the love and passion with which I strove to prolong our common sojourn in the desert. This very letter—blotted, as you see, with tears—gives evidence of the lamentation and weeping with which I accompanied your departure. With the pretty ways of a child you then softened your refusal by soothing words, and I, being off my guard, knew not what to do. Was I to hold my peace? I could not conceal my eagerness by a show of indifference. Or was I to entreat you yet more earnestly? You would have refused to listen, for your love was not like mine. Despised affection has taken the one course open to it. Unable to keep you when present, it goes in search of you when absent. You asked me yourself, when you were going away, to invite you to the desert when I took up my quarters there, and I for my part promised to do so. Accordingly I invite you now; come, and come quickly. Do not call to mind old ties; the desert is for those who have left all. Nor let the hardships of our former travels deter you. You believe in Christ, believe also in His words: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you." Take neither scrip nor staff. He is rich enough who is poor—with Christ.
2. But what is this, and why do I foolishly importune you again? Away with entreaties, an end to coaxing words. Offended love does well to be angry. You have spurned my petition; perhaps you will listen to my remonstrance. What keeps you, effeminate soldier, in your father's house? Where are your ramparts and trenches? When have you spent a winter in the field? Lo, the trumpet sounds from heaven! Lo, the Leader comes with clouds! He is armed to subdue the world, and out of His mouth proceeds a two-edged sword to mow down all that encounters it. But as for you, what will you do? Pass straight from your chamber to the battle-field, and from the cool shade into the burning sun? Nay, a body used to a tunic cannot endure a buckler; a head that has worn a cap refuses a helmet; a hand made tender by disuse is galled by a sword-hilt. Hear the proclamation of your King: "He that is not with me is against me, and he that gathereth not with me scattereth." Remember the day on which you enlisted, when, buried with Christ in baptism, you swore fealty to Him, declaring that for His sake you would spare neither father nor mother. Lo, the enemy is striving to slay Christ in your breast. Lo, the ranks of the foe sigh over that bounty which you received when you entered His service. Should your little nephew hang on your neck, pay no regard to him; should your mother with ashes on her hair and garments rent show you the breasts at which she nursed you, heed her not; should your father prostrate himself on the threshold, trample him under foot and go your way. With dry eyes fly to the standard of the cross. In such cases cruelty is the only true affection.
3. Hereafter there shall come—yes, there shall come—a day when you will return a victor to your true country, and will walk through the heavenly Jerusalem crowned with the crown of valor. Then will you receive the citizenship thereof with Paul. Then will you seek the like privilege for your parents. Then will you intercede for me who have urged you forward on the path of victory.
I am not ignorant of the fetters which you may plead as hindrances. My breast is not of iron nor my heart of stone. I was not born of flint or suckled by a tigress. I have passed through troubles like yours myself. Now it is a widowed sister who throws her caressing arms around you. Now it is the slaves, your foster-brothers, who cry, "To what master are you leaving us?" Now it is a nurse bowed with age, and a body- servant loved only less than a father, who exclaim: "Only wait till we die and follow us to our graves." Perhaps, too, an aged mother, with sunken bosom and furrowed brow, recalling the lullaby with which she once soothed you, adds her entreaties to theirs. The learned may call you, if they please,
The sole support and pillar of your house. The love of God and the fear of hell will easily break such bonds.
Scripture, you will argue, bids us obey our parents. Yes, but whoso loves them more than Christ loses his own soul. The enemy takes sword in hand to slay me, and shall I think of a mother's tears? Or shall I desert the service of Christ for the sake of a father to whom, if I am Christ's servant, I owe no rites of burial, albeit if I am Christ's true servant I owe these to all? Peter with his cowardly advice was an offence to the Lord on the eve of His passion; and to the brethren who strove to restrain him from going up to Jerusalem, Paul's one answer was: "What mean ye to weep and to break my heart? For I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus." The battering- ram of natural affection which so often shatters faith must recoil powerless from the wall of the Gospel. "My mother and my brethren are these whosoever do the will of my Father which is in heaven." If they believe in Christ let them bid me God-speed, for I go to fight in His name. And if they do not believe, "let the dead bury their dead."
