Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Marcella of Rome: Pious Noblewoman, Nun, and Saint

Marcella of Rome (feast day, 31 January)

Born into fashionable Roman society in 325, Marcella devoted herself to a life of chastity, prayer, and service when her young husband died just seven months after their marriage. (Most of what we know about Marcella comes from Jerome, whose letter to Principia, on the occasion of Marcella's death, gives a fairly detailed account of her life.)

On her unusual dedication--for a woman--to crafting and living a monastic life, Jerome writes, "In those days no highborn lady at Rome had made profession of the monastic life, or had ventured--so strange and ignominious and degrading did it then seem--publicly to call herself a nun. . . . Nor was she ashamed to profess a life which she had thus learned to be pleasing to Christ."

After his arrival in Rome, Jerome was not much interested in meeting with, or in teaching, Marcella. But, he explains, 
she pleaded so earnestly, both in season and out of season . . . as the apostle says, that at last her perseverance overcame my reluctance. And, as in those days my name was held in some renown as that of a student of the scriptures, she never came to see me that she did not ask me some question concerning them, nor would she at once acquiesce in my explanations but on the contrary would dispute them; not, however, for argument's sake but to learn the answers to those objections which might, as she saw, be made to my statements. How much virtue and ability, how much holiness and purity I found in her I am afraid to say; both lest I may exceed the bounds of men's belief and lest I may increase your sorrow by reminding you of the blessings that you have lost. This much only will I say, that whatever in me was the fruit of long study and as such made by constant meditation a part of my nature, this she tasted, this she learned and made her own.
Jerome narrates the circumstances of Marcella's death in 410, during the invasion of Alaric the Goth, to Principia (I'm not quite sure why, because Principia herself was there--maybe because Jerome thought his second-hand account was superior to a woman's eyewitness knowledge of events?):
Meantime, as was natural in a scene of such confusion, one of the bloodstained victors found his way into Marcella's house. Now be it mine to say what I have heard, to relate what holy men have seen; for there were some such present and they say that you too were with her in the hour of danger. When the soldiers entered she is said to have received them without any look of alarm; and when they asked her for gold she pointed to her coarse dress to show them that she had no buried treasure. However they would not believe in her self-chosen poverty, but scourged her and beat her with cudgels. She is said to have felt no pain but to have thrown herself at their feet and to have pleaded with tears for you, that you might not be taken from her, or owing to your youth have to endure what she as an old woman had no occasion to fear. Christ softened their hard hearts and even among bloodstained swords natural affection asserted its rights. The barbarians conveyed both you and her to the basilica of the apostle Paul, that you might find there either a place of safety or, if not that, at least a tomb.
Hereupon Marcella is said to have burst into great joy and to have thanked God for having kept you unharmed in answer to her prayer. She said she was thankful too that the taking of the city had found her poor, not made her so, that she was no[t] in want of daily bread, that Christ satisfied her needs so that she no longer felt hunger, that she was able to say in word and in deed: naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there: the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;blessed be the name of the Lord.
After a few days she fell asleep in the Lord; but to the last her powers remained unimpaired. You she made the heir of her poverty, or rather the poor through you. When she closed her eyes, it was in your arms; when she breathed her last breath, your lips received it; you shed tears but she smiled conscious of having led a good life and hoping for her reward hereafter.
If she were born in 325, Marcella would have been in her mid-eighties when she died.

A highly romanticized image of Marcella of Rome's
confrontation with the Goths

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