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The Chastity of Malchus - Part 1

The Son, the Monk & the Slave

Elaine Jordan

The Life of Malchus, the Captive Monk was written by St. Jerome in his monastery in Bethlehem. The form of composition is original, in that St. Jerome reports the solitary man telling his own life story to him.
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The commandant who intends to fight a naval battle, first trains his soldiers in the harbor on a calm sea so that in the actual battle they will not feel fear at what they have learned only in theory. So also, I, who have kept silence for a long time, wish to get in practice again in a small work and remove a sort of rust from my tongue so that I may be able later to produce a more extensive history on the early Church. But the latter at another time; for the present, let me explain what I have before us.

Maronia, a small village, lies almost 30 miles east of Antioch in Syria. When I was a young man living in Syria, this village fell to the possession of Bishop Evagrius, an intimate acquaintance of mine and the source of the information that I am about to relate.

At that time, a certain old man named Malchus was living there, a Syrian by nationality. An old woman was his companion, so very decrepit that she seemed on the verge of death. Both were so very devout and so wore away the threshold of the church that you would think them another Zachary and Elizabeth from the Gospel, except that John was not with them.

When I asked their neighbors about them and wondered just what was the bond between them – whether of wedlock, of blood or of the spirit – they answered promptly and unanimously that they were a holy pair, pleasing to God, and told some startling things about them.

Drawn by curiosity, I approached the man and inquired with eager interest if there were any truth to what I had heard. He related the story that follows.

Malchus tells his story

I was an only child and tenant of a small farm at Nisibis. When my parents were coercing me to marry, because I was the last descendant of the family and their sole heir, I told them that I preferred to be a monk. With what threats my father assailed me, with what coaxing my mother pursued me to betray my chastity, you can judge by the fact that I left both home and parents.

St jerome studying

In Bethlehem, St. Jerome writes the story Malchus told him

Since I could not go to the East because of the proximity of Persia and the Roman guard, I turned to the West, taking with me very few provisions, merely enough to keep me alive. To be brief, I finally reached the desert of Chalcis. There, having found a community of monks, I placed myself under their guidance, earning my living by the toil of my hands and curbing the lust of the flesh with fasting.

After many years, the thought occurred to me that I should return to my native land while my mother was still alive (I had heard of my father’s death) to comfort her in her widowhood. After her death, I could sell our possessions, give part of the proceeds to the poor, erect a monastery with another part, and (why should I blush to confess my infidelity) reserve the rest to take care of my own needs.

My Abbot protested that my desire to return home was a temptation from the Devil and that under a virtuous pretext lay concealed the snares of our ancient enemy; in other words, the dog was returning to its vomit.

Many monks, he said, had been deceived in this way, for the Devil never comes without disguises. When persuasion failed, he begged me on his knees not to desert him, not to ruin myself, not to look back having put my hand to the plough.

Alas, miserable creature that I am, I did not relent. He escorted me from the monastery as if he were attending a corpse in a funeral procession. Bidding me a last farewell, he said: “I see, my son, that you are marked by the brand of Satan. I do not seek the causes nor do I accept excuses. The sheep that leaves the sheepfold straightway exposes itself to the teeth of the wolf.”

Malchus becomes a slave of Bedouins

I decided to travel in company to decrease the danger of surprise attack by nomad Saracens, always wandering back and forth on the road. There were about 70 in my company, men women and children. Suddenly, Ishmaelites, riding upon horses and camels, descended upon us in a startling attack. We were seized, scattered and carried off in different directions. A woman of the company and I fell by lot into the hands of the same master.

Sheep

The slave Malchus is content tending sheep in solitude and prayer

We were lifted up onto camels and traveled through the vast desert until we arrived at its heart, where the master’s household was. There I was assigned the task of pasturing the sheep and, in contrast to the evils I might have been subjected to, I enjoyed the comfort of rarely seeing my master and fellow slaves.

Alone in the desert, I lived on cheese and milk; I prayed continually; I sang the psalms I had learned in the monastery. In fact, I was delighted with my captivity and I thanked God for his judgment, for the monk whom I had nearly lost in my own country I had found again in the desert.

Malchus is given a wife

But nothing is ever safe from the Devil. How multiple and unspeakable are his deceits. My master, seeing his herd increase and finding in me nothing of fraud – for I obeyed the Apostle’s injunction that masters were to be served as faithfully as God himself – desired to reward me to better insure my fidelity. So he offered me in marriage the woman slave who had been taken captive with me.

When I refused and said that I was a Christian and it was not lawful for me to have for wife one whose husband was living (her husband had been captured with us and carried off by another master), my implacable master was seized with fury. Drawing his sword he started to attack me. If I had not made haste to throw my arm about the woman, he would have shed my blood then and there.

All too soon for me, night came on, darker than usual. I led my new bride into a ruined cave nearby. Realizing the full force of my captivity and, throwing myself down on the ground, I began to lament and sob for the monk I was on the point of losing. “Of what avail to have renounced parents, country, property for the Lord, if I now do the very thing that I would not do when I renounced them. What shall I do, my soul, perish or conquer?”

Prepared to turn the blade of my sword against myself rather than suffer the death of the soul, I told the woman, “Farewell, unhappy woman. I am yours to have as a martyr rather than a husband.”

Then to my surprise, the woman threw herself at my feet and beseeched me not shed my blood, for she said, even if her husband would return to her, she would preserve the chastity that captivity had taught her and would rather die than lose it.

“Take me, therefore, as a spouse in chastity,” she said, “and love the bond of the soul rather than that of the body. Let our master believe you a husband; Christ will know the brother.”

I confess that I was amazed and, admiring the virtue of that woman, I loved her more than if she were my spouse. Never, however, did I look upon her nude body; never did I touch her flesh, fearing to lose in peace what I had preserved in conflict.

Many days passed in wedlock of this kind. Our marriage rendered us more pleasing to our master; there was no suspicion of flight. Sometimes I was absent for a whole month, all alone, the trusted shepherd of the flock.

Continued


Adapted from Early Christian Biographies, ed. by Roy J. Defarrari,
Washington DC: Catholic Un. Of America Press, 1952, pp. 287-297
Posted March 15, 2012