Today we commemorate Paula and Eustochium, monastics, scholars, and women of influence in the Fifth century CE. Paula was a member of a ranking Roman family, married to a nobleman and the mother of five children with one son and four daughters. Paula was widowed early and while dedicated to her family, became increasingly interested in religion. In 382, she met St. Jerome, a noted theologian, who initiated the Vulgate, or Latin translation of the Bible and also commentaries on the Gospels.
Her daughter, Eustochium, accompanied her mother and Jerome on a pilgrimage to visit holy sites. They eventually settled in Bethlehem where Paula and Jerome founded a double monastery, half for women only, where Paula and her nuns followed a strict regime of asceticism. Paula also devoted herself to in-depth Bible study, often with Jerome, which also included her daughter who later became a scholar in her own right. Paula devoted herself to teaching her nuns and maintaining contact with local clergy and bishops. She was an important member of the Christian community and after her death was given the title of Saint. Eustochium followed her mother’s example, and Jerome credited her with assistance in the project along with influencing his commentaries. Both women were considered Desert Mothers, Christian women living in the deserts of Israel, Egypt, and Syria, many of them living as hermits.
Paula (347-404 CE) and Eustochium (ca. 368 to ca 419) were examples of families or members of families dedicated to the Christian faith in times when to be affiliated with such a group could be very dangerous. They represented the influence faith in families could have, but they were far from the only examples of families in which sainthood seemed to run.
We immediately think of Mary and Joseph, as well as Mary’s mother and father, Anne and Joachim, along with their cousin and her miraculous son, Elizabeth and John the Baptizer. There were also James and John, the disciples who were brothers and who were given the title of saint following their deaths.
One of the most extensive families of saints was that of the Turkish woman Macrina (born ca. 270, died ca. 340), also known as Macrina the Elder. Her family consisted of some very prominent religious people. One of her daughters, Emilia, and son-in-law, Basil, were persecuted for their faith and were declared saints. Of Emilia and Basil’s numerous children came Macrina (later called the Younger) who, like her grandmother, became one of the Desert Mothers in the area of Cappadocia, a region of Turkey converted by the apostle Paul. Two of Macrina the Elder’s grandsons were St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nyssa, both listed as Cappadocian Fathers, a group of scholars and theologians who helped define the doctrine of the Trinity and also fought against Arianism, a heresy which denied the divinity of Christ. Another grandson was Peter, bishop of Sebaste.
We also remember Monica of Hippo, whose constant prayers and tears helped to convert her wayward son, Augustine, from a dissolute life to that of one of the great Doctors of the Church. There is also Benedict of Nursia (c 480 CE) who became the Father of Western Monasticism for his efforts to reorganize and refocus the monastics of his area from dissolute living to the Benedictine order we know today with their vows of poverty, stability, and obedience. His twin sister, Scholastica, also was a monastic and abbess of a Benedictine monastery in Monte Cassino. The two were very close although they saw each other infrequently.
There are probably tons more family members who followed or served in the church and the people of Christ. These are just a few, but they represent the power of faith in the family and the dedication to God and Christ. Many of them showed a mother being the leader who dedicated herself to the church with her children, male and female, following her into similar paths. In times when women were usually subject to their husbands, fathers, and brothers, women like the Macrinas, Scholastica, Monica, and others, it took strength, conviction, and often a bit of personal wealth, for them to break away from the family and seek a life of faith. It was usually a very different lifestyle from that in their former life.
Women like the Desert Mothers were known for centuries for their wisdom and sometimes rather pithy sayings. They are being sought out again today for those sayings which speak to a world very different from the desert hermitages and communities in which they lived. The voices of women, silenced for many generations, have been resurrected and used for guidance in the way of faith.
Paula and Eustochium are quiet voices seldom heard these days, but in the collect for the day, we are reminded of their example and their contributions to the faith we try to uphold today.
Compel us, O God, to attend diligently to your Word, as your faithful servants Paula and Eustochium, that, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we may find it profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness; and that thereby we may be made wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Amen. *
It makes one proud to be a woman sometimes. It also gives women models in teaching and guiding children in the paths of righteousness. To many of us, our mothers are saints without official canonization but with attributes of love, faith, and hope that they seek to instill in us. It’s not a bad vocation.
*Lesser Feasts and Fasts (2018). General Convention, p.500.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, September 28, 2019.