H AVE you ever seen a picture of a thin old man sitting at a desk writing, with a great big lion crouching at his feet as composedly as if it were a dog or a cat? Well, that is St. Jerome, and now you are going to hear his story, and how the lion came to be there.
Jerome was born at Stridon, near the town of Aquileia at the head of the Adriatic, in the year 346, but though his father and mother were Christians, they did not have him baptised till he was twenty years old. Eusebius and his wife had quite enough money to make them comfortable, though they were not considered very rich, and Jerome had plenty of slaves to do his bidding. He had besides, what was much more important to him, a play-fellow called Bonosus, with whom he was brought up, and who went with him to Rome, when the two boys were about seventeen. All through his life Jerome showed strong affections, and gained many friends, and it was a bitter grief to him when he lost any of them, especially as it was often his own fault. Unluckily he had a hot temper and a quick tongue, which led to his saying things he did not mean, and thus making enemies; but a word of regret from anyone who, he thought, had done him an injury softened his heart at once, and he never bore malice. And in spite of his being rather easily offended, he was so lively and amusing, so prompt to notice anything that was odd, and so clever in telling it, that his company was always welcome wherever he went.
Such he was as a boy, and such he was to a great extent as an old man.
From his earliest childhood Jerome was very fond of reading, though he liked to choose his own books, and frequently neglected the lessons set him by his tutors for talk with the slaves, or play with Bonosus. But perhaps this did not do him as much harm as his teachers thought, for all kinds of learned men used to meet at the house of his father Eusebius, and Jerome picked up a great deal from them without knowing it; so that when he and Bonosus entered the Grammar School at Rome at the age of seventeen, Jerome was declared, much to the surprise of himself and Bonosus, to be quite as advanced as the rest.
For three years he stayed in Rome, living in the same house as his friend, but though he began well, very soon the reports of his conduct, sent home by the man who had charge of the foreign students and was bound to watch over their behaviour, were not so good as they had been at first. "He went too much to theatres," said the inspector, "and was too often seen at the chariot races." In fact he was carried away by the excitements and pleasures of a great city and of being, to a certain degree, his own master. "But idle though he certainly was," continued the inspector, "he was invariably to be seen at the law courts, listening to any celebrated case that was going on, following the pleaders eagerly with his eyes, and trying to make out for himself which were the weak points."
After a while matters improved, and the inspector's letters became more cheerful. Jerome had seemingly grown accustomed to the amusements of Rome, and went less and less to the theatres. Besides, he was older now, and had discovered that the companions he had thought so clever in the beginning were really only silly and vulgar, and their jokes tired and annoyed him. He was in this frame of mind when chance threw him into the society of a very different set of young men, who considered the pleasures of this world to be snares of the Evil One; and his mother rejoiced, when he wrote home to Stridon, that most of his Sundays were spent in exploring with his newly-found companions the hidden passages and tombs cut out of the solid rock underneath Rome, where the Christian martyrs were buried.
After this he received baptism, while Liberius was pope.
By the Roman law, no foreigner was allowed to remain as a student in Rome after his twentieth birthday, and Jerome and Bonosus wended their way back to Aquileia, Jerome carrying with him the precious library he had already begun to collect, and from which he never parted. Of course the "books" were very different from ours, and did not take up so much room. They were copies in ink from other manuscripts, which took a long time to make, and were sometimes very costly to buy, and in those days, and for eleven hundred years after, men earned their living by copying, as they now do by printing.
But the two young men were too restless to settle down quietly in Stridon. At least Jerome was too restless, and Bonosus seems usually to have followed his lead. Therefore together they set out for Gaul, where they became acquainted with Rufinus, the man whom Jerome loved with devotion and whose after-treatment caused him such deep sorrow. It was the influence of Rufinus that fixed his mind on the study of the Scriptures, which henceforward was the work of his life.
When after their journey through Gaul, which lasted several months, the two travellers returned to Stridon they found that many changes had taken place during their absence. In Aquileia a society had been formed especially to study the Scriptures, the members giving up all kinds of pleasures, and seeking only the good of their souls. Very soon their fame became noised abroad, and others arrived to join them, and among these were the noble Roman lady Melania, and, to the intense joy of Jerome, his friend Rufinus. As the members of the society cared about the same things and most of them had been carefully educated, their constant meetings were a great pleasure to them; and with the arrival of Evagrius from Antioch shortly after, and his lectures on the holy places in Palestine, a fresh interest was awakened. Unhappily something happened—what we do not know—to put an end to these pleasant gatherings, and the friends parted and went different ways. Bonosus sailed across the Adriatic to a little island, where he became a hermit; Melania, Rufinus, and some of the others went to the East; and Jerome determined to follow Evagrius to Antioch, travelling through Greece and Asia Minor. He left behind him his parents and a small brother and sister, but he carried with him his beloved books, from which he never parted. At Antioch he was ordained priest, though it seems doubtful whether he ever performed even a single service, and after resting for a few months in the groves on the banks of the Orontes, he went alone into the desert that stretches between the mountains of Lebanon and the river Euphrates. This was a very foolish step for him to take, for his health was always bad, and the fatigues of his journey from Italy had brought on a severe illness from which he had hardly recovered. However, he remained in the desert for nearly five years, seeing none that were not hermits like himself, for the country was dotted over with their cells, and "scorpions and wild beasts" were, as he says himself, his daily companions.
