September ends with the celebration of the great heavenly warrior St Michael, and he is followed a day later by St Therese of Lisieux who everybody loves. Then as if to celebrate her Little Way of spiritual childhood further we pile on the Feast of the Holy Guardian Angels, then a day later more super attractive sweetness in St Francis of Assissi. Michael, Therese, Guardian Angels, Francis… it’s almost too much for those who love the Lord and love his saints.
But hang on. Stuck there between St Michael and St Therese is Jerome.
Jerome? Jerome the patron saint of curmudgeons? Jerome the misogynist grump? Jerome the not politically correct, intellectual who didn’t do small talk and was (to put it mildly) not inclined to suffer fools gladly?
That’s right. Jerome. Saint Jerome.
Born around the year 340 Jerome began a scholarly life from an early age. He studied at Rome and Trier, retired to the desert to live in a cave, made friends with St Gregory Nanzianzus, Pope Damasus and at the same time made lots of enemies. He not only translated the Bible into Latin, but wrote controversial essays, theological works and was a translator. He ended up living as a monk in Bethlehem, dying at the age of 80.
Jerome was kind of like the Michael Voris of his age. He attacked just about everybody for anything. He was at heart an extremist, a radical ascetic and a recluse. We must remember that in the late fourth century Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. The early days of austerity, persecution and being an underground movement were over and the church had to cope now with the problems of worldliness.
So Jerome wrote of the nice, Christian, but worldly matrons who “paint their cheeks with rouge and their eyelids with antimony, whose plastered faces, too white for human beings, look like idols; and if in a moment of forgetfulness they shed a tear it makes a furrow where it rolls down the painted cheek; women to whom years do not bring the gravity of age, who load their heads with other people’s hair, enamel a lost youth upon the wrinkles of age, and affect a maidenly timidity in the midst of a troop of grand children.”
He also didn’t have much time for poncy clergy who fuss over their clothes. In a letter to Eustochium he writes with scorn of certain members of the Roman clergy. “All their anxiety is about their clothes…. You would take them for bridegrooms rather than for clerics; all they think about is knowing the names and houses and doings of rich ladies.” Indeed. They are with us today–cissy priests who spend all their time fussing over pretty vestments.
Jerome’s style was caustic, sarcastic and harsh so he made lots of enemies. They returned the attacks, gossiping about his relationship with the holy women who surrounded him, mocking his gait, his smile and his accomplishments.
So he left Rome and headed for Bethlehem where he lived in a cave, opened a monastery for men and three communities of women. His friend Paula became head of one of these, and after her death was succeeded by her daughter Eustochium. Jerome himself lived and worked in a large cave near the Saviour’s birthplace. He opened a free school there and also a hospice for pilgrims, “so that,” as Paula said, “should Mary and Joseph visit Bethlehem again, they would have a place to stay.”
From his cave he continued his intellectual battles: he argued with Heldivius and Jovinian’s ideas that the Blessed Virgin had other children by Joseph. He combatted a monk Vigilantius who was down on the veneration of relics and celibacy and even crossed swords with Augustine.
Excuse me for loving the great St Jerome. Maybe it is the monk in me, the recluse, the bookish hermit in me that would also like to retire to a cave somewhere, but Jerome reminds us that “the church of nice” isn’t the only way. Jerome rightly warns us against worldliness, sentimentality, intellectual shallowness and cowardice. He reminds us to fight the good fight with all our might, and if he descended into sarcasm and satire, he was also always aware of his own weakness, temptation and soiled humanity.
The fact that Jerome is plonked down right there between the angels, Therese and Francis reminds us that the army of saints needs little flowers and holy friars who preach to birdies, but it also needs saints with True Grit.
We need some Rooster Cogburn Catholics as well as the sweet little girls, the angels and the beautiful foolish dreamers.
And while I love this holy week in the beginning of October, that is the down side: the sweet angels with their girly faces, simpering Therese smiling from her little girl photographs and holy St Francis taming the wolf of Gubbio or standing in the snow–this all appeals to the sentimentalists. It’s greeting card Christianity…all twee and tacky and gooey and sweet. Of course those who have ever met an angel know they are far from the feminine looking creatures with long hair and pretty wings so popular in Christian art. Those who know St Therese realize that the little flower was also a little warrior and that she would have gladly gone to live in a cave next to Jerome. Likewise, anyone who knows St Francis realizes that his asceticism and severity would have been right up there with Jerome’s.
That’s why Jerome’s curmudgeonly style is just the spice we need in the midst of this week’s sweetness. He gives some salt in the dish to accent the sugar. He adds some bite to the battle and gives a boost to all those who wade in to counter the worldliness, foolishness and trumpery of the world. He reminds us that we need prophetic voices in the church to call a spade a spade. He reminds us that we need scholars who are saints and saints who are scholars.
Each one of the saints reveals a vital aspect of Christ the Lord. If St Francis reminds us of Jesus’ gentleness and love of poverty, and if Therese reminds us of his love of children and the need to become like little children, Jerome reminds us of the Lord’s intellectual acuity, his sharp tongue, his willingness to be controversial for the sake of truth and his ability to cut straight to the point, criticize the religious hypocrites and live a radical life devoted to God alone.
Long live the curmudgeons and praise God for Jerome!
This article originally appeared on Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s blog “Standing on My Head,” and is reprinted with permission. Visit his website, browse his books, and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.