The Church’s Holy Grouch

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Some saints need public relations work.  Saint Jerome (347-420) may well be first in line.  If the Little Flower might be fun to have for tea, and Saint Francis is reliably good with house pets, Jerome is the type who is likely to scare the kids.  If he enjoys any popular image (and it is not clear he does), he is known as the Church’s holy grouch: an ill-humored cardinal, dispensed by heaven for his nice Latin translations.  The man’s mood could indeed get violent.  But perhaps in the days when mad Pelagian monks could burn your monastery down, some verbal indiscretions can be overlooked.   Regardless, few will accuse Jerome of irresistible charm.

Part of the problem is certainly his asceticism.  The saint moved among those unkempt maniacs we call the desert fathers.  After unnamed escapades as a student of rhetoric in Rome—accused in a dream of being “a Ciceronian and not a Christian”—Jerome sorrowed for the sins of his misspent youth, eventually finding his way to the Syrian desert (then to Bethlehem) to live a life of penance.  Swept up by the Zeitgeist of zeal that so powerfully moved his generation, Jerome lived in a neighborhood of fervent, but peculiar hermits.  Baked as he was by the Syrian sun, however, Jerome never went crazy—and here we begin to see what is so extraordinary about this man.  He went to the desert to strengthen and Christianize his mind.

Max Scheler, the German philosopher, somewhere says that fasting is “the spiritualization of hunger,” its modulation into a higher key.  In Jerome, we see this spiritual sublimation not only of bodily hunger, but of the highest natural appetite: the desire to know.  Jerome disciplined his mind as he disciplined his body, in order that it too might be drawn up into the life of the spirit.  “The flesh I might try to break with frequent fasting,” he wrote, “but my mind was still seething with imagination: so to tame it, I gave myself up for training.”  Seeking something harsh and barren to chasten his rebellious mind, the sensitive lover of Quintilian and Fronto fed himself on what he called “words that hissed and gasped.”  Thus he undertook as his most rigorous discipline the laborious study of Hebrew.   This spirituality, the ascesis of the mental appetite, is Jerome’s most marvelous discovery.  Jerome is Anthony the Great, father of Christian monks, and Origen, father of Christian scholars, rolled into one.

So, with a generosity born of true conversion, Jerome relinquished his vain love of worldly learning and subordinated his intellect entirely to the study of Christian truth.  In this way, he put himself in the service of the Church, leaving as his monumental bequest the magnificent and virile Vulgate translation of the Scriptures.  Single-handedly (or very nearly) Jerome thus gave the Western Church the Word which nourished it for more than a thousand years.

This text of the Vulgate standardized the Sacred Scriptures.  Jerome aligned the words of Old Testament more closely to the Hebrew original, Hebraica veritas; and his lapidary renderings (and at times, sonorous obscurities) became the common language of the Church.   On the matter of the canon, the books included in the Bible, Jerome’s contribution is instructive and edifying.  Being effectively the only Hebraist in all of Christendom, he recognized and commented that the Hebrew Bible of Palestine did not include the seven so-called deutero-canonical books.  Nevertheless, he “deferred to the judgment of the Churches” in accepting the ancient Greek canon used by the Jews of the diaspora.  In this way, Jerome presents a model for theologians of every age–not only of discipline, but of obedient integrity.

Fr. Anthony Giambrone

About Fr. Anthony Giambrone

Fr. Anthony Giambrone, OP, is a Domincan priest of the Province of St. Joseph. He is currently completing his doctorate in Sacred Scripture at the University of Notre Dame.