Chapter IV (continued), Life of St Marina, Book 1dLife No 25
(Also St Fabiola further down this page)
He did not need much persuasion. He called Marinus back inside.
"Your father was a holy man, as you know," he said to Marinus, "and brought you into this monastery as a small child. He never did such an evil thing as you have done, nor has anyone else ever done in this holy monastery. But now you have come back in, along with the son of your adultery. The grievous sin you have committed requires that you continue to do penance. So my instructions are that you alone are to do all the daily cleaning jobs in the monastery, fetching water as necessary and acting as a servant to all the others. If you carry that out, you will win back my approval."
The holy woman gladly accepted all this, and did whatever she was told.
After a few days, however, she fell asleep in the Lord.
"Brother Marinus is dead," the monks said to the abbot.
"Just see how great his sin must have been, brothers, "said the abbot. "He wasn't even allowed to live out his penance. However, go and wash his body and bury it somewhere well away from the monastery."
And of course when they did so they knew that brother Marinus was in fact a woman. And they began to cry out, beating their breasts.
"What holy patience she showed in her life! She was punished by all because no one knew her secret."
And they came to the abbot in tears.
"Abba, come and look at brother Marinus," they cried through their tears.
"Why, what's the matter?" he asked.
"Come and gaze upon the wonders of God," the replied, "and think of what lies at your door in this matter."
Somewhat alarmed, he hastened to the body. He lifted the sheet covering her, saw that she was a woman, and fell to the floor, beating his head on the ground, shouting loudly.
"I beg you, by the Lord Jesus Christ, do not condemn me in the sight of God for the way I have treated you. I did not know what I was doing. You never revealed your secret, lady, and truly I just did not have the faintest inkling of the holiness of the way you decided to live."
And he ordered that the body should be placed in the monastery chapel.
On that very same day, the girl who had been deceived by the devil came to the monastery, confessed her sin and named the father of the child. On the seventh day, the girl was liberated from the demon, there in the chapel where the holy body was lying. When the people in the market and in the neighbourhood heard about all these astonishing events, they came the monastery with crosses and candles, singing hymns and psalms and blessing God. They came right into the chapel where the holy body lay and blessed God the more. Right up to the present day, Christ continues to do many miracles there through the prayers of the holy virgin to the praise of his name. Who with the Father and the holy Spirit lives and reigns, God unto the ages of ages. Amen
The Life of St Fabiola, Virgin and Martyr
[Celebrated in the Roman Martyrology on December 27. Rosweyde claims ignorance of the date of her death, but Butler in his Lives of the Saints gives it as 399]
by Jerome, presbyter and divine [c.341 - 420. Biblical scholar and Doctor of the Church]
(a letter written to his friend, Oceanus, a Roman nobleman)
[Rosweyde has a note that this is "Letter 30". But in the selection of Jerome's letters translated in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Oxford, 1893, it is listed as Letter 77]
It is several years now since I counselled that venerable woman Paula [See Life 26, below] while her sorrow for the death of Blesilla was still fresh. [Blesilla was Paula's daughter. Under the guidance of Jerome she had made a vow of chastity after she was widowed, but died four months later in 389] Four summers ago I wrote to bishop Heliodorus with an epitaph for Nepotianus, doing what I could to express my grief at his loss. Hardly two years ago I wrote a letter, which was quite brief, to my friend Pammachius on the subject of the sudden loss of his wife Paulina. [Paulina was another of Paula's daughters] I felt unable to say very much to such an accomplished person as that, for although I was only offering comfort to a friend by way of providing a sounding board for his own thoughts, it might have looked as if I was trying to teach something to someone already perfect.
But now, my son Oceanus, you are laying a task on me which I gladly fulfil, and would even have done if you had not asked me. It is on the same sort of subject as before, but I must fashion it in a new sort of way, as befits the new occasion. In those earlier letters I was dealing with the affection of a parent, the mourning of an uncle, or the longing desire of a husband, and I offered the medicine of different texts of scripture according to the different needs of each person.
And now you are offering me Fabiola, praised by Christians, regarded as miraculous even by the heathen, mourned by the poor, and lamented by the monks she used to cherish. Where should I begin? Anything I might say is overshadowed by what I might say next. Shall I praise her fasting? Her almsgiving was greater. Should I extol her humility? It was exceeded by the ardour of her faith. I could mention her search for lowliness, and her rejection of silken robes in favour of the kind of dress worn by the lower classes; but it is a much bigger thing to change your attitude to life than it is to change your clothing. It is much more difficult to renounce an inner feeling of superiority than to go without gold and jewels, for once we have renounced these things we are often so fearful of this kind of lowliness, however glorious it might be, that we then try to flaunt our poverty in order to make a public impression. A hidden virtue, however, cherished secretly in our own conscience, seeks no judge except God.
