Lives of the Saints
The life of Malchus was written at Bethlehem, A.D., 391. Its origin and purpose are
sufficiently described in chapters 1 and 2.
1. They who have to fight a naval battle prepare for it in harbors and calm waters by
adjusting the helm, plying the oars, and making ready the hooks and grappling
irons. They draw up the soldiers on the decks and accustom them to stand steady
with poised foot and on slippery ground; so that they may not shrink from all this
when the real encounter comes, because they have had experience of it in the sham
fight. And so it is in my case. I have long held my peace, because silence was
imposed on me by one to whom I give pain when I speak of him. But now, in
preparing to write history on a wider scale I desire to practice myself by means of
this little work and as it were to wipe the rust from my tongue. For I have purposed
(if God grant me life, and if my censurers will at length cease to persecute me, now
that I am a fugitive and shut up in a monastery) to write a history of the church of
Christ from the advent of our Savior up to our own age, that is from the apostles to
the dregs of time in which we live, and to show by what means and through what
agents it received its birth, and how, as it gained strength, it grew by persecution
and was crowned with martyrdom; and then, after reaching the Christian Emperors,
how it increased in influence and in wealth but decreased in Christian virtues. But of
this elsewhere. Now to the matter in hand.
2. Maronia is a little hamlet some thirty miles to the east of Antioch in Syria. After
having many owners or landlords, at the time when I was staying as a young man in
Syria it came into the possession of my intimate friend, the Bishop Evagrius, whose
name I now give in order to show the source of my information. Well, there was at
the place at that time an old man by name Malchus, which we might render “king,” a
Syrian by race and speech, in fact a genuine son of the soil. His companion was an
old woman very decrepit who seemed to be at death’s door, both of them so
zealously pious and such constant frequenters of the Church, they might have been
taken for Zacharias and Elizabeth in the Gospel but for the fact that there was no
John to be seen. With some curiosity I asked the neighbors what was the link
between them; was it marriage, or kindred, or the bond of the Spirit? All with one
accord replied that they were holy people, well pleasing to God, and gave me a
strange account of them. Longing to know more I began to question the man with
much eagerness about the truth of what I heard, and learnt as follows.
3. My son, said he, I used to farm a bit of ground at Nisibis and was an only son. My
parents regarding me as the heir and the only survivor of their race, wished to force
me into marriage, but I said I would rather be a monk. How my father threatened
and my mother coaxed me to betray my chastity requires no other proof than the
fact that I fled from home and parents. I could not go to the East because Persia
was close by and the frontiers were guarded by the soldiers of Rome; I therefore
turned my steps to the West, taking with me some little provision for the journey,
but barely sufficient to ward off destitution. To be brief, I came at last to the desert
of Chalcis which is situate between Immae and Beroa farther south There, finding
some monks, I placed myself under their direction, earning my livelihood by the
labor of my hands, and curbing the wantonness of the flesh by fasting. After many
years the desire came over me to return to my country, and stay with my mother and
cheer her widowhood while she lived (for my father, as I had already heard, was
dead), and then to sell the little property and give part to the poor, settle part on
the monasteries and (I blush to confess my faithlessness) keep some to spend in
comforts for myself. My abbot began to cry out that it was a temptation of the devil,
and that under fair pretexts some snare of the old enemy lay hid. It was, he
declared, a case of the dog returning to his vomit. Many monks, be said, had been
deceived by such suggestions, for the devil never showed himself openly. He set
before me many examples from the Scriptures, and told me that even Adam and Eve
in the beginning had been overthrown by him through the hope of becoming gods.
When he failed to convince me he fell upon his knees and besought me not to
forsake him, nor ruin myself by looking back after putting my hand to the plough.
Unhappily for myself I had the misfortune to conquer my adviser. I thought he was
seeking not my salvation but his own comfort. So he followed me from the
monastery as if he had been going to a funeral, and at last bade me farewell,
saying, “I see that you bear the brand of a son of Satan. I do not ask your reasons
nor take your excuses. The sheep which forsakes its fellows is at once exposed to
the jaws of the wolf.”
4. On the road from Beroa to Edessa adjoining the high-way is a waste over which
the Saracens roam to and fro without having any fixed abode. Through fear of them
travelers in those parts assemble in numbers, so that by mutual assistance they
may escape impending danger. There were in my company men, women, old men,
youths, children, altogether about seventy persons. All of a sudden the Ishmaelites
on horses and camels made an assault upon us, with their flowing hair bound with
fillets, their bodies half-naked, with their broad military boots, their cloaks
streaming behind them, and their quivers slung upon the shoulders. They carried
their bows unstrung and brandished their long spears; for they had come not to
fight, but to plunder. We were seized, dispersed, and carried in different directions.
I, meanwhile, repenting too late of the step I had taken, and far indeed from
gaining possession of my inheritance, was assigned, along with another poor
sufferer, a woman, to the service of one and the same owner. We were led, or rather
carried, high upon the camel’s back through a desert waste, every moment expecting
destruction, and suspended, I may say, rather than seated. Flesh half raw was our
food, camel’s milk our drink.
