20 December 2009

'A Jewel Upon the Finger of God'—St Ambrose of Milan

Today, 7 December on the Church’s calendar, we celebrated the memory of St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (c. 339-397). St John Cassian refers to St Ambrose as ‘that illustrious priest of God, who never leaving the Lord’s hand, ever shone like a jewel upon the finger of God’ [1], and Fr Seraphim (Rose) dubs him ‘the great Holy Father’ and ‘a gifted orator’ whose ‘holy death in 397 produced such an outpouring of faith that five bishops were not enough to baptize the number of converts that appeared the next day desiring the waters of life.’ [2] Christopher Dawson lists St Ambrose among those Latin Fathers who ‘were in a real sense the fathers of Western culture, since it was only in so far as the different peoples of the West were incorporated in the spiritual community of Christendom that they acquired a common culture.’ [3] He also notes that St Ambrose was ‘the most Roman in temperament of all the fathers’. [4] Finally, St Augustine of Hippo, his most famous spiritual offspring, tells us that the holy Hierarch was ‘known throughout the world as among the best of men, devout in your [God’s] worship’, noting, ‘At that time his eloquence valiantly ministered to your people “the abundance of your sustenance” and “the gladness of oil” (Ps 44:8; 80:17; 147:14), and the sober intoxication of your wine.’ [5] Finally, as I mentioned in last year’s post on St Ambrose, St Augustine says of his mother, St Monica, ‘She would zealously run to the Church to hang on Ambrose’s lips, to “the fount of water bubbling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). She loved that man as an angel of God (Gal. 4:14) . . .’ [6] Here is the account of St Ambrose’s life from the Prologue:

This great Father of the Orthodox Church was of eminent parentage. His father was the imperial governor of Gaul and Spain, and a pagan, while his mother was a Christian. While he was still in his cradle, a swarm of bees once settled on him, left some honey on his lips and flew off; and, while still a child, he thrust out his hand and said prophetically: ‘Kiss it, for I shall be a bishop!’ On the death of his father, the Emperor made him governor of Liguria, of which province Milan was the chief city. When the bishop of Milan died, there was great dissention between the Orthodox Christians and the heretical Arians about the choice of a new bishop. Ambrose went into the church to keep order, this being his responsibility. Thereupon, a child at its mother’s breast cried out: ‘Ambrose for bishop!’ All the people took this to be the voice of God, and unanimously elected Ambrose as their bishop, although it was against his will. Ambrose was baptised, and passed through all the necessary ranks in one week, and was consecrated bishop. In this capacity, he strengthened the faith of the Orthodox, restrained heretics, adorned churches, spread the Faith among the pagans, wrote many instructive books and was an example of a true Christian and a true shepherd. He also composed the Te Deum, the great hymn of thanksgiving. This renowned hierarch, who was visited by people from distant lands for his wisdom and gracious words, was very austere in his personal life, being no stranger to toil and full of good works. He slept little, worked and prayed constantly and fasted every day except Saturday and Sunday. God therefore permitted him to witness many of His wonders, and to perform many himself He discovered the relics of Ss Protasius, Gervasius, Nazarius and Celsus (see Oct. 14th). Humble before lesser men, he was fearless before the great. He reproached the Empress Justina for heresy, cursed Maximus for tyranny and murder and forbade the Emperor Theodosius to enter a church until he had repented of his sin. He refused to meet the powerful Eugenius, the self-styled Emperor. God granted this man, who was so pleasing to Him, such grace that he could raise the dead, drive demons from men, heal the sick of every ailment and see into the future. He died peacefully at daybreak on Easter Day in the year 397. [7]

Fr John McGuckin notes that St Ambrose was educated ‘in rhetoric and philosophy at Rome’, that he ‘proved to be a forceful leader of his city, and a strong advocate of the Nicene faith’ whose ‘pastoral civic care became a model for many generations of bishops after him’, and ‘that he ‘was fluent in Greek (rare for that time in the West), and his work shows an intelligent dependence on Origen and the Eastern patristic tradition for Christology and Trinitarian thought.’ [8] In last year’s post, I focused on the significance of St Augustine’s surprised observation that St Ambrose read silently. I was delighted to discover that C.S. Lewis has made some insightful comments on this episode:

In such a passage one has the solemn privilege of being present at the birth of a new world. Behind us is that almost unimaginable period, so relentlessly objective that in it even ‘reading’ (in our sense) did not yet exist. The books was still a logos, a speech; thinking was still dialegesthai, talking. Before us is our own world, the world of the printed or written page, and of the solitary reader who is accustomed to pass hours in the silent society of mental images evoked by written characters. This is a new light, and a better one than we have yet had, on that turning inward which I have tried to describe. It is the very moment of a transition more important, I would suggest, than any that is commonly recorded in our works of ‘history’. [9]

On the other hand, as is so often the case I find Charles Williams’s comments on the same episode—which come after having quoted Lewis’s—rather enigmatic. He writes:

It was ‘an outward and visible sign’ of something that was happening, which Augustine himself was to develop, the surging interior distance, ‘the inward and spiritual grace’ which was, for the Christian Church, the world of grace indeed. In that silent figure of Ambrose, it shut its mouth on the world. [10]

Although perhaps of less significance historically, Garry Wills notes that it was St Ambrose who introduced St Augustine to the inner, typological sense of Scripture. He writes:

And his real exposure to the symbolic reading of Scripture came with Ambrose’s Lenten instruction to the candidates (competentes) for baptism—a disciplined course all Christians went through at the time. All through Lent, the candidates went unbathed, wore pentitential hairskins, and were assigned a special place in church. We have two versions of the Ambrosian instruction on baptism—which traced prefigurings of this spiritual ‘bath’ to Noah’s flood, to the passage of the Red Sea, to healings at the pool of Siloam; to water that Moses sweetened, or water that floated Elijah’s axe (Sacraments 2.2; Mysteries 1.3).

