Heroines That Every Child Should Know – Paula

In the city of Rome when its imperial strength had faded, to seek pleasure and to give one’s self to display had taken the place of honest work and sober duty. The time of which we speak was the fourth century. Affairs of government had been moved to Constantinople, and the effects of the conduct of great matters in their midst was thus denied the Romans.

The populace, fed for ages on public doles and the terrible gaiety of gladiatorial shows had become thoroughly debased, and unable to work out their own bettering. The persons having riches were likewise degraded by a life of luxury and senseless extravagance. Men of that type aired themselves in lofty chariots, lazily reclining and showing to advantage their carefully curled hair, robes of silk embroidery and tissue of gold, to excite the admiration and envy of plainer livers. Their horses’ harness would be covered with ornaments of gold, their coachmen armed with a golden wand instead of whip, and troups of slaves, parasites and other servitors would dance attendance about them. With such display the poor rich creatures would pass through the streets, pushing out of the way or trampling and crushing to the dust whomsoever they might chance to meet—very much as some automobilists act to-day. Brutality and senseless show always are hand in glove with each other.

The rich women of Rome well matched such men. Their very shoes crackled under their feet from excess of gold and silver ornament. Their dresses of cloth-of-gold or other expensive stuff were so heavy that the wearers could hardly walk, even with the aid of attendants. Their faces were often painted and their hair dyed and mounted high on the head in monstrous shapes and designs.

Creeping into such a life as we have just been describing came the pure and simple precepts of Jesus—and they doubtless found many a soul athirst and sick with folly and coarse regard for riches. For years the Christians had been persecuted and many of their number gaining the strength that poverty and persecution bring. In opposition to the luxury-loving spirit, also, had risen among a number an austere denial of all pleasure, and such persons sought a solitary life in a cave or other retired spot. The deserts were mined with caverns and holes in the sand in which hermits dwelt, picking up food as best they might, their bones rattling in a skin blackened by exposure—they were starving, praying and agonising for the salvation of their own souls and for a world sunk in luxury and wickedness.

Now and then one of these hermits would leave his country solitariness and go to some city with a mission of converting vice to virtue. Among these was a man whom we know as Jerome, or Saint Jerome. He was a native of a village on the slope of the Illyrian Alps, and his full name was Eusebius Hieronymus. Inflamed with a zeal for doing great works, loving controversy and harsh and strong in conflict, Jerome sought Rome after years of study and prayer in the desert. In Rome he came to be a frequenter of a palace on the Aventine in which a number of rich and influential women held meetings for Christian teaching and sought a truer and purer life.

Of all these women we best know Paula. No fine lady of that day was more exquisite, more fastidious, more splendid than she. She could not walk abroad without the support of servants, nor cross the marble floor from one silken couch to another, so heavily was gold interwoven in the tissue of her dresses. Her eldest daughter, Blæsilla, a widow at twenty, was a Roman exquisite, loving everything soft and luxurious. It was said of her that she spent entire days before her mirror giving herself to personal decoration—to the tower of curls on her head and the touch of rouge on her cheeks. Paula’s second daughter, Paulina, had married a young patrician who was Christian.

The third member of the family, a girl of sixteen, was Eustochium, a character strongly contrasting with her beautiful mother and sister. Even in early years she had fixed her choice upon a secluded life and shown herself untouched by the gaudy luxury about her. And to this the following pretty story will bear witness. An aunt of hers was Prætextata, wife of a high official of the Emperor Julian, and like the Emperor a follower of the old faith in the gods rather than the new faith in the teachings of Jesus. The family of Paula were, however, as we said, Christian.

This aunt Prætextata saw with some impatience and anger what she considered the artificial gravity of her youthful niece, and when she heard that the maid had said she intended never to marry, and purposed to withdraw from the world, she invited Eustochium to her house on a visit. The young vestal donned her brown gown, the habit of humility, and all unsuspicious sought her aunt. She had scarcely found herself within the house, however, before she was seized by favourite maids, who were interested in the plot. They loosed Eustochium’s long hair and elaborated it in curls and plaits; they took away her little brown gown and covered her with silk and cloth-of-gold; they hung upon her precious ornaments, and finally led her to the mirror to dazzle her eyes with the reflection she would find in the polished surface.

The little maid with the Greek name and pure heart, let them turn her round and round and praise her fresh and youthful beauty. But she was a girl who knew her mind, and was blessed with a natural seriousness. Her aunt’s household she permitted to have their pleasure that day. Then again she donned her little brown gown; and wore the habit all her life.

