Saint Paula

"Saint Paula Teaching Her Nuns" by Andre Reinoso.

"Saint Paula Teaching Her Nuns" by Andre Reinoso.

“The holy scriptures she knew by heart, and said of the history contained in them that it was the foundation of the truth; but, though she loved even this, she still preferred to seek for the underlying spiritual meaning and made this the keystone of the spiritual building raised within her soul.” – St. Jerome, “Letter to Eustochium CVIII”

Paula was happy, which was no small thing for a woman living in the Roman Empire in the 4th century.  She lived in luxury, silk garments caressing her well-maintained skin, servants carrying her sedan chair through the city streets to protect her delicate feet.  Born to a long line of Roman nobility, she married a man with a similar pedigree, Toxotius, with whom she had five children: four girls -- Blesilla, Paulina, Rufina, Eustochium -- and one boy -- Toxotius.  Although they enjoyed their wealth, their faith in Christ compelled them to share freely with those in need. She was devoted not only to following the words of Christ, but to studying them.  She often visited a nearby monastery to examine the biblical texts, the parchment crackling under her light touch, her eyes straining against the lamplight.  When bishops gathered for councils in Rome she hosted them as her guests and soaked in their conversation and wisdom.  But this idyllic life came crashing down around her when she was only 32 years old: Toxotius died, and “when he died, her grief was so great that she nearly died herself.”[1]

In the midst of her grief, Paula cried out to God.  In response, she heard a call to commit her life to seeking Christ. She set her face toward Jerusalem, determined to visit the Holy Land to worship at the sacred sites and visit the deserts of Egypt to glean wisdom from the saints who practiced ascetic devotion there. Thus, “forgetful of her house, of her children, of her family, of her property, of everything connected with the world,” Paula and her daughter Eustochium set out.[2]  They were undeterred by the difficulty of the journey, the heat of noon sun, the sand caked to their feet and faces.  They visited the desert abbas and ammas and the holy shrines, anxious to touch the places where Christ himself had walked.  Jerome, who history would remember for his Latin translation of the Bible, wrote of her deep devotion as she traveled: “in visiting the holy places so great was the passion and the enthusiasm she exhibited for each, that she could never have torn herself away from one had she not been eager to visit the rest. Before the Cross she threw herself down in adoration as though she beheld the Lord hanging upon it: and when she entered the tomb which was the scene of the Resurrection she kissed the stone which the angel had rolled away from the door of the sepulchre.”[3]  

Paula and Eustochium eventually concluded their pilgrimage and settled in Bethlehem, where Jerome was living as a hermit beneath the Church of the Nativity.  Inspired by the example of the saints’ devotion and of Christ himself, Paula adopted a simple monastic lifestyle, fasting regularly and giving so generously to the poor that “she borrowed money at interest and often contracted new loans to pay off old ones.”[4]  Seeing the need for order and community, Paula also founded a monastery and three convents where she served as a beloved abbess for 20 years.  Jerome praised her renunciation of self, for “the more she cast herself down, the more she was lifted up by Christ.”[5]

Already a devout and knowledgeable student of Scripture, Paula found in Jerome a teacher, friend, and mentor. Together they studied and discussed Scripture, reading together under the beating sun or the glow of candles, growing in admiration for one another’s spiritual and intellectual capacities.  Her desire to understand the Scriptures deepened to such a degree that she learned Hebrew, which greatly impressed Jerome.  He went so far as to praise her skill with the language as exceeding his own: “While I myself beginning as a young man have with much toil and effort partially acquired the Hebrew tongue and study it now unceasingly lest if I leave it, it also may leave me; Paula, on making up her mind that she too would learn it, succeeded so well that she could chant the psalms in Hebrew and could speak the language without a trace of the pronunciation peculiar to Latin.”[6]  Paula and Jerome corresponded about matters of theology and interpretation of Scripture, and comforted one another in times of grief.[7]  At the core of their relationship was a shared devotion to Christ, which included following his example of chastity. Indeed, Jerome praised chastity as one of her great virtues: “Even when she was still in the world, she set an example to all the matrons of Rome, and bore herself so admirably that the most slanderous never ventured to couple scandal with her name.”[8] 

Twenty years she labored with deep joy in Palestine, overseeing her community, examining her beloved Scriptures, partnering with her friend Jerome and her daughter Eustochium to honor Christ with their devotion and work of mercy.  When she died in the year 404, bishops from across Israel and Palestine mourned and gathered for her funeral.  Jerome rejoiced even in the midst of his grief, writing, “we have lost her, it is true, but the heavenly mansions have gained her,” and he knew that Paula desired nothing more than to be with Christ.[9]

While none of Paula’s own writing has survived—indeed it is unknown whether such writing ever existed—Jerome wrote extensively to, about, and on behalf of Paula.  His admiration for her is evident as he praises her abilities as a translator and exegete.  And lest anyone think his praise was unfounded, he assures his readers “I add nothing. I exaggerate nothing. On the contrary I tone down much that I may not appear to relate incredibilities.”[10]  For the Church in all ages, Paula is celebrated for her intellect, her devotion, her friendship with Jerome, and her legacy as a ministry leader.

  1.  Jerome, Letter CVIII to Eustochium.  This is all of the primary sources with Jerome as the author are available at

  2.  Jerome, The Pilgrimage of the Holy Paula

  3.  Jerome, Letter CVIII to Eustochium

  4.  Jerome, Letter CVIII to Eustochium

  5.  Jerome, Letter CVIII to Eustochium

  6.  Jerome, Letter CVIII to Eustochium

  7.  cf. Jerome, Letter XXXIII to Paula, Letter XXXIX to Paula, and Letter XLVI Paula and Eustochium to Marcella.

  8.  Jerome, Letter CVIII to Eustochium

  9.  Jerome, Letter CVIII to Eustochium

  10.  Jerome, Letter CVIII to Eustochium


About the Author: Dr. Miranda Zapor Cruz is the Director of The Sacred Alliance and is Associate Professor of Theology at Indiana Wesleyan University.