The holiness of the scholarly task

Daily Reading for September 30 • Jerome, Priest, and Monk of Bethlehem, 420

Jerome is not a man to whom it is easy to warm, although he certainly had a powerful effect on various pious and wealthy ladies in late-fourth-century Rome. One feels that he was a man with a six-point plan for becoming a saint, taking in the papacy on the way. After [Pope] Damasus’s death Jerome abruptly relocated to Palestine, though the precise reasons for his departure from Rome have now somehow disappeared from the record. Soon afterwards, he wrote of his recently interrupted career in Rome: “The entire city resounded with my praises. Nearly everyone agreed in judging me worthy of the highest priesthood [that is, the papacy]. Damasus, of blessed memory, spoke my words. I was called holy, humble, eloquent.” An earlier venture to seek holiness with the fierce ascetics of the Syrian desert had not been a success, and after Jerome’s withdrawal from Rome he spent his last years in a rather less demanding religious community near Bethlehem. There he continued with the round of scholarship which was his chief virtue, together with bitter feuding, which was not.

Jerome produced an interesting and important spin on the scholarly task which he enjoyed so much. Traditionally it had been an occupation associated with elite wealth, and even in the case of this monk in Bethlehem it was backed up with an expensive infrastructure of assistants and secretaries. Study and writing, he insinuated, were as demanding, difficult and heroically self-denying as any physical extravagance of Syrian monks, or even the drudgery of manual labour and craft which were the daily occupation of monastic communities in Egypt. . . . If Jerome had not been so successful in his campaign for sainthood, and in persuading future writers that it was as much of a self-sacrifice for a scholar to sit reading a book as it was for St Simeon to sit on top of his pillar in a Syrian desert, it might have been far more difficult for countless monks to justify the hours that they spent reading and enjoying ancient texts, and copying them out for the benefit of posterity. Ultimately the beneficiary was Western civilization.

From Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch (New York: Viking, 2009).

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