To return to Jerome: he had hardly arrived in Rome when he was made secretary of a council held in that city by ecclesiastics in the year 382. During his stay he dwelt in the house upon the Aventine in which such women as Paula had been meeting. The little community were now giving up their excessive luxuries and were devoting their time and income to good works, to visiting the poor, tending the sick and founding the first hospitals. To the man of the desert the gentle life must have been more agreeable. In this retreat he accomplished the first portion of his great work, the first authoritative translation of the entire Canon of Scripture – the Vulgate – so named when the Latin of Jerome was the language of the crowd.

But he did not work alone. Paula and other women of the community helped in the translation. They studied with enthusiasm the Scriptures in Hebrew and in Greek; they discussed phrases difficult of understanding, and often held their own opinions against the learned Jerome whose scribes they were willing to be.

Thus began the friendship between Paula and Jerome, which was deepened by the death of Blæsilla. This eldest daughter of Paula had a serious illness. One night, in a dream or vision, Jesus seemed to appear to her and take her by the hand and say, “Arise, come forth.” Waking, she seemed to sit at the table like Mary of Bethany. From that night her whole life was changed. She gathered together her embroidered robes and her jewels and sold them for the poor. Instead of torturing her head with a mitre of curls, she wore a simple veil. A woollen cord, dark linen gown and common shoes replaced the gold embroidered girdle, the glistening silks and the golden-heeled shoes. She slept upon a hard couch. Like others of her family she was finely intelligent, and she became one of the “apprentices” of Jerome, who wrote for her a commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of Vanities.”

Her conversion was enduring, but her health failed. In a few months another attack of fever laid her low. Her funeral was magnificent. Paula, according to Roman custom, accompanied her child’s body to the tomb of her ancestors, wild with grief, lamenting, and, at last, fainting, so that she was borne away as one dead.

The people were enraged. They accused Jerome, and other “detestable monks” of killing the young widow with austerities. “Let them,” they said; “be stoned and thrown into the Tiber.”

For days Paula wept and refused to see her friends. Jerome, because he had understood, loved and reverenced her child, she consented to admit. Paula listened to his telling her that she “refused nourishment not from love of fasting, but from love of sorrow”; that “the spirit of God descends only upon the humble,” and she arose and went forth. Nothing ever interrupted the friendship which from that time made the joy of her life and of Jerome’s.

It was in the summer of 385, nearly three years after his coming to Rome, and not a year after the death of Blæsilla, that Jerome left “Babylon,” as he called the tumultuous city. An affectionate company followed him to the seaport. Soon after Paula prepared for her departure, dividing her patrimony among her children. Her daughter, Paulina, was now married to a good and faithful husband, and these two undertook the charge and rearing of their youngest sister and the little Toxotius, a boy of ten. The grave young Eustochium, her head now covered by the veil of the devotee, clung to her mother’s side, a serene figure in the midst of all the misunderstanding and agitation of the parting.

Friends poured forth from the city to accompany them to the port, and all the way along the winding banks of the Tiber they plied Paula with entreaties and reproaches and tears. She made no answer. She was at all times slow to speak, the chronicle tells us. She freighted a ship at the port, Ostia, and retained her self-command until the vessel began to move from the shore where stood her son Toxotius stretching out his hands to her in last appeal, and by his side his sister Rufina, with wistful eyes. Paula’s heart was like to burst. She turned her eyes away, unable to bear the sight, and would have fallen but for the support of the firm Eustochium standing by her mother’s side.

The rich Roman lady, luxury-loving, had become a pilgrim. She had, however, according to the interpretation of the Christian spirit of that day, in renouncing her former life and all its belongings, set aside natural ties. Now she was going forth to make herself a home in the solitude of Bethlehem.

Her ship was occupied by her own party alone, and carried much baggage for this emigration for life. It came, hindered by no storms, to Cyprus, where old friends received Paula with honour, and conducted her to visit monks and nuns in their new establishments. She afterward proceeded to Antioch, where Jerome joined the party, and then along the coast of Tyre and Sidon, by Herod’s splendid city of Cæsarea and by Joppa rich with memories of the early apostles of their faith. Paula, the pilgrim, was no longer a tottering fine lady, but a strong, animated, interested traveller.

The little company continued on their tour for a year. They first paused, at Jerusalem, and here the tender, enthusiasm of Paula found its fullest expression. She went in a rapture of tears and exaltation from one to another of the sacred sites. She kissed the broken stone which was supposed to have been that rolled against the door of the Holy Sepulchre, and trod with pious awe the path to the cave where the True Cross was found. The legend of Helena’s finding the cross was still fresh in those days, and doubts there were none.

The ecstasies and joy of Paula, which found their expression in rapturous prayers and tears, moved all Jerusalem. The city was thronged with pilgrims, and the great Roman lady became their wonder. The crowd followed her from point to point, marvelling at her frank emotion and the warmth of her natural feeling.

