So last week I read The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. It was definitely an interesting book, and one tangent stuck out to me in particular. Here’s author Stephen Greenblatt describing Saint Jerome’s travails with setting aside his addiction to pagan art to try and focus on scripture:
But a prestigious cultural tradition that has shaped the inner lives of the elite does not disappear easily, even in those who welcome its burial. In a letter written in 384 CE, Jerome–the scholarly saint to whom we owe the story of Lucretius’ madness and suicide–described an inner struggle. Ten years earlier, he recalled, he was on his way from Rome to Jerusalem, where he planned to withdraw from all worldly entanglements, but still he took his prized classical library with him. He was committed to disciplining his body and savings his soul, but he could not forgo the addictive pleasures of his mind: “I would fast, only to read Cicero afterwards. I would spend many nights in vigil, I would shed bitter tears called from my inmost heart by the remembrance of my past sins; and then I would take up Plautus again.” Cicero, Jerome understood, was a pagan who argued for a thoroughgoing skepticism toward all dogmatic claims, including the claims of religion, but the elegance of his prose seemed irresistible. Plautus was, if anything, worse: his comedies were populated by pimps, whores, and hangers-on, but their zany wit was delicious. Delicious but poisonous: whenever Jerome turned from these literary delights to the Scriptures, the holy texts seemed crude and uncultivated. His love for the beauty and elegance of Latin was such that when he determined to learn Hebrew, he initially found the experience almost physically repellant: “From the judicious precepts of Quintilian, the rich and fluent eloquence of Cicero, the graver style of Fronto, and the smoothness of Pliny,” he wrote in 411, “I turned to this language of hissing and broken-winded words.”
Jerome was not unique in his travails. Greenblatt again:
For many generations, learned Christians remained steeped, as Jerome was, in a culture whose values had been shaped by the pagan classics. Platonism contributed to Christianity its model of the soul, Aristotelianism its Prime Mover; Stoicism its model of Providence. All the more reason why those Christians repeated to themselves exemplary stories of renunciation. Through the telling of these stories, they acted out, as in a dream, the abandonment of the rich cultural soil in which they, their parents, and their grandparents were nurtured, until one day they awoke to find that they actually had abandoned it.
There are lots of directions to head with these interesting observations, and one particular direction–one I’m sure neither intended by nor interesting to Greenblatt–is that these guys would have been pretty frustrated with a typical 3-hour Sunday meeting, too.
The thought of Jerome–or any erudite early Christian intellectual–struggling to get through a typical fast and testimony meeting is pretty hilarious, but I’m not being (only) flippant here.
The Church has something to offer everyone, but it also seems designed to provide at least some obstacles to everyone, too. It reminds me of the old expression–originally about newspapers–that they are to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I feel that is the proper role of the Church (meaning: the LDS Church as it exists before us today) and even the Gospel (meaning: the eternal principles). When you are broken, the Church is (or: should be) a hospital. But when you are well, the Church can (and often will) break you.
This isn’t a bug or an incidental fact. It is, I think, I feature.