Saint Paula of Rome (AD 347–404) was an ancient Roman saint and early Desert Mother.
A member of one of the richest senatorial families which claimed descent from Agamemnon, Paula was the daughter of Blesilla and Rogatus, from the great clan of the Furii Camilli. In her mid teens, Paula was married to the nobleman Toxotius, with whom she had four daughters, Blaesilla, Paulina, Eustochium, and Rufina. She also had a boy, also named Toxotius. Information about Paula's early life is recorded by Saint Jerome. In his Letter 108, he states that she had led a luxurious life and held a great status. She dressed in silks, and had been carried about the city by her eunuch slaves.
Entering the religious life
At the age of 32, Paula was widowed. She continued to dedicate herself to her family, but became more interested in religion as time went on.
Through the influence of Saint Marcella and her group, Paula became an enthusiastic member of this semi-monastic group of women. In 382, she met Saint Jerome, who had come to Rome with Saint Epiphanius and Bishop Paulinus of Antioch. Born in Dalmatia, Jerome had studied in Rome as a youth and had traveled to Germany and Aquileia, and for some years had lived in the East as an ascetic and scholar.
While on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Egypt, she settled in Bethlehem and established a monastery for men and a convent for women.
Saint Paula's family
Paula married her daughter, Paulina (d. 395), to the senator Saint Pammachius; Blesilla soon became a widow and died in 384. Of her two other daughters, Rufina died in 386, and Eustochium accompanied her mother to the Orient where she died in 419. Her son, Toxotius, at first not a Christian, but baptized in 385, married in 389 Laeta, daughter of the pagan priest Albinus. Of this marriage was born Paula the Younger, who in 404 rejoined Eustochium in the Holy Land and in 420 closed the eyes of St. Jerome. These are the names which recur frequently in the letters of St. Jerome, where they are inseparable from that of Paula. It has been argued that Saint Eustochius of Tours was the brother of Paula the Younger and the son of Toxotius.
A year after the death of her husband, Paula pursued a pilgrimage to tour all of the holy sights traveling with large entourages of both men and women including her daughter Eustochium and Jerome himself. Paula could undertake this voyage due to her widow status which left her a significant fortune allowing her exemption from remarriage. Additionally, having had a male heir and two married daughters provided supplementary financial insurance. Her travels are documented by Jerome in his later writing addressed to Eustochium which discusses how Paula participated in the environments they toured. He discusses that Paula exemplified an intimate and emotional connection with the sights, experiencing visual vividness of biblical events at each locale. In conclusion to her journey, Paula decided to remain in Bethlehem to develop a monastery and spiritual retreat with Jerome.
Once settling in Bethlehem, Paula and Jerome built a double monastery including one for Paula and her nuns and another for Jerome and his monks. The addition of a roadside hostel was also constructed to serve as an economic source to fund the monasteries. This development took three years to complete and was primarily sourced by Paula who, during this time of construction, stayed at another double monastery called Mount Olives.
Once completed, the monastery segregated each gender from one another during manual labor and meals, but practiced prayer in the same locale. Additional separation, within the nun monastery, included three different communities of women based on social rank who were divided in separate living quarters.
During its functioning, Jerome and Paula’s retreat attracted large crowds of visitors both from Christian backgrounds and general travelers from a variety of regions including Ethiopia, Persia, and India. Along with this, aristocratic refugees were also drawn to the locale due to Jerome’s extensive network of followers. The result of this inclusion, alongside their growing admittance of monks and nuns, left Paula and Jerome’s retreat to face financial hardship, having their resources strained. In order to recover costs, which were also depleted by Paula’s considerable donations to the needy, Jerome sold his family’s property in Italy and Dalmatia.
Paula's Ascetic Life
It is Jerome’s writing’s in a letter to Eustochium that provide the most insight on Paula’s life during her years of service at the monastery. She is noted as maintaining her ascetic devotion through intensive studies of the Old and New Testaments, often under the guidance of Jerome. With this, she also practiced a strict fasting regimen, abstinence, and pursued a destitute lifestyle “to preserve a singular attachment to God” as stated by Jerome. While practicing this life of isolation, Paula still continued to interact with local clergy and bishops and maintained devout attention to teaching the nuns under her sovereignty. Jerome's letter from 404 moreover indicates Saint Paula's first-hand connection with relics from Christ's passion, "she was shown the pillar of the church which supports the colonnade and is stained with the Lord's blood. He is said to have been tied to it when he was scourged."
Jerome made explicit in his letter how Paula, through these practices, became a recognized figure in the Christian community. At one point, in traveling to Nitria, she was earnestly received by renowned monks from Egypt and once her death arrived on January 26 404 AD, her funeral was noted as having a significant portion of the Palestine population arrive in her honor. A year after her passing, Paula obtained the title of Saint recognized by the Latin Church where she was honored the feast day of January 26.
Relationship with Saint Jerome
Jerome's enemies found that his denunciations of clerical indulgence and advocacy of self-denial were odd when they considered his close relationship with Paula. An amorous relationship between Jerome and Paula was suggested as having occurred.
Paula helped Jerome in his translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. The work was done at her suggestion, and she provided the reference works necessary for the undertaking. Being versed in Hebrew, she edited Jerome's manuscripts. She and her daughter Eustochium copied the work for circulation.
An anecdote told of Jerome, of twelfth-century origin, tells that Roman clergy hostile to Jerome planned to have him expelled from the city by planting a woman's robe next to his bed. When Jerome awoke in the middle of the night to attend the service of matins, he absentmindedly put on the female robes. He was thus accused of having had a woman in his bed. This story acknowledges, while at the same time discrediting as a malicious slander, Jerome's relationship with women, such the kind he is presumed to have had with Paula.
Chaucer played upon the relationship between Jerome and Paula when he writes the Wife of Bath's Prologue. Chaucer has the Wife visit the same pilgrimage sites as did Paula, and has her constantly cite, not classical authors, but Jerome. Many of her comments are counter-arguments to those put forth by St. Jerome, mainly in his work Against Jovinianus.
Palladius, a contemporary of Jerome, believed that Paula was hindered by Jerome: "For though she was able to surpass all, having great abilities, he hindered her by his jealousy, having induced her to serve his own plan."
When Jerome died in late 419 or early 420, he was buried beneath the north aisle of the Church of the Nativity, near the graves of Paula and Eustochium.