St. Jerome on Relics and Vigils

Blessed Jerome ca. 347-420

To Riparius:

Now that I have received a letter from you, if I do not answer it I shall be guilty of pride, and if I do I shall be guilty of rashness. For the matters concerning which you ask my opinion are such that they cannot either be spoken of or listened to without profanity. You tell me that Vigilantius (whose very name “Wakeful” is a contradiction: he ought rather to be described as “Sleepy”) has again opened his fetid lips and is pouring forth a torrent of filthy venom upon the relics of the holy martyrs; and that he calls us who cherish them ashmongers and idolaters who pay homage to dead men’s bones. Unhappy wretch! to be wept over by all Christian men, who sees not that in speaking thus he makes himself one with the Samaritans and the Jews who hold dead bodies unclean and regard as defiled even vessels which have been in the same house with them, following the letter that killeth and not the spirit that giveth life, [2 Cor. iii. 6].

We, it is true, refuse to worship or adore, I say not the relics of the martyrs, but even the sun and moon, the angels and archangels, the Cherubim and Seraphim and every name that is named, not only in this world but also in that which is to come,  [Eph. i. 21]. For we may not serve the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever, [Rom. i. 25].

Still we honour the relics of the martyrs, that we may adore Him whose martyrs they are. We honour the servants that their honour may be reflected upon their Lord who Himself says: ..he that receiveth you receiveth me… , I ask Vigilantius, “Are the relics of Peter and of Paul unclean? Was the body of Moses unclean, of which we are told (according to the correct Hebrew text, [Deut. xxxiv. 6]) that it was buried by the Lord Himself? And do we, every time that we enter the basilicas of apostles and prophets and martyrs, pay homage to the shrines of idols? Are the tapers which burn before their tombs only the tokens of idolatry?”

I will go farther still and ask a question which will make this theory recoil upon the head of its inventor and which will either kill or cure that frenzied brain of his, so that simple souls shall be no more subverted by his sacrilegious reasonings. Let him answer me this: Was the Lord’s body unclean when it was placed in the sepulchre? And did the angels clothed in white raiment merely watch over a corpse dead and defiled, that ages afterwards this sleepy fellow might indulge in dreams and vomit forth his filthy surfeit, so as, like the persecutor Julian, either to destroy the basilicas of the saints or to convert them into heathen temples?

…If the relics of the martyrs are not worthy of honour, how comes it that we read Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints, [Ps. cxvi. 15]?

If dead men’s bones defile those that touch them, how came it that the dead Elisha raised another man also dead, and that life came to this latter from the body of the prophet which according to Vigilantius must have been unclean? In that case every encampment of the host of Israel and the people of God was unclean; for they carried the bodies of Joseph and of the patriarchs with them in the wilderness, and carried their unclean ashes even into the holy land. In that case Joseph, who was a type of our Lord and Saviour, was a wicked man; for he carried up Jacob’s bones with great pomp to Hebron merely to put his unclean father beside his unclean grandfather and great-grandfather, that is, one dead body along with others.

…Once more I ask: Are the relics of the martyrs unclean? If so, why did the apostles allow themselves to walk in that funeral procession before the body — the unclean body — of Stephen, [Acts viii. 2]? Why did they make great lamentation over him, that their grief might be turned into our joy?

You tell me farther that Vigilantius execrates vigils. In this surely he goes contrary to his name. The “Wakeful One” wishes to sleep and will not hearken to the Saviour’s words, What, could ye not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak.. , [Matt. xxvi. 40, 41]. And in another place a prophet sings: At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto thee because of thy righteous judgments.. , [Ps. cxix. 62]. We read also in the gospel [Luke vi. 12] how the Lord spent whole nights in prayer, and how the apostles when they were shut up in prison kept vigil all night long, singing their psalms until the earth quaked, and the keeper of the prison believed, and the magistrates and citizens were filled with terror, [Acts xvi. 25-38]. Paul says: Continue in prayer and watch in the same.. , [Col. iv. 2], and in another place he speaks of himself as in watchings often.., [2 Cor. xi. 27].

…I would dictate more were it not that the limits of a letter impose upon me a modest silence. I might have gone on, had you sent me the books which contain this man’s rhapsodies, for in that case I should have known what points I had to refute. As it is I am only beating the air and revealing not so much his infidelity (for this is patent to all) as my own faith. But if you wish me to write against him at greater length, send me those wretched dronings of his and in my answer he shall hear an echo of John the Baptist’s words, “Now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees; therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire…” (Epistle 109)

Comments

  1. Don’t hold back, Jerome, tell us how you really feel!

  2. LOL! You should read the whole letter! I omitted some of the harsher statements.

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