Paula (347-404) was a Roman woman of the very highest birth, being related through her mother to both the Scipios and the Gracchi. Moreover, her fortune matched her genealogical distinction.
About the age of 16 she married a senator called Toxotius. “It was not her wish to fulfil a wife’s duty,” St Jerome explains, “but she complied with her husband’s longing to have male offspring.” In the event, there were four daughters, Blaesilla, Paulina, Eustochium and Rufina, and one son, another Toxotius.
At this stage she indulged in every luxury, dressing in silks and being carried about Rome by eunuch slaves. It is possible, though, that she had already begun to despise such sybaritism before her husband died, leaving her a widow at 32.
Paula mourned him intensely and was soon plunged into further distress by the death of her daughter Blaesilla, which finally persuaded her that in this life there are no enduring joys.
Thenceforward she lived a life of severe penance and mortification, while bestowing her riches upon the poor with reckless abandon. Indeed, it was said that she considered it a misfortune to see the poor being relieved by anyone else’s food.
At this point Paula came into contact with St Jerome. Much though the great scholar admired her, he was sometimes obliged to admonish her, whether for the mad generosity of her benefactions or for the dangerous rigour of her asceticism. Under Jerome’s influence Paula decided to abandon her surviving children, leave Rome and make a prolonged pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Egypt. Finally, in 386, she settled with Jerome in Bethlehem. There she founded a monastery for men, and three convents for women, always insisting on absolute standards of self-abnegation.
If she happened to notice any Sister paying too much attention to her dress she would reprove her with knitted brows and severe looks. “A clean body and a clean dress mean an unclean soul,” she believed.
Paula practised what she preached, never having a bath unless dangerously ill. For her, times of sickness were the best times. “When I am weak,” she constantly reminded herself, “then I am strong.”
Perhaps, though, there remained something of the great lady even in the abjectness of her humility. She insisted on ostentatiously licking the site outside Jerusalem where Jesus’s body had supposedly lain.
And at the end she even contrived to turn her death rattle into a paean of praise for her Saviour.
Subsequently St Jerome produced a celebrated encomium in her honour. “The more she cast herself down,” he wrote, “the more she was lifted up by Christ. She was hidden and yet she was not hidden. By shunning glory, she earned glory, for glory follows virtue as its shadow; and deserting those who seek it, it seeks those who despise it.”