World History

Then Again




St. Jerome

Letter to a Soldier



St. Jerome is best known for his translation of the Bible into Latin. This letter to a friend was written in 374. 

Pampered soldier, why are you wasting time in your father's house? Where is the rampart, the ditch, the winter campaign under canvas? Behold the trumpet sounds from heaven! Our General, fully armed, comes amid the clouds to overcome the world. From our King's mouth comes the double-edged sword that cuts down all in its path. Are you going to remain in your chamber and not come out to join in the battle? . . . Listen to your King's proclamation: "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters."

Remember when you joined up as a recruit, when buried with Christ in baptism, you took the oath of allegiance to him, declaring that you would spare neither your father nor your mother? But now the adversary in your own heart is trying to kill Christ! Now the enemy's camp has its sights on your loyalty! Though your little nephew twine his arms around your neck; though your mother, with disheveled hair and tearing her robe asunder, point to the breast with which she nourished you; though your father fall down on the threshold before you--trample on his body and go your way! Fly with tearless eyes to the standard of the Cross. In this matter cruelty is your duty . . .

I know well the chains which you will say hinder you. Indeed, my breast is not made of iron, nor my heart of stone. I was not born from a rock or raised by Hyrcanian tigers. I have been through this experience too. Your widowed sister may throw her gentle arms around you. The household slaves, in whose company you grew up, will cry, "To what master are you abandoning us?" Your old nurse and her husband, who, after your own natural father, have the next claim to your devotion, say, "Wait awhile until we die so you can bury us!" Perhaps your foster mother, with sagging breasts and wrinkled face, will sing you your old childhood lullaby! . . . But the love of Christ and the fear of Gehenna will easily break such bonds.

You will claim that the Scriptures command us to obey our parents. On the contrary, whoever loves his parents more than Christ, loses his own soul. If my enemy takes up a sword to kill me, will I be held back by my mother's tears? Should I desert from the army because of my father, to whom in the cause of Christ I owe no burial because in his cause I owe burial to everyone? . . . You may claim that all your fellow citizens are Christians, but your case is not the same as everyone else. Hear what the Lord has to say: "If you would be perfect, go and sell what you have and follow me." You promised to be perfect.

When you resigned from the army and "made yourself an eunuch for the kingdom of Christ," what else had you in mind besides a perfect life? A perfect servant of Christ has nothing besides Christ. Indeed, if he has anything besides Christ, he is not perfect . . . If you are perfect, why do you pine for your father's property? But if you are not perfect, you have failed the Lord. The Gospel thunders the divine words: "You cannot serve two masters." Does anyone dare to make Christ a liar by serving Mammon and the Lord at the same time? Does he not say often, "If anyone will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me"? If I load myself with gold, do I imagine I am following Christ? . . .

0 desert, green with the flowers of Christ! 0 solitude in which the stones of the Great City of the King mentioned in the Apocalypse are found! 0 wilderness rejoicing in the presence of God! Brother, what are you doing in the world when you are so much more important than the world? How long are the shadows of a roof going to hold you back? How long will the smoky dungeon of these cities imprison you? . . . How refreshing to fling off the burdens of the flesh and fly to the sparkling aether? . . . You are spoiled indeed, dear friend, if you wish to rejoice here on earth--and afterwards reign with Christ!

Jerome Letter 14. From: D. Brendan Nagle and Stanley M. Burstein, eds., The Ancient World: Readings in Social and Cultural History (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995) pp. 321-322.

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