Letter XVII. To the Presbyter Marcus.
In this letter, addressed to one who seems to have had some pre-eminence among the monks of the Chalcidian desert, Jerome complains of the hard treatment meted out to him because of his refusal to take any part in the great theological dispute then raging in Syria. He protests his own orthodoxy, and begs permission to remain where he is until the return of spring, when he will retire from “the inhospitable desert.” Written in a.d. 378 or 379.
1. I had made up my mind to use the words of the psalmist: “While the wicked was before me I was dumb with silence; I was humbled, and I held my peace even from good”310 and “I, as a deaf man, heard not; and I was as a dumb man that openeth not his mouth. Thus I was as a man that heareth not.”311 But charity overcomes all things,312 and my regard for you defeats my determination. I am, indeed, less careful to retaliate upon my assailants than to comply with your request. For among Christians, as one has said,313 not he who endures an outrage is unhappy, but he who commits it.
2. And first, before I speak to you of my belief (which you know full well), I am forced to cry out against the inhumanity of this country. A hackneyed quotation best expresses my meaning:
What savages are these who will not grant
A rest to strangers, even on their sands!
They threaten war and drive us from their coasts.314
I take this from a Gentile poet that one who disregards the peace of Christ may at least learn its meaning from a heathen. I am called a heretic, although I preach the consubstantial trinity. I am accused of the Sabellian impiety although I proclaim with unwearied voice that in the Godhead there are three distinct,315 real, whole, and perfect persons. The Arians do right to accuse me, but the orthodox forfeit their orthodoxy when they assail a faith like mine. They may, if they like, condemn me as a heretic; but if they do they must also condemn Egypt and the West, Damasus and Peter.316 Why do they fasten the guilt on one and leave his companions uncensured? If there is but little water in the stream, it is the fault, not of the channel, but of the source. I blush to say it, but from the caves which serve us for cells we monks of the desert condemn the world. Rolling in sack-cloth and ashes,317 we pass sentence on bishops. What use is the robe of a penitent if it covers the pride of a king? Chains, squalor, and long hair are by right tokens of sorrow, and not ensigns of royalty. I merely ask leave to remain silent. Why do they torment a man who does not deserve their ill-will? I am a heretic, you say. What is it to you if I am? Stay quiet, and all is said. You are afraid, I suppose, that, with my fluent knowledge of Syriac and Greek, I shall make a tour of the churches, lead the people into error, and form a schism! I have robbed no man of anything; neither have I taken what I have not earned. With my own hand318 daily and in the sweat of my brow319 I labor for my food, knowing that it is written by the apostle: “If any will not work, neither shall he eat.”320
3. Reverend and holy father, Jesus is my witness with what groans and tears I have written all this. “I have kept silence, saith the Lord, but shall I always keep silence? Surely not.”321 I cannot have so much as a corner of the desert. Every day I am asked for my confession of faith; as though when I was regenerated in baptism I had made none. I accept their formulas, but they are still dissatisfied. I sign my name to them, but they still refuse to believe me. One thing only will content them, that I should leave the country. I am on the point of departure. They have already torn away from me my dear brothers, who are a part of my very life. They are, as you see, anxious to depart—nay, they are actually departing; it is preferable, they say, to live among wild beasts rather than with Christians such as these. I myself, too, would be at this moment a fugitive were I not withheld by physical infirmity and by the severity of the winter. I ask to be allowed the shelter of the desert for a few months till spring returns; or if this seems too long a delay, I am ready to depart now. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof.”322 Let them climb up to heaven alone;323 for them alone Christ died; they possess all things and glory in all. Be it so. “But God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me and I unto the world.”324
4. As regards the questions which you have thought fit to put to me concerning the faith, I have given to the reverend Cyril325 a written confession which sufficiently answers them. He who does not so believe has no part in Christ. My faith is attested both by your ears and by those of your blessed brother, Zenobius, to whom, as well as to yourself, we all of us here send our best greeting.
310 Ps. xxxix. 1, 2, Vulg.
311 Ps. xxxviii. 13, 14.
312 Cf. 1 Cor. xiii. 7.
313 Cyprian, Letter LV. Cf. Cic. T. Q. v. accipere quam facere præstat injuriam.
314 Virg. A. i. 539–541.
316 The contemporary bishops of Rome and Alexandria.
317 Tert. Apol. 40, s. f.
318 1 Cor. iv. 12.
319 Gen. iii. 19.
320 2 Thess. iii. 10.
321 Isa. xlii. 14, LXX.
322 Ps. xxiv. 1.
323 Was Jerome thinking of Constantine’s rebuke to the Novatian bishop at Nicæa, “Plant a ladder for thyself, Acesius, and mount alone to heaven”?
324 Gal. vi. 14.
325 Who this was is unknown. The extant document purporting to contain this confession is not genuine.