Still it was fortunately not in Jerome's nature to sit idle and spend his time in trying to think about his religion, which often ends in really thinking of nothing at all. From morning till night he was working at something or other: either tending a little garden, where with great trouble he had managed to grow a few vegetables in the dry soil, or weaving baskets from the rushes that grew on the banks of a small stream some distance off, to sell to travelling merchants, or writing letters to his friends, or learning Hebrew from a converted Jew who came over from a monastery to teach him.
It was probably with the help of this man that he was able to get the manuscript of St. Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews, which he first copied for himself, and then translated into Greek and into Latin, which was of course his own language.
Quarrels with the hermits about the doctrines and discipline of the Church drove Jerome from the desert, first to Antioch, next to Constantinople, and then to Rome. Here he found himself much sought after, for his fame for learning had gone before him, and some even expected him to be chosen pope on the death of Damasus. But ambition was not one of Jerome's faults. The magnificence of Rome, which as a boy had proved so attractive to him, now filled him with disgust, and he longed to get away into solitude, and give himself up to his books.
In spite of all the business thrust on him by the pope, and the disputes in which he eagerly took part, he contrived to find some time for his own special work, and devoted himself to making a Latin version of the translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek, known as the "Septuagint." This name, meaning "Seventy," was derived from the fact that seventy men were engaged in it, and it had been done by some Jews about 500 years before, for the benefit of their fellow-countrymen who were living in Egypt, under the rule of the Greek kings. Jerome's translation was thought so good that it was universally used in the churches for twelve hundred years.
Amongst the friends made by Jerome in Rome, at this time, were a number of noble ladies who, like himself, were interested in the study of the Bible, and listened eagerly to all he could tell them about it. Greek they had long ago been taught, and now they learned Hebrew, the better to understand the history of their religion. Jerome always thought highly of women, for the few he knew well were clever as well as good; and on one occasion, when he was reproached by his enemies with dedicating to ladies some of his books, he remarked in scorn, "as if women were not better judges than most men."
Of all the little group of ladies who met in the house on the Aventine hill, perhaps the most remarkable was the widowed Paula, who sprang from the family of the Scipios, one of the noblest in Rome. She had three daughters and a large number of friends, all of whom had withdrawn themselves from the world, and who passed their time in study and in looking after the poor. Fired with the wish to see the places of which the Bible had told her so much, Paula took her second daughter with her and followed Jerome to Antioch when, in 385, he quitted Rome, leaving the youngest girl and a little boy behind her. It was winter when they arrived, and Paula at once began to make plans for her journey through Palestine. It was in vain that Jerome urged on her the difficulties and dangers which would beset her, and entreated her to wait for the spring. Paula would listen to nothing, and all Jerome could do was to persuade her to take the easier road by the coast, instead of the one over the mountains of Lebanon.
By this time some of the other ladies had landed from Rome, and were ready to join the travellers. Most of them were carried in litters, but Paula preferred riding one of the beautiful tall donkeys of which we read so often in the Bible, and insisted on stopping at every place that had been the scene of some great event in the days of long ago—every place, that is, which was Christian, for no heathen legends had any charms for her whatever they may have had for Jerome, with his thirst for knowledge of all sorts.
All along this route which had already been trodden by so many pilgrims, he was constantly at hand, to tell them everything that had happened there. At Mount Carmel, Zarepta, and Joppa, the caravan halted in turn; and at last arrived at the goal, Jerusalem itself, hardly to be recognised under its Roman name of Ælia Capitolina. Here the governor or pro‑consul received the noble Paula with a guard of honour, and wished her and the rest of the ladies to take up their abode in his palace. But it seemed to Paula unfitting to live in splendour in the city where her Lord had been scourged and crucified, and she begged the pro‑consul to find a humble lodging for herself and her friends.
