Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Monday, September 28, 2015

Eustochium of Rome, Desert Mother

Eustochium Julia of Rome (died 28 September 419/20)

Although the lives of the Christian hermits, ascetics, and monks, often known collectively as the "Desert Fathers," are very well known--think St. Anthony ("the Great") or Hilarion (whose biography was recorded by St. Jerome) or John Chrysostom ("golden mouthed")--there were Desert Mothers, too, including Eustochium of Rome, probably born around the year 368.

A mosaic of St. Eustochiu, St. Paula,
St. Jerome, and St. Eusebius in
Bethlehem, St. Jerome's Chapel,
Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria
The daughter of a Roman senator named Toxotius and his wife Paula, who was herself a member of a powerful and wealthy senatorial family (the family claimed descent from the legendary Greek warrior Agamemnon), Eustochium Julia was the third of the couple's four daughers: her older sisters were Blaesilla and Paulina, her younger, Rufina. (There was also a son, named Toxotius, like his father.)

After the death of Toxotius, about the year 380, Paula turned her attention to religion and became one of the followers of the the widowed Marcella, who had devoted herself to an ascetic life of prayer, charitable works, and mortification of the flesh. In 382, Jerome arrived in Rome and spent three years with Marcella, about whom I've posted earlier in the year. Paula and her daughter, Eustochium, put themselves under Jerome's spiritual guidance.

Despite the urgings of her paternal family, Eustochium dedicated her life to perpetual virginity in 384. Jerome's treatise on virginityDe custodia virginitatis, was addressed to Eustochium.

In 385, Eustochium traveled with her mother to the Holy Land; after Jerome's return in 386, they traveled with him to Egypt, studying the lives of Christian hermits. Returning to the Holy Land, Paula and Eustochium established a series of monasteries in Bethlehem, one of them housing Jerome, the other three for the many women who arrived to live with Paula and Eustochium.

Paula died in 404. but Eustochium stayed on, taking on the leadership role of her mother. In 416/17, her institutions were attacked, Eustochium and her niece Paula (her younger sister's daughter) reporting on the devastation to Pope Innocent I, who responded that he "deplored the plundering, slaughter, arson, and every outrage perpetrated against the places of your church by the devil." In this case, however, the "devils" were not pagans but Jerome's enemies, the attacks probably instigated by John II, the bishop of Jerusalem.

Eustochium died about 419/20. Her niece, the younger Paula, assumed supervision of their monasteries in Bethlehem.

Eustochium's mother is recognized as St. Paula of Rome, Eustochium as St. Eustochium. And both are among the Desert Mothers.

An excellent biographical essay and the texts of all of Jerome's letters to Eustochium can be found at Epistolae: Medieval Women's Latin Letters by clicking here. And here is a letter attributed to Paula and Eustochium, addressed to Marcella.

And for an introduction to the Desert Mothers, I recommend Laura Swan's The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women.