St. Paula, Widow
THIS illustrious pattern of widows surpassed all other Roman ladies in riches, birth, and the endowments of mind. She was born on the 5th of May, in 347. The blood of the Scipio’s, the Gracchi, and Paulus Æmilius, was centered in her by her mother Blesilla. Her father derived his pedigree from Agamemnon, and her husband Toxotius his from Iulus and Ænas. By him she had a son also called Toxotius, and four daughters, namely, Blesilla, Paulina, Eustochium, and Rufina. She shone a bright pattern of virtue in the married state, and both she and her husband edified Rome by their good example; but her virtue was not without its alloy: a certain degree of the love of the world being almost inseparable from honours and high life. She did not discern the secret attachments of her heart, nor feel the weight of her own chains: she had neither courage to break them, nor light whereby to take a clear and distinct view of her spiritual poverty and misery. God, compassionating her weakness, was pleased in his mercy to open her eyes by violence, and sent her the greatest affliction that could befall her, in the death of her husband, when she was only thirty-two years of age. Her grief was immoderate till such time as she was encouraged to devote herself totally to God, by the exhortations of her friend St. Marcella, a holy widow, who then edified Rome by her penitential life. Paula, thus excited to set aside her sorrow, erected in her heart the standard of the cross of Jesus Christ, and courageously resolved to walk after it. From that time, she never sat at table with any man, not even with any of the holy bishops and saints whom she entertained. She abstained from all flesh-meat, fish, eggs, honey, and wine; used oil only on holydays; lay on a stone floor covered with sack-cloth; renounced all visits and worldly amusements, laid aside all costly garments, and gave every thing to the poor which it was in her power to dispose of. She was careful in inquiring after the necessitous, and deemed it a loss on her side if any other hands than her own administered relief to them. It was usual with her to say, that she could not make a better provision for her children, than to secure for them by alms the blessings of heaven.
Her occupation was prayer, pious reading, and fasting. She could not bear the distraction of company, which interrupted her commerce with God; and, if ever she sought conversation, it was with the servants of God for her own edification. She lodged St. Epiphanius and St. Paulinus of Antioch, when they came to Rome; and St. Jerom was her director in the service of God, during his stay in that city for two years and a half, under Pope Damasus. Her eldest daughter Blesilla, having, in a short time after marriage, lost her husband, came to a resolution of forsaking the world, but died before she could compass her pious design. The mother felt this affliction too sensibly. St. Jerom, who at that time was newly arrived at Bethlehem, in 384, wrote to her both to comfort and reprove her. 1 He first condoles their common loss; but adds, that God is our master, that we are bound to rejoice in his will, always holy and just, to thank and praise him for all things; and, above all, not to mourn for a death at which the angels attend, and for one who by it departs to enjoy Christ: and that it is only the continuation of our banishment which we ought to lament. “Blesilla,” says he, “has received her crown, dying in the fervour of her resolution, in which she had purified her soul near four months.” He adds, that Christ seemed to reproach her grief in these terms: “Art thou angry, O Paula! that thy daughter is made mine? Thou art offended at my providence, and by thy rebellious tears, thou dost offer an injury to me who possess her.” 2 He pardons some tears in a mother, occasioned by the involuntary sensibility of nature; but calls her excess in them a scandal to religion, abounding with sacrilege and infidelity: adding, that Blesilla herself mourned, as far as her happy state would allow, to see her offend Christ, and cried out to her: “Envy not my glory: commit not what may for ever separate us. I am not alone. Instead of you I have the mother of God, I have many companions whom I never knew before. You mourn for me because I have left the world; and I pity your prison and dangers in it.” Paula afterwards, completing the victory over herself, showed herself greatly superior to this weakness. Her second daughter Paulina was married to St. Pammachius, and died in 397. Eustochium, the third, was her individual companion. Rufina died young. 1
The greater progress Paula made in spiritual exercises, and in the relish of heavenly things, the more insupportable to her was the tumultuous life of the city. She sighed after the deserts, longed to be disencumbered of attendants, and to live in an hermitage, where her heart would have no other occupation than on God. The thirst after so great a happiness made her ready to forget her house, family, riches, and friends; yet never did a mother love her children more tenderly. 3 At the thought of leaving them her bowels yearned, and being in an agony of grief, she seemed as if she had been torn from herself. But in this she was the most wonderful of mothers, that whilst she felt in her soul the greatest emotions of tenderness, she knew how to keep them within due bounds. The strength of her faith gave her an ascendant over the sentiments of nature, and she even desired this cruel separation, bearing it with joy, out of a pure and heroic love of God. She had indeed taken a previous care to have all her children brought up saints; otherwise her design would have been unjustifiable. Being therefore fixed in her resolution, and having settled her affairs, she went to the water side, attended by her brother, relations, friends, and children, who all strove by their tears to overcome her constancy. Even when the vessel was ready to sail, her little son Toxotius, with uplifted hands on the shore, and bitterly weeping, begged her not to leave him. The rest, who were not able to speak with gushing tears, prayed her to defer at least her voluntary banishment. But Paula, raising her dry eyes to heaven, turned her face from the