From Jerusalem the party set out to journey through the storied deserts of Syria. This was in the year 387. They stopped everywhere to visit those monasteries built in awful passes of the rocks and upon stony wastes that the penance of the indwellers might be the greater. They found shelter with tanned and weather-beaten hermits in their holes and caverns. They poured upon them enthusiastic admiration, and shared with them their Arab bread and clotted milk, and also gave many an alm. Paula fascinated by the desert, would stay there and found a convent. But Jerome prevailed upon her to turn toward Jerusalem.

Thus they came to green Bethlehem, and the calm sweetness of the place and its pleasant fields smote their hearts. Here they determined to settle and build two convents—Jerome’s upon the hill near the western gate and Paula’s upon the smiling level below. He is said to have sold all that he had, and all that his brother, his faithful and constant companion, had, to gain money for the expense of his building. Paula, doubtless, had ample means from her former great wealth. Indeed, after her own was builded she had two other convents put up near by, and these were soon filled with devotees.

Also, she built a hospice for the reception of travellers, so that, as she said with tender smile and tears in eyes, “If Joseph and Mary should return to Jerusalem, they might be sure of finding room for them in the inn.” This gentle speech shines like a gleam of light upon the little holy city, and shows us the noble, natural kindness of Paula, and how profoundly she had been moved by associations to her most sacred and holy. Every poor pilgrim passing her door must to her sympathetic heart have had some semblance to that simple pair who carried the Light of the World to David’s little town among the hills.

Paula now laying aside wholly the luxurious habits of her life, set the example of simple and industrious living by washing floors and cleaning lamps and other household work. But she was far from ceasing her studies.

Jerome every day laboured at his great translation, and Paula and Eustochium copied, compared and criticised his daily labours. A great part of the Vulgate he had completed in Rome. His two friends had, doubtless, shared his studies during their long journey. They now read with him every day a portion of the Scriptures in the original; and it was at their entreaty and with their help that he began the translation of the Psalms. The following is a sympathetic description of the method of this work as it was carried out in the rocky chamber at Bethlehem, or in the convent close by:

His two friends charged themselves with the task of collecting all the materials, and this edition, prepared by their care, is that which remains in the Church under Jerome’s name…. It is pleasant to think of the two noble Roman ladies seated before the vast desk upon which were spread the numerous manuscripts, Greek, Hebrew and Latin… whilst they examined and compared, reducing to order under their hands, with piety and joy, that Psalter of St. Jerome which is still sung to-day.

So on a whole their days passed in fruitful labour. Jerome held a school for boys and young men, in which he taught the classics. But his great work, and the great work of Paula and Eustochium, was the translation of the Bible into what was then the speech of the people. For this they spared no pains nor costs. They must have found a quiet happiness above all they had calculated in this work. Their minds and thoughts must have been held by the charm of the noble poetry, by the puzzle of words to be cleared and read aright, by the constant interest of accomplishment that every sunrise brought to them, and brings ever to steadfast workers in these days.

And so they dwelt, the gentle Paula, a woman of courtesy, high spirit, steadfastness and gracious, sprightly humour; Eustochium, the grave young daughter who never left her mother’s side, whose gentle shadow is one with her mother’s; and Jerome, the greatest writer of his time, the mighty controversialist, a man evidently a well of force and sympathy, the kind friend and fellow-worker. Every day the three had conferences as to the most accurate renderings possible, and at all times the greatest respect for the scholarship and acuteness of one another. Amid them was the pleasant stir of independent opinion.

In the books that went forth from that seclusion in Bethlehem we find such an inscription as this:

You, Paula, and Eustochium, who have studied so deeply the books of the Hebrews, take it, this book of Esther, and test it word by word; you can tell whether anything is added, anything withdrawn: and can bear faithful witness whether I have rendered aright in Latin this Hebrew history.

Between these zealous workers in Bethlehem and the old Christian friends in Rome letters were constantly passing. And as the years of her absence grew, Paula, in time, heard of the marriage of Toxotius, who, a little boy of ten, had held out begging hands to her as her ship set sail from the port of Rome. Anon came the joyful news that a daughter had been born and named after her grandmother, Paula. The baby’s mother, Leta, looking forward with early longings for the child’s future, at once wrote to Jerome about the education of the little one.

The great writer’s first thought, amidst his joyous congratulations, is the probable conversion of the baby’s maternal grandfather, Albinus, a follower of the old gods.

“Albinus is already a candidate for the faith,” he writes, “a crowd of sons and grandsons besiege him. I believe, on my part, that if Jupiter himself had such a family he would be converted to Jesus Christ.”

