Fathers of the Church
Letter CXXII: to Rusticus
by Jerome in 408 | translated by W. H. Fremantle, M.A., G. Lewis, M.A., W. G. Martley, M.A
1. I am induced to write to you, a stranger to a stranger, by the entreaties of that holy servant of Christ Hedibia and of my daughter in the faith Artemia, once your wife but now no longer your wife but your sister and fellow-servant. Not content with assuring her own salvation she has sought yours also, in former days at home and now in the holy places. She is anxious to emulate the thoughtfulness of the apostles Andrew and Philip; who after Christ had found them, desired in their turn to find, the one his brother Simon and the other his friend Nathanael. To the former of these it was said "Thou art Simon, the son of Jona: thou shall be called Cephas which is by interpretation a stone;" while the latter, whose name Nathanael means the gift of God, was comforted by Christ's witness to him: "behold an Israelite indeed in whom is no guile." So of old Lot desired to rescue his wife as well as his two daughters, and refusing to leave blazing Sodom and Gomorrah until he was himself half-on-fire, tried to lead forth one who was tied and bound by her past sins. But in her despair she lost her composure, and looking back became a monument of an unbelieving soul. Yet, as if to make up for the loss of a single woman, Lot's glowing faith set free the whole city of Zoar. In fact when he left the dark valleys in which Sodom lay and came to the mountains the sun rose upon him as he entered Zoar or the little City; so-called because the little faith that Lot possessed, though unable to save greater places, was at least able to preserve smaller ones. For one who had gone so far astray as to live in Gomorrah could not all at once reach the noonland where Abraham, the friend of God, entertained God and His angels. (For it was in Egypt that Joseph fed his brothers, and when the bride speaks to the Bridegroom her cry is: "tell me where thou feedest, where thou makest thy flock to rest at noon.") Good men have always sorrowed for the sins of others. Samuel of old lamented for Saul because he neglected to treat the ulcers of pride with the balm of penitence. And Paul wept for the Corinthians who refused to wash out with their tears the stains of fornication. For the same reason Ezekiel swallowed the book where were written within and without song, and lamentation and woe; the song in praise of the righteous, the lamentation over the penitent, and the woe for those of whom it is written, "When the wicked man falleth into the depths of evil, then is he filled with scorn." It is to these that Isaiah alludes when he says: "in that day did the Lord God of hosts call to weeping and to mourning and to baldness and to girding with sackcloth: and behold joy and gladness, slaying oxen; and killing sheep, eating flesh" and saying, "let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." Yet of such persons Ezekiel is bidden to speak thus: "O thou son of man, speak unto the house of Israel; Thus ye speak, saying, If our transgressions and our sins be upon us, and we pine away in them, how should we then live? Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live," and again, "turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?" Nothing makes God so angry as when men from despair of better things cleave to those which are worse; and indeed this despair in itself is a sign of unbelief. One who despairs of salvation can have no expectation of a judgment to come. For if he dreaded such, he would by doing good works prepare to meet his Judge. Let us hear what God says through Jeremiah, "withhold thy foot from a rough way and thy throat from thirst" and again" shall they fall, and not arise? Shall he turn away, and not return? " Let us hear also what God says by Isaiah: "When thou shalt turn and bewail thyself, then shall thou be saved, and then shalt thou know where thou hast hitherto been." We do not realize the miseries of sickness till returning health reveals them to us. So sins serve as a foil to the blessedness of virtue; and light shines more brightly when it is relieved against darkness. Ezekiel uses language like that of the other prophets because he is animated by a similar spirit. "Repent," he cries, "and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin. Cast away from you all your transgressions whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord." Wherefore in a subsequent passage he says: "As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked: but that the wicked turn from his way and live." These words shew us that the mind must not through disbelief in the promised blessings give way to despair; and that the soul once marked out for perdition must not refuse to apply remedies on the ground that its wounds are past curing. Ezekiel describes God as swearing, that if we refuse to believe His promise in regard to our salvation we may at least believe His oath. It is with full confidence that the righteous man prays and says, "Turn us, O God of our salvation, and cause thine anger toward us to cease," and again, "Lord, by thy favour thou hast made my mountain to stand strong: thou didst hide thy face and I was troubled." He means to say, "when I forsook the foulness of my faults for the beauty of virtue, God strengthened my weakness with His grace." Lo, I hear. His promise: "I will pursue mine enemies and overtake them: neither will I turn again till they are consumed," so that I who was once thine enemy and a fugitive from thee, shall be laid hold of by thine hand. Cease not from pursuing me till my wickedness is consumed, and I return to my old husband who will give me my wool and my flax, my oil and my fine flour and will feed me with the richest foods. He it was who hedged up and enclosed my evil ways that I might find Him the true way. who says in the gospel, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." Hear the words of the prophet: "they that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him." Say also with him: "All the night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears ": and again, "As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my meat day and night," and in another place, "O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and weary land where no water is. So have I looked upon thee in the sanctuary." For although my soul has thirsted after thee, yet much more have I sought thee by the labour of my flesh and have not been able to look upon thee in thy sanctuary; not at any rate till I have first dwelt in a land barren of sin, where the weary wayfarer is no more assailed by the adversary, and where there are no pools or rivers of lust.
