Paula of Rome (347–404) – an example of womanly virtues
Paula welcomed the lonely and difficult to get along with Jerome into her house, caring for him and befriending him. He, on the other hand, recalling those moments wrote about her: “sad, fasting, covered with a dark dress, nearly blind from crying, whom the sun saw after a whole night of prayers, form whom Psalms were a song, the Gospel was speech, and restraint was a delight”. Most likely the reason for Paula’s condition was not only religious ecstasy but also the unexpected death of her oldest daughter Blaesilla.
Until Jerome’s patron, Pope Damasus was alive, his position in Rome was rather stable, although there were rumors about criticism regarding his contacts with the aforementioned women. After the pope's death (384) Jerome was forced to leave the city. There were several reasons for this, and three of them were connected with Paula and her family. The asceticism, profound devotion, as well as the planned abandoning of her family and removal from public life, were widely commented on and criticized in Rome since she represented a way of life that while not exactly new among the Roman aristocracy, was still rather seldom practiced. The aristocratic circles erupted, especially after, her daughter, Eustochium decided to remain a virgin. And it was not only pagans who were furious; Christians themselves also criticized such practices, staunchly rejecting Jerome’s rigorous teachings, especially canonic virginity which he highly praised. The tensions grew when after an exhausting starvation diet Blaesilla died. There were those in the city who blamed Jerome and who spoke of his depraving influence on mature women, but most of all Roman girls, whom he convinced to remain unmarried (virginity), as well as inhuman asceticism.
Jerome left Rome in 385, and a few weeks later Paula and Eustochium followed suit, along with a few other people. Jerome praised Paula, because despite the tears and requests of her children she had decided to abandon them. “overcoming her love for her children by her greater love for God," – he wrote. Initially, they followed the trail set out by Christ himself – they visited Palestine, Syria, and Egypt, followed by a visit to the eremites living in a desert in Syria, and then Melania the Elder, an aristocrat from Rome who had already left the city. They gathered experience regarding the ascetic community which they desired to establish. This ultimately came to pass near Bethlehem – it is there, thanks to Paula’s finances that they built a type of a monastery for men, who were supervised by Jerome, and for women, led by Paula. She divided the women into three groups, based on the social rank (!) they represented and she introduced a principle of mortification of the flesh and spirit, which she herself had practiced. Her asceticism concerned not only meals, but also personal hygiene (“She never entered a bath except when dangerously ill”), since – as she claimed, and Jerome supported her – “a clean body and a clean dress mean an unclean soul.” Jerome had praised her virtues multiple times – humility, modesty, and a Spartan way of life. “Even in the severest fever she rested not on an ordinary bed but on the hard ground covered only with a mat of goat's hair" – he wrote. He emphasized her fasting, rejection of wine, shabby clothes, and wearing sackcloth, but also her piousness which resulted from studying the Bible, and patience in teaching women, whom she cared for, which was most likely quite a challenge. She introduced her charges to the principles of asceticism, solved both their mental problems and religious dilemmas. Let us not forget, that at that time all of this was new, while the principles of life in the monastery were in their nascent stage. Paula’s tasks also included maintaining the uneasy relations with the local clergy, including the Bishop of Jerusalem, John, who looked with disfavor upon the difficult to control and remaining outside his authority monastic oases – since more than once these communes were filled with behavior, which we would presently classify as a sect.
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