Oration in Praise of Saint Jerome
1453 — Verona, Republic of Venice
I would have thought that I should be absolutely terrified, most pious father and all you noble citizens, since I, a weak and unworthy woman who knows she has neither virtue nor excellence, have boldly undertaken this great and awesome task: that of presenting, like a goose among swans, an encomium of the most blessed Saint Jerome and an oration about those qualities whose delineation exhausted, as we know, the talents of even the most eloquent men. These would be my thoughts, were I not to trust that I shall have the help and favor of that man who opens the eyes of the blind and makes eloquent the tongues of the mute. And I might have been all the more frightened, since I have taken up this grave task not of my own accord — neither from pride nor contempt, nor claiming any skills as an orator — but in hopes that he may know that I am compelled to do so by your request and my own obedience and so that he may recognize that I am overcome with such distress and anxiety that you could not have asked me to do anything weightier or more daunting.
And if anyone else had spoken to me about this oration, I would have thought he was making fun of me. But since I have experienced your good- will and kindness to me so many times—you who, when you see me talking nonsense, think me eloquent and articulate! — I decided, lest I should seem ungrateful, that your commission and your request were very important to me, however the work were to turn out. Chrysostom’s writings on Matthew also urge me to be obedient, saying, “The goodness of humility surpasses the merits of all other virtues, since, if humility is not there, none of the other virtues will be worthy of praise. And true humility is that which is compliant not to its own but to another’s will.”
Therefore, with your indulgence and that of the whole audience, not only will I obey your command with as short an oration as I can deliver, first so that I will not afflict everyone with disgust by speaking inelegantly and for too long, then because I know myself, the magnitude of the topic, and my weak shoulders. For I do not have Quintilian’s rhetorical powers or Cicero’s or Fronto’s facility at oratory, so I would know or in some way could persuade myself that this is a suitable task for me. Indeed, because of your love and reverence for him, your exceptional virtue can comprehend how much toil and work it took him to order and establish all the parts of his life in the service of the greatness of his mind and the sanctity of his life, so that with divine help he was able to reach such a culmination of affairs that there was no region on earth that was not full of this holy man’s name. For who does not know how he visited new peoples, surveyed provinces, and crossed seas so that he might follow the trail of fugitive letters all over the world?
Having left the town of Strido as a boy, Jerome went with his parents to Rome to acquire the first rudiments of letters and grammar from the preeminent teacher Donatus. His parents took care to imitate King Philip of Macedonia, who wanted Alexander to begin his studies with Aristotle, thinking it useful for boys to receive their first instruction in letters from the best teachers. And that boy, being wholly devoted to his teacher, ascribed so much of his achievement to him that everyone admired him as though he were a divine being. For he understood that this study, with the inspiration of a divine spirit, was necessary for the stimulation and instruction of the intellect; and to this he added a sweet and eloquent companion: the art of discipline of public speaking, which I call rhetoric. He undertook this study with such ardor, such delight, that he spent a great part of his life and energy in this way; and in this study, it is generally agreed that he worked with such extraordinary energy that he focused all his attention on obtaining for his own use all the works, in Greek as well as Latin, worthy of an eloquent and learned man.
He acquired a knowledge of almost all the Greek philosophers, nor is there any teaching of these men of which he was either ignorant or unfamiliar. He studied the Hebrew, Chaldaean, and Syrian writers assiduously, and, finally, he embraced every field in the sciences with a kind of intimate knowledge. He published innumerable books and collected a great many beautifully written books and translated them into Latin; and that divine man lectured on these books so elegantly, so brilliantly, and his speeches shone with such richness and eloquence that an oration from his mouth was said to radiate more brilliantly than gold. He spoke with such sweetness in the languages of the Jews, the Greeks, the Chaldaeans, the Persians, the Medes, and the Egyptians that he seemed to have been born among those peoples, and it appeared that his linguistic talents were inborn and not acquired.
Finally, since he knew that wisdom of this sort was foolishness to God, with whom he had chosen to ally himself, taking the Holy Spirit as his guide, he cast aside secular books and abandoned the books of the pagans. On the command of God, he turned to the Holy Scriptures in order to read them with greater zeal than he had ever before devoted to books by mortal men. In doing so, he imitated Moses who did not come to the contemplation of God until he discovered his purpose in the teachings of the Egyptians. He also imitated Daniel, who, they say, only attained a knowledge of things divine after he had absorbed the wisdom of the Chaldaeans through the teachings of the Babylonians.
Thus it was that Jerome headed for Constantinople so that he could study sacred scripture with Gregory of Nazianzen. He entered Antioch to hear Apollinaris lecturing. In Alexandria, he heard Didymus. Among the Hebrews, he testifies that he bought the release of a Lydian as his teacher in exchange for a large payment. After having toured these places with much toil, he returned to Jerusalem and Bethlehem where as an old man he heard Baramus, but since he feared the Jews, he went to him at night and gave him as payment the money he had reserved for his own familiars, so desirous of knowledge was he. He recalled the story of Euclides the philosopher, whose desire for knowledge was so great that when the Athenians warned by decree that if any citizen from Megara was caught setting foot in Athens he would be put to death, he managed to journey to Athens by night without incident. Before evening came, Euclides donned a woman’s long tunic, wrapped himself in a shawl of many colors, and veiled his head. He then went from his own house in Megara to Socrates’ so that he could partake of the talk and wisdom of the philosopher. Before dawn he made the twenty-mile trip back home again disguised in the same clothing.