The Saviour also wept over the city of Jerusalem because its inhabitants had not repented; and Peter washed out his triple denial with bitter tears, thus fulfilling the words of the prophet: "rivers of waters run down mine eyes." Jeremiah too laments over his impenitent people, saying: "Oh that my head were waters and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for ... my people!" And farther on he gives a reason for his lamentation: "weep ye not for the dead," he writes, "neither bemoan him: but weep sore for him that goeth away: for he shall return no more." The Jew and the Gentile therefore are not to be bemoaned, for they have never been in the Church and have died once for all (it is of these that the Saviour says: "let the dead bury their dead"); weep rather for those who by reason of their crimes and sins go away from the Church, and who suffering condemnation for their faults shall no more return to it. It is in this sense that the prophet speaks to ministers of the Church, calling them its walls and towers, and saying to each in turn, "O wall, let tears run down." In this way, it is prophetically implied, you will fulfil the apostolic precept:" rejoice with them that do rejoice and weep with them that weep," and by your tears you will melt the hard hearts of sinners till they too weep; whereas, if they persist in evil doing they will find these words applied to them, "I ... planted thee a noble vine wholly a right seed: how then art thou turned into the degenerate plant of a strange vine unto me?" and again "saying to a stock, Thou art my father; and to a stone, Thou hast brought me forth: for they have turned their back unto me, and not their face." He means, they would not turn towards God in penitence; but in the hardness of their hearts turned their backs upon Him to insult Him. Wherefore also the Lord says to Jeremiah: "hast thou seen that which backsliding Israel hath done? She is gone up upon every high mountain and under every green tree, and there hath played the harlot. And I said after she" had played the harlot and "had done all these things, Turn thou unto me. But she returned not."
2. How hard hearted we are and how merciful God is! who even after our many sins urges us to seek salvation. Yet not even so are we willing to turn to better things. Hear the words of the Lord: "If a man put away his wife, and she go from him, and become another man's and shall afterwards desire to return to him, will he at all receive her? Will he not loathe her rather? But thou hast played the harlot with many lovers: yet return again to me, saith the Lord." In place of the last clause the true Hebrew text (which is not preserved in the Greek and Latin versions) gives the following: "thou hast forsaken me, yet return, and I will receive thee, saith the Lord." Isaiah also speaking in the same sense uses almost the same words: "Return," he cries, "O children of Israel, ye who think deep counsel and wicked." Return thou unto me and I will redeem thee. I am God, and there is no God else beside me; a just God and a Saviour; there is none beside me. Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth. Remember this and shew yourselves men: bring it again to mind, O ye transgressors. Return in heart and remember the former things of old: for I am God and there is none else." Joel also writes: "turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting and with weeping and with mourning: and rend your heart and not your garments and turn unto the Lord your God; for he is gracious and merciful ... and repenteth him of the evil." How great His mercy is and how excessive—if I may so say—and unspeakable is His pitifulness, the prophet Hosea tells us when he speaks in the Lord's name: "how shall I give thee up, Ephraim? how shall I deliver thee, Israel? how shall I make thee as Admah? How shall I set thee as Zeboim? Mine heart is turned within me, my repentings are kindled together. I will not execute the fierceness of mine anger.' David also says in a psalm: "in death there is no remembrance of thee; in the grave who shall give thee thanks? " and in another place: "I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin. For this shall every one that is godly pray unto thee in a time when thou mayest be found: surely in the floods of great waters they shall not come nigh unto him."
