Letter LXI (A.D. 396)
St. Jerome's first contact with Vigilantius was was friendly enough. They met in Bethlehem in 395, when the Gallic priest delivered a letter from their mutual friend St. Paulinus of Nola, and Jerome wrote in his reply [Epistle LVIII]:
How heartily I have welcomed the reverend presbyter Vigilantius, his own lips will tell you better than this letter. Why he has so soon left us and started afresh I cannot say; and, indeed, I do not wish to hurt anyone's feelings. Still, mere passer-by as he was, in haste to continue his journey, I managed to keep him back until I had given him a taste of my friendship for you. Thus you can learn from him what you want to know about me.
Soon things would turn dramatically to the worse, as Vigilantius began, in the name of anti-Origenism, his proto-Protestant crusade against monasticism, relics, and ritual, and Jerome would no longer hesitate to reveal that his opponent had left town in embarrassment after panicking during an earthquake.
There may have been an earthquake of a different sort which alarmed him even more: Vigilantius was a guest of Jerome's monastery at just about the time Bishop John of Jerusalem declared the Bethlehem community in schism. It is this event which looms in the background of the letter below. Jerome was a close associate of St. Epiphanius of Salamis, who had accused John of Origenism and repeatedly interfered in Palestinian affairs in the belief that the Jerusalem diocese was straying into heresy. The Bethlehem community was apparently seen by both Epiphanius and John as a sort of beach-head in an invasion of the Jerusalem diocese. By accusing Jerome himself of Origenism, Vigilantius is calling him not only an heretic, but an hypocrite.
The sarcastic language used by Jerome in his dispute with Vigilantius was extraordinarily violent, even for him and even by the standards of classical rhetoric with its fondness for hyperbole. This was partly, no doubt, because unfounded accusations of Origenism were to nearly derail St. Jerome's career. But beyond the personal ramifications, there were issues of vital universal import at stake: the ability of the Church to use and purify imperfect human writings, and, beyond this, the whole possibility of theosis through liturgical life.
Norman Hugh Redington
1. Since you have refused to believe your own ears, I might justly decline to satisfy you by a letter; for, if you have failed to credit the living voice, it is not likely that you will give way to a written paper. But, since Christ has shown us in Himself a pattern of perfect humility, bestowing a kiss upon His betrayer and receiving the robber.s repentance upon the cross, I tell you now when absent as I have told you already when present, that I read and have read Origen only as I read Apollinaris, or other writers whose books in some things the Church does not receive. I by no means say that everything contained in such books is to be condemned, but I admit that there are things in them deserving of censure. Still, as it is my task and study by reading many authors to cull different flowers from as large a number as possible, not so much making it an object to prove all things as to choose what are good. I take up many writers that from the many I may learn many things; according to that which is written, reading all things, holding fast those that are good, [1 Th. v. 21].
Hence I am much surprised that you have tried to fasten upon me the
doctrines of Origen, of whose mistaken teaching on many points you are
up to the present altogether unaware. Am I a heretic? Why pray then do
heretics dislike me so? And are you Orthodox, you who either against your
convictions and the words of your own mouth signed unwillingly and are
consequently a prevaricator, or else signed deliberately and are
a heretic? You have taken no account of Egypt; you have relinquished
all those provinces where numbers plead freely and openly for your sect;
and you have singled out me for assault, me who not only censure but
publicly condemn all doctrines that are contrary to the church.
[The circumstances to which this paragraph refers are unknown.]
2. Origen is a heretic, true;
2. Origen is a heretic, true;but what does that take from me who do not deny that on very many points he is heretical? He has erred concerning the resurrection of the body, he has erred concerning the condition of souls, he has erred by supposing it possible that the devil may repent, and an error more important than these he has declared in his commentary upon Isaiah: that the Seraphim mentioned by the prophet [Isa. vi. 2] are the divine Son and the Holy Ghost.
If I did not allow that he has erred, or if I did not daily anathematize his errors, I should be partaker of his fault. For while we receive what is good in his writings, we must on no account bind ourselves to accept also what is evil. Still in many passages he has interpreted the scriptures well, has explained obscure places in the prophets, and has brought to light very great mysteries, both in the Old and in the New Testament. If then I have taken over what is good in him and have either cut away or altered or ignored what is evil, am I to be regarded as guilty on the score that through my agency those who read Latin receive the good in his writings without knowing anything of the bad? If this be a crime, the confessor Hilary must be convicted; for he has rendered from Greek into Latin Origen's Explanation of the Psalms and his Homilies on Job. Eusebius of Vercellæ, who witnessed a like confession, must also be held in fault; for he has translated into our tongue the Commentaries upon all the Psalms of his heretical namesake, omitting however the unsound portions and rendering only those parts which are profitable. I say nothing of Victorinus of Petavium and others who have merely followed and expanded Origen in their explanation of the scriptures. Were I to do so, I might seem less anxious to defend myself than to find for myself companions in guilt.