5. At length, after crossing a great river we came to the interior of the desert,
where, being commanded after the custom of the people to pay  reverence to the
mistress and her children, we bowed our heads. Here, as if I were a prisoner, I
changed my dress, that is, learnt to go naked, the heat being so excessive as to
allow of no clothing beyond a covering for the loins. Some sheep were given to me
to tend, and, comparatively speaking, I found this occupation a comfort, for I seldom
saw my masters or fellow slaves. My fate seemed to be like that of Jacob in sacred
history, and reminded me also of Moses; both of whom were once shepherds in the
desert. I fed on fresh cheese and milk, prayed continually, and sang psalms which I
had learnt in the monastery. I was delighted with my captivity, and thanked God
because I had found in the desert the monk’s estate which I was on the point of
losing in my country.
6. But no condition can ever shut out the Devil. How manifold past expression are
his snares! Hid though I was, his malice found me out. My master seeing his flock
increasing and finding no dishonesty in me (I knew that the Apostle has given
command that masters should be as faithfully served as God Himself), and wishing
to reward me in order to secure my greater fidelity, gave me the woman who was
once my fellow servant in captivity. On my refusing and saying I was a Christian,
and that it was not lawful for me to take a woman to wife so long as her husband
was alive (her husband had been captured with us, but carried off by another
master), my owner was relentless in his rage, drew his sword and began to make at
me. If I had not without delay stretched out my hand and taken possession of the
woman, he would have slain me on the spot. Well; by this time a darker night than
usual had set in and, for me, all too soon. I led my bride into an old cave; sorrow
was bride’s-maid; we shrank from each other but did not confess it. Then I really felt
my captivity; I threw myself down on the ground, and began to lament the monastic
state which I had lost, and said: “Wretched man that I am! have I been preserved
for this? has my wickedness brought me to this, that in my gray hairs I must lose
my virgin state and become a married man? What is the good of having despised
parents, country, property, for the Lord’s sake, if I do the thing I wished to avoid
doing when I despised them? And yet it may be perhaps the case that I am in this
condition because I longed for home. What are we to do, my soul? are we to perish,
or conquer? Are we to wait for the hand of the Lord, or pierce ourselves with our own
sword? Turn your weapon against yourself; I must fear your death, my soul, more
than the death of the body. Chastity preserved has its own martyrdom. Let the
witness for Christ lie unburied in the desert; I will be at once the persecutor and the
martyr.” Thus speaking I drew my sword which glittered even in the dark, and
turning its point towards me said: “Farewell, unhappy woman: receive me as a
martyr not as a husband.” She threw herself at my feet and exclaimed: “I pray you
by Jesus Christ, and adjure you by this hour of trial, do not shed your blood and
bring its guilt upon me. If you choose to die, first turn your sword against me. Let us
rather be united upon these terms. Supposing my husband should return to me, I
would preserve the chastity which I have learnt in captivity; I would even die rather
than lose it. Why should you die to prevent a union with me? I would die if you
desired it. Take me then as the partner of your chastity; and love me more in this
union of the spirit than you could in that of the body only. Let our master believe
that you are my husband. Christ knows you are my brother. We shall easily convince
them we are married when they see us so loving.” I confess, I was astonished and,
much as I had before admired the virtue of the woman, I now loved her as a wife
still more. Yet I never gazed
upon her naked person; I never touched her flesh, for I was afraid of losing in peace
what I had preserved in the conflict. In this strange wedlock many days passed
away. Marriage had made us more pleasing to our masters, and there was no
suspicion of our flight; sometimes I was absent for even a whole month like a trusty
shepherd traversing the wilderness.
7. After a long time as I sat one day by myself in the desert with nothing in sight
save earth and sky, I began quickly to turn things over in my thoughts, and amongst
others called to mind my friends the monks, and specially the look of the father who
had instructed me, kept me, and lost me. While I was thus musing I saw a crowd of
ants swarming over a narrow path. The loads they carried were clearly larger than
their own
bodies. Some with their forceps were dragging along the seeds of herbs: others were
excavating the earth from pits and banking it up to keep out the water. One party,
in view of approaching winter, and wishing to prevent their store from being
converted into grass through the dampness of the ground, were cutting off the tips
of the grains they had carried in; another with solemn lamentation were removing
the dead. And, what is stranger still in such a host, those coming out did not hinder
those going in; nay rather, if they saw one fall beneath his burden they would put
their shoulders to the load and give him assistance. In short that day afforded me a
delightful entertainment. So, remembering how Solomon sends us to the shrewdness
of the ant and quickens our sluggish faculties by setting before us such an example,
I began to tire of captivity, and to regret the monk’s cell, and long to imitate those
ants and their doings, where toil is for the community, and, since nothing belongs to
any one, all things belong to all.
