Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series II/Volume VI/Prefaces/Prefaces to Commentaries/Ezekiel
The Commentary on Ezekiel is in fourteen Books. It was dedicated to Eustochium, and was written between the years 410 and 414. The Prefaces gain a special interest from their descriptions of the sack of Rome by Alaric and the consequent immigration into Palestine. We give several passages.
In Preface to Book i.
Having completed the eighteen books of the exposition of Isaiah, I was very desirous, Eustochium, Christ’s virgin, to go on to Ezekiel, in accordance with my frequent promises to you and your mother Paula, of saintly memory, and thus, as the saying is, put the finishing touches to the work on the prophets; but alas! intelligence was suddenly brought me of the death of Pammachius andMarcella,the siege of Rome, and the falling asleep of many of my brethren and sisters. I was so stupefied and dismayed that day and night I could think of nothing but the welfare of the community; it seemed as though I was sharing the captivity of the saints, and I could not open my lips until I knew something more definite; and all the while, full of anxiety, I was wavering between hope and despair, and was torturing myself with the misfortunes of other people. But when the bright light of all the world was put out, or, rather, when the Roman Empire was decapitated, and, to speak more correctly, the whole world perished in one city, “I became dumb and humbled myself, and kept silence from good words, but my grief broke out afresh, my heart glowed within me, and while I meditated the fire was kindled;” and I thought I ought not to disregard the saying, “An untimely story is like music in a time of grief.” But seeing that you persist in making this request, and a wound, though deep, heals by degrees; andthe scorpion lies beneath the ground withEnceladus and Porphyrion, and the many-headed Hydra has at length ceased to hiss at us; and since opportunity has been given me which I ought to use, not for replying to insidious heretics, but for devoting myself to the exposition of Scripture, I will resume my work upon the prophet Ezekiel.
Book ii. has, instead of a Preface, merely a line calling the attention of Eustochium to its opening words.
The Preface to Book iii. has a noteworthy passage on the sack of Rome and its results.
Who would believe that Rome, built up by the conquest of the whole world, had collapsed, that the mother of nations had become also their tomb; that the shores of the whole East, of Egypt, of Africa, which once belonged to the imperial city, were filled with the hosts of her men-servants and maid-servants, that we should every day be receiving in this holy Bethlehem men and women who once were noble and abounding in every kind of wealth but are now reduced to poverty? We cannot relieve these sufferers: all we can do is to sympathise with them, and unite our tears with theirs. The burden of this holy work was as much as we could carry; the sight of the wanderers, coming in crowds, caused us deep pain; and we therefore abandoned the exposition of Ezekiel, and almost all study, and were filled with a longing to turn the words of Scripture into action, and not to say holy things but to do them. Now, however, in response to your admonition, Eustochium, Christ’s virgin, we resume the interrupted labour, and approach our third Book.
The Prefaces to Books iv., v., and vi. contain nothing remarkable. The following is the important part of the Preface to Book vii.
There is not a single hour, nor a single moment, in which we are not relieving crowds of brethren, and the quiet of the monastery has been changed into the bustle of a guest house. And so much is this the case that we must either close our doors, or abandon the study of the Scriptures on which we depend for keeping the doors open. And so, turning to profit, or rather stealing the hours of the nights, which, now that winter is approaching, begin to lengthen somewhat, I am endeavouring by the light of the lamp to dictate these comments, whatever they maybe worth, and am trying to mitigate with exposition the weariness of a mind which is a stranger to rest. I am not boasting, as some perhaps suspect, of the welcome given to the brethren, but I am simply confessing the causes of the delay. Who could boast when the flight of the people of the West, and the holy places, crowded as they are with penniless fugitives, naked and wounded, plainly reveal the ravages of the Barbarians? We cannot see what has occurred, without tears and moans. Who would have believed that mighty Rome, with its careless security of wealth, would be reduced to such extremities as to need shelter, food, and clothing? And yet, some are so hard-hearted and cruel that, instead of showing compassion, they break up the rags and bundles of the captives, and expect to find gold about those who are nothing than prisoners. In addition to this hindrance to my dictating, my eyes are growing dim with age and to some extent I share the suffering of the saintly Isaac: I am quite unable to go through the Hebrew books with such light as I have at night, for even in the full light of day they are hidden from my eyes owing to the smallness of the letters. In fact, it is only the voice of the brethren which enables me to master the commentaries of Greek writers.
The Prefaces to Books viii. to xiv. contain nothing of special interest.
- Under whose care Eustochium had been trained.
- By the Goths under Alaric. The city was taken in a.d. 410.
- Ps. xxxix. 3, 4.
- Ecclus. xxii. 6.
- Rufinus who died a.d. 410, in Sicily, on his way to the Holy Land from Aquileia and Rome, whence he had been driven by the troubles in Italy.
- The giants who bore those names. See Hor. III. od. 4.