For eight formative years, from grade 8 to my third year at university, I was what James Joyce would have called priest-ridden. To the modern ear the term might suggest sexual abuse, but it means more: to be “held in subjection by a priestly authority” (OED), by men who believe themselves to be intermediaries between you and God. In my case it was the Basilians, a teaching order headquartered at a prestigious college of the University of Toronto. They formed a large part of our boys’ high school faculty and also ran the male residential college where I spent my early university years.
They were good teachers, and at no time was I molested or, as we would hear more often now, “touched inappropriately.” That doesn’t mean my dignity was respected, as I found out one night at the college when the resident priest of my floor, drunk as usual, let himself into my room. “Did you knock, Father?” I said from my bed. “Do I have to?” he replied, and then set about berating me for some offense or other. Years later I learned that this man went on to become a sober and respected head of the order.
Of course, priests are no better or worse than the rest of us, and as teachers and guardians these at least had the benefit of a good education and a willingness to do their best by us. I don’t remember that we actually disliked any of them in high school. And it was with the principal, who astounded the class with his ability to pluck flies out of the air, that I did my first hic haec hoc.
Joyce knew all about a Catholic education, and in particular he knew about the phenomenon of the retreat. This was a period of several schooldays set aside for prayer, contrition, and quiet reading of tracts — or whatever comics were tucked inside. The climax of the event was a fire-and-brimstone sermon delivered from the gymnasium stage by a travelling Dominican. (If The Basilians are a teaching order, the Dominicans are a ranting order.) If you want to know what it was like, read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. If you want to know what it was about, in brief: the evils of masturbation.
How much grief these admonitions added to the turmoil of puberty! Because you had done what you had to do to avoid bursting, you were a moral weakling, not only to be despised but in grave danger. Onanism was as mortal a sin as fornication, and if you died with a mortal sin on your conscience, you got eternal fire — or at least the absence of God, which was supposed to be worse. Skipping confession was like Russian roulette. Miss this one and you might get run down by a truck before the next chance to get back on the Lord’s good side. Your fate for eternity depended on how recently a priest had muttered a few words over you. And by the way, I don’t remember ever being given any good advice in the confessional, like “Don’t worry about it, it’s not a big deal as long as you remember it’s not the real thing.”
I got to thinking about those days as I was reflecting on how little the pandemic lockdown has affected my life, which is largely the life of a hermit anyway. And hermits put me in mind of Hieronymus, known to Christians as St. Jerome (d. 420 AD), an ascetic, scholar, and teacher numbered among the Fathers of the Church. He’s also a giant in the history of sexual repression.
If you have a mental image of Jerome, it’s probably of a gaunt, half-naked figure in the desert, perhaps accompanied by a lion. In fact it’s unlikely that he ever did any serious time in the wilderness. His early years in the east were mostly spent in company: with books for learning and commenting upon, friends for lively discussions, and amanuenses for his endless stream of writings.
Nevertheless there was some fasting in isolation and struggling with demons. His descriptions of the temptations he endured, as we shall see, are fascinating excrescences of a mind that recoiled in disgust from the most natural of impulses.
At the end of it all, of course, is Judgment Day. If you’ve succeeded in curbing the appetites God gave you, you’re off to unalloyed and everlasting bliss. But if you’ve done the sensible thing and sought relief, eaten an olive or drained your balls, forget it. Atonement, for Jerome, was not as easy as a whispered formula and a few Hail Marys.
He had more than one reason to fear the Judge. Throughout his life he was torn between a love for the classical literature that was still part of every young gentleman’s education, and the awareness that for all the beauties of the pagan authors, they were tellers of lies. He dreamt that he was called up before the Judgment Seat and asked to proclaim what he was. “A Christian,” stammered the monk. “You are not a Christian,” shrieked the magistrate. “You are a Ciceronian!”
In 382 AD Jerome’s growing reputation for scholarship brought him to the attention of Damasus, the bishop of Rome, whose election some years before had been stained with blood, but who in his old age bore the charming nickname of Ear-tickler. That worthy and wealthy man engaged the monk as a personal secretary, with the particular task of continuing work on his wholly new translation of scripture – the edition that came to be known as the Vulgate. Damasus aimed to push the See of Peter into pre-eminence among the four great bishoprics of the empire, and a standardized Latin Bible was part of the plan.
The Pope soon found that in Jerome he had found not just a valuable resource but a troublemaker: aggressively opinionated, too ready to condemn the half-hearted believer, lacking any Christian kindness toward his many enemies. Armed with his rhetorical education and an iron self-righteousness, the monk soon threw himself into battle. A certain layman called Helvidius had been putting about the idea that the mother of God was a virgin at Christ’s conception but not afterward – a view that, if you accept the nonsense of parthenogenesis to begin with, is quite reasonable and indeed supported by the evidence in the gospels that Jesus had brothers and sisters.
You might think Christians would be unperturbed by the image of a matriarchal Mary, living comfortably with her family in Nazareth when her firstborn sets off to change the world. But no. She hadn't in Jerome’s time been elevated to her later status as a sort of demigoddess, but she had necessarily been raised above the rest of humanity in order to make her a suitable vessel for the embryonic Jesus. And she was a paragon to an increasing number of women who chose perpetual virginity, and asceticism in all things, as a spiritual path.