After visiting the holy places in Jerusalem itself, and those near it, whose story they knew so well—Bethhoron, where Joshua fought his great battle and the sun stood still; Bethel, where Jacob slept and dreamed of the angels going up and down the ladder; Mamre, the burial-place of Abraham and Sarah; Bethany, the home of Lazarus; and above all, Bethlehem—they set out for Egypt, happy to think that they were treading in the steps of the two Josephs who had gone that road in the space of seventeen hundred years. Crossing the Nile by the numerous branches into which the river spreads out towards its mouth, they paused for three days at Alexandria, where Jerome was able to see the famous library and to talk with some of the celebrated teachers and orators who lived in Alexander the Great's city. From Alexandria they journeyed to the district known as Nitria, at that date filled with monasteries and also with scattered hermits. Now the ladies could indulge themselves in mortifying their bodies to their hearts' content. They lay upon hard beds in a long room, and ate—as seldom as possible—the coarse food which was the monks' fare. Indeed, so much did they admire this mode of living that they seriously thought of remaining in Nitria for ever.
It was during this visit to Nitria that the lady Melania had a very unpleasant adventure. Tired of being carried in a litter or of riding on a camel, she wandered away one evening from the encampment towards a small lake covered with the blossoms of the lotus. She was fond of flowers, and here was one quite new to her. Hastening down hill to the edge of the sunken lake, she was just about to stoop and pick the nearest bud, when a loud cry made her stop and look round. To her surprise she beheld a man climbing down a rock, waving his arms wildly. She hesitated, and instinctively drew back; then her eyes fell upon a great scaly creature with a soft yellow throat and long teeth, which had stolen towards her from its lair in the reeds. Fascinated with terror, she watched it approach, and it would certainly have seized her leg in its jaws and drawn her into the water had it not been for Macarius. Even his shouts did not make the crocodile give up its prey, but it continued to move over the ground with astonishing swiftness, till its advance was checked by a stunning blow from an iron bar held by the hermit, who by this time had reached the frightened woman.
But the desert of Nitria held other dangers besides the prospect of being eaten by crocodiles, or of being taken captive by a tribe of Bedouins. The ground was in many parts covered with sharp stones which pierced the hoofs of the horses and the sandals of the guides, while there was always the risk of sticking in the marshes of half-dried lakes or of falling a victim to low fever from the poisonous vapours. However, all these perils were braved successfully, and in the end the pilgrims bade farewell to their Egyptian friends and sailed from Alexandria to the old Philistine port of Gaza, for ever bound up with the memory of Samson.
For the company of pilgrims had at last made up their minds to settle at Bethlehem, and on their arrival lost no time in building a monastery there for the men and a convent for the women, Jerome being the head of one and Paula of the other. They erected besides, at Paula's expense, a church which served for both men and women to worship in, and a house to lodge passing pilgrims who formed an incessant stream from all parts of the Roman world. The cost of all this fell almost entirely upon Paula, who gave away all she had, and when she no longer possessed anything more to bestow, Jerome sold the estates he had inherited from his father, and employed the money for the common good. At Bethlehem he spent the last thirty-four years of his life, writing letters upon various subjects that were agitating the Christian world, studying the Hebrew and Chaldee languages, making translations of various sacred writings, and publishing the great version of the Old Testament still in use in the Roman Catholic Church, known as the Vulgate.
He was sitting—so runs the story—with some of his monks in the cell of Bethlehem, when a lion entered the open door. The brethren all jumped up in a fright, and tumbled as fast as they could through the window, while Jerome stayed quietly in his chair and waited. The lion looked at him doubtfully for a moment, then limped towards him, holding up a paw. This Jerome took, and examined carefully. At first he could see nothing, the soft pad was so badly swollen; but at length he detected a thorn, near one of the nails, and managed to pull it out with a pair of pinchers. He next boiled some water, in which he soaked some dried herbs, and bathed the sore place till the swelling began to go down, when he tied a linen rag round it, so that the dirt might not get in and inflame the wound afresh. As soon as he had finished, and the look of pain had disappeared from the lion's eyes, Jerome expected him to depart, but instead the huge beast stretched himself out comfortably on the floor.
The lion refuses to depart.
Jerome pointed to the door; the lion wagged his tail happily, and took no notice. This happened several times, till at last Jerome gave up the struggle and went to bed, the lion on the floor sleeping beside him. Next morning Jerome said to this visitor: "You seem to intend to live for ever in my cell"—the lion wagged his tail again—"but learn that no one here spends his time in idleness. If you stay here, you must be ready to work"—the tail wagged a second time—"and you will therefore accompany my donkey daily to the forest to defend her from robbers and savage wolves, when she brings back the firewood needful for the monastery."
So for many months the lion and the donkey might have been seen setting off side by side every morning to the forest, and the lion lay down and watched while an old man heaped up the donkey's panniers from the stack of wood which he had gathered in readiness. The work took some time, but when the panniers could hold no more the donkey gave itself a shake, and the lion jumped up, waiting till she began to move. The journey back to the monastery was much slower than the one to the forest, as the donkey had to be very careful not to make a false step. If she had stumbled and fallen, she would have found it very difficult, with her loaded panniers, to get on her feet again, and even the lion could not have helped her.
