Thursday, January 26, 2023

Today on the show, we remember St. Paula, among the earliest “Desert Mothers.”

It is the 26th of January 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at I’m Dan van Voorhis.


Today we are going to address a bit of historical erasure- we all know- perhaps (I should add) St. Jerome. That great, if not imperfect, saint whose translation work gave us the Vulgate- the Latin Bible in the 4th century. You may recall the famous painting (paintings, actually) of St. Jerome in his study- there with a lion and several items reflecting his work on the Biblical text. But, just as widows were often indispensable for Paul, the apostle, in getting this work done, so too did Jerome need St. Paula- the first so-called “Desert Mother” and most certainly worthy of the title of Church Mother.

Paula didn’t grow up like other ladies in her native Rome. Her feet are said to have never touched the ground outside as she was carried about by Eunuchs wherever she went. Her family, the Gens Cornelia, claimed to be descended from the great Greek hero Agamemnon. At the same time, her husband, Senator Toxotius was said to have descended from the Greek hero Aeneas. The two had several children, but Paula was stricken with grief and guilt when he died. She sought out Marcella- a widow who had turned to Christianity and the life of pilgrimages.

In the 380s, when Jerome was back in Rome (he was a rather cranky fellow who could start a theological fight at the drop of a hat- so he was often on the move or in his famed study). Marcella introduced the two, and they would initially stay in touch via letters. Through the letters of Jerome, we know much of what we do about Paula.

When one of her daughters died, he rebuked her for mourning as though she would not see her again. She would marry off her son, and another of her daughters- her daughter Eustochium committed to a life of celibacy and would join her mother on an ambitious trip throughout Northern Africa and the Holy Land to see the holy places and relics. She and her daughter ended up in Bethlehem, where they determined to stay. She noted how different Bethlehem was from her native Rome. She compared the two cities and contrasted her own past life of riches and fame with the rustic town where Jesus was born. She wrote, “Indeed, we do not think of what we are doing or how we look but see only that for which we are longing.”

Jerome would join her here, and the two would, with the help of her financial abilities, build two monasteries- one for men and the other for women. Paula and the other women who flocked to these homes saw this ministry as appropriate for men and women. Jerome, perhaps, was not as open to women in this ministry- he wrote, “Her zeal was wonderful, her courage scarcely credible for a woman. Forgetful of her sex and the weakness of her frame, she desired to dwell with her maidens among so many thousands of monks’”

Paula was struck with the beauty of the Psalms in Hebrew and set about to learn the language. This would become invaluable when she could help Jerome edit the Old Testament portions of what would be the Vulgate. She and her daughter also served as copyists for that influential Latin Bible. She eventually ran out of funds, but the Bethlehem monasteries proved popular enough to support themselves. After her death, Jerome wrote a stylized version of her life to give to her daughter Eustochium. It is said that Paula the Younger, a granddaughter to Paula by her other surviving daughter, made her way to Bethlehem and tended to Jerome in his last days. When he died, he was buried near the grave of St. Paula at the Basilica of the Nativity there in Bethlehem.


The last word for today comes from 1 Peter 3:

Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. X On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 26th of January 2023, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man whose favorite Paula’s include the saint Abdul of “Straight Up” fame and the gas field on the Black Sea. He is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who could probably give you all of MC Scat Cat’s lyrics from “opposites attract” Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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