4. But all this, you argue, only touches the case of martyrs. Ah! my brother, you are mistaken, you are mistaken, if you suppose that there is ever a time when the Christian does not suffer persecution. Then are you most hardly beset when you know not that you are beset at all. "Our adversary as a roaring lion walketh about seeking whom he may devour," and do you think of peace? "He sitteth in the lurking-places of the villages: in the secret places doth he murder the innocent; his eyes are privily set against the poor. He lieth in wait secretly as a lion in his den; he lieth in wait to catch the poor;" and do you slumber under a shady tree, so as to fall an easy prey? On one side self-indulgence presses me hard; on another covetousness strives to make an inroad; my belly wishes to be a God to me, in place of Christ, and lust would fain drive away the Holy Spirit that dwells in me and defile His temple. I am pursued, I say, by an enemy Whose name is Legion and his wiles untold; and, hapless wretch that I am, how shall I hold myself a victor when I am being led away a captive?
5. My dear brother, weigh well the various forms of transgression, and think not that the sins which I have mentioned are less flagrant than that of idolatry. Nay, hear the apostle's view of the matter. "For this ye know," he writes, "that no whore-monger or unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God." In a general way all that is of the devil savors of enmity to God, and what is of the devil is idolatry, since all idols are subject to him. Yet Paul elsewhere lays down the law in express and unmistakable terms, saying: "Mortify your members, which are upon the earth, laying aside fornication, uncleanness, evil concupiscence and covetousness, which are idolatry, for which things' sake the wrath of God cometh."
Idolatry is not confined to casting incense upon an altar with finger and thumb, or to pouring libations of wine out of a cup into a bowl. Covetousness is idolatry, or else the selling of the Lord for thirty pieces of silver was a righteous act. Lust involves profanation, or else men may defile with common harlots those members of Christ which should be "a living sacrifice acceptable to God." Fraud is idolatry, or else they are worthy of imitation who, in the Acts of the Apostles, sold their inheritance, and because they kept back part of the price, perished by an instant doom. Consider well, my brother; nothing is yours to keep. "Whosoever he be of you," the Lord says, "that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple." Why are you such a half- hearted Christian?
6. See how Peter left his net; see how the publican rose from the receipt of custom. In a moment he became an apostle. "The Son of man hath not where to lay his head," and do you plan wide porticos and spacious halls? If you look to inherit the good things of the world you can no longer be a joint-heir with Christ. You are called a monk, and has the name no meaning? What brings you, a solitary, into the throng of men? The advice that I give is that of no inexperienced mariner who has never lost either ship or cargo, and has never known a gale. Lately shipwrecked as I have been myself, my warnings to other voyagers spring from my own fears. On one side, like Charybdis, self-indulgence sucks into its vortex the soul's salvation. On the other, like Scylla, lust, with a smile on her girl's face, lures it on to wreck its chastity. The coast is savage, and the devil with a crew of pirates carries irons to fetter his captives. Be not credulous, be not over-confident. The sea may be as smooth and smiling as a pond, its quiet surface may be scarcely ruffled by a breath of air, yet sometimes its waves are as high as mountains. There is danger in its depths, the foe is lurking there. Ease your sheets, spread your sails, fasten the cross as an ensign on your prow. The calm that you speak of is itself a tempest. "Why so?" you will perhaps argue; "are not all my fellow- townsmen Christians?" Your case, I reply, is not that of others. Listen to the words of the Lord: "If thou wilt be perfect go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and come and follow me." You have already promised to be perfect. For when you forsook the army and made yourself an eunuch for the kingdom of heaven's sake, you did so that you might follow the perfect life. Now the perfect servant of Christ has nothing beside Christ. Or if he have anything beside Christ he is not perfect. And if he be not perfect when he has promised God to be so, his profession is a lie. But "the mouth that lieth slayeth the soul." To conclude, then, if you are perfect you will not set your heart on your father's goods; and if you are not perfect you have deceived the Lord. The Gospel thunders forth its divine warning: "Ye cannot serve two masters," and does any one dare to make Christ a liar by serving at once both God and Mammon? Repeatedly does He proclaim, "If any one will come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." If I load myself with gold can I think that I am following Christ? Surely not. "He that saith he abideth in Him ought himself also so to walk even as He walked."
