A Letter by St. Jerome To Niceas

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Painting by Lionello Spada, c. 1610’s, of Jerome in his hermit’s cell
                    Painting by Lionello Spada, c. 1610’s, of Jerome in his hermit’s cell

After a rather profligate life among the upper classes of Roman society, Jerome (347-420) finally spent the last 34 years of his life in a hermit’s cell in the wilderness near Bethlehem pounding out his most enduring legacy, the translation of the Bible into the Vulgate, or Latin, version. It is still the most widely-used in the Roman Catholic Church. Jerome, also, wrote many treatises and letters.

Rendering of Ancient Bethlehem, near the place where Jerome wrote.
               Rendering of Ancient Bethlehem, near the place where Jerome wrote

Jerome and Augustine are the most prodigious writers in all of early Christianity and Jerome’s many letters make for delightful reading. In this letter, Niceas, a low functionary in the church, had accompanied Jerome to the East but had now returned home. There had apparently been some disagreements among the two and Jerome is sorry and wants to make amends with his friend. The date of the letter is 374 AD. Jerome, who had read and studied all the important classical authors, obviously had access to the comic poet Turpilius’ works from the 2nd century BC, all but fragments of which have been lost. There are emotions in Jerome’s letter, unlike the devoid of emotion classical letters written by everyday people in previous centuries. Paul’s letters encouraged this release of sentiments. [CLICK HERE  for article: Letters of Paul The Apostle]

St. Jerome—Titian (1485-1576), The Louvre
        St. Jerome—Titian (1485-1576), The Louvre

To Niceas, Sub-Deacon of Aquileia

“The comic poet Turpilius says of the exchange of letters that it alone makes the absent present. The remark, though occurring in a work of fiction, is not untrue. For what more real presence— if I may so speak— can there be between absent friends than speaking to those whom they love in letters, and in letters  hearing their reply? Even those Italian savages, the Cascans of Ennius, who— as Cicero tells us in his books on rhetoric— hunted their food like beasts of prey, were wont, before paper and parchment came into use, to exchange letters written on tablets of wood roughly planed, or on strips of bark torn from the trees. For this reason men called letter-carriers tablet-bearers, and letter-writers bark-users, because they used the bark of trees.

"Even those Italian savages...were wont, before paper and parchment came into use, to exchange letters written on tablets of wood roughly planed, or on strips of bark torn from the trees."
“Even those Italian savages…were wont, before paper and parchment came into use, to exchange letters written on tablets of wood roughly planed, or on strips of bark torn from trees.”

How much more then are we, who live in a civilized age (4th century AD), bound not to omit a social duty performed by men who lived in a state of gross savagery, and were in some respects entirely ignorant of the refinements of life. The saintly Chromatius, look you, and the reverend Eusebius, brothers as much by compatibility of disposition as by the ties of nature, have challenged me to diligence by the letters which they have showered upon me. You, however, who have but just left me, have not merely unknit our new-made friendship; you have torn it asunder—a process which Lælius, in Cicero’s treatise, wisely forbids. Can it be that the East is so hateful to you that you dread the thought of even your letters coming hither?

Saint Jerome in His Study— Caravaggio, c. 1605
                                                      Saint Jerome in His Study— Caravaggio, c. 1605

Wake up, wake up, arouse yourself from sleep, give to affection at least one sheet of paper. Amid the pleasures of life at home sometimes heave a sigh over the journeys which we have made together. If you love me, write in answer to my prayer. If you are angry with me, though angry still write. I find my longing soul much comforted when I receive a letter from a friend, even though that friend be out of temper with me.”—Article by Sandra Sweeny Silver

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