St Jerome: Teacher of Asceticism and Love

St Jerome, whose memoria we keep today, was, after St Augustine, the most voluminous writer of Christian Antiquity. Today he is remembered for many things: his translation of the scriptures into Latin (the Vulgate); his embrace of the monastic life in Bethlehem and elsewhere, including Gaza and Syria; his friendships with women, especially Marcella, Paula and Eustochium; his rather prickly temper; a host of treatises on theology and history, the practice of the ascetic life, ecclesiastical controversies and a wonderful collection of letters, to name just a few. Martin Luther’s disdain has done his reputation no harm. However, I think it fair to say that more people refer to Jerome than actually read him; and those who do read him tend to do so in order to throw light on subjects that interest them more than they appear to have interested Jerome himself.

For example, I think the clue to understanding Jerome is his zeal for the ascetic life. He was repulsed by the laxity he saw all around him. Not for him the idea that ‘love is all you need’ without any qualification. Indeed, his understanding of the need for self-discipline in order to be truly loving sometimes led his followers to overstate the case. The death of the young Blaesilla, just four months after adopting the ascetic practices he recommended, stirred up the fury of the Roman mob, but what has never sufficiently been explained, to my mind, is how the rough, tough, curmudgeon of popular fiction could inspire such trust and devotion in the first place. He made people want to lead better lives; he made them want to know the Lord; and he was hard on himself before he was hard on others. True, his writing shows he could deliver a tongue-lashing, but one never gets the sense that he was out of control. With Jerome it is rather a case of ‘zeal for the Lord of hosts consumes me.’ Very few of us can lay claim to such pure-hearted zeal.

One of the big questions facing the Church today is how we hold in tension what Pope Francis has aptly described as the healing mission of the Church — the proclamation of love and mercy — with its teaching mission — which says that in order to be a Christian one does indeed have to live by certain standards, and they can be tough, involving self-renunciation and discipline. It is easy to get hold of the love and mercy bit; much harder to see that self-restraint is necessary if one is to be loving and merciful. It is no accident that Jerome wrote terrifyingly of hell. Sometimes, one needs the shadow to appreciate the sunlight. Perhaps today we could ask his prayers to enable us to see how we need to change our lives to become better disciples. And one more detail I find telling. Jerome could have translated the scriptures from the Septuagint (Greek version) alone but he put himself to the trouble of learning Hebrew as an adult so that he could read the Hebrew versions as well. That is not just the scholar at work, anxious to use every means at his disposal to ascertain truth; that is the man who loves God so ardently that he is driven to find out all he can about Truth himself and is prepared to make every effort to do so. I wonder how many of us measure up to that?

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The Caesura

Those who love Gregorian Chant are probably thinking, ‘We all know what the caesura is. We merely disagree how long it should be!’ If you think I am going to propound any new theories about its duration, you will be disappointed. I’m more concerned with its meaning.

The caesura — the pause in the musical line which occurs midway through a verse of psalmody — is an important element of plainchant. It gives shape to the music but also, more significantly, provides a brief silence in the midst of the singing to allow the words to sink in. This embrace of silence in the very midst of choir is a reminder that we are meditating on the Word as we sing it. Even at our ‘noisiest’ there is a silent dimension to monastic life. It is this silence that makes monastic life seem at odds with the world around us, where a constant stream of sound is the accompaniment to everything from jogging in the park to driving the car. Silence is one of the great asceticisms of monastic life and one that many an outsider finds unnerving, but it is also a source of profound joy and peace, a blessing to all who experience it.

The monk carries within him a vast silence, but it is not an empty silence, nor an uncomfortable silence. It is the silence of the attentive heart, waiting for God to speak, aware that the Word may be spoken in the brief pause between two halves of a psalm verse.

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The Importance of Asceticism to Prayer

The feastday of St Teresa of Avila has sent my mind wandering down slightly different channels today. There is so much I could write about her, but I know others will do so better. For today, I’d like to offer a single thought: the importance of asceticism to prayer.

Asceticism isn’t fashionable, and I suspect it never really was; but we live in a society where the idea of ‘having it all’ has become commonplace, even in the Church. We can be ‘monastics’ without taking on the disciplines of monasticism; we can be great contemplatives without accepting the renunciations implicit in an ascetical way of life. That would have seemed absurd to Teresa.

The Greek roots of the word asceticism link us to the idea of monasticism and exercise. How much Greek Benedict knew is debatable, but he talks of training in monastic life being a form of exercise. We are exercised in virtue, so to say; we are exercised in obedience. All the other disciplines of monastic life — the regular prayer, the fasting, the renunciation of private ownership, single chastity — are ordered to one end only: the seeking of God; and God is the goal of all true asceticism.

St Teresa’s reform of the Carmelite Order tends to be seen as secondary to her great works on prayer, but perhaps the great works on prayer could not have been written without the underpinning of Carmelite observance. Still today Carmelite nuns are known for their cheerfulness and their ascetical fervour. We can all learn from them.

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