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St. Ambrose.

"God, You gave your servant Ambrose grace eloquently to proclaim your righteousness in the great congregation, and fearlessly to bear reproach for the honour of your name"--Collect for the celebration of his Feast Day, December 7.

Ambrose is revered with Augustine, Gregory the Great, and Jerome as one of the four Doctors of the Western Church Fathers. Thanks to his own Greek scholarship, unusual in the West of the time, and development of the ideas of Athanasius, Basil, Gregory Nazianzenus, and others, he is much respected also in the Eastern Church, where numerous hymns honour his Feast Day.

Ambrose was born at Trier c. 340, son of the Praetorian Prefect of Gaul. After legal training, he too (370) was made a governor, in Northern Italy, based at Milan. In 374, for quelling a sectarian riot after its Arian bishop's death, he was universally acclaimed to the see, albeit only a catechumen. Baptism and ordination swiftly followed, with theology lessons from his old tutor Simplicianus, who would succeed him.

His triple scriptural interpretation (allegorical, literal, moral) appealed to Augustine (Confessions 6:3-4), as did his favourite New Testament quotation, "The written law brings death, the spiritual one life"--2 Cor. 3:6, thus procuring the latter's conversion in 387.

At his insistence, the emperor (382) removed the talismanic statue of Victory from the Roman senate-house, a notable victory over paganism. Four years later, taking a literal stand in his Milan cathedral, he overawed the Arian empress Justina. In 390, he compelled Theodosius I to do public penance for a massacre at Thessalonica, thereby establishing the principle "The emperor is within the church, not above it" (Against Auxentius 36)--modern politicians, take note. Ambrose died on April 4, 397, Good Friday, aged around 57, and was buried on Easter Day. His last words were "Arise! Make haste! He is going."

His writings, marked by their double impact of long soaring sentences and sudden lapidary epigrams, were as practical as his life. Many sermons explicate the Old and New Testament; that on Luke is especially noteworthy. Tracts on the theory and practice of the Sacraments were guides for baptism candidates. Several theological pamphlets combat Arian and other heretical views on the Trinity and Incarnation.

A key work is On the Duties of the Clergy, a characteristically deft blend of Cicero and the Scriptures, eschatological and moral in tone, intended both as manual and rebuke of unsatisfactory clergy and the loose-living rich.

His championing of consecrated virginity was an early Western promotion of Marian devotion, while veneration of martyrs was intensified by deposition of the just-discovered remains of Gervasius and Protasius in Milan's Basilica Ambrosiana (386).

Development of the pioneering Western hymns of Hilary of Poitiers earned him the sobriquet Father of Liturgical Hymnody. As with the Byzantine Romanus the Melode and the Wesleys, he is credited with innumerable compositions, the securest being the four certified by the expert Augustine: Eternal Creator of Things; God the Creator of All; Now the Third Hour Cometh; Thou Who Rulest Israel. The notion (1909) of H. Brewer, S.J., that Ambrose wrote the 'Athanasian Creed' retains some followers.

His funeral orations for emperors Valentinian II and Theodosius I, and for his brother Satyrus, along with his 91 surviving Letters, are a mine of information for 4th-century political, religious, and social history.

"Ambrose's championing of the church's interests and his insistence that emperors were subject to its moral law had a profound impact on the relations between church and state during the Middle Ages and in subsequent centuries"--Louis Swift, Encyclopedia of Early Christianity.

Everybody knows the adage "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Few realise (it is usually said to be anonymous) that the churchman Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) in his Ductor Dubitantium 1:1:5, a compendium of Catholic and Protestant casuistry, traces it back to a couplet by Ambrose: 'Si fueris Romae, Romano vivite more; /Si fueris alibi, vivite sicut ubi.'


Many Ambrosian works are translated in the Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers series (New York, 1896), and the Fathers of the Church series (Catholic University, Washington, 1947-). Modern studies: E.H. Dudden, The Life & Times of St. Ambrose (Oxford, 1935); D.H. Williams, Ambrose of Milan & the end of the Arian-Nicene Conflicts (Oxford, 1995); C.W. Neumann, The Virgin Mary in the Works of St. Ambrose (Fribourg, 1962). 'Googling' yields some 26,000 sites, including the Catholic Encyclopedia notice and various translated extracts from his writings.

From the treatise on Flight from the World by Saint Ambrose, bishop

Hold fast to God, the one true good

Where a man's heart is, there is his treasure also. God is not accustomed to refusing a good gift to those who ask for one. Since he is good, and especially to those who are faithful to him, let us hold fast to him with all our soul, our heart, our strength, and so enjoy his light and see his glory and possess the grace of supernatural joy. Let us reach out with our hearts to possess that good, let us exist in it and live in it, let us hold fast to it, that good which is beyond all we can know or see and is marked by perpetual peace and tranquility, a peace which is beyond all we can know or understand.

This is the good that permeates creation. In it we all live, on it we all depend. It has nothing above it; it is divine. No one is good but God alone. What is good is therefore divine, what is divine is therefore good. Scripture says: When you open your hand all things will be filled with goodness. It is through God's goodness that all that is truly good is given us, and in it there is no admixture of evil.

These good things are promised by Scripture to those who are faithful: The good things of the land will be your food.

We have died with Christ. We carry about in our bodies the sign of his death, so that the living Christ may also be revealed in us. The life we live is not now our ordinary life but the life of Christ: a life of sinlessness, of chastity, of simplicity, and every other virtue. We have risen with Christ. Let us live in Christ, let us ascend in Christ, so that the serpent may not have the power here below to wound us in the heel.

Let us take refuge from this world. You can do this in spirit, even if you are kept here in the body. You can at the same time be here and present to the Lord. Your soul must hold fast to him, you must follow after him in your thoughts, you must tread his ways by faith, not in outward show. You must take refuge in him. He is your refuge and your strength. David addresses him in these words: I fled to you for refuge, and was not disappointed.

Since God is our refuge, God who is in heaven and above the heavens, we must take refuge from this world in that place where there is peace, where there is rest from toil, where we can celebrate the great Sabbath, as Moses said: The Sabbaths of the land will provide you with food. To rest in the Lord and to see his joy is like a banquet, and full of gladness and tranquillity.

Let us take refuge like deer beside the fountain of waters. Let our soul thirst, as David thirsted, for the fountain. What is that Fountain? Listen to David: With you is the fountain of life. Let my soul say to this fountain: When shall I come and see you face to face? For the fountain is God himself.

Barry Baldwin is Emeritus Professor of Classics at the University of Calgary.
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Author:Baldwin, Barry
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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