7. I know you will rejoin that you possess nothing. Why, then, if you are so well prepared for battle, do you not take the field? Perhaps you think that you can wage war in your own country, although the Lord could do no signs in His? Why not? you ask. Take the answer which comes to you with his authority: "No prophet is accepted in his own country." But, you will say, I do not seek honor; the approval of my conscience is enough for me. Neither did the Lord seek it; for when the multitudes would have made Him a king he fled from them. But where there is no honor there is contempt; and where there is contempt there is frequent rudeness; and where there is rudeness there is vexation; and where there is vexation there is no rest; and where there is no rest the mind is apt to be diverted from its purpose. Again, where, through restlessness, earnestness loses any of its force, it is lessened by what it loses, and that which is lessened cannot be called perfect. The upshot of all which is that a monk cannot be perfect in his own country. Now, not to aim at perfection is itself a sin.
8. Driven from this line of defence you will appeal to the example of the clergy. These, you will say, remain in their cities, and yet they are surely above criticism. Far be it from me to censure the successors of the apostles, who with holy words consecrate the body of Christ, and who make us Christians. Having the keys of the kingdom of heaven, they judge men to some extent before the day of judgment, and guard the chastity of the bride of Christ. But, as I have before hinted, the case of monks is different from that of the clergy. The clergy feed Christ's sheep; I as a monk am fed by them. They live of the altar: I, if I bring no gift to it, have the axe laid to my root as to that of a barren tree. Nor can I plead poverty as an excuse, for the Lord in the gospel has praised an aged widow for casting into the treasury the last two coins that she had. I may not sit in the presence of a presbyter; he, if I sin, may deliver me to Satan, "for the destruction of the flesh that the spirit may be saved." Under the old law he who disobeyed the priests was put outside the camp and stoned by the people, or else he was beheaded and expiated his contempt with his blood. But now the disobedient person is cut down with the spiritual sword, or he is expelled from the church and torn to pieces by ravening demons. Should the entreaties of your brethren induce you to take orders, I shall rejoice that you are lifted up, and fear lest you may be cast down. You will say: "If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work." I know that; but you should add what follows: such an one "must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, chaste, of good behavior, given to hospitality, apt to teach, not given to wine, no striker but patient." After fully explaining the qualifications of a bishop the apostle speaks of ministers of the third degree with equal care. "Likewise must the deacons be grave," he writes, "not double- tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre, holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. And let these also first be proved; then, let them minister, being found blameless." Woe to the man who goes in to the supper without a wedding garment. Nothing remains for him but the stern question, "Friend, how camest thou in hither?" And when he is speechless the order will be given, "Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." Woe to him who, when he has received a talent, has bound it in a napkin; and, whilst others make profits, only preserves what he has received. His angry lord shall rebuke him in a moment. "Thou wicked servant," he will say, "wherefore gavest thou not my money into the bank that at my coming I might have required mine own with usury?" That is to say, you should have laid before the altar what you were not able to bear. For whilst you, a slothful trader, keep a penny in your hands, you occupy the place of another who might double the money. Wherefore, as he who ministers well purchases to himself a good degree, so he who approaches the cup of the Lord unworthily shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.
