24. Never incline your ear to words of mischief. For men often say an improper word to make trial of a virgin’s steadfastness, to see if she hears it with pleasure, and if she is ready to unbend at every silly jest. Such persons applaud whatever you affirm and deny whatever you deny; they speak of you as not only holy but accomplished, and say that in you there is no guile. “Behold,” say they, “a true hand-maid of Christ; behold entire singleness of heart. How different from that rough, unsightly, countrified fright, who most likely never married because she could never find a husband.” Our natural weakness induces us readily to listen to such flatterers; but, though we may blush and reply that such praise is more than our due, the soul within us rejoices to hear itself praised.
Like the ark of the covenant Christ’s spouse should be overlaid with gold within and without;513 she should be the guardian of the law of the Lord. Just as the ark contained nothing but the tables of the covenant,514 so in you there should be no thought of anything that is outside. For it pleases the Lord to sit in your mind as He once sat on the mercy-seat and the cherubims.515 As He sent His disciples to loose Him the foal of an ass that he might ride on it, so He sends them to release you from the cares of the world, that leaving the bricks and straw of Egypt, you may follow Him, the true Moses, through the wilderness and may enter the land of promise. Let no one dare to forbid you, neither mother nor sister nor kinswoman nor brother: “The Lord hath need of you.”516 Should they seek to hinder you, let them fear the scourges that fell on Pharaoh, who, because he would not let God’s people go that they might serve Him,517 suffered the plagues described in Scripture. Jesus entering into the temple cast out those things which belonged not to the temple. For God is jealous and will not allow the father’s house to be made a den of robbers.518 Where money is counted, where doves are sold, where simplicity is stifled where, that is, a virgin’s breast glows with cares of this world; straightway the veil of the temple is rent,519 the bridegroom rises in anger, he says: “Your house is left unto you desolate.”520 Read the gospel and see how Mary sitting at the feet of the Lord is set before the zealous Martha. In her anxiety to be hospitable Martha was preparing a meal for the Lord and His disciples; yet Jesus said to her: “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things. But few things are needful or one.521 And Mary hath chosen that good part which shall not be taken away from her.”522 Be then like Mary; prefer the food of the soul to that of the body. Leave it to your sisters to run to and fro and to seek how they may fitly welcome Christ. But do you, having once for all cast away the burden of the world, sit at the Lord’s feet and say: “I have found him whom my soul loveth; I will hold him, I will not let him go.”523 And He will answer: “My dove, my undefiled is but one; she is the only one of her mother, she is the choice one of her that bare her.”524 Now the mother of whom this is said is the heavenly Jerusalem.525
25. Ever let the privacy of your chamber guard you; ever let the Bridegroom sport with you within.526 Do you pray? You speak to the Bridegroom. Do you read? He speaks to you. When sleep overtakes you He will come behind and put His hand through the hole of the door, and your heart527 shall be moved for Him; and you will awake and rise up and say: “I am sick of love.”528 Then He will reply: “A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.”529
Go not from home nor visit the daughters of a strange land, though you have patriarchs for brothers and Israel for a father. Dinah went out and was seduced.530 Do not seek the Bridegroom in the streets; do not go round the corners of the city. For though you may say: “I will rise now and go about the city: in the streets and in the broad ways I will seek Him whom my soul loveth,” and though you may ask the watchmen: “Saw ye Him whom my soul loveth?”531 no one will deign to answer you. The Bridegroom cannot be found in the streets: “Strait and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life.”532 So the Song goes on: “I sought him but I could not find him: I called him but he gave me no answer.”533 And would that failure to find Him were all. You will be wounded and stripped, you will lament and say: “The watchmen that went about the city found me: they smote me, they wounded me, they took away my veil from me.”534 Now if one who could say: “I sleep but my heart waketh,”535 and “A bundle of myrrh is my well beloved unto me; he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts”;536 if one who could speak thus suffered so much because she went abroad, what shall become of us who are but young girls; of us who, when the bride goes in with the Bridegroom, still