Theological Abuse and St. Jerome

I have been reading a book— Jerome: His Life, Writings and Controversies, by J.N.D. Kelly. Jerome is… complex. He has done some great things, such as recognize and support the importance, especially in the Western Church, to take Biblical languages (1st Century Greek, and ancient Hebrew) seriously in both translation and interpretation. However, in his book, Kelly summarizes a letter from Jerome to a woman named Paula. Paula was a disciple of Jerome, alone with her daughter, Blesilla. Jerome felt very close to both of them. However, Blesilla died and Paula felt great grief. Quoting Kelly regarding Jerome’s letter to Paula,

Jerome, who seems to have regarded Blesilla as now belonging at least as much to himself as to Paula, was shocked by her distress, and took her to task in no uncertain terms. The letter, which he intended as a threnody, and which starts off as a eulogy of Blesilla, soon becomes a rebuke for her mother’s excessive grief, and at the same time a terrifying exposure of his own religious attitude. First, he concedes that tears have their place (did not Jesus weep for Lazarus?), but protests that his own agony is no less than Paula’s. But the Christian should be able to bear the most shattering blows with meek thankfulness, knowing that God, who controls all things, is good. Secondly, however, the dead man for whom mourning is appropriate is the sinner who has gone down to hell; Blesilla deserves congratulation, for she has passed fro darkness to light to meet Christ face to face. Thirdly, Paula should recall that she is not only a mother but a Christian, and a dedicated ascetic at that. The truly Christian reaction to death was that of the heroic Melania: when she lost her husband and two of her sons in quick succession, who shed no tear but, prostrate before Christ, exclaimed with a smile, ‘Now I shall serve You, Lord, all the more readily, since You have freed me from this burden.; Finally, Paula’s grief is disgraceful to the point of sacrilege. It must be sheer torture to Blesilla, as she consorts with blessed Mary and the saints, to see her own mother behaving in a manner so displeasing to Christ.

Kelly, J.N.D., JEROME: HIS LIFE, WRITINGS, AND CONTROVERSIES (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1975), 99.

Jerome had a position of authority over her as her discipler. As such, his is in a position to abuse. This form of abuse is often described as “spiritual abuse.” In this case, I would categorize this form of spiritual abuse as theological abuse since the method of abuse is linked to expressing a form of theology that is harmful/coercive. Here are a few things that Jerome gave a theological guidance to Paula.

#1. Jerome did not, positively, that Jesus did shed tears at the death of Lazarus. However, based on the broader context, it looks like is was shared as a sort of innoculent. The reason I am saying this is that in the letter, it appears to be saying that crying is bad, and that sadness is wrong, and so acknowledges the most well-known counterargument before ignoring its ramifications later.(I don’t have Jerome’s letter— Letter 39, 384 AD— and so I am responding to the summary by Kelly.)

#2. Jerome seems to be saying, “I love Blesilla as much as you, and so if I am not grieving like that, neither should you.” This is pretty classic. One of the classic responses to the grieving is, “I know EXACTLY how you are feeling.” This is often meant well, but does have the sting of saying, in effect— “Don’t share with me how you feel, because I already got it.” This is not a good pastoral response. First, it is not true. Jerome does NOT know what it is like to lose a daughter, and he is not in a position to figure out who is struggling more. Second, even if two people, theoretically, had the exact same amount and quality of attachment to someone who has died, that does not mean that the grief response will be (or should be) identical. God created individuals, not clones.

#3. Jerome implies that if one cannot be thankful to God while grieving. Another, bad response to grieving is, “You really should be counting your blessings!” As one reads the Psalms of Lament in the Bible, one finds songs that express deep sorry along with both thankfulness and hope. We are complex beings. Sadness and thankfulness are not mutually exclusive.

#4 . Jerome suggests that we shouldn’t really grieve because everything that happens is good, because God is good. This relates to a gripe of mine… the responsive formula— “God is good…” “All the time.” “And all the time…” “God is good.” We may say that God is loving. We may say that God is benevolent. However, when we say, “God is good” I think the vagueness of the term requires us to ask the perspective. From a phenomenological or anthropocentric viewpoint, God is NOT always good. That is the point of the Lament Psalms, as well as some of the various prophetic complaints to God in the Old Testament (particularly). We learn and grow through dealing with the challenge that “God is good… but NOT all the time. Not all the time, but God is STILL good.” But even if God is good all the time (on all levels of interpretation), God created us with deep attachments. We were designed to hurt from loss. Grieving doesn’t undermine this. In fact, one could even argue that grieving is a God-given gift to help us deal with deep loss.