So now that I am required to offer yet another eulogy, let me do without the rhetoric, and talk about the simple facts of her penitence and general way of life. Others might prefer me to start with Quintus Fabius Maximus, [A famous ancestor of Fabiola who saved Rome from the attacks of the Cathaginian general Hannibal, 209 BC. He was known as Cunctator, "delayer", because of his guerrilla tactics against Hannibal]
who by delaying tactics restored the Republic, [from Virgil's Aeneid, Book 6]
and describe all the battles of the whole Fabian clan, and show how all their victories contributed to the nobility which Fabiola inherited, and thus demonstrate that the virtues evident in the branch would not have been possible unless they had been present in the root. But I am a devotee of the inn at Bethlehem and the stable of the Lord where a virgin gave birth to an infant who was God, so I shall describe Fabiola, the handmaid of the Lord, not in terms of springing from a long line of noble history, but as nourished by the humility of the church.
But first, let me begin by dealing with a criticism which is often made of her - a criticism as hard as a rock and as furious as a storm - that she took a second marriage after renouncing her first. I shall not praise her later conversion without first absolving her of guilt. It is common knowledge that her first husband had so many vices that not even a prostitute or a common slave would have been able to put up with them. If I were to list them all, I would not be doing justice to her courage in preferring to take all the blame herself for the separation, rather than expose all the vices of him who was one flesh with her and bring him into disgrace. What I am going to say will be quite enough to vindicate her as a thoroughly chaste Christian woman.For the Lord says that a wife should not be divorced except for fornication (Matthew 5.32), and if she has been divo rced she should remain unmarried (1 Corinthians 7.11). Now these injunctions for men must apply equally to women. If it is all right for a man to divorce an adulterous wife, you can't say that a wife must at all costs remain with a fornicating man. If a man is joined to a harlot he becomes one flesh with her (1 Corinthians 6.16); in that case a woman who is joined to an immoral fornicator becomes one flesh with him. The laws of Christ are different from the laws of the Romans. Papinianus [A Roman jurist of great renown, who held high legal office, first under Marcus Aurelius, then under Severus. He was put to death by Caracalla in 212] enjoins one thing, our Paul another. Among the Romans the curbs on licentiousness are relaxed for men. Incest and adultery only are condemned; brothels and the abuse of young female slaves are widely condoned, as if a man is only to be blamed if he sins with someone of high rank. Among us, what is forbidden to women is also forbidden to men; they are all equally bound by the same laws.
Yes, Fabiola has put away a vicious husband, as everyone knows, guilty of this crime and that crime. (I had almost mentioned the crimes which the whole neighbourhood knows about, but about which his wife alone said nothing!) But if you argue that after leaving her husband she should have remained unmarried, perhaps I might agree that that was a fault, although I could just as easily argue that it was a necessity. For the Apostle says it is better to marry than to burn (1 Corinthians 7.9). She was only a young woman; to endure perpetual widowhood was beyond her. She was well aware of another law in her members fighting against the law of her mind, leading her inexorably towards sexual intercourse (Romans 7.23). So she thought it better to acknowledge openly her weakness under the cloud of a somewhat disreputable second marriage, than take to being promiscuous while maintaining the reputation of being the wife of only one husband. Similarly, the Apostle enjoins the young women to marry and bear children so that they give no occasion to the devil to smear their name (1 Timothy 5.14). And he goes on to explain the reason for this: that some of the women had already turned aside after Satan (ibid.15). So Fabiola was perfectly convinced that she was right to divorce her husband. Granted, she was not at that time aware of the rigour of the Gospel which forbids women to marry again during the lifetime of their husbands. But by falling unknowingly into one fault she avoided a multitude of other attacks from the devil. [Jerome is sometimes portrayed as a rather curmudgeonly old puritanical misogynist. This deeply understanding passage effectively gives the lie to that!]
But why go on delving around in matters which are past and done with, when she has already joined the ranks of the penitent? Who would have believed that after the death of her second husband she would not have indulged in the usual careless behaviour of widows freed from the yoke of obedience - acting lasciviously, frequenting the baths, idling about in the public squares, carrying the look of a harlot about with them? Who would have believed that she would don sackcloth and publicly acknowledge the error of her ways? Yet in full view of the whole city of Rome she took her place among the order of Penitents .[The convenience of the confessional box was unknown in the early church. It was the custom in the early church for penitents to make public reparation before being readmitted to Communion.] on Easter Eve in the basilica which used to belong to that Lateranus who perished by the sword of Caesar. [ A senator who conspired against Nero and was put to death. His palace on the Aelian Hill was eventually donated to the church by Constantine. The basilica of St John Lateran stands on the same site to this day] The bishop, the presbyters and all the people wept in sympathy with her, as she stood there with unkempt hair, pallid lips, and unwashed neck.