9. Not all bishops are bishops indeed. You consider Peter; mark Judas as well. You notice Stephen; look also on Nicolas, sentenced in the Apocalypse by the Lord's own lips, whose shameful imaginations gave rise to the heresy of the Nicolaitans. "Let a man examine himself and so let him come." For it is not ecclesiastical rank that makes a man a Christian. The centurion Cornelius was still a heathen when he was cleansed by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Daniel was but a child when he judged the elders. Amos was stripping mulberry bushes when, in a moment, he was made a prophet. David was only a shepherd when he was chosen to be king. And the least of His disciples was the one whom Jesus loved the most. My brother, sit down in the lower room, that when one less honorable comes you may be bidden to go up higher. Upon whom does the Lord rest but upon him that is lowly and of a contrite spirit, and that trembleth at His word? To whom God has committed much, of him He will ask the more. "Mighty men shall be mightily tormented." No man need pride himself in the day of judgment on merely physical chastity, for then shall men give account for every idle word, and the reviling of a brother shall be counted as the sin of murder. Paul and Peter now reign with Christ, and it is not easy to take the place of the one or to hold the office of the other. There may come an angel to rend the veil of your temple, and to remove your candlestick out of its place. If you intend to build the tower, first count the cost. Salt that has lost its savor is good for nothing but to be cast out and to be trodden under foot of swine. If a monk fall, a priest shall intercede for him; but who shall intercede for a fallen priest?
10. At last my discourse is clear of the reefs: at last this frail bark has passed from the breakers into deep water. I may now spread my sails to the breeze; and, as I leave the rocks of controversy astern, my epilogue will be like the joyful shout of mariners. O desert, bright with the flowers of Christ! O solitude whence come the stones of which, in the Apocalypse, the city of the great king is built! O wilderness, gladdened with God's especial presence! What keeps you in the world, my brother, yon who are above the world? How long shall gloomy roofs oppress you? How long shall smoky cities immure you? Believe me, I have more light than you. Sweet it is to lay aside the weight of the body and to soar into the pure bright ether. Do you dread poverty? Christ calls the poor blessed. Does toil frighten you? No athlete is crowned but in the sweat of his brow. Are you anxious as regards food? Faith fears no famine. Do you dread the bare ground for limbs wasted with fasting? The Lord lies there beside you. Do you recoil from an unwashed head and uncombed hair? Christ is your true head. Does the boundless solitude of the desert terrify you? In the spirit you may walk always in paradise. Do but turn your thoughts thither and you will be no more in the desert. Is your skin rough and scaly because you no longer bathe? He that is once washed in Christ needeth not to wash again. To all your objections the apostle gives this one brief answer: "The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory" which shall come after them, "which shall be revealed in us." You are too greedy of enjoyment, my brother, if you wish to rejoice with the world here, and to reign with Christ hereafter.
11. it shall come, it shall come, that day when this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and this mortal shall put on immortality. Then shall that servant be blessed whom the Lord shall find watching. Then at the sound of the trumpet the earth and its peoples shall tremble, but you shall rejoice. The world shall howl at the Lord who comes to judge it, and the tribes of the earth shall smite the breast. Once mighty kings shall tremble in their nakedness. Venus shall be exposed, and her son too Jupiter with his fiery bolts will be brought to trial; and Plato, with his disciples, will be but a fool. Aristotle's arguments shall be of no avail. You may seem a poor man and country bred, but then you shall exult and laugh, and say: Behold my crucified Lord behold my judge. This is He who was once an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and crying in a manger. This is He whose parents were a workingman and a working-woman. This is He, who, carried into Egypt in His mother's bosom, though He was God, fled before the face of man. This is He who was clothed in a scarlet robe and crowned with thorns. This is He who was called a sorcerer and a man with a devil and a Samaritan. Jew, behold the hands which you nailed to the cross. Roman, behold the side which you pierced with the spear. See both of you whether it was this body that the disciples stole secretly and by night. For this you profess to believe.
My brother, it is affection which has urged me to speak thus; that you who now find the Christian life so hard may have your reward in that day.
Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (PNPF II/VI, Schaff and Wace). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.