Then Jerome gives, with tender detail, the counsels as to education for which Leta had asked. But he adds:

“It will be difficult to bring up thy little daughter thus at Rome. Send her to Bethlehem; she will repose in the manger of Jesus. Eustochium wishes for her; trust the little one with her. Let this new Paula be cradled on the bosom of her grandmother. Send her to me; I will carry her on my shoulders, old man as I am. I will make myself a child with her; I will lisp to fit her speech; and, believe me, I shall be prouder of my employment than ever Aristotle was of his” [as tutor to Alexander.]

The invitation was accepted. In a few years the little maiden was indeed sent to Bethlehem, though not till after the death of her grandmother Paula. And it was the child, the younger Paula, who at last closed the eyes of Jerome.

Paula, the grandmother, did not live long after the birth of her namesake. Her last illness was beginning. Eustochium watched her night and day, entrusting to no one else the tender last cares—sustaining the drooping head, warming the cold feet, feeding the weakened body, and making the invalid’s bed. If the mother fell asleep for a little while, the daughter would go for prayers to the Manger, close at hand and sanctified by its tender associations of motherhood.

But the precious life was slowly ebbing away. Knowing that her end was near, Paula began to repeat with great joy the verses of the Psalms she knew so well:

“Lord, I have loved the habitation of Thy house, and the place where Thine honour dwelleth!”; “How amiable are Thy tabernacles, O Lord God of hosts! My soul longeth, yea, fainteth, for the courts of the house of my God.”; “Better to be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.”

When she had finished, she began to say these songs of the threshold over again. She did not answer when spoken to, until Jerome came and asked gently why she did not speak and if she suffered. Then she answered in Greek, the language of her father and of her childhood, that she had no discomfort, but was “beholding in a vision all quiet and tranquil things.” “I feel already an infinite peace,” she said. And still she continued to murmur at intervals the words of that ancient song of pilgrimage until her voice grew fainter and fainter, and with the sigh of longing for God’s presence on her lips she entered it forever.

All Palestine may be said to have assisted at her funeral. A chorus of psalms and lamentations sounded forth in all languages—Hebrew, Greek, Latin. Hermits crept out of their caves, and monks came in throngs from their monasteries to bewail their generous friend, this great Roman lady, this devoted Christian. During her last days bishops from the neighbouring dioceses had gathered round her and her coffin was borne on their heads into the basilica of the Manger.

And there all the poor, the widowed and orphans lamented “their foster-mother,” “their mother,” and showed the gifts she had given them and the garments she had made for them. Eustochium could with difficulty be prevailed to leave her. She stayed kissing the cold lips, and at last, her grief breaking through the usual calm of her life, throwing her arms about the unconscious form and praying to be buried beside her.

Paula died at fifty-six. She had spent the last eighteen years of her life in Palestine.

Jerome, for the first time in his laborious life, lost his appetite for work. He could do no more. “I have been able to do nothing, not even from the Scriptures, since the death of the holy and gracious Paula,” he wrote. “Grief overwhelms me.”

Eustochium, with the instinct of true affection, drew him out of this stupor by inducing him to write a memoir of her mother for her. In two sleepless nights he dictated it. “He could not write himself. Each time that he took up the tablets his fingers stiffened and the stylus fell from his hand. He could not dwell,” he said, “on her great pedigree from the Scipios, the Gracchi, from Agamemnon, nor on her splendid opulence and her palace at Rome. She had preferred Bethlehem to Rome. Her praise was that she died poorer than the poorest she had succoured. At Rome she had not been known beyond Rome. At Bethlehem all Christendom, Roman and barbarian, revered her.”

“We weep not her loss; we thank God to have had her. Nay! we have her always, for all live by the spirit of God; and the elect who ascend to Him remain still always in the family of those He loves.”

Eustochium quietly took up the guidance of her mother’s convents and hospice and gently urged Jerome to resume his work. Writing almost countless letters, translating and commenting on the Scriptures he passed still many years, and at last, dying, at his own wish his body was buried in a hollow of the rocks at Bethlehem. To this day, it is said, his name can still be traced graven in the rock.

In the fifteen hundred years that have passed since the death of Paula, the homes of piety and charity established by her strength and love have been swept away. No tradition even of their site is left. But with one storied chamber is connected a warm interest. It is the rocky room, in one of the half caves, half excavations, close to that of the Nativity, and communicating with it by rudely hewn stairs and passages. In this, the legend runs, Jerome established himself while his convent was building. He called it his paradise. Sunlit from above, with prayer and the music of alleluias sounding there night and day, brightened by the glow of the pure affections of Paula and Eustochium and sanctified by their great work, from it flowed rivers of water to refresh the earth.