Paula on living in Jerusalem
I have been thinking a lot about Erasmus and how he and the first generation of humanist scholars learned Greek and Hebrew. Many of them studied with Greek scribes who offered their services as language instructors. But today you can study Greek without ever interacting with a native speaker. Here Paula writes some good advice on the topic,
Paula’s letter to Marcella pleads with her old friend that she leave Rome, called in the letter a “Babylon,” and come to Jerusalem and its Holy Places.3 It describes Paula’s pilgrims to all these Holy Places in such a way as to have Marcella participate in their sacred journeying, mentally, and vicariously, in her imagination. Paula and Eustochium begin their letter by stating that, although the Crucifixion may have made Jerusalem an accursed place, there is ample scriptural justification for Christians to return to that holy city. Paula relies not only on the Scriptures but also upon Cicero for this argument, describing both St. Paul speaking of his need to return to Jerusalem and Cicero speaking of his need to learn one’s Greek not only in Sicily but in Athens, one’s Latin not in Lilybaeum but in Rome. She adds, in a capstone to her argument, that Jerusalem is “our Athens.” She then quotes Virgil’s First Eclogue on the great distance of the British Isles from Rome in noting that Christian Gauls and Britons all make haste to come, not to Rome, but to far Jerusalem.4 Paula movingly contrasts the wealth of Rome and the poverty of Bethlehem:5
Ubi sunt latae porticus? ubi aurata laquearia? ubi domus miserorum poenis et damnatorum labore vestitae? ubi instar palatii, opibus privatorum extructae basilicae, ut vile corpusculum hominis pretiosius inambulet et quasi mundo quicquam possit esse ornatius, tecta magis sua magis quidquam velit aspicere, quam caelum? Ecce in hoc parvo terrae foramine, caelorum conditor natus est, hic involutus pannis, hic visus a pastoribus, hic demonstratus a stella, hic adoratus a Magis . . . In Christi vero . . . villula tota rusticitas, et extra psalmos silentium est. Quocumque te verteris, arator stivam tenens, alleluia decantat. Sudans messor Psalmis se avocat, et curva attondens vitem falce vinitor aliquod Davidicum canit. Haec sunt in hac provincia carmina, hae, ut vulgo dicitur, amatoriae cantationes. Hic pastorum sibilus, haec arma culturae. Verum quid agimus, nec quid deceat cogitantes, solum quod cupimus hoc videmus?[Where are spacious porticoes? Where are gilded ceilings? Where are houses decorated by the sufferings and labours of condemned wretches? Where are halls built by the wealth of private men on the scale of palaces, that the vile carcase of man may move among more costly surroundings, and view his own roof rather than the heavens, as if anything could be more beauteous than creation? . . . . In the village of Christ . . . all is rusticity, and except for psalms, silence. Whithersoever you turn yourself, the ploughman, holding the plough handle, sings Alleluia; the perspiring reaper diverts himself with psalms, and the vine-dresser sings some of the ballads of this country, these are the love-songs, as they are commonly called; these are whistled by the shepherds, and are the implements of the husbandman. Indeed, we do not think of what we are doing or how we look, but see only that for which we are longing.]
Paula has written a Christian Georgics, a Christian pastoral, though as if through the eyes of Karl Marx, Simone Weil, and Frantz Fanon.6 Her style is shaped by Cicero and Virgil, Horace and Juvenal; her social thought is shaped by the Prophets and the Gospels.
In contrast to this letter, Jerome’s account of the pilgrimage Paula made is almost barren of references to classical authors. He writes it after Paula’s death, giving her vita to her virgin daughter, Eustochium.7 The letter waxes most sentimental about her parting from her family members, describing her as torn between the love of her children and her love for God. He does, however, mention the “fables of the poets,” de fabulis Poetarum, in giving the tale of Andromeda chained to a rock, as happening at Joppa, which he notes was also the harbor of the fugitive Jonah. He had earlier cited some lines of the Aeneid concerning the Greek Isles. But, unlike Paula, he does not show off his classical learning. He is here being more Christian than Ciceronian. (We recall his dream in which he is chided, or chides himself, by being told, “Thou art not a Christian. Thou art a Ciceronian.”8) He mentions Paula as visiting the tomb of Queen Helena, famed in Jerusalem for having given wheat during a famine to the populace. (This Queen Helena in pilgrim legends may have become conflated with the Empress Helena.) He notes Paula’s deep piety at the Cross and the Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and at the cave and church in Bethlehem.9
Jerome even notes Paula telling him that she realizes that the Hebrew means not Mary, mother of God, “her,” but God, “him,” in Psalm 132: “Behold, we heard of her/him in Ephratah, and found her/him in the fields of the wood,” because he has corrected her on this matter of the Hebrew “zoth.”10 A woman, reading of that apology, can sense its pain. It is a male rebuke to her feminist reading of the text, and she, rather than he, may be correct. There was not yet a Dame Julian to console her as there would be for the later Dame Margery concerning such male rebuffs.