When Athanasius fled to Rome, he carried with him two tall monks, straight from the deserts by the Nile. They were lodged in the great house of a noble lady who had a little daughter named Marcella. One of the monks was a very grave and silent person, who spent all his time in Rome at the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul. But the other had many a story to tell about the wilderness from which he came, and about the monks who lived there. And Marcella listened eagerly.
Even to grown people, the accounts of the monastic life were like the descriptions which travelers give of lands hitherto unknown. In the sandy wastes beside the Nile were men in little huts who had forsaken the world in order to say their prayers in peace. Some had escaped from the dangers of the pagan persecutions; some had grown weary of the life of cities, or disgusted with the selfishness and cruelty of their neighbors; some had come to believe a new doctrine brought from the East, which said that the human body is the root of all evil and the residence of the devil, and that we must starve it and beat it for the good of the soul; some desired only to be let alone. There were thousands of them, living this strange life.
The monk told how they earned their living by making baskets, and how they ate little, and slept little, and prayed much, and how the wild beasts howled at night, and how wild and still it was on the wide sand and under the wide sky. Marcella felt that that was the most wonderful and happy life in the world. And other Roman people, her elders, felt the same way. The idea of complete independence of the world, of freedom from all the cares of the common day, and of nearness to God, appealed to a great many who were tired; and to some who were penitent for their sins. They said, Why should we not go out into the wastes and woods and be monks, like the holy people of the Nile? But years passed, and most of the men and women lived in the old way, till Jerome came.
Jerome was born in that year when the monks visited Rome. Presently he went there to school, and had for teacher old Donatus, whose Latin grammar was studied by all the schoolboys of Europe from that time forward for twelve hundred years. Jerome was an uncommonly good scholar and his chief delight was to sit down with a book. All his life long, in cities and in deserts, and on journeys, he carried a book with him.
The accounts which he heard of the monks in the East attracted him as they had attracted Marcella. He went into the East, and entered that life of religious adventure. He became a monk. He found a desert in Syria, near Antioch, where monks were living, and settled down among them.
They used to tell the story of a lion which came one day to Jerome, holding out his paw with a thorn in it, and Jerome took out the thorn, and the lion became his devoted friend. Jerome himself, however, had much more to say about the devil. He said that the devil spoiled all the peace and happiness of his life. He had gone into the desert to get away from the sin of the world, but the temptations to sin followed him. The devil put evil thoughts into his heart.
Once he dreamed that God was angry with him for being so fond of Cicero; in his dream, he was in the other world, and the angels beat him with sticks as his teachers used to do in school; his shoulders in the morning were black and blue. For a good while, he read the Bible instead of Cicero.
But he felt that God was angry with him for much more serious offenses than this. Day by day, he found himself thinking evil thoughts; and day by day, his temper, which had never been very good, grew worse. In trying to live without eating, he injured his health. In short, he met with the difficulties and suffered the pains which come naturally when people treat their bodies badly, and attempt to change the nature with which they were made.
Then he came to Rome, still believing in the kind of life in which he had been so unsuccessful. He devoted himself to teaching it. He became acquainted with Marcella. She was now a woman of forty, and lived in a splendid palace on the Aventine Hill. Jerome had classes in her house. All the girls in Roman society who desired to do better than to live the life of the world attended them. Jerome told them what a wicked world it was, and earnestly advised them not to get married. All the young men in Rome hated him.
The meetings in Marcella's house affected the social life of Rome. Good women came, and brought their friends. The pleasures of society were neglected for these new studies. Nobody went, as yet, into the wilderness to pray, but many prayed and fasted and did their best to live like the monks, at home. Lea founded a convent of holy women. Melania went on a pilgrimage to the holy places in Palestine. Fabiola established a hospital.
The nearest friends of Jerome were the Lady Paula, and her daughters. They belonged, like the other members of this devout company, to the ancient aristocracy of Rome. They had social position, and wealth, and all the honors and luxuries of life. They gave them up to live in the new way. They spent their money in good works, and went about in poor clothes, and fasted.
One of the daughters died. She had been so fond of gaiety, and had so delighted in the pleasant life which, under Jerome's teaching she had given up, the people said she had been killed by the change. They laid the blame on Jerome. At her funeral there was a great indignation, and some proposed to stone the monk or throw him into the Tiber. Finally, when the feeling against Jerome so increased that he was in peril of his life, he left Rome and spent the rest of his days in Bethlehem. Paula and another daughter, Eustochium, went with him. There they built two monasteries, one for themselves and such other women as might join them; the other for Jerome.
The remainder of the life of Jerome was spent in those studies in which he had delighted from his youth. In the quiet of his monastic house, apart from the distractions of the world, he set about a task to which we are all in debt to-day. He translated the Bible into Latin.
The Bible was the first book in the world to be translated from one language to another. It was brought over from Hebrew into Greek. That was done in Alexandria about two hundred years before the Christian era. The story was that seventy learned Jews, in seventy separate cells, turned the Hebrew into Greek in seventy days, and thus produced seventy Bibles which were all alike, even,—as the phrase is, —to the dotting of the i's and the crossing of the t's.
But Greek had ceased to hold its old place as the language of the great world. St. Paul, indeed, had written a Greek letter to the Romans, and for many years all Christian services in Rome had been in Greek. But two other languages had now appeared.
One was the language of the Goths, spoken in various dialects, by that vast multitude of barbarians who every year were drawing nearer to the Roman empire, until, at last, in Jerome's day, they captured Rome itself. This Teutonic language is one of interest to us because it was the parent of our English speech. Into this tongue an Arian bishop, Ulfilas, had already translated a great part of the Bible. It was the first book in all that mighty literature which is now German and English.
The other language was Latin. In Jerome's time, Greek was the language of the past and Gothic was the language of the future, but Latin was the language of the present. Into Latin, then, he translated the Bible. He studied Greek, he studied Hebrew. A friendly rabbi came over from Tiberias by night to teach him. The work occupied him fifteen years. He dedicated it to his faithful friends, Paula and Eustochium.
From that day to this, the Latin Bible of Jerome has been the authorized version of the Latin Church. The Vulgate, as it is called, is used in the West, as the Greek Bible, the Septuagint, is used in the East. When the Bible was at last translated into English, the translators knew Jerome's Bible by heart. They brought over into our book the splendid cadence of its sentences. Of course, English as we have it now is a combination of those two languages which in Jerome's time were of the present and the future. It is part Gothic and part Latin. But the words of Latin derivation in our English Bible correspond to the Latin words which Jerome chose. They were written over into our Bible out of his.
It is unhappily remembered of Jerome that he was not only a monk and a scholar but a fierce debater. He loved to argue, and when he argued he went about it in the spirit of a fighter. The man with whom he disagreed was, for the moment, his worst enemy, and he treated him accordingly. He looked about for every possible mean thing to say about him. He called him names. He accused him of dishonesty. He said that he was a liar. He insinuated that he was both a fool and a knave.
This method of argument, no matter how well-founded the argument itself may be, always puts the arguer in the wrong. He may have on his side all the truth of the Christian religion, he has the spirit of the devil. It began before Jerome, and continued so long that we have only recently outgrown it. It never did good, nor corrected anybody from the error of his mistaken opinions. The instinctive reply is not to say, "Yes, I see that I was wrong and you are right," but to say, "Right or wrong, I will hit you back as hard as you hit me."
Jerome was a very abusive and bad-tempered saint. Still, that sort of controversy was the fashion then; though he rather outdid the rest of the wrangling brethren. He knew no other way to show that he was in earnest. And his life in the desert had ruined his digestion.