What sins are there which such mourning cannot purge? What stains cannot be found washed away by such lamentation? Peter wiped out his triple denial (John 18.17-27) by a triple confession (John 21.15-17). The prayers of Aaron's brother made amends for his sacrilege in fashioning gold into the head of a calf (Exodus 32.30-32). David's seven day fast (2 Samuel 12.16-18) atoned for his adultery and the murder of a holy and innocent man (2 Samuel 11). He lay on the ground, poured ashes on his head, oblivious of his regal dignity, seeking for light in the darkness. He looked only to him whom he had offended, proclaiming with tears, 'Against you only have I sinned and done this evil in your sight' (Psalms 51.4), and, 'Give back the joy of salvation to me, and strengthen me with your creative spirit' (ibid.12).
The lesson from the virtues displayed in these examples is that however firmly I stand it is possible that I may fall, and also that even though fallen it is possible through penance to rise again. Who is there so ungodly among the kings as Ahab, of whom Scripture says, 'There was no one like Ahab who sold himself to do evil in the sight of the Lord' (1 Kings 21.25)? The prophet Elijah accused this man of being guilty of the blood of Naboth, saying, 'You have killed, and robbed, and behold I will bring evil upon you and wipe out your posterity' (ibid.21). 'And Ahab rent his garments and covered himself in haircloth, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and walked with his head cast down. And the word of Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, "Have you not seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Therefore, because he has humbled himself for my sake, I will not bring evil upon him in his days"' (ibid.27-29).
O blessed penance, which draws down the eyes of God, which turns aside the wrath of God when error is confessed! We learn exactly the same lesson from reading about Manasseh in 2 Chronicles (ch.33), and the king of Nineveh in Jonah (ch.3), and the publican in the Gospel (Luke 18.13). the first of these not only received forgiveness, but was counted worthy to receive the kingdom, the second turned aside the anger of God, and the third beat his breast and dared not lift up his eyes to heaven. And the publican went away justified by his humble confession of sin, rather than the Pharisee with his proud boasting of his virtues. This is not really the place to preach about penance, as if I were writing a treatise against Montanus and Novatus, [Rigorists who denied the power of the church to absolve persons who had fallen into sin] I will simply remind you that the 'sacrifice which is pleasing to God is a troubled spirit' (Psalms 51.1), and, 'I prefer the penitence of a sinner rather than that he should die' (Ezekiel 18.32), and, 'Arise, arise, O Jerusalem' (Isaiah 60.1), and many other trumpet calls from the prophets.
And this one thing also I will say, for it may be useful to my readers, and is very relevant to the matter we have been dealing with. Fabiola was not ashamed of the Lord on earth, therefore the Lord will not be ashamed of her in heaven (Mark 8.38). She exposed her wounds to all, and Rome in tears gazed upon the disfiguring scars in her flesh. She uncovered her limbs, she bared her head and closed her mouth. She had no longer been entering the church of the Lord (Leviticus 13.46), but had been sitting separately outside the camp with Miriam the sister of Moses (Numbers 12.10-14), waiting till the priest who drove her out should admit her back in again. She 'came down from her throne of delights, she took the millstone and ground flour, she took off her shoes and waded through rivers of tears' (Isaiah 47.1-2). 'She sat upon coals of fire and these came to her aid' (ibid.14 Vulgate). She disfigured that face which had once delighted her second husband, she despised her jewels, she could not bear even to look upon fine linen, and she put away all her ornamentation. She grieved as if she had committed adultery, and by making use of many medicines she sought to be cured of her one wound.
We have dwelt at some length upon her penitence, but have now come ashore out of the deep, in order to enter into a wider space where we may begin to describe her praises freely. Having been received publicly back into the fellowship of the church, what did she do? In her day of good fortune she did not forget the days of evil; after the shipwreck she had no desire to commit herself again to the dangers of the deep. Instead she preferred to carve up all her various properties and sell them (her properties were considerable, as befitting to her rank), and having gathered together a large sum of money she put it to work for the benefit of the poor.
The first thing she did was to set up a nosochomeion [Greek word meaning "hospice" or "hospital"] into which she gathered sick people from off the streets and provided relief for the needy and nursed those suffering from various ills. Need I describe all those various human disasters - the broken noses, the eyes put out, the feet half withered, the hands covered in sores, the distended bellies, the thin shanks, the swollen shins, the diseased and decaying flesh swarming with maggots? How often did she bear upon her shoulders people infected with jaundice or filth? How often did she wash the wounds oozing with pus which most people could not bear even to look at? She prepared food with her own hands, and moistened the lips of the dying with sips of liquid.
