Pammachius, a friend of Jerome’s since they were teenagers studying in Rome, was the son of one of Rome’s most prominent and wealthy families. He had a very successful political career as a senator and office holder. He married Paulina, daughter of Paula, in A.D. 385. When she died a decade later, Pammachius began living an austere life as a monk, and, having dispensed with his wealth, he dedicated himself in service to the poor. For his holy zeal and good works, he was declared a saint of the Catholic Church. In this letter, written two years after Paulina’s death, Jerome exhorts Pammachius to continue to devote himself in service of the poor and, in this way, in service of God. This service reaches its zenith when, like the apostles, Christians offer their wills to Christ. Jerome thereby teaches us that from the sorrow of bereavement, we can find love in a new way: by sacrificing ourselves for the neediest of God’s people. He also proclaims the benefits of perpetual continence within marriage and after the death of the spouse as means to a deeper union with God. As he does in his letter to Heliodorus, Jerome at times refers to Pammachius in the third person for the benefit of those in the community listening to this letter read aloud.
“Other husbands spread violets, roses, lilies, and purple flowers over their wives’ graves, and they console their mournful hearts with these deeds. Our Pammachius waters Paulina’s holy ashes and cherished bones with the perfume of almsgiving.”
If a person tries to apply makeup over a wound that has scabbed over, he strikes a new blow by renewing the pain in pursuit of physical beauty. And so I, who arrive late to console you after an untimely silence of two years, fear that I speak more untimely still, and that with this commemoration I exasperate the wound of your heart that has been healed by time and by reflection. For whose ears are so hard, whose hearts are cut out of rock and nourished by the milk of wild tigers, that they can hear the name of your Paulina without weeping? Who can watch with dry eyes a blooming rose and a budding flower cluster droop prematurely before it can be secured in the earth’s bosom and curls with its full display of red pedals? Your most precious pearl is fractured. Your flourishing emerald is shattered. Infirmity shows the benefits of health. We appreciate what we had more after we have ceased to have it.
In the field of the good earth, we gather three fruits whose bounty is one hundred, sixty, and thirtyfold. In three women joined by blood and virtue, I recognize the three rewards of Christ: Eustochium reaps the flowers of virginity, Paula threshes on the toilsome floor of widowhood, and Paulina guards the chaste bed of marriage. When a mother is supported by such companionship from her daughters, she completes for herself on earth everything that Christ has promised in Heaven. And, so that one holy family might send forth its four-horse chariot and men might rise to these women’s virtues, Pammachius is added as a companion. Like the four cherubim seen by Ezekiel (1:4–25), he is a cousin, son-in law, husband, and, above all, a most beloved brother, for these holy fellowships of the Spirit do not match the vocabulary of marriage. Jesus drives this chariot. Concerning these horses, the prophet Habakkuk sings: “Thou didst ride upon Thy horses, upon Thy chariot of victory” (Hab. 3:8). On a disjointed path, but with a united mind, these horses strive toward salvation. They are of different colors but possess a harmonious will. They pull the charioteer’s single yoke, not awaiting blows from the whip but eagerly reacting to the encouragements of his voice.
Allow me to say something about the philosophers. The Stoics describe four virtues that are so bound together and mutually supportive that whoever is missing one lacks all of them: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. The four of you each possess all these virtues, yet you each exhibit one in particular. You exemplify prudence, Paula has justice, Eustochium fortitude, and Paulina temperance. For who could be wiser than a man who, having rejected the world’s foolishness, has followed Christ, “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24)? Who could be more just than a mother who, having divided her resources among her children, taught them what they ought to love by herself disdaining riches? Who could be stronger than Eustochium, who broke the gates of nobility and the pride of a consular family with her commitment of virginity and subordinated a leading family in a leading city to chastity? Who could show more temperance than Paulina, who, reading the exhortation of the apostle Paul—“Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled” (Heb. 13:4)—and not having dared to strive for her sister’s happiness or her mother’s continence, preferred to continue securely among the lowly rather than be restless among the upper classes?
When Paulina entered into marriage, she thought about nothing else day or night except that she might take up continence within marriage after she had children. “As a woman leading so great a deed” (Virgil, Aeneid, 1.364), she joined you, her husband, to her plan, not by leaving behind her companion on the way to salvation but by waiting for him. And while she tried to have children and experienced miscarriages, she did not despair over them. She put the jealousy of her in-laws and the sadness of her husband before her own weakness, and she suffered following the example of Rachel, who in place of “the son of sorrow” and “the son of my right hand” brought forth her husband as the heir of her desire. I learned from trusted sources that she did not wish to observe her marital duty to fulfill the first commandment of God—“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28)—but that she wanted children so she might give birth to virgins for Christ.
After Paulina had gone to sleep, the Church gave birth to a new Pammachius, who became a monk after her death—a patrician from his father and wife’s nobility, rich from almsgiving, exalted from humility. The apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians: “Consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise . . . not many were of noble birth” (1 Cor. 1:26). The foundations of the nascent Church were demanding this—that a mustard seed might slowly grow into a tree, and that the yeast of the gospel might raise the whole Church even higher (Luke 13:19–21).
In our times, Rome possesses what the world did not know before. Then it was rare that the wise, the powerful, and the nobles were Christians; today many among the wise, powerful, and nobles are monks. You, my Pammachius, are wiser, more powerful, and more noble than all others: you are great among the great, a leader among leaders, the prefect of monks. By her death, Paulina gave us such children whom she had desired to have while living. “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in travail!” (Isa. 54:1): for you, Paulina, have suddenly given birth to as many children as there are poor in Rome.
Her flashing gems that once were decorating her face and neck now feed the bellies of the needy. Her silk and golden threads were changed for soft, woolen clothes that repel the cold and strip away flattery, for virtue now takes the place of worldly pleasures. That blind man extending his hand and shouting over and over, often when no one is around to hear, is the heir of Paulina and the coheir with Pammachius. The hand of a tender girl supports this man, maimed in his feet and struggling to move. The doors that used to pour out crowds of greeters now are bursting with miserable people. One is on the brink of death from a swollen stomach. Another, mute, and not even having a tongue to beg, begs loudly, even while he is not able to do so. Another has been debilitated since his youth. And another, rotted by jaundice, survives as if he were a corpse. “If I had a hundred tongues and a hundred mouths, I would not be able to name all the pains” (Virgil, Aeneid, 6.625, 627).