remain without? Jesus is jealous. He does not choose that your face should be seen of others. You may excuse yourself and say: “I have drawn close my veil, I have covered my face and I have sought Thee there and have said: ‘Tell me, O Thou whom my soul loveth, where Thou feedest Thy flock, where Thou makest it to rest at noon. For why should I be as one that is veiled beside the flocks of Thy companions?’”537 Yet in spite of your excuses He will be wroth, He will swell with anger and say: “If thou know not thyself, O thou fairest among women, go thy way forth by the footsteps of the flock and feed thy goats beside the shepherd’s tents.”538 You may be fair, and of all faces yours may be the dearest to the Bridegroom; yet, unless you know yourself, and keep your heart with all diligence,539 unless also you avoid the eyes of the young men, you will be turned out of My bride-chamber to feed the goats, which shall be set on the left hand.540
26. These things being so, my Eustochium, daughter, lady, fellow-servant, sister—these names refer the first to your age, the second to your rank, the third to your religious vocation, the last to the place which you hold in my affection—hear the words of Isaiah: “Come, my people, enter thou into thy chambers, and shut thy doors about thee: hide thyself as it were for a little moment, until the indignation” of the Lord “be overpast.”541 Let foolish virgins stray abroad, but for your part stay at home with the Bridegroom; for if you shut your door, and, according to the precept of the Gospel,542 pray to your Father in secret, He will come and knock, saying: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man …open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.”543 Then straightway you will eagerly reply: “It is the voice of my beloved that knocketh, saying, Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled.” It is impossible that you should refuse, and say: “I have put off my coat how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?”544 Arise forthwith and open. Otherwise while you linger He may pass on and you may have mournfully to say: “I opened to my beloved, but my beloved was gone.”545 Why need the doors of your heart be closed to the Bridegroom? Let them be open to Christ but closed to the devil according to the saying: “If the spirit of him who hath power rise up against thee, leave not thy place.”546 Daniel, in that upper story to which he withdrew when he could no longer continue below, had his windows open toward Jerusalem.547 Do you too keep your windows open, but only on the side where light may enter and whence you may see the eye of the Lord. Open not those other windows of which the prophet says: “Death is come up into our windows.”548
27. You must also be careful to avoid the snare of a passion for vainglory. “How,” Jesus says, “can ye believe which receive glory one from another?”549 What an evil that must be the victim of which cannot believe! Let us rather say: “Thou art my glorying,”550 and “He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord,”551 and “If I yet pleased men I should not be the servant of Christ,”552 and “Far be it from me to glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world hath been crucified unto me and I unto the world;”553 and once more: “In God we boast all the day long; my soul shall make her boast in the Lord.”554 When you do alms, let God alone see you. When you fast, be of a cheerful countenance.555 Let your dress be neither too neat nor too slovenly; neither let it be so remarkable as to draw the attention of passers-by, and to make men point their fingers at you. Is a brother dead? Has the body of a sister to be carried to its burial? Take care lest in too often performing such offices you die yourself. Do not wish to seem very devout nor more humble than need be, lest you seek glory by shunning it. For many, who screen from all men’s sight their poverty, charity, and fasting, desire to excite admiration by their very disdain of it, and strangely seek for praise while they profess to keep out of its way. From the other disturbing influences which make men rejoice, despond, hope, and fear I find many free; but this is a defect which few are without, and he is best whose character, like a fair skin, is disfigured by the fewest blemishes. I do not think it necessary to warn you against boasting of your riches, or against priding yourself on your birth, or against setting yourself up as superior to others. I know your humility; I know that you can say with sincerity: “Lord, my heart is not haughty nor mine eyes lofty;”556 I know that in your breast as in that of your mother the pride through which the devil fell has no place. It would be time wasted to write to you about it; for there is no greater folly than to teach a pupil what he knows already. But now that you have despised the boastfulness of the