shore, lest she should discover what she could not behold without feeling the most sensible pangs of sorrow. She sailed first to Cyprus, where she was detained ten days by St. Epiphanius; and from thence to Syria. Her long journeys by land she performed on the backs of asses; she, who till then had been accustomed to be carried about by eunnichs in litters. She visited with great devotion all the principal places which we read to have been consecrated by the mysteries of the life of our divine Redeemer, as also the respective abodes of all the principal anchorets and holy solitaries of Egypt and Syria. At Jerusalem the proconsul had prepared a stately palace richly furnished for her reception; but excusing herself with regard to the proffered favour, she chose to lodge in an humble cell. In this holy place her fervour was redoubled at the sight of each sacred monument, as St. Jerom describes. She prostrated herself before the holy cross, pouring forth her soul in love and adoration, as if she had beheld our Saviour still bleeding upon it. On entering the sepulchre, she kissed the stone which the angel removed on the occasion of our Lord’s resurrection, and imparted many kisses full of faith and devotion to the place where the body of Christ had been laid. On her arrival at Bethlehem, she entered the cave or stable in which the Saviour of the world was born, and she saluted the crib with tears of joy, crying out: “I, a miserable sinner, am made worthy to kiss the manger in which my Lord was pleased to be laid an infant babe weeping for me! This is my dwelling place, because it was the country chosen by my Lord for himself. 2
After her journeys of devotion, in which she distributed immense alms, she settled at Bethlehem with her daughter Eustochium, under the direction of St. Jerom. The three first years she spent there in a poor little house; but in the mean time, she took care to have an hospital built on the road to Jerusalem, as also a monastery for St. Jerom and his monks, whom she maintained; besides three monasteries for women, which properly made but one house, for all assembled in the same chapel to perform together the divine service day and night; and on Sundays in the church that was adjoining. At prime, tierce, sext, none, vespers, complin and the midnight office, they daily sung the whole psalter, which every sister was obliged to know by heart. Their food was very coarse and temperate, their fasts frequent and austere. All the sisters worked with their hands, and made clothes for themselves and others. All wore the same uniform poor habit, and used no linen except for the wiping of their hands. No man was ever suffered to set a foot within their doors. Paula governed them with a charity full of discretion, animating them in the practice of every virtue by her own example and instructions, being always the first, or among the first, in every duty; sharing with her daughter Eustochium in all the drudgery and meanest offices of the house, and appearing every where as the last of her sisters. She severely reprimanded a studied neatness in dress, which she called an uncleanness of the mind. If any one was found talkative, or angry, she was separated from the rest, ordered to walk the last in order, to pray at the outside of the door, and for some time to eat alone. The holy abbess was so tender of the sick, that she sometimes allowed them to eat flesh meat, but would not admit of the same indulgence in her own ailments, nor even allow herself a drop of wine in the water she drank. She extended her love of poverty to her buildings and churches, ordering them all to be built low, and without any thing costly, or magnificent; she said that money is better laid out on the poor, who are the living members of Christ. She wept so bitterly for the smallest faults, that others would have thought her guilty of grievous crimes. Under an overflow of natural grief for the death of her children, she made frequent signs of the cross on her mouth and breast to overcome nature, and remained always perfectly resigned in her soul to the will of God. Her son Toxotius married Læta, daughter to a priest of the idols, but, as to herself, she was a most virtuous Christian. Both were faithful imitators of the sanctity of our saint. Their daughter Paula the younger, was sent to Bethlehem, to be under the care of her grandmother, whom she afterwards succeeded in the government of that monastery. St. Jerom wrote to Læta, some excellent lessons 4 for the education of this girl, which parents can never read too often. Our saint lived fifty-six years and eight months, of which she had spent in her widowhood five at Rome, and almost twenty at Bethlehem. In her last illness, but especially in her agony, she repeated almost without intermission certain verses of the psalms, which express an ardent desire of the heavenly Jerusalem, and of being united to God. When she was no longer able to speak, she formed the sign of the cross on her lips, and expired in the most profound peace, on the 26th of January, 404. Her corpse, carried by bishops, and attended with lighted wax torches, was interred on the 28th of the same month, in the midst of the church of the holy manger. Her tomb is still shown in the same place, near that of St. Jerom, but empty: even the Latin epitaph which St. Jerom composed in verse, and caused to be engraved on her tomb, is erased or removed, though extant in the end of this letter which he addressed to her daughter. Her relics are said to be in the possession of the metropolitan church at Sens, and the feast of St. Paula is kept a holiday of precept in that city on the 27th of January; on which day her name is placed by Ado, Usuard, &c., because she died on the 26th after sunset, and the Jews in Palestine began the day from sunset: but her name occurs on the 26th in the Roman Martyrology, &c. See her life in St. Jerom’s letter to her daughter, called her epitaph, Ep. 86, &c. 3
Note 1. Ep. 22. ol. 54.
Note 2. Rebellibus lachrymis injuriam facis possidenti.
Note 3. Nulla sic amabat filios, &c. St. Hier. in epitaph. Paulæ.
Note 4. Ep. 57. ol. 7.
Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume I: January. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.