I will come to your own case: Why do you keep copies of his treatises on Job? In these, while arguing against the devil and concerning the stars and heavens, he has said certain things which the Church does not receive. Is it for you alone, with that very wise head of yours, to pass sentence upon all writers Greek and Latin, with a wave of your censor.s wand to eject some from our libraries and to admit others, and as the whim takes you to pronounce me either a Catholic or a heretic? And am I to be forbidden to reject things which are wrong and to condemn what I have often condemned already? Read what I have written upon the epistle to the Ephesians, read my other works, particularly my commentary upon Ecclesiastes, and you will clearly see that from my youth up I have never been terrified by any man.s influence into acquiescence in heretical pravity. 3. It is no small gain to know your own ignorance. It is a man.s wisdom to know his own measure, that he may not be led away at the instigation of the devil to make the whole world a witness of his incapacity. You are bent, I suppose, on magnifying yourself and boast in your own country that I found myself unable to answer your eloquence and that I dreaded in you the sharp satire of a Chrysippus. Christian modesty holds me back and I do not wish to lay open the retirement of my poor cell with biting words. Otherwise I should soon shew up all your bravery and your parade of triumph. But these I leave to others either to talk of or to laugh at; while for my own part as a Christian speaking to a Christian I beseech you, my brother, not to pretend to know more than you do, lest your pen may proclaim your innocence and simplicity, or at any rate those qualities of which I say nothing but which, though you do not see them in yourself others see in you. For then you will give everyone reason to laugh at your folly.
From your earliest childhood you have been taught other lessons and have been used to a different kind of schooling. One and the same person can hardly be a tester both of gold coins on the counter and also of the scriptures, or be a connoisseur of wines and an adept in expounding prophets or apostles. [The father of Vigilantius is said by Jerome to have been an inn-keeper.]
As for me, you tear me limb from limb, our reverend brother Oceanus you charge with heresy, you dislike the judgment of the presbyters Vincent and Paulinian, and our brother Eusebius also displeases you. You alone are to be our Cato, the most eloquent of the Roman race, and you wish us to accept what you say as the words of prudence herself. Pray call to mind the day when I preached on the resurrection and on the reality of the risen body, and when you jumped up beside me and clapped your hands and stamped your feet and applauded my orthodoxy. Now, however, that you have taken to sea-travelling, the stench of the bilge water has affected your head, and you have called me to mind only as a heretic.
What can I do for you? I believed the letters of the reverend
presbyter Paulinus, and it did not occur to me that his judgment
you could be wrong. And although, the moment that you handed me the
I noticed a certain incoherency in your language, yet I fancied this due
to want of culture and knowledge in you and not to an unsettled brain. I
do not censure the reverend writer who preferred, no doubt, in writing to
keep back what he knew rather than to accuse in his missive one who was
under his patronage and entrusted with his letter; but I find fault with
myself that I have rested in another.s judgment rather than my own, and
that, while my eyes saw one thing, I believed on the evidence of a
scrap of paper something else than what I saw.
4. Wherefore cease to worry me and
4. Wherefore cease to worry me andto overwhelm me with your scrolls. Spare at least your money with which you hire secretaries and copyists, employing the same persons to write for you and to applaud you. Possibly their praise is due to the fact that they make a profit out of writing for you. If you wish to exercise your mind, hand yourself over to the teachers of grammar and rhetoric, learn logic, have yourself instructed in the schools of the philosophers; and when you have learned all these things you will perhaps begin to hold your tongue. And yet I am acting foolishly in seeking teachers for one who is competent to teach everyone, and in trying to limit the utterance of one who does not know how to speak yet cannot remain silent. The old Greek proverb is quite true: "A lyre is of no use to an ass."
For my part I imagine that even your name [Vigilantius, "Wakeful"] was given you out of contrariety. For your whole mind slumbers and you actually snore, so profound is the sleep, or rather the lethargy, in which you are plunged.
In fact, amongst the other blasphemies which with sacrilegious lips you have uttered you have dared to say that the mountain in Daniel [ii. 34, 45] out of which the stone was cut without hands is the devil, and that the stone is Christ, who having taken a body from Adam (whose sins had before connected him with the devil) is born of a virgin to separate mankind from the mountain, that is, from the devil! Your tongue deserves to be cut out and torn into fragments. Can any true Christian explain this image of the devil instead of referring it to God the Father Almighty, or defile the ears of the whole world with so frightful an enormity? If your explanation has ever been accepted by any, I will not say Catholic, but heretic or heathen, let your words be regarded as pious. If on the other hand the Church of Christ has never yet heard of such an impiety, and if yours has been the first mouth through which he who once said I will be like the Most High [Isa. xiv. 14] has declared that he is the mountain spoken of by Daniel, then repent, put on sackcloth and ashes, and with fast-flowing tears wash away your awful guilt; if so be that this impiety may be forgiven you, and, supposing Origen.s heresy to be true, that you may obtain pardon when the devil himself shall obtain it, the devil who has never been convicted of greater blasphemy than that which he has uttered through you.
Your insult offered to myself I bear with patience: your impiety towards God I cannot bear. Accordingly I may seem to have been somewhat more acrid in this latter part of my letter than I declared I would be at the outset. Yet having once before repented and asked pardon of me, it is extremely foolish in you again to commit a sin for which you must anew do penance. May Christ give you grace to hear and to hold your peace, to understand and so to speak.
Have mercy, O Lord, upon Thy servant the translator William.