world, do not let the fact inspire you with new boastfulness. Harbor not the secret thought that having ceased to court attention in garments of gold you may begin to do so in mean attire. And when you come into a room full of brothers and sisters, do not sit in too low a place or plead that you are unworthy of a footstool. Do not deliberately lower your voice as though worn out with fasting; nor, leaning on the shoulder of another, mimic the tottering gait of one who is faint. Some women, it is true, disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast.557 As soon as they catch sight of any one they groan, they look down; they cover up their faces, all but one eye, which they keep free to see with. Their dress is sombre, their girdles are of sackcloth, their hands and feet are dirty; only their stomachs—which cannot be seen—are hot with food. Of these the psalm is sung daily: “The Lord will scatter the bones of them that please themselves.”558 Others change their garb and assume the mien of men, being ashamed of being what they were born to be—women. They cut off their hair and are not ashamed to look like eunuchs. Some clothe themselves in goat’s hair, and, putting on hoods, think to become children again by making themselves look like so many owls.559
28. But I will not speak only of women. Avoid men, also, when you see them loaded with chains and wearing their hair long like women, contrary to the apostle’s precept,560 not to speak of beards like those of goats, black cloaks, and bare feet braving the cold. All these things are tokens of the devil. Such an one Rome groaned over some time back in Antimus; and Sophronius is a still more recent instance. Such persons, when they have once gained admission to the houses of the high-born, and have deceived “silly women laden with sins, ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth,”561 feign a sad mien and pretend to make long fasts while at night they feast in secret. Shame forbids me to say more, for my language might appear more like invective than admonition. There are others—I speak of those of my own order—who seek the presbyterate and the diaconate simply that they may be able to see women with less restraint. Such men think of nothing but their dress; they use perfumes freely, and see that there are no creases in their leather shoes. Their curling hair shows traces of the tongs; their fingers glisten with rings; they walk on tiptoe across a damp road, not to splash their feet. When you see men acting in this way, think of them rather as bridegrooms than as clergymen. Certain persons have devoted the whole of their energies and life to the single object of knowing the names, houses, and characters of married ladies. I will here briefly describe the head of the profession, that from the master’s likeness you may recognize the disciples. He rises and goes forth with the sun; he has the order of his visits duly arranged; he takes the shortest road; and, troublesome old man that he is, forces his way almost into the bedchambers of ladies yet asleep. If he sees a pillow that takes his fancy or an elegant table-cover—or indeed any article of household furniture—he praises it, looks admiringly at it, takes it into his hand, and, complaining that he has nothing of the kind, begs or rather extorts it from the owner. All the women, in fact, fear to cross the news-carrier of the town. Chastity and fasting are alike distasteful to him. What he likes is a savory breakfast—say off a plump young crane such as is commonly called a cheeper. In speech he is rude and forward, and is always ready to bandy reproaches. Wherever you turn he is the first man that you see before you. Whatever news is noised abroad he is either the originator of the rumor or its magnifier. He changes his horses every hour; and they are so sleek and spirited that you would take him for a brother of the Thracian king.562
29. Many are the stratagems which the wily enemy employs against us. “The serpent,” we are told, “was more subtile than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made.”563 And the apostle says: “We are not ignorant of his devices.”564 Neither an affected shabbiness nor a stylish smartness becomes a Christian. If there is anything of which you are ignorant, if you have any doubt about Scripture, ask one whose life commends him, whose age puts him above suspicion, whose reputation does not belie him; one who may be able to say: “I have espoused you to one husband that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.” Or if there should be none such able to explain, it is better to avoid danger at the price of ignorance than to court it for the sake of learning. Remember that you walk in the midst of snares, and that many veteran virgins, of a chastity never called in question, have, on the very threshold of death, let their crowns fall from their hands.
