Paula: A Portrait of 4th Century Piety
One of several Roman noblewomen who supported the work of the scholar Jerome, Paula became his fast friend and colleague. As part of her Christian commitment, she changed her lifestyle from Roman richness to strict asceticism. Noted historian Nancy Hardesty details Paula’s devotion.
“She was squalid with dirt; she mourned and she fasted … her eyes were dim with weeping … the Psalms were her only songs; the gospel her whole speech; continence her one indulgence; fasting the staple of her life.” Thus Jerome (347–420, in Letter 45) describes the piety of his close friend and most generous benefactor: Paula (347–404).
Jerome first met Paula in Rome in about 382. She was one of a group of high-born women who devoted themselves to strict asceticism and benevolent service. The leader of the group was Marcella (325–410), an ardent student of the Bible to whom Jerome referred questions from bishops and presbyters after he left the city. With her friend Principia, she opened the first convent for women. The group included Ascella, Albina, Marcellina, Felicitas and Fabiola.
From Wine to Water
Formerly these women had devoted their lives to family and fashion. Since it was the custom for older men to marry much younger women, most of them had been widowed at an early age. Before becoming Christians, they had dressed in silks, Chinese fleeces and gold brocades. They rouged their faces, darkened their eyes with kohl, plaited blonde hair pieces into their own dark hair, wore gold shoes, and were carried everywhere on litters borne by eunuchs.
But when they became Christians they forsook all that, and adopted simple brown cassocks. They no longer ate meat or sweets, but took only bread and a little oil. Many drank no wine, only water.
Their lives ...