In this period, the candidates were given, by oral recitation, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer for memorizing. On Thursday of Holy Week they were allowed to bathe, then submitted to physical inspection (S 216.11). On the eve of Easter, they prayed through the night, renounced Satan at dawn, turned toward the sun, and were conducted to the octagonal pool we can still see, in a tunnel under the cathedral plaza of Milan. There are few places in Europe more charged with historical significance than this baptistery where Ambrose, the creator of structured disciplines for the medieval Church, received as a Christian Augustine, the creator of the theology that would resound in that Church. [11]

The great Peter Brown gives a typical illustration of St Ambrose’s use of such ‘symbolic reading’ from the holy Hierarch’s homily on Isaac (iii, 18):

What then is this: ‘Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth’ (Song of Songs 1:2)? Think of the Church, now hanging for innumerable ages on its Lord’s coming . . . or of the soul, rising free from the body, having turned away from sensuality and the sweet pleasures of its flesh, and cast off the cares of this worldly life. Now it begs for a full breath of the Divine Presence, and is tormented, that it should come so late, is troubled, and feels the deep hurt of charity . . . and so declares the cause and her impatience, saying: Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth. It is not one kiss that she wants, but many, to satisfy her longing. [12]

But another of St Ambrose’s great achievements is his contribution to hymnography, for as Dawson observes, it was he ‘who took the first and most decisive step towards the creation of a new liturgical poetry.’ [13] Dawson goes on to write of this poetry:

It was created by a man, trained in classical traditions, who was careful not to transgress the rules of classical prosody. But since he subordinated his art to the new requirements of the liturgy and wrote for the Church and the people, he produced something entirely new which has lived on for seventeen hundred years in the hymnaries of Western Christendom and the liturgy of the Western Church. [14]

Helen Waddell’s comments too are worth considering:

Claudian flattered the emperor Theodosius; Ambrose, bishop of Milan excommunicated him—a treatment symbolic of the chasm that separates the last voice of the classical poets from the first of the long line of Christian Latin hymn-writers. St Ambrose’s exegesis and letters, masterpieces of Latin prose, resemble some intricate heavy silk brocade, in strong contrast to the simplicity of his hymns. To teach Christian doctrine to his largely-unlettered flock under Arian siege, he chose the simplest possible metre, unrhymed iambic dimeter in four-line stanzas, easy to understand, easy to remember, easy to sing. So successful was his experiment, that for centuries hymns were called ambrosiani. [15]

Here then is Migne’s text (PL 16, 1409) followed by Waddell’s translation of St Ambrose’s ‘Hymn for winter or cockcrow’:

Aeterne rerum Conditor,
noctem diemque qui Regis,
et temporum das tempora,
ut alleves fastidium.

Praeco diei iam sonat,
noctis profundae pervigil,
nocturna lux viantibus
a nocte noctem segregans.

Hoc excitatus Lucifer
solvit polum caligine,
hoc omnis erronum cohors
viam nocendi deserit.

Hoc nauta vires colligit,
pontique mitescunt freta:
hoc, ipsa Petra Ecclesiae,
canente, culpam diluit.

Eternal, Thou
Didst earth’s foundations lay,
Dost rule the night and day,
And givest a time
That those whom time hath wearied may have rest.

The cock,
The clarion of the day,
Who keeps his vigil at
the dead of night,
To wayfarers a light,
Now sings his lay,
Dividing night from night.

He wakes the Morning Star
That clears away the dark,
And all the company
Of wandering souls
Are off their evil road.

And at that sound
The sailor takes new heart,
The sea grows gentle.
The cock crew and
Peter, Rock of the Church,
Wept out his sin. [16]

[1] Against Nestorius VII.25 (here).

[2] Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose), The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1996), p. 20.

[3] Christopher Dawson, Religion & the Rise of Western Culture (Garden City, NY: Image, 1958), p. 26.

[4] Ibid., p. 39.

[5] St Augustine, Confessions, trans. Owen Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford U, 1992), p. 87.

[6] Ibid., p. 91.

[7] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 4, trans. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986), pp. 296-7.

[8] Fr John Anthony McGuckin, The SCM Press A-Z of Patristic Theology (London: SCM, 2005), p. 9.

[9] C.S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (Oxford: Oxford U, 1959), pp. 64-5.

[10] Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church (Vancouver: Regent College, 2002), p. 78.

[11] Garry Wills, Saint Augustine: A Penguin Life (NY: Viking, 1999), pp. 56-7.

[12] Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (NY: Dorset, 1986), p. 83.

[13] Dawson, p. 39.

[14] Ibid., p. 40.

[15] Helen Waddell, trans., More Latin Lyrics: From Virgil to Milton, ed. Dame Felicitas Corrigan (NY: W.W. Norton, 1977), p. 68.

[16] Ibid., pp. 70, 71.

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