Asceticism of St. Jerome

Source: District of Asia

Jerome had seen enough of city life in Rome to realize its incompatibility with a life of study and spiritual progress, and the austere life of the solitaries in the desert had always exercised a fascination over him. So, to the wild desert of Chalcis, east of Antioch, he betook himself for the next five years, where he found all the hardships and trials, he had expected but not all the consolation or quiet for which he longed. In what is perhaps his most famous letter, the twenty-second, to Eustochium, Jerome lays bare his soul during this period, and in that record, we can see all the frailty, strength, trust in God, and profound humility of the man.

"How often, when I was living in the desert, in the vast solitude that provides hermits with a savage dwelling place, parched by a scorching sun, did I imagine myself amidst the pleasures of Rome! I used to sit alone because I was filled with bitterness. Sackcloth marred my unshapely limbs, and my skin, from long neglect, had become as dark as an Ethiopian's. Tears and groans were my daily portion, and if drowsiness happened to overcome my struggles against it, my bare bones, which barely held together, clashed against the ground. As for my food and drink, I say nothing, for even in sickness, the solitaries have nothing but cold water, and eating cooked food is considered self-indulgence. Now, although I had consigned myself to this prison out of fear of hell, where my only companions were scorpions and wild beasts, I often found myself among groups of girls. My face was pale, and my frame was chilled from fasting, yet my mind burned with desire, and the flames of lust constantly welled up before me, even when my flesh was all but dead. Helpless, I cast myself at the feet of Jesus, watering them with my tears and wiping them with my hair. Then, I subdued my rebellious body through weeks of abstinence. I do not blush to confess my abject misery; rather, I lament that I am not now what I once was. I remember how I often cried aloud all night until the break of day and did not cease from beating my breast until tranquility returned at the rebuke of the Lord. I used to dread my very cell, as though it knew my thoughts, and stern and angry with myself, I used to make my way alone in the desert. Wherever I saw hollow valleys, craggy mountains, and steep cliffs, there I made my oratory, there was the house of correction for my unhappy flesh. There also, the Lord Himself is my witness, when I had shed copious tears and had lifted my eyes towards heaven, I sometimes felt myself among angelic hosts and, filled with joy and gladness, sang, 'Because of the fragrance of your precious ointments, we will run after you.'"

Extracted from the letters of St. Jerome, Epist. 22 (MPL, XXII, 398f.).