But one morning a terrible thing happened. The sun was very hot, and when the lion lay down as usual he fell sound asleep, and never heard two men creep up behind the old man and the donkey and tie a cloth over the mouths of both man and beast, so that they could not utter a sound. Then the robbers drove them away, wood and all, to the caravan which was waiting at a little distance.
At last the lion awoke, and gave a great yawn, and stretched himself. He lay still for a few minutes, till suddenly he noticed that the shafts of light that fell through the trees, struck the ground in a different way from usual.
"It must be later than I thought," he said; "they never look like that till the sun is going to set. Has the donkey been waiting for me all this time? Poor thing, how tired she must be! But why didn't she wake me?" and he rose to his feet and turned towards the old man's hut, but no donkey was there.
"She must have gone home," he said to himself again; "but then—where is the old man?" and bending his head, he examined the soil carefully.
"These are human footprints, I am sure they are," he exclaimed in his own language; "more than one man has been here. And here are the donkey's. She was stolen while I was asleep, and I, who was set to guard her, have been unfaithful to my trust! How shall I face the holy father who cured my wound?"
However, there was no use waiting or trying to track the lost donkey; the thieves had got too long a start, and with bent head and heavy heart the lion followed the road home, and entered, as he had done once before, the cell of his master.
"Wherefore are you here, and where is the donkey?" asked Jerome sternly. In answer, the lion bowed himself to the earth, with his tail between his legs, awaiting his sentence.
"I had faith in you, and you have put me to shame," continued Jerome, "and as it is quite plain that you have eaten the donkey, you must take her place, and for the future the panniers will be put upon your back, and it is you who will fetch the wood from the forest."
And the lion, when he heard, wagged his tail in relief, for he had been very much afraid that his master would send him away altogether.
Now it was at the end of the summer that the donkey had been stolen, and as soon as the spring came round the caravan went past again, the camels laden with swords and silks from Damascus for the cities of Egypt. The lion was standing behind a group of trees, while another old man was piling up the panniers with wood, when the crackling of twigs caused him to turn round, and a little way off he beheld the long train of ugly, swaying creatures, with the donkey walking at their head. At the sight of his friend he gave a bound forward, which knocked over the old man, and sent the wood flying in all directions, and so frightened the camel-drivers that they ran away to hide themselves. As to the rest of the caravan he drove them before him into the monastery, keeping his eye carefully on the riders; and if anyone's hand so much as moved towards his side where his short sword was buckled, the lion had only to growl and to show his teeth for the hand quickly to move away again.
In this manner they proceeded till the monastery was reached, and Jerome who was seated in his cell, unfolding the copy of a new book, beheld their arrival with astonishment. What were all these people doing here, and why was the lion with them? And surely that was—yes, he was certain of it—his old donkey, which he imagined was dead months ago. So he hastened out of his cell to the court-yard, where the merchants, who by this time had dismounted from their camels, fell on their knees before him.
"O holy father, if you are the lord of this lion, bid him spare our lives, and we will confess our sin," they cried. "It was we who stole the donkey, while her guardian, the lion, was sleeping; and behold, gladly will we restore her to you, if we may go our way."
"It is well, go in peace," said Jerome, and the merchants needed no second bidding.
Joyful indeed was the donkey to be at home again; and the next day she got up early and trotted off to the forest by the side of the lion, throwing up her head and sniffing the air as she went, from very delight at being freed from captivity. And the heart of Jerome rejoiced likewise that, after all, his trust in the lion had not been in vain.
That is the story of the lion of St. Jerome.
The last part of Jerome's life in Bethlehem was full of trouble. From all parts of the Roman Empire news came of the invasion of the barbarians, and in 410 the Goths, under Alaric, sacked Rome itself. Like other countries, the north of Palestine was laid waste, and the monks had to share their scanty food with the crowd that poured into the monasteries for refuge. Then, too, some of the little band of friends who had followed Jerome from Rome fell ill and died, among them Paula and Marcella. In spite of his sorrows, he still worked hard at his studies and translations on the various books of the Bible; but his eyesight was now failing fast, and he must have been thankful indeed for the companionship of Paula the younger, grand-daughter of his friend St. Augustine, and of the younger Melania who, with her husband, came to live with him.
These two ladies attended him in his last illness, and were present at his funeral, which took place in September, 420.
Travellers to Bethlehem are still led through a passage cut in the rock to the cell where Jerome wrote the commentaries and epistles and translations, which have given him the foremost place among students of the Bible. In this cell—his paradise he called it—he would talk over passages that puzzled him with the elder Paula and her daughter Eustochium, who knew Hebrew and Greek as well as he, and dictate to his young monks his letters to Augustine or Rufinus. Next to this cell, we shall find another, consecrated not to the living but to the dead, for here are two graves, in one of which Jerome was first buried, while the other is the tomb of Paula and her daughter.