Beautiful images of the four great western doctors of the Church are huge and visible from the choir stalls where I pray the liturgy with the monks every day in our Archabbey Basilica. They are arranged on the wall going into the apse from floor to ceiling (a 65 foot distance) with two on each side. St. Gregory the Great and St. Augustine are on one side, and St. Jerome and St. Ambrose are on the other side. St. Ambrose and St. Augustine are the upper images, facing each other, and they look similar enough that I often forget which is which. The way I remember is that St. Augustine and St. Jerome are as far apart as possible. Their relationship was a little rocky. The evidence for that can be found in a sequence of letters between the great convert who became a prolific teacher and the well-established veteran, scholar and monk who did not need to be challenged by the young Augustine.
St. Jerome edited and translated the Bible that became the Church’s official Latin text for the next 1500 years. He wrote volumes of detailed commentaries on both Old and New Testament books. He lived a monastic life of solitude, study and hospitality, including many years in Bethlehem where he only grew in his love for the Incarnate Word who was born there. He grew in holiness through both prayer and penance and so he is often pictured with a book of Scriptures or a rock for penance. In our Basilica, he holds the rock. He had a strong temper and he regularly repented of the sins of his youth along with his daily infractions.
Pope Benedict XVI spoke about him at a General Audience on St. Jerome, November 14, 2017:
A passionate love for Scripture therefore pervaded Jerome’s whole life, a love that he always sought to deepen in the faithful, too. He recommends to one of his spiritual daughters: “Love Sacred Scripture and wisdom will love you; love it tenderly, and it will protect you; honour it and you will receive its caresses. May it be for you as your necklaces and your earrings.” (Ep. 130, 20). And again: “Love the science of Scripture, and you will not love the vices of the flesh.” (Ep. 125, 11)
This emphasis on loving Scripture is a key note for St. Jerome. He fully immersed himself in the sacred text. He read it in the original languages of Hebrew and Greek. He translated it. He studied it and the writings of others about it (he even reflected on the upstart critiques and observations of the young convert Augustine!) and he urged others to read it as well. It was not a job; it was a passion. Most importantly, though, he prayed with sacred Scripture. He saw Scripture as an essential part of our dialogue with God. One cannot have a conversation without a conversation partner. St. Jerome wrote to a young Roman noblewoman, “If you pray you speak with the Spouse; if you read, it is he who speaks to you.” (Ep. 22, 25)
This insight is the foundation for the Church’s traditional prayer with sacred Scripture called lectio divina. This form of prayerful reading (literally “divine reading”) has been characterized by four stages: Reading the Scripture and asking what the text says in itself, meditating on the Scripture and asking what God is saying to me through this text, praying as a response to what God is saying to me and contemplating to rest in the Lord’s presence as I have this encounter with him.
It comes back to the basic insight that Scripture is God’s word to me. We have to understand what the Scripture says in itself, as St. Jerome so diligently labored to do. But then it also has a particular application to my life. As a simple example, I recently heard someone apply Isaiah 9:6 to himself. Isaiah 9:6 says, “For to us a child is born…” In Isaiah’s particular historical context that “child” referred to a particular person, perhaps King Hezekiah, who was born for Israel.
St. Jerome went deeper through his study and had this insight about the text in itself: “The Septuagint [Greek translation of the Old Testament] in my opinion, terrified as it was by the majesty of these names, did not dare to say of a child that he must be called God.” (Commentary on Isaiah 3.9.16–17) In saying this he helps us to recover the awe that we should have for this child, whose true identity—God—the Old Testament authors did not dare to utter. In the New Testament’s fulfillment of the Old, that child referred to Christ, who was God and who was born for the whole world. The fulfillment of all Scripture in Christ is a point that St. Jerome emphasized in his famous dictum: “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”
In the personal application, that “child” refers to Christ who was born for me. So when we meditate with this Scripture we could read, “For to Boniface a child is born…” (insert your name instead of mine!) And then how do I look at this child? What does he mean to me? Do I feel the amazement of a parent who receives such a gift? I feel humbled that God would be so vulnerable as to entrust himself like that to me. From there I may find myself holding him tenderly close to my heart in amazement. That could move me to a contemplative rest where I should remain. There is no need to keep reading.
There is a way that such prayer can melt away anxieties, give us peace, strengthen us for our duty and redirect our attention to what is most important. That’s how St. Jerome read Scripture, studied it to understand its meaning and prayed with it so as to encounter God: hearing him, speaking to him and resting in him. His awareness of his past sins, his ongoing failures and his need for repentance helped him feel how necessary it was for him to spend that time with God in prayer. The personal love he found in God’s word made such prayer possible.