8. When I returned to my chamber, my wife met me. My looks betrayed the sadness
of my heart. She asked why I was so dispirited. I told her the reasons, and exhorted
her to escape. She did not reject the idea. I begged her to be silent on the matter.
She pledged her word. We constantly spoke to one another in whispers; and we
floated in suspense betwixt hope and fear. I had in the flock two very fine he-goats:
these I killed, made their
skins into bottles, and from their flesh prepared food for the way. Then in the early
evening when our masters thought we had retired to rest we began our journey,
taking with us the bottles and part of the flesh. When we reached the river which
was about ten miles off, having inflated the skins and got astride upon them, we
entrusted ourselves to the water, slowly propelling ourselves with our feet, that we
might be carried down by the stream to a point on the opposite bank much below
that at which we embarked, and that thus the pursuers might lose the track. But
meanwhile the flesh became sodden and partly lost, and we could not depend on it
for more than three days’ sustenance. We drank till we could drink no more by way
of preparing for the thirst we expected to endure, then hastened away, constantly
looking behind us, and advanced more by night than day, on account both of the
ambushes of the roaming Saracens, and of the excessive heat of the sun. I grow
terrified even as I relate what happened; and, although my mind is perfectly at rest,
yet my frame shudders from head to foot.
9. Three days after we saw in the dim distance two men riding on camels
approaching with all speed. At once foreboding ill I began to think my master
purposed putting us to death, and our sun seemed to grow dark again. In the midst
of our fear, and just as we realized that our footsteps on the sand had betrayed us,
we found on our right hand a cave which extended far underground. Well, we entered
the cave: but we were afraid of venomous beasts such as vipers, basilisks,
scorpions, and other creatures of the kind, which often resort to such shady places
so as to avoid the heat of the sun. We therefore barely went inside, and took
shelter in a pit on the left, not venturing a step farther, lest in fleeing from death
we should run into death. We thought thus within ourselves: If the Lord helps us in
our misery we have found safety: if He rejects us for our sins, we have found our
grave. What do you suppose were our feelings? What was our terror, when in front
of the cave, close by, there stood our master and fellow-servant, brought by the
evidence of our footsteps to our hiding place? How much worse is death expected
than death inflicted! Again my tongue stammers with distress and fear; it seems as
if I heard my master’s voice, and I hardly dare mutter a word. He sent his servant to
drag us from the cavern while he himself held the camels and, sword in hand, waited
for us to come. Meanwhile the servant entered about three or four cubits, and we in
our hiding place saw his back though he could not see us, for the nature of the eye
is such that those who go into the shade out of the sunshine can see nothing. His
voice echoed through the cave: “Come out, you felons; come out and die; why do
you stay? Why do you delay? Come out, your master is calling and patiently waiting
for you.” He was still speaking when lo! through the gloom we saw a lioness seize
the man, strangle him, and drag him, covered with blood, farther in. Good Jesus!
how great was our terror now, how intense our joy! We beheld, though our master
knew not of it, our enemy perish. He, when he saw that he was long in returning,
supposed that the fugitives being two to one were offering resistance. Impatient in
his rage, and sword still in hand, he came to the cavern, and shouted like a madman
as he chided the slowness of his slave, but was seized upon by the wild beast
before he reached our hiding place. Who ever would believe that before our eyes a
brute would fight for us?
One cause of fear was removed, but there was the prospect of a similar death for
ourselves, though the rage of the lion was not so bad to bear as the anger of the
man. Our hearts failed for fear: without venturing to stir a step we awaited the
issue, having no wall of defense in the midst of so great dangers save the
consciousness of our chastity; when, early in the morning, the lioness, afraid of
some snare and aware that she had been seen took up her cub in her teeth and
carried it away, leaving us in possession of our retreat. Our confidence was not
restored all at once. We did not rush out, but waited for a long time; for as often as
we thought of coming out we pictured to ourselves the horror of falling in with her.
10. At last we got rid of our fright; and when that day was spent, we sallied forth
towards evening, and saw the camels, on account of their great speed called
dromedaries, quietly chewing the cud. We mounted, and with the strength gained
from the new supply of grain, after ten days’ traveling through the desert arrived at
the Roman camp. After being presented to the tribune we told all, and from thence
were sent to Sabianus, who commanded in Mesopotamia, where we sold our camels.
My dear old abbot was now sleeping in the Lord; I betook myself therefore to this
place, and returned to the monastic life, while I entrusted my companion  here to
the care of the virgins; for though I loved her as a sister, I did not commit myself to
her as if she were my sister. Malchus was an old man, I a youth, when he told me
these things. I who have related them to you am now old, and I have set them forth
as a history of chastity for the chaste. Virgins, I exhort you, guard your chastity. Tell
the story to them that come after, that they may realize that in the midst of swords,
and wild beasts of the desert, virtue is never a captive, and that he who is devoted
to the service of Christ may die, but cannot be conquered.
[1] II NPNF 6.
THE LIFE OF MALCHUS, THE CAPTIVE MONK
BY JEROME