At the summit of his eminence, the pinnacle of his holiness, and the grace of his revelations, this very saintly man did not want anything to elude his grasp. He found something to learn everywhere, and wherever he went he always became a better man. He spent his life pleasurably and piously by reading, speaking, debating, writing, and he never relinquished his work or study. For this servant of God understood that nothing is sweeter than leisure time spent with literature: with that literature, I say, in which we come to know the infinity of things and nature, and in this world, the heavens, the earth, the seas, and finally God himself. For he read so much that we are amazed that he found time to write; and he wrote so many things that there could scarcely have been time for anyone to read them. For he translated all the volumes of the Old Testament from Greek and Hebrew into Latin. He made accessible the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the twelve minor prophets. He translated the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon with extraordinary elegance. He wrote commentaries to the New Testament, the Epistles of the Apostle Paul, Revelations of John in which he explicated disputed passages. He put in order the Divine Office.
He also translated Origen’s Homilies into Latin. Days would not be sufficient for me to enumerate all the volumes that were produced by him.
In the course of his career, Pope Liberius was so moved by the fame and works of this worthy and very holy man that after Jerome had progressed through the cursus honorum of the church he made him a cardinal. Once he was established in this office he practiced such modesty, kindness, prudence, and compassion that his celebrated virtue and sanctity led every- one to admire, adore, and marvel at him. And when he saw the holy Roman church falling into corruption and ruin, what labors did he undertake, what glorious trials did he undergo! What numerous and varied discourses did he enter into to free the holy faith from the hands of the evil heretics who were viciously attacking it. He did everything, attempted everything in order that the prostrate, dying church might rise again and live. Finally, after many revolutions of the seasons, after night watches, labors, fasts, orations, and toil, he strengthened the temple of the Lord and put an end to the heretics from east to west. He burned their swords and shields with fire, and he brought back the trophy of victory from his vanquished enemies.
Then realizing that this office would be a heavy burden for one who wished to serve Christ, he lay down his cardinal’s hat, abandoned the values of his age, and scorned its honors. He went into the desert exalting that religion that was judged the most ascetic and believed to be the most difficult to sustain. And he kept writing about his life and how hard and rough the road was that he took to follow Christ, and his testimony is true. Writing to Eustochium he said, “I was living in the desert, in the lonely wilderness itself, which, burned by the heat of the sun, offered a terrible dwelling place to the monks. With daily groans, daily tears, and if sleep ever overcame me and I fought against it, I crushed my bones down onto the bare ground, though they barely remained still. My withered limbs bristled in the sackcloth I wore, and even in my feeble state I consumed cold water; for to receive anything cooked was a luxury. Because of the rough discomforts, my skin took on the look of Ethiopian flesh. I wept continuously and mortified my uncompliant flesh with a lack of edible foods.”
But why am I swept away with so many words? Why do I exhaust myself by continuing the story? Since even if I had a hundred tongues, a hundred mouths, and a voice of iron, I could not tell all his virtues and the glorious events of his most holy life. What should I say about his continence, his virginity, and how he saved the unstained world with so much labor, austerity, and humility that here was an Israelite in whom no treachery was found? He could worthily be compared to John the Baptist since he remained a virgin throughout his life and overcame all temptations. Victorious to the very end of his life, he survived every privation with patience and love. And in the eighty-eighth year of his life, with his disciples around him, whom, purged of their sins with his help, advice, and example he had imbued with all the virtues, he departed to the Lord in his sanctified old age.
The omnipotent God honored his death with so many glorious miracles — by helping the sick, raising the dead, liberating those oppressed by the devil, consoling the infirm — that in recollecting the life of this father so praised and honored I am overwhelmed and cannot keep from bursting into tears. Who will then deny that the prophecy of the Tiburtine Sibyl about him has been fulfilled? For she said, “There will rise a wondrous star having the image of four animals, and there will be a wondrous image on a trumpet. It will shine on the Greeks, and the name of the lamb will lead all the way to the end, to the virtue of God. It will liberate those conquered by the devil; and in dying, it will be illuminated, and its end will be glorious.”
Therefore we must always praise divine providence, which fortifies its church militant and graces its royal halls with such an angelic spirit. We should therefore celebrate this man with the highest accolades and every form of reverence, for he is glorified, pious, and shining with love, so that he will live with God as the everlasting intercessor for our sins and will be worthy to govern and direct our wills in this age. And then, after a happy departure from this life, with his prayers and service, may we deservedly be enrolled in the company of the most blessed spirits in heaven because of the grace and piety of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose honor, glory, and power is with the Father and the Holy Ghost for ever and ever. Amen.
Source: “The Black Swan: Two Orations for Ermolao Barbarao,” from Complete Writings: Letterbook, Dialogue, Dialogue on Adam and Eve, Orations by Isotta Nogarola, edited and translated by Margaret L. King and Diana Robin. (c) 2004 The University of Chicago. Published by The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.