Paula – Handmaiden of the Lord
The glitter of high society. Flowing gowns of the finest fabric. Jewel laced hair. Sumptuous banquets. Life was good until that tragic moment in my 32nd year.
I am Paula, now a humble and devoted servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. I was born into the highest Roman society in 347. My father was a senator who traced his roots back to King Agamemnon of Troy. My husband, Toxotius, was a descendent of the very founder of Rome itself.
I loved my life of privilege. My home was an elegant showpiece, almost a palace with its ornate gardens, fountains and pools. The rooms were filled with lovely statues and wall hangings. My nights were spent at lavish parties. When rich women like me journeyed around Rome, we were always carried in closed litters so that we wouldn’t have to see or smell all those poor people.
Life as a Widow
Most of all I loved my husband. We had five children and a storybook life. When he died suddenly, I was devastated. I was only 32 years old. The prospect of a lifetime of long lonely years seemed more than I could endure. I knew I didn’t want to remarry. So what would become of me?
I joined a group of other wealthy widows in Rome who were following a different path. They had heard about the famous Anthony and his followers in the desert. Desiring lives of simplicity and devotion, these women began to live like the desert fathers, right in their own homes. They fasted, gave much of their wealth to the poor, and studied the scriptures.
Paula and Jerome
And this is how I met Jerome. Perhaps you have heard of him. He was one of the first Bible translators. Indeed, his translation of the Bible into Latin, called the Vulgate, was the official text of the church for centuries.
Now Jerome was an irascible guy. He was tough to get along with. I think his tongue was his worst enemy. Jerome liked to speak his mind. But I could see through his sarcastic speech and understood his total devotion to the faith.
The ladies in my group wanted Jerome to be our Bible teacher but he had little use for women. Indeed, he avoided them whenever possible because he considered them to be overly concerned with frivolous matters. But the group convinced him that we really wanted to learn so he agreed to meet with us.
Eventually I began to stand out in the crowd. I was already well educated in Greek and Latin and knew the scriptures by heart. Theology fascinated me and I peppered Jerome with questions. He encouraged me to learn Hebrew, a language that he found difficult. Soon I was chanting the Psalms in Hebrew without even a trace of a Roman accent. I was his most devoted pupil, even as I lived a truly chaste and holy life.
Unfortunately, there were a lot of busy-bodies in Rome. Jerome was so highly esteemed that there was talk of him becoming the pope. But rumors began to fly about our relationship and we were brought before the magistrates in Rome. Because I was a woman, and therefore a non-citizen, I could not legally defend myself. Jerome convinced the court that the allegations were false and we were acquitted. But as part of the settlement, he was forced to leave Rome.
New Life in Bethlehem
After a bit, I decided to follow Jerome to the Holy Land. By this time some of my children had tragically died and the others were married. I had one daughter left. She and I set out on our journey. We spent a year traveling to all the holy places we had read about. We went from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to Jericho. We even ventured into Egypt to visit the desert fathers. We got lost for several days and were much afflicted by sandstorms and crocodiles. But I loved the journey. As Jerome would later say, “Paula would see everything, and one could only drag her from one place to lead her into another.”
My daughter and I finally settled in Bethlehem. Jerome was living there in a small cave next to the birthplace of our Lord Jesus Christ. He was still the same, driving himself relentlessly in his translation work. I gradually became his assistant, rather than just his student.
Because my Greek was excellent and he was still struggling mightily with his Hebrew, I assisted regularly with his translation work. I even stepped in once when his eyes were failing so that his efforts could continue. But because I am a woman it was not acceptable for me to do theological work. So I was not openly acknowledged. Only God and Jerome know the extent of my theological labors.
I didn’t spend all my time helping Jerome. My daughter and I founded two monasteries – one for men and one for women. We also opened a hostel for travelers. I always said, “If Mary and Joseph came back to Bethlehem, they should at least find a decent inn to receive them.”
Ministry to the Poor
More than anything else, I wanted to help the poor. It is said of me, “What poor man, as he lay dying, was not wrapped in blankets given by Paula? What bedridden person was not supported with money from her purse?” Indeed, I was so anxious to help the poor that I often borrowed money and sometimes took out new loans to pay off the old ones.
I was actually determined to give away every penny I had. I once told Jerome, “My prayer is that I may die a beggar not leaving a penny to my daughter and indebted to strangers for my winding sheet.” I got my wish. I died penniless having bestowed all of my fortune on the poor. This former noblewoman of Rome had reduced herself to the last degree of poverty.
The crowds overflowed at my funeral in the year 404. Whole cities in Palestine attended. The poor, too numerous to count, wailed that they had lost their mother. My dearest friend, Jerome, wrote on my epitaph that I preferred the poverty of Christ and the humble fields of Bethlehem to the splendors of Rome. The inscription outside my tomb reads:
See here hollowed in the rock a grave,
‘Tis Paula’s tomb. High heaven has her soul.
Who Rome and friends, riches and home forsook
Here in this lonely spot to find her rest.
Yes, I have gone to rest in the arms of my Savior and will be his humble and devoted servant throughout eternity.