In our ongoing discussion about how the Church perceives the Ark of the Covenant, we have explored the Old and New Testaments, apocryphal writings, and many of the Fathers. The trend up until now, with a few outliers, has been that the Church tends to see the Ark as a typological foreshadowing of the Holy Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. In this post we will examine how Saint Jerome applies this understanding. Unlike many of the Fathers we have already examined, Saint Jerome takes a practical approach by applying this teaching directly to the life of a nun with whom he is corresponding. This approach is sometimes called tropological and is distinguished by a stressing of moral metaphor.
Saint Jerome, writing in A.D. 384, composed a letter on the topic of virginity to a Roman lady named Eustochium, cofounder of a women’s monastery in Palestine.1 In this lengthy letter, Jerome describes both the proper motivations and way of life of those who choose the path of celibacy. He compares the ideal virgin with the Ark of the Covenant, likening a life of chastity to the nature of the Ark itself.
Like the ark of the covenant Christ’s spouse should be overlaid with gold within and without; she should be the guardian of the law of the Lord. Just as the ark contained nothing but the tables of the covenant, so in you there should be no thought of anything that is outside.2
Later, he sets forth the Holy Virgin Mary as the ultimate model of virginity, by extension drawing a connection between the Ark and the Holy Virgin.
Set before you the blessed Mary, whose surpassing purity made her meet to be the mother of the Lord. When the angel Gabriel came down to her, in the form of a man, and said: Hail, you that are highly favored; the Lord is with you, she was terror-stricken and unable to reply, for she had never been saluted by a man before. But, on learning who he was, she spoke, and one who had been afraid of a man conversed fearlessly with an angel. Now you, too, may be the Lord’s mother.3
Emphasizing Mary’s virginity by noting that she had never been hailed by a man, Saint Jerome’s tropological approach introduces a practical application of the typology to virginity. Up until now, we have seen applications of the typology that help us to understand the role of the Holy Virgin in the economy of salvation, and conversely to retrospectively understand what the Ark was. Jerome extends the metaphor of the Ark to every virgin who seeks to “put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27), and as such offers teaching about the celibate life. The Ark is a metaphor for the life of purity striven for by monastics and embodied by the Holy Virgin.
We will cram three more fathers’ thoughts on this topic into our next post in this series, wrapping up our tour of how the Fathers perceive the Ark. Our next step will be to explore how the Ark is treated in some of the great feasts of the Orthodox Church.
1 Louis Saltet, St. Jerome, in The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 8, (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910).
2 Saint Jerome, Letter 22: To Eustochium, trans. W.H. Fremantle, G. Lewis and W.G. Martley, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 6, ed. by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893), revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.