Christ And Cicero

Chaitanya Jyothi Museum Opening, 2000

In the Name of The Father, and of The Son and of The Holy Spirit, Amen.



Among his collected letters is one from St. Jerome to St. Eustochium, daughter of St. Paula, St. Jerome’s patroness and collaborator at monastery building and administration in Bethlehem.  This letter, number 22 in the collection, contains the famous passage following (in Latin):

Many years ago, when for the kingdom of heaven’s sake I had cut myself off from home, parents, sister, relations, and—harder still—from the dainty food to which I had been accustomed; and when I was on my way to Jerusalem to wage my warfare, I still could not bring myself to forego the library which I had formed for myself at Rome with great care and toil.

And so, miserable man that I was, I would fast only that I might afterwards read Cicero.  After many nights spent in vigil, after floods of tears called from my inmost heart, after the recollection of my past sins, I would once more take up Plautus.  And when at times I returned to my right mind, and began to read the prophets, their style seemed rude and repellent.  I failed to see the light with my blinded eyes; but I attributed the fault not to them, but to the sun.

While the old serpent was thus making me his plaything, about the middle of Lent a deep-seated fever fell upon my weakened body, and while it destroyed my rest completely—the story seems hardly credible—it so wasted my unhappy frame that scarcely anything was left of me but skin and bone.  Meantime preparations for my funeral went on; my body grew gradually colder, and the warmth of life lingered only in my throbbing breast.

Suddenly I was caught up in the spirit and dragged before the judgment seat of the Judge; and here the light was so bright, and those who stood around were so radiant, that I cast myself upon the ground and did not dare to look up.  Asked who and what I was I replied: “I am a Christian.” But He who presided said: “Thou liest, thou art a follower of Cicero and not of Christ.  For ‘where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also.’”

Instantly I became dumb, and amid the strokes of the lash—for He had ordered me to be scourged—I was tortured more severely still by the fire of conscience, considering with myself that verse, “In the grave who shall give thee thanks?”  Yet for all that I began to cry and to bewail myself, saying: “Have mercy upon me, O Lord: have mercy upon me.”  Amid the sound of the scourges this cry still made itself heard.

At last the bystanders, falling down before the knees of Him who presided, prayed that He would have pity on my youth, and that He would give me space to repent of my error.  He might still, they urged, inflict torture on me, should I ever again read the works of the Gentiles.

Under the stress of that awful moment I should have been ready to make even still larger promises than these.  Accordingly I made oath and called upon His name, saying: “Lord, if ever again I possess worldly books, or if ever again I read such, I have denied Thee.”

Dismissed, then, on taking this oath, I returned to the upper world, and, to the surprise of all, I opened upon them eyes so drenched with tears that my distress served to convince even the incredulous.  And that this was no sleep nor idle dream, such as those by which we are often mocked, I call to witness the tribunal before which I lay, and the terrible judgment which I feared.

May it never, hereafter, be my lot to fall under such an inquisition!  I profess that my shoulders were black and blue, that I felt the bruises long after I awoke from my sleep, and that thenceforth I read the books of God with a zeal greater than I had previously given to the books of men.

Now, what is the difference between Christ and Cicero?  Why is one so important, the other less so or not at all?  It is not an easy question to answer.  But it is an important question.  Reading Cicero, one is aware of being in the presence of wisdom and art, both.  Hearing him read even more so, even in translation.

One might try a weasel march by saying the experience was for Jerome alone, has nothing to do with any substantive or consequential difference between being a Christian and a Ciceronian.  All just relative to one questing individual who got sick, nearly died, had a dream, a sudden recovery and Cicero’s gifts as a litterateur.  None of that would be false, inaccurate or inappropriate to note … as far as it goes ….

The difference is real, subtle and consequential in the extreme, the existential extreme and the ontological extreme.  I am not in a mood to trace its reality or track its outcomes.  Let us say simply that the difference between Christ and Cicero is the difference between three and two.  This is to say it is the difference between five dimensions and three, or, between permanent challenge and temporary stability.

The Christ is there.  Cicero almost is.  And there is in threes.

Democrats: Druggies, Divorcees, Fornicators.

Republicans: Liars, Cowards, Hypocrites.

Marriage: Pleasantry, Pleasure, Propagation.

Update 1: The Conference.   Published here November 22, 2013, and has proven prescient.

Update 2: VDH: One Mueller-Investigation Coincidence Too Many

Update 3: Sundance, published December 5, 2017: Strategic Omnidirectional MAGA-Winning is Ongoing


Jill St. John
Jill St. John

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