5. Jerome states that Blesilla is in a better place so we should be celebrating this. I know some Christians like to talk about funerals as “Celebrating Life” rather than seen as memorizing one lost to death. I don’t suppose there is anything wrong with this. However, grief is not based on where the person is at but where the griever is with respect to the other. One has lost something precious regardless of where that precious one is. We may not grieve as those who have no hope, but we still grieve… and should grieve.

6. Jerome argues that a true Christian reaction is to find joy in the loss. He uses the example of Melania, a Roman Christian who lost husband and two sons and then left for Palestine to found a monastery. The story of her thanking God (seemingly) because He took away impediments to her serving Him, sounds pretty monstrous. I assume the reality is more complex, but if one takes it as Jerome presented it, I suggests an attitude about family and relationships that appears to be far from a Christian ideal.

7. Jerome claims to read Blesilla’s mind in heaven and thinking that she would be “tortured” to see Paula grieving. This is tied to a well-known response to the grieving that, “_________ would not want you to grieve.” Of course, these respondents have no idea what the dead want. Most commonly, what is really meant is “I have gotten tired of seeing you grieve.”

8. Jerome finally claims that Paula’s grieving displeases God. This is just a variation of the previous argument with “God doesn’t want to see you grieve.” Essentially, grieving is seen as a sin by Jerome.

This expresses the theological perspective of Jerome and it is pretty abusive. Of course, this theology comes partly from the times he is in. Starting in the second century there was a gradual growth of asceticism in Christianity. Asceticism is a religious perspective and series of behaviors that exist across many different religions. Denial of physical pleasures, and sometimes even physical needs, can lead to feelings of closeness to the divine, and it certainly is understandable that rejecting material things makes one feel that one is uniquely embracing ‘heavenly’ things. There is nothing inherently ascetic in Judaism or Christianity. Despite this, both have sprung ascetic movements. A presbyter (according to Tertullian) wrote an apocryphal work ascribed to St. Paul called “The Acts of Paul and Thecla.” It was written a bit before 160AD. It espouses chastity/virginity is greatly glowing terms. It shows that this aspect of asceticism was already idealized in the 2nd century. This could have come over from ascetic Jewish groups like the Essenes. However, Greek dualism of material versus spiritual certainly could be seen as a source. Asceticism had a big boost in the 4th century with the moral decline of the church as it went from a persecuted remnant to a popular and governmentally supported faith. Monks and Anchorites began to spring up espousing ascetic beliefs as an ideal form of Christianity. With this perspective, phrases in the Bible such as “absence from the body means presence with the Lord” or “Deny thyself and take up thy cross” can be taken to extremes where normal human emotions and desires are seen as being in conflict with God (who actually designed us that way).

Of course, I am not suggesting that everything we want to do is good. However, the Great Commandment makes it clear that loving God is not in competitiion with loving others. We love God AND others, and we express our love for others in some small way as a response to God’s love for us.

Caring about others is not inherently at odds to loving God. While God may be our highest love, grieving does not draw that love into question. It shows that we do, indeed, love.

I feel like this letter from Jerome expresses a certain theological perspective that is not only not sound, but is also harmful. It reminds me of an article I am reading now that tries to make the argument that the the election of God is immune from the charge of unfairness because of how deeply our sin goes against God’s holiness. I don’t quite see that. If I walk up to five people and give one of them a million dollars (a completely fanciful story here) the other four may say that i am unfair for giving the money to the one and not to all of them or another of them. I might argue that all five of them are completely undeserving, but does IN NO WAY undermine the concerns about fairness. In fact, I suspect growth would come from reflection— perhaps in understanding the idea of grace, or rethinking my presumptions of what election is (or is not).

Perhaps it is better not to be too dogmatic with someone struggling. Questions may be better than answers. So, with that in mind, I will say that these are my thoughts and hope you will meditate on this and decide for yourself.