The Roman Martyrology notes today as the anniversary of the death of a Saint named Paula in the year 404. She was a disciple of St Jerome, and the principal source of information about her is one of the longest among his many letters (108), written to console her daughter Eustochium. It recounts a great deal of information which the daughter certainly already knew, but of course, Jerome wrote with the expectation that his letters would be widely copied and read. He therefore takes the opportunity to present Paula as a model Christian, and describes his work with the opening words of one of Horace’s odes (3.30): “Exegi monumentum aere perennius – I have raised up a memorial more lasting than bronze.”
Paula was born in 347, a descendent of some of the wealthiest and most ancient families in Rome; at 16, she was married a nobleman of similarly ancient lineage called Toxotius. They had four daughters, Blaesilla, Paulina, Eustochium, and Rufina, and a son named for his father. When she was thirty-two, her husband died, and after a period of extreme grief, she was encouraged by another widow, St Marcella, to devote herself to a kind of monastic life. This was not a formal enclosure in a religious house, solemnized by vows, a custom which barely existed in her time, but a life of great austerity, study and prayer commonly shared with other women of similar station, and charitable works, for which the resources at her disposal were vast.
In 382, she was introduced to Jerome, who came from Bethlehem to the Eternal City in the company of two other Saints, Paulinus, the bishop of Antioch who had ordained him a priest, and Epiphanius of Salamis, the author of a well-known (but rather careless) treatise against heresies. Jerome became the spiritual director of the circle of devout women to which Paula belonged, a fact which invited a good deal of unpleasant and jealous gossip. This was also the period in which he undertook the first of his Biblical projects, at the behest of Pope St Damasus I, the revision of the Latin text of the Gospels.
Damasus died in 384, and Jerome, finding the atmosphere of Rome uncongenial (to say the least), returned to the Holy Land. Shortly thereafter, Blaesilla died, and Paula decided to leave Rome and join her spiritual father. Her second daughter Paulina was well married to another wealthy nobleman, Pammachius, also a friend of Jerome, and the builder of the basilica of Ss John and Paul. Eustochium had always been much more inclined towards her mother’s way of life, would be her constant companion for the rest of her life, but at the time of her departure, Rufina and Toxotius were still very young. Jerome describes in the aforementioned letter how she overcame her motherly affection to go where she knew Christ to be calling her. After visiting Epiphanius in his see on the island of Cyprus, they met Jerome at Antioch; from there, they proceeded to a pilgrimage of the major sites of the Holy Land, and visited the emergent monastic communities of Egypt and the Sinai desert.
(St Paula’s Departure from Ostia, 1639-40, by Claude Lorraine (1604-82). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
After this pilgrimage, Paulina and Eustochium settled in Bethlehem, where Jerome had long been previously established, and lived as they had in Rome, with him as their spiritual director. She used her fortune to build two monasteries, one for men and one for women, governing the latter herself, as well as a hospice for pilgrims. Her financial support was also essential to Jerome in his great work of translating the Hebrew parts of the Old Testament, and she and her daughter helped him on a scholarly level as well, since they knew both Greek and Hebrew. Jerome’s prefaces to Esther, Isaiah, Daniel and the Twelve Prophets, and that of his second revision of the Psalms (the so-called Gallican Psalter, used in the Roman Breviary) are all addressed to Paula and Eustochium, as are his commentaries on some of the Pauline Epistles. The preface to Joshua, Judges and Ruth was written to Eustochium “after the death of St Paula.”
The son Toxotius married a woman called Laeta, the Christian daughter of a pagan priest, and from this union was born a girl named for her grandmother. One of St Jerome’s most influential treatises is a letter addressed to Laeta concerning her daughter’s education, which is placed in his epistolarium right before the letter to Eustochium. It concludes with the advice that Rome may prove a less-than-ideal place for the child’s rearing, in which case, she should send her to her grandmother and aunt in Bethlehem once she was old enough, which did in fact happen.
After Paula’s death, Eustochium took over the administration of the monastery until her own death 15 years later, at which it passed to the younger Paula. She was buried with her mother, and when Jerome passed away a year and two days later, he was buried next to them.
Around the same time, a Greek named Palladius wrote a book about the lives of the early desert fathers known as the Lausiac History, which contains this very funny story about Paula and Jerome. “A certain Jerome, a priest, distinguished Latin writer and cultivated scholar as he was, showed qualities of temper so disastrous that they threw into the shade his splendid achievements. Posidonius, who had lived with him many days, said in my hearing, ‘The noble Paula, who looks after him, will die first and be freed from his bad temper…’ ”
(The Alms of St Paula, ca. 1684, by Giuseppe Nuvolone (1619-1704) Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)