Jerome himself was by now enjoying the patronage of wealthy Roman widows sworn to a life of chastity. Some of them had virgin daughters whom they had persuaded or bullied into doing the same. The monk established himself as their spiritual director, urging unceasingly that they trample the flesh underfoot, with particular attention to the bits involved in sex.
In his spare time he drafted the arguments against Helvidius. Could the pure maiden that conceived Jesus have then been defiled by the lustful embraces of Joseph? It was unthinkable that her hymen could ever have been broken, even in the birth of Jesus. (It seems the infant must have been delivered by teleportation from the womb to the manger.) Any weaknesses in his reasoning were obscured by a scathing ad hominem attack, and the amateur theologian was quickly driven into obscurity.
But Jerome had made enemies. His strident insistence on the the chaste life, with marriage running a poor second in the race for good places in Heaven, did not sit well with the many Christians in Rome who felt that, having lived virtuous and productive family lives, they were entitled to just as much joy in the afterlife as the starving maidens down the street. Besides, there was that thing about how some of Jerome’s widows were squandering the family fortune on the poor and the Church. This went beyond personal privation and threatened the very fabric of aristocratic society.
It was his dealings with the women that ruined him eventually. As he himself testifies, in Rome it was commonplace for monks and clerics to visit wealthy widows, or matrons who had withdrawn from their husbands. The motive behind these visits, of course, was often a venal one; no doubt the Ear-tickler had acquired much of his wealth that way. As the months went on, and his correspondence with his protegés became widely distributed, it grew clear that it wasn’t money Jerome was after, at least not for himself. But it also became uncomfortably obvious that the man’s obsession with chastity went hand in hand with an unhealthy prurience and brutal harshness.
His letters from this period make harrowing reading. Writing to a young virgin who has apparently confessed to some damp “dream of the Apostles” (as Jerome puts it elsewhere), he compares her girlish fantasies to the worst depravity. She has changed the temple of the holy spirit into a brothel, and might as well set up shop. She will be made naked with her skirts around her face...she will open her feet to everyone who passes by and will be polluted up to the crown of her head. Later he alludes to Lust tickling the senses...the soft fires of pleasure...the rousing of members....
He goes on to paint a picture of the temptations he himself endured in the scorching wilderness: his skin as black as an African’s, nothing but cold water to soothe his tears and groans, his only companions the scorpions and wild beasts. In his meditations, I often found myself among chorus-lines of girls. My face was pale with fasting, my body was cold as ice, but my mind was hot with desire, and though my flesh was all but dead, the fires of lust kept bubbling up before me.
Keep in mind that all this is addressed to an aristocratic Roman lady, raised in the strictest propriety whether by Christian or pagan parents. When this sort of thing was passed around it must have provoked great indignation, besides the inevitable sniggers about what really went on between Jerome and his nuns. The unease felt by moderate Christians, some of whom had themselves been sharply satirized in the monk’s letters, was now turning to suspicion and anger. At one time he had been seen as a possible successor to the ailing Damasus; now his name was met with curses and warding-off signs. Not quite a Rasputin, perhaps, but he was believed capable of anything.
The decisive point came with the death of Blesilla, daughter of Paula, the wealthiest and closest of Jerome’s friends. As a young widow Blesilla was of course unable to consecrate herself as a virgin, so instead she threw herself into an extreme regimen that must have pleased her teacher. Her disciplines succeeded in stilling her desires – forever. After the funeral, Jerome rebuked Paula for her excessive show of grief.
It was not long afterward that he was driven from the city, to the cry that all monks should be thrown in the Tiber. He fled to Palestine, followed by Paula, and there they established monastic communities where they spent their remaining decades. Jerome continued his bellicose ways: in his old age he angered some local heretics to the point that they burned his monastery to the ground.
Little of the saintly accrues to Jerome, and I somehow can’t picture anyone praying to him in Heaven, unless it is for guidance on some gnarly verse of Ecclesiastes. He was elevated by the Church for his devotion to scripture and his scholarship — too much of which consisted of poring over the Old Testament for passages that could be imagined to foretell incidents in the New.
Yet this disagreeable man remains a favourite of mine from this pivotal time in history. His outspokenness can be refreshing as well as horrifying. Letter-writers in those days did not speak much of their inner lives, let alone blab about erotic dreams or Judgment Day. Jerome did so with candour and even gusto. To find anything as personal as some of his correspondence, though not in the same key, we have to look to Augustine’s Confessions .
He’s also an important witness to the dark side of asceticism. Many religions preach a detachment from worldly desires in order to obtain a clearer vision of God. Even the pagan Romans had their Vestal Virgins, albeit on 30-year contracts. Jerome took this long-established idea and made it his fetish.
There’s a direct line between Jerome’s tyrannical insistence on chastity and the Dominican friar’s thundering at us red-faced boys about self-abuse. Among the evils the Church has done, teaching us that our biological nature is our enemy is not the least.