Amma Paula the Elder
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
Who was Amma Paula the Elder?
In the age of the fathers and mothers of the desert, history produced some significantly influential women. The kingdom of God found care, funding, and theological expertise in the hands of Amma Paula the Elder. Paula was soft, humble, and confident. She was a peer and student to Saint Jerome and debated theological issues with some of the greatest minds of her age.
Amma Paula was born in 347 AD to a wealthy family in the Roman aristocracy. At the time of one of the church councils in the 4th century, while Paula was a young girl, her parents made room for some of the notable bishops of the Egyptian desert to lodge with them. Paula was fascinated and inspired by these profound and humble men that had committed themselves to seeking God in solitude and community while isolated from the pagan society of Rome. The virtues of those men left a lasting impact upon her life.
Eventually, Paula married a good man named Toxotius. Together they had five children and had committed their lives to serving Christ. While in Rome, Paula and Toxotius saw to the needs of the poor and destitute of the city out of their own funds. Her care for the poor would mark her entire life. If someone was in need, you could be rest assured that Paula and Toxotius would take care of them. When, out of concern for what would be left for her children, she was criticized by her relatives for their lavish spending upon the poor of the city, Paula responded by declaring that the inheritance she was leaving to her children was the mercy of Christ.
Jerome, in writing of her memory, said,
“What poor man, as he lay dying, was not wrapped in blankets given by her? What bedridden person was not supported with money from her purse? She would seek out such with the greatest diligence throughout the city, and would think it a misfortune were any hungry or sick person to be supported by another’s food.”
Never was there a hint of scandal regarding her public or private life. She was seen as having the utmost integrity, and was known as an example to Rome of Christ. Jerome indicated her life was a beacon of the principle laid out by Christ that those who have left all for Christ would receive a hundredfold increase in this life, and in the life to come. She was a friend of Marcella, and spent time helping the monasteries of Rome develop.
In her 32nd year, her husband Toxotius passed away to her great distress. During her time grieving her husband’s death, she began to realize the life she had enjoyed up until then had kept her heart attached to her position and prestige. It was in the wake of Toxotius’ death that Paula truly entered into the depths of the spiritual life.
She dedicated her life to fasting and prayer, longing to experience God in the still, quiet depths of her heart. She lived in simplicity, preferring to sacrifice prestige in order to care for the poor. She removed herself from the social engagements that her previous aristocratic status had demanded.
“The more progress St Paula made in the relish of heavenly things, the more insupportable to her became the tumultuous life of the city. She sighed after the desert, longed to live in a hermitage where her heart would have no other occupation than the thought of God.”
The influence of St. Jerome
It was in the time she became fast friends with Saint Jerome, a notable theologian in her day. Then, longing for Christ, she arranged for the estate to care for her children and left Rome for Egypt with her daughter Eustochium around 385 AD.
Amma Paula spent her time sitting at the feet of Epiphanus, Macarius the Great, Macarius of Alexandria, Isidore the Priest, Arsenius and many other desert fathers. She gleaned from them, questioned them, and learned the spiritual life from some of the most notable men of the desert. She believed that through each one she encountered the presence of Christ. Paula considered taking up residence in Egypt with the desert fathers, but was drawn to the birthplace of Jesus. After visiting the monasteries and offering financial assistance to many in the region, she made her way to Bethlehem.
For three years she labored at building a group of monasteries in Bethlehem and when the three years were complete she over saw a monastery for women and Jerome oversaw a monastery for men. She and her daughter dedicated themselves to learning from Jerome. They devoted themselves to scripture. Paula taught herself Hebrew so that she could recite the Psalms in their original language. Jerome said that she spoke Hebrew so well that she lacked accent that a native Latin speaker typically carried.
Together, they argued and debated the finer points of doctrine and theology. When Jerome was commissioned to translate the bible into Latin, Paula became an invaluable resource. Often they would debate and discuss the particular meaning of Hebrew and Latin words.
The Spiritual Life
Amma Paula taught that the spiritual life consisted of a rhythm of prayer and study, and the development of the interior life. The women in her care were charged with memorizing scripture, the purpose of which was for the rhythm of daily prayer. Six times a day the monk was to take their recourse to prayer through recitation of the Psalms. Memorization aided the endeavors of prayer.
Additionally, scripture was a source of moral and spiritual edification. Paula scoured scripture for the allegorical meaning, constantly asking what deeper lesson could be learned through the text. To her, the spiritual life was to be saturated with scripture.
She taught a liberal generosity and encouraged those that were wealthy to give to the poor and those who were not to serve the poor. When Jerome confronted her because her giving was sending her into debt, Paula responded,
“…what I do I do for His sake. My prayer is that I may die a beggar not leaving a penny to my daughter and indebted to strangers for my winding sheet. If I beg, I shall find many to give to me; but if this beggar does not obtain help from me who by borrowing can give it to him , he will die; and if he dies, of whom will his soul be required?”
If she did not take care of the one in front of her that had need, who would?
The she modelled her life after scripture.
If she was sick she recognized,
“When I am weak, then I am strong.”
When she was confronted with dangerous situations she said,
“If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
When she realized she had spent all her fortune on caring for the poor and the monastic, she said,
“What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”
When she was called mad for pursuing the life of virtue she said,
“We are made a spectacle unto the world and to angels and to men,” and “We are fools for Christ’s sake.”
Her knowledge of scripture informed her response to life.
Amma Paula spent time in tears, seeking the Lord to cleanse her heart of any impurity that would remove her from his presence. She lamented her sin and sought his grace. To the fathers and mothers watchfulness of heart was vitally important. How was the monastic to see God if their heart was impure? Constant tears, lamenting sin and seeking God, as well as watching the heart to avoid temptation, anger, lust, etc…was vital to growth in the spiritual life.
She taught that the ultimate purpose of creation was to be restored to its original state. The enemy, the accuser of the brethren introduced wickedness and evil at the fall and Christ had come to set things aright. Christ would lead the individual through darkness and into Shiloh (peace) and Bethel (the house of God). She described the culmination of the spiritual life as such.
“Wounded with the Savior’s shaft, we shall say one to another: ‘I have found Him whom my soul loves; I will hold Him and will not let Him go.’”
Perhaps the only blight on Paula’s memory was the debt she left to her daughter Eustochium. The source of debt was her constant care for the poor and needy. She spent her fortune and more in service to Christ, yet her daughter managed the affairs of the monastery after Paula’s death and was debt free shortly after her mother passed away.
Upon her final few days, Jerome stood by her side. He recorded the tenacity of this woman on her deathbed when he heard her whispering the Psalms,
“Lord, I have loved the habitation of thy house and the place where your honor dwells,” and “How amiable are your tabernacles, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs yes even faints for the courts of the Lord,” and “I had rather be an outcast in the house of my God than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.”
The last breaths that escaped her lips were spent on these verses, her soul hotly anticipating perfect union with Christ. Paula passed away to Christ in the year 404 AD and left her mark upon Christianity by her service to the poor, fondness for scripture, and guidance she offered to all in her care.