We follow a God who became man; we embrace the cross to obtain glory; and we humble ourselves to be like God. The Christian life is replete with paradox, and the September 30th feast of St. Jerome, a Father and Doctor of the Church, offers us many illustrations of this fact.
He was a careful scholar but also a world-traveler. He was a consultant to Church leaders but also a faithful pen pal to his family. He was a great teacher but also a hermit hidden away in the desert.
He was also one of history’s best articulators of the Christian paradox so obvious in his life. And many of his most famous sayings also illuminate for us the story of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s conversion and her life’s work.
First, take St. Jerome’s perhaps most famous saying: “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”
A central paradox of Christianity is that one of the primary ways we meet Jesus Christ, the flesh and blood person, is in the pages of a book: the Bible. St. Jerome spent his life creating a version of that book the Church has relied on ever since: the Latin translation from original sources that we know as the Vulgate.
Elizabeth Bayley Seton’s life is a testimony to how the person of Jesus can be met in the pages of a book. Early in her married life she describes reading the Old Testament “as far as Ezekiel” and reading passages of Isaiah to her sick husband, “which he enjoyed so much that he was carried for a while beyond his troubles.”
“William says he feels like a person brought to the Light after many years of darkness when he heard the Scriptures,” she said.
She went to the pages of a book, and there she and her husband found Jesus Christ.
In another paradox of Jerome, those words must become actions: “Today we must translate the precepts of the Scriptures into deeds,” he wrote. “Instead of speaking saintly words, we must act them.”
This he wrote when a series of natural disasters flooded his area with refugees. He left aside the intellectual work that would have worldwide influence for millennia and helped individual poor people instead.
St. Elizabeth Ann was also a Christian with a rich intellectual life, but (even before she became Catholic) she set that aside to help refugees. In 1797 she gathered with other women at the home of Mrs. Isabella Marshall Graham. They formed the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children, with Elizabeth serving as treasurer. That makes her a leader of America’s first charitable society founded and run by women.
In a 1798 letter Isabella Graham described the work of the society. “The success has been beyond our most sanguine expectations. We have now a hundred and ninety subscribers,” she wrote. “The poor increase fast: emigrants from all quarters flock to us, and when they come they must not be allowed to die for want.” The society served 800 individuals in their almshouses, she said.
St. Jerome also once sagely pointed out the paradox of mentors: “The vices of our teachers are not to be imitated. Their virtues are.”
Just as this maxim directs, Elizabeth took the best of her Protestant tradition and, from the high scaffolding it gave her, she reached the Catholic faith. She said that the Episcopalian church led her to the Catholic Church. “[I]f Faith is so important to our Salvation I will seek it where true faith first beg[a]n, seek it among those who received it from God himself, the controversies on it I am quite incapable of deciding, and as the strictest Protestant allows Salvation to a good Catholic, to the Catholics I will go, and try to be a good one,” she said.
Yet later she remembered how difficult it was for her to embrace belief in the Blessed Sacrament because of her Protestant teachers. “I was in the church many times before I dared look at the Sacred Host at the elevation, so daunted by their cry of idolatry,” she said.
Now she wanted to share what she had received. “I can tell you the impossibility for a poor Protestant to see [the Real Presence] without being led step by step and the Veil lifted little by little,” she wrote.
Another key Christian paradox that St. Jerome helped define was the idea that to lose is to gain.
“The measure of our advancement in the spiritual life should be taken from the progress we make in the virtue of mortification,” he said. “It should be held as certain that the greater violence we shall do ourselves in mortification, the greater advance we shall make in perfection.”
Both Elizabeth and Jerome traded lives that were well-off for lives that were dependent on providence.
St. Jerome was born north of Rome around 340 to a wealthy Christian family. After studying with great success in Rome, he became, as he said, a lover of worldly pleasures. But then a conversion experience drove him to join a hermit community and renounce his worldly possessions.
Elizabeth, on a smaller scale, followed the same trajectory, being born in 1776 in New York, and then going from married Wall Street life in New York to convent life in Baltimore as a widow. She suffered much in her life: disease, the loss of a husband, and the loss of children. Yet despite periods of darkness, she never lost her joy.
We can all learn from this paradox of Christianity: The more you give up, the more room you leave for God, and the more you hang on to, the less you can embrace Jesus Christ, where true happiness lies. For as Christ promised, “[W]hoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35).
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.
Image Credit: Saint Jerome by Marinus van Reymerswale