I know many rich and religious people who are quite happy to bring this sort of relief to people by being generous with their money, as long as somebody else is actually doing the work. They have not the stomach to do it with their own hands. But I don't blame them. A natural repugnance does not necessarily indicate a lack of faith. But while I may forgive them their weakness of stomach, I cannot fail but offer praises to heaven for the fervour of a mind which has perfectly banished such scruples. It was her great faith which enabled her to overcome.
I know what reward was meted out to the proud rich man clothed in purple who failed to do anything for Lazarus (Luke 16.23). The person whom we might despise, whom we can hardly bear to look at, to care for whom would make us vomit, is only another person like us, formed like us out of the same clay, built up out of identical elements. Anything that happens to him could just as easily happen to us. If we were to reckon the wounds of others as our own, then our own hard-heartedness towards others might be broken down into a realisation of our own need for mercy.
If I had a hundred tongues and a hundred lips and voice like a trumpet, I still would not be able give you the names of all the diseases [Virgil's Aeneid, Book 6]
that Fabiola treated. She brought so much comfort to these wretches that many people even began to be envious of the poor! She exercised a similar liberality towards clerics, monks and virgins. What monastery has not been given a share in her alms? What scantily clothed or bed-ridden person has Fabiola not provided with clothing? Are there any needy persons upon whom she has not poured forth her immediate and unstinted bounty? And she found that even Rome was too narrow a sphere for her pity.
She extended her influence throughout the islands in the Etruscan sea, and into the province of the Volsci. Either in person, or by the hands of trustworthy holy men, she distributed her alms among the communities of monks to be found in these winding shores. Then suddenly, against everyone's advice, she decided to go to Jerusalem, where she avoided meeting crowds of people by making use for a short time of our own hospice. [Jerome spent the latter part of his life at Bethlehem, where he completed his translation of the Bible into Latin] When I think about our meeting I seem to see her there now, as vividly as I did then.
Good Lord! [Jesu bone!] What eagerness and zealous ardour she showed in reading my books of divinity! She devoured the Prophets, the Gospels and the Psalms as if she was trying to satisfy a raging hunger. She questioned and discussed, and locked the fruits of her enquiries in the safe keeping of her own heart. Nor did what she had learnt satisfy her desire to hear more; by increasing her knowledge she also increased her sorrow (Ecclesiastes 1.18). As if by fuel added to the fire, her zeal became all the more ardent.
One day we were looking at Numbers, written by Moses, and she somewhat diffidently asked me what she was to make of the great number of names to be found in it, and why each of the tribes were associated with various different places, and how it came about that the soothsayer Balaam prophesied more clearly about the Christian mysteries than any other prophet (Numbers 2.15-19). I replied as best I could, and seemed to satisfy her curiosity well enough. Then as she unrolled the book she came to the place where there is a list of all the stopping places of the children of Israel as they made their way out of Egypt to the river Jordan (Numbers 33). She wanted to know the reason for each one. Some I was doubtful about, others I dealt with quite firmly, about some I confessed my ignorance. This made her urge me on all the more, as if I should not be allowed to remain in ignorance of these matters about which I knew nothing, and at the same time she protested that she herself was unworthy to delve into such great mysteries. What more can I say? She shamed me into having to confess my ignorance, and made me promise to produce a work on these matters specially for her own use [In Letter 78 of the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, op.cit, dedicated to Fabiola but not completed till after her death, Jerome fulfils this promise, and sends it to Oceanus along with this letter.]. Up to the present time, as I now see it, it has been God's will for this project to be deferred, so that now I can dedicate it to her memory. In a previous volume I clothed her in priestly garments; [In Letter 64 to Fabiola, Jerome expounds the high priestly garments of Aaron described in Exodus 28] Let her now rejoice that she has reached the land of promise.
Let me continue with the task I have begun. We had started looking out for some little place for her to live, something like Mary's inn, but suitable for such a great lady, where she might find the solitude she was looking for, when suddenly the whole Eastern region was shaken by the news from various messengers that the hordes of Huns were pouring forth from distant Maeotis. [The Sea of Azov] They had been living there between the icy Tanais [The Don] and the fierce tribes of the Massagetae, [An Asiatic people to the East of the Caspian Sea] where the gates of Alexander hold back the wild people behind the Caucasian mountains. But now they were making lightning raids on their fleet-footed horses, filling the whole region with slaughter and terror at a time when the Roman army was not there, as they were busy in Italy with civil wars. [A revolt by Eugenius, against Theodosius I, Emperor of the East, in 392]
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