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You captured me too

· Marcella, saint of the month, recounted by Sandra Isetta ·

Important letters of the famous correspondence between Jerome and Marcella have been preserved. They are from Jerome to his authoritative disciple, sometimes described as teacher and with unusual submission. Here, on the death of his conversation partner, a text of the Church Father is imagined.

Embarrassed, I avoided the eyes of those noble women but you knew what to do – opportune importune [in season and out of season] as the Apostle said – to overcome my restraint with your ability. Yes I myself, the high and mighty Jerome, found myself in an awkward position when I met you, Marcella.

Francisco de Zurbarán, “Paula with her daughter Eustochium talking to Jerome” (17th century)

As you remember, I arrived in Rome in 382 and came to your sumptuous domus on the Aventine. Here, long ago, it had been your guests the Bishops of Alexandria, the great Athanasius and Peter, who had sought shelter in Rome, fleeing the persecution of the Arian heresy. From these two bishops you learned first-hand of the life of Blessed Anthony, who was still alive at the time, of the existence of the monasteries of Pachomius in the Thebaid, and of the rule of virgins and widows. Monasticism was a quite new phenomenon: you were not ashamed to profess it because you knew it was pleasing to Christ. That day you were surprised to find that your house had been turned into a sort of community of virgins and widows, who freely followed God. You had given life to a circle of women, frequented by several noble Rome ladies – but also by men, priests and monks – who gathered to read and comment on the Bible. I would have expected anything, but not that a woman should make such a circle of holiness rotate around her! In the end, with your intelligent and discreet style, you captured me too.

I was convinced of the seriousness of your training – you knew Greek and Hebrew perfectly – and of the acuity of your biblical interpretations. At the time I enjoyed a certain reputation as an exegete of Scripture and you never came to me without questioning me on some scriptural passage. You were always asking me new questions, not for the pleasure of discussing them but in order to learn, precisely through your questions. I realized afterwards, when we began our correspondence after I had moved to Bethlehem, that yours was a way of stimulating me, it was you who were teaching me.

When I met you, you had been a widow for some time. You descended from the illustrious family of the Marcelli, but I do not want to remember you because of your noble lineage, I shall remember you for far greater gifts, for the poverty and humility with which you showed the world the value of Christian widowhood. You were still so young, of uncommon beauty and, in addition, of moral purity. As was foreseeable, you had pressing suitors whom you refused.

You certainly had a strong character. You never managed to hide your disappointment because your face was transparent in that tender habit of knitting your brows. From Bethlehem too I imagined you worried, in the act of shaking your head while you were reading my polemics – perhaps a little too vehement – against those who accused me of having altered the Gospels! I wrote to you “I know that as you read these words you will knit your brows, and fear that my freedom of speech is sowing the seeds of fresh quarrels; and that, if you could, you would gladly put your finger on my lips to prevent me from even speaking of [these] things”. Well, yes! You were intimidating, Marcella!

Busy as I was in reading the Hebrew works, I once felt I had to justify myself with you if my Latin was a little rusty, I who knew it well since I translated Scripture! Besides, after my departure from Rome, several disputes flared up regarding a biblical passage and your judgement was sought. You had mastered so well, as it were soaking it up, all that knowledge that I had been able to accumulate and transformed as it were, into a second nature, thanks to ceaseless meditation.

You chose chastity. Later many others imitated your lifestyle. Venerable Paula benefited from your friendship and Eustochium, a gem of virgins, was reared in your room. It is easy to judge the qualities of the teacher when she has such followers! You practised ascesis, but with balance, one of your gifts that I liked best. You seldom went out in public and in any case avoided the houses of the Roman noble women so as not to find yourself in the life you had shunned. Your favourite destinations were the basilicas of the apostles and martyrs where you would pray in secret, I know, far from people. You would have liked to give your possessions to the poor whom you love but in order not to upset Albina, your mother, you permitted them to be transferred to your brother’s children.

You were very cautious, attentive to what philosophers call to prepon, in other words the propriety of actions. I still see you before my eyes: while you were questioned you answered in such a way as not to present your opinion as personal but rather as mine or as someone else’s, so as to profess yourself a disciple even while you were teaching. You well knew the Apostle’s words: “I permit no woman to teach”, and you didn’t want to give the impression of humiliating the men – at times even priests – who questioned you on obscure and ambiguous points.

You spent your last years on your farm in the outskirts of Rome, where you lived as in a monastery or a desert with the young virgin Principia, until the bloodthirsty winner invaded your house. You did not collapse in the face of the assaults, you did not tremble. They beat you, Marcella, they flogged you, you wanted to protect Principia and the Lord heard his servant, inspiring pity in the minds of the barbarians. You sought sanctuary in the Basilica of the Apostle Paul. After a few months you fell asleep in the Lord.

Sandra Isetta teaches Ancient Christian literature at the University of Genoa. The author of many studies, including Il mito delle origini in La grande meretrice. Un decalogo di luoghi comuni sulla storia della Chiesa (2013), she recently edited Tertullian’s L’eleganza delle donne (2010) [De cultu feminarum – On female fashion] and has written on St Clotilda for donne chiesa mondo (June 2013).

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