If any of your handmaids share your vocation, do not lift up yourself against them or pride yourself because you are their mistress. You have all chosen one Bridegroom; you all sing the same psalms; together you receive the Body of Christ. Why then should your thoughts be different?565 You must try to win others, and that you may attract the more readily you must treat the virgins in your train with the greatest respect. If you find one of them weak in the faith, be attentive to her, comfort her, caress her, and make her chastity your treasure. But if a girl pretends to have a vocation simply because she desires to escape from service, read aloud to her the words of the apostle: “It is better to marry than to burn.”566
Idle persons and busybodies, whether virgins or widows; such as go from house to house calling on married women and displaying an unblushing effrontery greater than that of a stage parasite, cast from you as you would the plague. For “evil communications corrupt good manners,”567 and women like these care for nothing but their lowest appetites. They will often urge you, saying, “My dear creature, make the best of your advantages, and live while life is yours,” and “Surely you are not laying up money for your children.” Given to wine and wantonness, they instill all manner of mischief into people’s minds, and induce even the most austere to indulge in enervating pleasures. And “when they have begun to wax wanton against Christ they will marry, having condemnation because they have rejected their first faith.”568
Do not seek to appear over-eloquent, nor trifle with verse, nor make yourself gay with lyric songs. And do not, out of affectation, follow the sickly taste569 of married ladies who, now pressing their teeth together, now keeping their lips wide apart, speak with a lisp, and purposely clip their words, because they fancy that to pronounce them naturally is a mark of country breeding. Accordingly they find pleasure in what I may call an adultery of the tongue. For “what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial?”570 How can Horace go with the psalter, Virgil with the gospels, Cicero with the apostle?571 Is not a brother made to stumble if he sees you sitting at meat in an idol’s temple?572 Although “unto the pure all things are pure,”573 and “nothing is to be refused if it be received with thanksgiving,”574 still we ought not to drink the cup of Christ, and, at the same time, the cup of devils.575 Let me relate to you the story of my own miserable experience.
30. 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.’”576 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?”577 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, failing 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.
31. You must also avoid the sin of covetousness, and this not merely by refusing to seize upon what belongs to others, for that is punished by the laws of the state, but also by not keeping your own property, which has now become no longer yours. “If have not been faithful,” the Lord says, “in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own?”578 “That which is another man’s” is a quantity of gold or of silver, while “that which is our own” is the spiritual heritage of which it is elsewhere said: “The ransom of a man’s life is his riches.”579 “No man can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.”580 Riches, that is; for in the heathen tongue of the Syrians riches are called mammon. The “thorns” which choke our faith581 are the taking thought for our life.582 Care for the things which the Gentiles seek after583 is the root of covetousness.
But you will say: “I am a girl delicately reared, and I cannot labor with my hands. Suppose that I live to old age and then fall sick, who will take pity on me?” Hear Jesus speaking to the apostles: “Take no thought what ye shall eat; nor yet for your body what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them.”584 Should clothing fail you, set the lilies before your eyes. Should hunger seize you, think of the words in which the poor and hungry are blessed. Should pain afflict you, read “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities,” and “There was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.”585 Rejoice in all God’s judgments; for does not the psalmist say: “The daughters of Judah rejoiced because of thy judgments, O Lord”?586 Let the words be everon your lips: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither;”587 and “We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.”588
32. To-day you may see women cramming their wardrobes with dresses, changing their gowns from day to day, and for all that unable to vanquish the moths. Now and then one more scrupulous wears out a single dress; yet, while she appears in rags, her boxes are full. Parchments are dyed purple, gold is melted into lettering, manuscripts are decked with jewels, while Christ lies at the door naked and dying. When they hold out a hand to the needy they sound a trumpet;589 when they invite to a love-feast590 they engage a crier. I lately saw the noblest lady in Rome—I suppress her name, for I am no satirist—with a band of eunuchs before her in the basilica of the blessed Peter. She was giving money to the poor, a coin apiece; and this with her own hand, that she might be accounted more religious. Hereupon a by no means uncommon incident occurred. An old woman, “full of years and rags,”591 ran forward to get a second coin, but when her turn came she received not a penny but a blow hard enough to draw blood from her guilty veins.