3. Think how great that weeping must be which deserves to be compared to a flood of waters. Whosoever so weeps and says with the prophet Jeremiah "let not the apple of mine eye cease " shall straightway find the words fulfilled of him: "mercy and truth are met together: righteousness and peace have kissed each other;" so that, if righteousness and truth terrify him, mercy and peace may encourage him to seek salvation.
The whole repentance of a sinner is exhibited to us in the fifty- first psalm written by David after he had gone in unto Bathsheba the wife of Uriah the Hittite, and when, to the rebuke of the prophet Nathan he had replied, "I have sinned." Immediately that he confessed his fault he was comforted by the words: "the Lord also hath put away thy sin." He had added murder to adultery; yet bursting into tears he says: "Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions." A sin so great needed to find great mercy. Accordingly he goes on to say: "Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only have I sinned"—as a king he had no one to fear but Gods—"and done this evil in thy sight; that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest and be clear when thou judgest." For "God hath concluded all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all." And such was the progress that David made that he who had once been a sinner and a penitent afterwards became a master able to say: "I will teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee." For as "confession and beauty are before God," so a sinner who confesses his sins and says: "my wounds stink and are corrupt because of my foolishness " loses his foul wounds and is made whole and clean. But "he that covereth his sins shall not prosper."
The ungodly king Ahab, who shed the blood of Naboth to gain his vineyard, was with Jezebel, the partner less of his bed than of his cruelty, severely rebuked by Elijah. "Thus saith the Lord, hast thou killed and also taken possession?" and again, "in the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth, shall dogs lick thy blood, even thine;" and "the dogs shall eat Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel." "And it came to pass"—the passage goes on—"when Ahab heard those words that he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackclothand the word of the Lord came to Elijah saying, Because Ahab humbleth himself before me, I will not bring the evil in his days." Ahab's sin and Jezebel's were the same; yet because Ahab repented, his punishment was postponed so as to fall upon his sons, while Jezebel persisting in her wickedness met her doom then and there.
Moreover the Lord tells us in the gospel, "the men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas;" and again He says I am not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance." The lost piece of silver is sought for until it is found in the mire. So also the ninety and nine sheep are left in the wilderness, while the shepherd carries home on his shoulders the one sheep which has gone astray. Wherefore also "there is joy in the presence of the angels over one sinner that repenteth." What a blessed thought it is that heavenly beings rejoice in our salvation! For it is of us that the words are said: "Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Death and life are contrary the one to the other; there is no middle term. Yet penitence can knit death to life. The prodigal son, we are told, wasted all his substance, and in the far country away from his father "would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat." Yet, when he comes back to his father, the fatted calf is killed, a robe and a ring are given to him. That is to say, he receives again Christ's robe which he had before defiled, and hears to his comfort the injunction: "let thy garments be always white." He receives the signet of God and cries to the Lord: "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee;" and receiving the kiss of reconciliation, he says to Him: "Now is the light of thy countenance sealed upon us, O Lord."
Hear the words of Ezekiel: "as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall thereby in the day that he turneth from his wickedness; neither shall the righteous be able to live for his righteousness in the day that he sinneth." The Lord judges every man according as he finds him. It is not the past that He looks upon but the present. Bygone sins there may be, but renewal and conversion remove them. "A just man," we read "falleth seven times and riseth up again." If he falls, how is he just? and if he is just, how does he fall? The answer is that a sinner does not lose the name of just if he always repents of his sins and rises again. If a sinner repents, his sins are forgiven him not only till seven times but till seventy times seven. To whom much is forgiven, the same loveth much. The harlot washed with her tears the Saviour's feet and wiped them with her hair; and to her, as a type of the Church gathered from the nations, was the declaration made: "Thy sins are forgiven." The self- righteous Pharisee perished in his pride, white the humble publican was saved by his confession.
God makes asseveration by the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah: "At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up to pull down and to destroy it: if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom to build and to plant it; if it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good wherewith I said I would benefit them." And immediately he adds: "Behold, I frame evil against you, and devise a device against you: return ye now every one from his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good. And they said, there is no hope: but we will walk after our own devices, and we will every one do the imagination of his evil heart." The righteous Simeon says in the gospel: "Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many," for the fall, that is, of sinners and for the rising again of the penitent. So the apostle writes to the Corinthians: "it is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father's wife. And ye are puffed up and have not rather mourned that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you." And in his second epistle to the same, "lest such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow," he calls him back, and begs them to confirm their love towards him, so that he who had been destroyed by incest might be saved by penitence.
