Valery Larbaud on Saint Hierom’s Letter “OF PRIESTLY VESTMENTS”

¶ A Vision of ceremonies and of ecclesiastical ornamentations—the treatise “Of Priestly Vestments,” Letter LXIV, addressed to Fabiola. We enter the Temple of Jerusalem where the Pontiff and the Levites array themselves, these predecessors of our clergy, since we are Israel. Jerome describes one by one these sacred habits, their shapes, their colors, the detail of the embroidery and of the ornaments, and he tells us what these things mean. The four elements, the planets, the names of the tribes, the seventy-two little bells sewn down the sides of the tunic called Meil and which resound when the Pontiff goes into the Sanctum sanctorum. The figure thus covered with cosmic symbols seems raised above mankind, the intermediary between a fallen Adam and God. This is why he must not set foot outside the sanctuary, nor move far away from the sacred objects, nor have any commerce with the unholy. “How many monks have lost their souls for having yielded to compassion for their father and mother! We are not allowed to sully ourselves through affection for [super : because of] our parents ; and how much more carefully must we eschew feelings of attachment for our brothers, sisters, cousins, and servants. We are of royal and priestly line. Let us wholly devote ourselves to that Father who never dies, or dies for us…” No leaving the sanctuary. No hobnobbing with the local people, toward all earthly things, detachment ; for we are of royal and sacred lineage… How close this whole commentary on Leviticus seems to Plotinus’ teaching : “Be not satisfied with the here and now” and “Flee, thou who art alone, unto him who is alone” ; how close to the last chapter of the last Ennead! Elsewhere in Jerome’s works we find the Bishop and the King compared ; thus, he advises a future bishop to be more like a priest than a sovereign : “If it does not become a King to give way to pity and tears,” he writes, “how much more unfitting are these in a Bishop…” That is how cardinals (the other cardinals) will one day humbly request, and accept as a concession made to the temporal powers, the tratamiento, the prerogatives and the honors bestowed upon Royal Highnesses ; and thus did it come to pass that Peter harbored in the shadow of his throne and keep for the convenience of the peoples, a college of seventy Kings… The Pontiff and the Levites, under their raiments bearing the colors of the Universe, are Kings whose realm is nowhere to be seen except upon these raiments themselves ; and even more than Kings, because to uniqueness their hieratic quality adds the incommensurable. How far we are, all of a sudden from Athens : squarely in the midst of an oriental monarchy, in the world of secret lores and sealed books to whose threshold Herodotus had timidly led us. But of all the cults, the one whereof Jerome speaks was the most secret and the purest. He who is the subject of that cult defined Himself through the absolute notion of Being, and refused to be ranked alongside other gods. He was to offend Rome by His refusal to take a place in the pantheons. For he wanted Rome to be His alone for all eternity. He was the guest who stops on the doorsteps. And when finally he enters—Ulysses among the suitors—it is to announce that he is the sole legitimate master there. The wedding ; the conclusion of the long engagement between East and West ; the mediator, Greece ; and Rome, the wedded pairs abode.

¶ Naturally, there were those (among others, Lactantius, I believe) who said that Plato had plagiarized the Scriptures, and later—in our day—some people will say that St. Paul must be included among the neo-Platonists and that his orthodox interpreters were inspired by Plotinus. But if that is as true as the claim that Plotinus proceeds from Plato, we have come full circle, and everything returns to the Synagogue : “Et de sanctis non egredietur” (Lev. xxi:12).

¶ Was Jerome, who is so curious about Levitical tradition, so strongly attached to the “Hebraic Truth,” so suspicious of the Seventy, and always in secret contact with the Synagogue—in Rome, Jerome regularly borrowed books from the Jews : in the desert, his Jew, Baranina, was always by his side ;—was Jerome clearly aware of this transfer of Eastern thought into Western thought, and of the fusion, as it appears to us today, of these two traditions within Catholic orthodoxy? Perhaps. He so much wanted it. He so much contributed to it. But he speaks from above, beyond the years and the centuries ; and while we listen to him as he holds forth on “The Priestly Vestments,” we see, rising above the Synagogue where we were, the Cathedral where we were to be.

Transcribed from An Homage to Jerome : Patron Saint of Translators by Valery Larbaud. The Marlboro Press. Marlboro, Vermont. 1984. Originally published in French in 1946.

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