Read Cicero and Go to Hell!

Jerome, Epistula ad Eustochium (§30)

Though many years earlier I had separated myself from my home, my parents, my sister, my relations, and – what is still more difficult – from the habit of eating gourmet food, all for the sake of Heaven; and when I was heading to fight in Jerusalem, I was yet not able to go wholly  without my Library, which I had put together in Rome with the greatest industry and effort. And so, in my wretchedness, I would fast before reading Cicero. After the many periods of insomnia, after my tears which the recollection of my past sins was summoning from the depths of my body, I took up Plautus in my hands. If ever I returned to myself, I had begun to read the Prophets, but the uneducated speech made me bristle; and because I could not see the light with my blind eyes, I did not think that it was the fault of my eyes, but of the sun.

While the ancient serpent this toyed with me, sometime in the middle of Lent a fever infused my marrow and invaded my exhausted body; and without any rest (which is also incredible to say), it fed upon my unfortunate limbs such that I barely clung to my bones. Meanwhile, my funeral was being prepared, and the vital heat of my soul was palpitating only in my tepid little heart as the rest of my body went cold. Suddenly, seized in spirit, I was dragged to the tribunal of the judge, where there was such light, such resplendence from the clarity of the bystanders, that as I was thrown upon the ground, I dared not look back up. When I was asked about my condition, I responded that I was a Christian. The one who was presiding said, ‘You lie! You are a Ciceronian, not a Christian! For where your treasure is, there too is your heart.’ I went silent, and in the midst of my beatings (for he had ordered me to be struck down), I was being tortured by the fire of conscience, thinking over that little verse, ‘Who shall confide in you in hell?’ I began to shout and say, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, have mercy on me!’ My voice resounded among the beatings. Finally, those who were standing by turned to the knees of the judge and prayed that he grant some pardon to my youth and accommodate some bit of penitence to my error, with the intention of exacting torture from me if I ever afterward read books of pagan literature. I, constricted by such a bind would have been willing to swear to even greater things. I began to swear, and calling upon his name, said, ‘Lord, if I ever have worldly books, if I ever read them, I have denied you!’

Dismissed upon these words of the sacrament, then, I returned to the living. Everyone marveled as I opened my eyes soaked with such a torrent of tears that I even produced faith in the faithless with my suffering. For that indeed, that was not just sleep or the empty dreams by which were are often deluded. The witness to this is that tribunal before which I lay, the witness to this is that sad judgment, which I feared: I hope that it never falls to me to face such an inquisition again. I confess that I had bruised shoulder blades, that I felt the blows after the sleep, and that from then on I read divinity with such zeal as I had not applied to pagan literature before.

Saint Jerome, Doctor of Biblical Studies -

Cum ante annos plurimos domo, parentibus sorore, cognatis, et quod his difficilius est, consuetudine lautioris cibi, propter coelorum me regna castrassem, et Jerosolymam militaturus pergerem, Bibliotheca, quam mihi Romae summo studio ac labore confeceram, carere omnino non poteram. Itaque miser ego lecturus Tullium, jejunabam. Post noctium crebras vigilias, post lacrymas, quas mihi praeteritorum recordatio peccatorum ex imis visceribus eruebat, Plautus sumebatur in manus [al. manibus]. Si quando in memetipsum reversus, Prophetas legere coepissem, sermo horrebat incultus; et quia lumen caecis oculis non videbam, non oculorum putabam culpam esse, sed solis. Dum ita me antiquus serpens [al. hostis] illuderet, in media ferme Quadragesima medullis infusa febris, corpus invasit exhaustum: et sine ulla requie (quod dictu quoque incredibile sit) sic infelicia membra depasta est, ut ossibus vix haererem. Interim parantur exequiae, et vitalis animae calor, toto frigescente jam corpore, in solo tantum tepente pectusculo palpitabat: Cum subito raptus in spiritu, ad tribunal judicis pertrahor; ubi tantum luminis, et tantum erat ex circumstantium claritate fulgoris, ut projectus in terram, sursum aspicere non auderem. Interrogatus de conditione, Christianum me esse respondi. Et ille qui praesidebat: Mentiris, ait, Ciceronianus es, non Christianus: ubi enim thesaurus tuus, ibi et cor tuum (Matth. 6. 21). Illico obmutui, et inter verbera (nam caedi me jusserat) conscientiae magis igne torquebar, illum mecum versiculum reputans: “In inferno autem quis confitebitur tibi” (Ps. 6. 6)? Clamare tamen coepi, et ejulans dicere: Miserere mei, Domine, miserere mei. Haec vox inter flagella resonabat. Tandem ad praesidentis genua provoluti qui astabant, precabantur, ut veniam tribueret adolescentiae, et errori locum poenitentiae commodaret, exacturus deinde cruciatum, si Gentilium litterarum libros aliquando legissem. Ego qui in tanto constrictus articulo, vellem etiam majora promittere, dejerare coepi, et nomen ejus obtestans, dicere, Domine, si unquam habuero codices saeculares, si legero, te negavi. In haec sacramenti verba dimissus, revertor ad superos; et mirantibus cunctis, oculos aperto tanto lacrymarum imbre perfusos, ut etiam, incredulis fidem facerem ex dolore. Nec vero sopor ille fuerat, aut vana somnia, quibus saepe deludimur. Testis est tribunal illud, ante quod jacui, testis judicium triste, quod timui: ita mihi nunquam contingat in talem incidere quaestionem. Liventes fateor habuisse me scapulas, plagas sensisse post somnum, et tanto dehinc studio divina legisse, quanto non ante mortalia legeram.

One thought on “Read Cicero and Go to Hell!

  1. This is perfection

    “‘You lie! You are a Ciceronian, not a Christian! For where your treasure is, there too is your heart.’ ”

    Mentiris, ait, Ciceronianus es, non Christianus: ubi enim thesaurus tuus, ibi et cor tuum

Leave a Reply