Whilst happily strolling my way through Fr Gambero’s Mary and the Fathers of the Church, I encountered this stout cudgel, wielded by St Jerome, in defense of the Faith (in this case the perpetual virginity of Our Lady) against one heretic, Helvidius:

Regarding the words of the Gospel: “Before they came together, she was found to be with child by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:18), [Helvidius] observes: “No one, when speaking about someone who is not going to eat lunch, says, ‘Before he ate lunch.’ ”

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Should I accuse him of lack of experience or just carelessness?  Suppose someone should say, “Before eating lunch at the harbour, I set sail for Africa.”  Would this mean that his statement could not be valid unless he had to eat his lunch at the harbour some day?  Or if we wished to say, “The apostle Paul, before departing for Spain, was put in chains in Rome.”  Or to say–which is quite likely– “Helvidius, before repenting, was struck down by death.”

Now does Paul have to go to Spain immediately upon his release?  Must Helvidius repent after his death, even though the Scripture says, “In the underworld who will give you praise?” (Ps 6:5)?  Although the preposition “before” often indicates a consequence, sometimes it merely shows what was being planned beforehand.

I must say, it had me fairly humming the tune to Belloc’s Pelagian Drinking Song – and yes, there is a tune set by Belloc himself, dear Zadok.  It’s printed in my version of The Four Men and I’d be only too happy to share it. 

“With my row-ti-tow ti-oodley-ow…”