"There is no man clean from sin; even though he has lived but for one day." And the years of man's life are many in number. "The stars are not pure in his sight, and his angels he charged with folly." If there is sin in heaven, how much more must there be sin on earth? If they are stained with guilt who have no bodily temptations, how much more must we be, enveloped as we are in frail flesh and forced to cry each one of us with the apostle: "O wretched man that I am ! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? For in my flesh there dwelleth no good thing." For we do not what we would but what we would not; the soul desires to do one thing, the flesh is compelled to do another. If any persons are called righteous in scripture, and not only righteous but righteous in the sight of God, they are called righteous according to that righteousness mentioned in the passage I have quoted: "A just man falleth seven times and riseth up again," and on the principle laid down that the wickedness of the wicked shall not hurt him in the day that he turns to repentance." In fact Zachariah the father of John who is described as a righteous man sinned in disbelieving the message sent to him and was at once punished with dumbness. Even Job, who at the outset of his history is spoken of as perfect and upright and uncomplaining, is afterwards proved to be a sinner both by God's words and by his own confession. If Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the prophets also and the apostles were by no means free from sin and if the finest wheat had chaff mixed with it, what can be said of us of whom it is written: "What is the chaff to the wheat, saith the Lord?" Yet the chaff is reserved for future burning; as also are the tares which at present are mingled with the growing corn. For one shall come whose fan is in His hand, and shall purge His floor, and shall gather His wheat into the garner, and shall burn the chaff in the fire of hell.
4. Roaming thus through the fairest fields of scripture I have culled its loveliest flowers to weave for your brows a garland of penitence; for my aim is that, flying on the wings of a dove, you may find rest and make your peace with the Father of mercy. Your former wife, who is now your sister and fellow-servant, has told me that, acting on the apostolic precept, you and she lived apart by consent that you might give yourselves to prayer; but that after a time your feet sank beneath you as if resting on water and indeed—to speak plainly—gave way altogether. For her part she heard the Lord saying to her as to Moses: "as for thee stand thou here by me;" and with the psalmist she said of Him: "He hath set my feet upon a rock." But your house—she went on—having no sure foundation of faith fell before a whirlwind of the devil. Hers however still stands in the Lord, and does not refuse its shelter to you; you can still be joined in spirit to her to whom you were once joined in body. For, as the apostle says, "he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit" with him. Moreover, when the fury of the barbarians and the risk of captivity separated you again, you promised with a solemn oath that, if she made her way to the holy places, you would follow her either immediately or later, and that you would try to save your soul now that by your carelessness you had seemed to lose it. Perform, now, the vow which you then made in the presence of God. Human life is uncertain. Therefore, lest you may be snatched away before you have fulfilled your promise, imitate her whose teacher you ought to have been. For shame! the weaker vessel overcomes the world, and yet the stronger is overcome by it!
A woman leadeth in the high emprise;
and yet you will not follow her when her salvation leads you to the threshold of the faith! Perhaps, however, you desire to save the remnants of your property and to see the last of your friends and fellow-citizens and of their cities and villas. If so, amid the horrors of captivity, in the presence of exulting foes. and in the shipwreck of the province, at least hold fast to the plank of penitence; and remember your fellow- servant who daily sighs for your salvation and never despairs of it. While you are wandering about your own country (though, indeed, you no longer have a country; that which you once had, you have lost) she is interceding for you in the venerable spots which witnessed the nativity, crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour, and in the first of which He uttered His infant- cry. She draws you to her by her prayers that you may be saved, if not by your own exertions, at any rate by her faith. Of old one lay upon his bed sick of the palsy, so powerless in all his joints that he could neither move his feet to walk nor his hands to pray; yet when he was carried to our Lord by others, he was by Him so completely restored to health as to carry the bed which a little before had carried him. You too— absent in the body but present to her faith—your fellow- servant offers to her Lord and Saviour; and with the Canaanite woman she says of you: "my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil." Souls are of no sex; therefore I may fairly call your soul the daughter of hers. For as a mother coaxes her unweaned child which is as yet unable to take solid food; so does she call you to the milk suitable for babes and offer to you the sustenance that a nursing mother gives. Thus shall you be able to say with the prophet: "I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek thy servant; for I do not forget thy commandments."
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.