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§ 175. Ambrose.


I. S. Ambrosius Mediolanensis episcopus: Opera ad manuscriptos codices Vaticanos, Gallicanos, Belgicos, &c., emendata, studio et labore monachorum ord. S. Benedicti e congreg. S. Mauri (Jac. du Fricke et Nic. de Nourry). Paris. 1686–’90, 2 vols. fol. This edition was reprinted at Venice, 1748–’51, in 4 vols. fol., and in 1781 in 8 vols. 4to, and by Abbé Migne in his Patrol., Petit-Montrouge, 1843, 2 tom. in 4 Parts with some additions. The Libri tres de officiis, and the Hexaëmeron of Ambrose have also been frequently published separately. A convenient edition of both is included in Gersdorf’s Bibliotheca Patrum Latinorum selecta, vols. viii. and ix. Lips. 1839. His hymns are found also in Daniel’s Thesaurus hymnolog tom. i. p. 12 sqq.

II. Paulinus (deacon of Milan and secretary of Ambrose): Vita S. Ambrosii (written by request of St. Augustine, derived from personal knowledge, from Marcella, sister of Ambrose, and several friends). The Vita of an anonymous writer, in Greek and Latin, in the Bened. ed. of the Opera. Both in the Appendix to tom. ii. ed. Benedictinae. Benedictini Editores: Vita Ambrosii ex ejus potissimum scriptis collecta et secundum chronologiae ordinem digesta, in the Bened. ed., in the Appendix to tom. ii., and in Migne’s reprint, tom. i. (very thorough and instructive). Comp. also the Selecta veterum testimonia de S. Ambr. in the same editions. The biographies of Hermant (1678), Tillemont (tom. x. pp. 78–306), Vagliano (Sommario degli archivescovi di Milano), Butler (sub Dec. 7), Schröckh, Böhringer, J. P. Silbert (Das Leben des heiligen Ambrosius, Wien, 1841).


Ambrose, son of the governor (praefectus) of Gaul, which was one of the three great dioceses of the Western empire, was born at Treves (Treviri) about 340, educated at Rome for the highest civil offices, and after greatly distinguishing himself as a rhetorician, was elected imperial president (praetor) of Upper Italy; whereupon Probus, prefect of Italy, gave him the remarkable advice, afterwards interpreted as an involuntary prophecy: “Go, and act not the judge, but the bishop.” He administered this office with justice and mildness, enjoying universal esteem.

The episcopal chair of Milan, the second capital of Italy, and frequently the residence of the emperors, was at that time occupied by the Cappadocian, Auxentius, the head of the Arian party in the West. Soon after the arrival of Ambrose, Auxentius died. A division then arose among the people in the choice of a successor, and a dangerous riot threatened. The governor considered it his duty to allay the storm. But while he was yet speaking to the people, the voice of a child suddenly rang out: “Let Ambrose be bishop!” It seemed a voice of God, and Arians and Catholics cried, Amen.

Ambrose was at that time a catechumen, and therefore not even baptized. He was terrified, and seized all possible, and even most eccentric, means to escape the responsible office. He was obliged to submit, was baptized, and eight days afterwards, in 374, was consecrated bishop of Milan. His friend, Basil the Great of Caesarea, was delighted that God had chosen such a man to so important a post, who counted noble birth, wealth, and eloquence loss, that he might win Christ.

From this time forward Ambrose lived wholly for the church, and became one of the greatest bishops of ancient Christendom, full of Roman dignity, energy, and administrative wisdom, and of the unction of the Holy Ghost. He began his work with the sale of his great estates and of his gold and silver for the benefit of the poor; reserving an allowance for his pious sister Marcella or Marcellina, who in early youth had taken the vow of virginity. With voluntary poverty he associated the strictest regimen of the ascetic spirit of his time; accepted no invitations to banquets; took dinner only on Sunday, Saturday, and the festivals of celebrated martyrs; devoted the greater part of the night to prayer, to the hitherto necessarily neglected study of the Scriptures and the Greek fathers, and to theological writing; preached every Sunday, and often in the week; was accessible to all, most accessible to the poor and needy; and administered his spiritual oversight, particularly his instruction of catechumens, with the greatest fidelity.

The Arians he vigorously opposed by word and act, and contributed to the victory of the Nicene faith in the West. In this work he behaved himself towards the Arian empress Justina with rare boldness, dignity, and consistency, in the heroic spirit of an Athanasius. The court demanded the cession of a catholic church for the use of the Arians, and claimed for them equal rights with the orthodox. But Ambrose asserted the entire independence of the church towards the state, and by perseverance came off victorious in the end. It was his maxim, that the emperor is in the church, but not over the church, and therefore has no right to the church buildings.

He did not meddle in secular matters, nor ask favor of the magistracy, except when he could put in a word of intercession for the unfortunate and for persons condemned to death in those despotic times. This enabled him to act the more independently in his spiritual office, as a real prince of the church, fearless even of the emperor himself. Thus he declared to the usurper Maximus, who desired church fellowship, that he would never admit him, unless he should do sincere penance for the murder of the emperor Gratian.

When the Roman prefect, Symmachus, the noblest and most eloquent advocate of the decaying heathenism of his time, implored the emperor Valentinian, in an apology for the altar of Victory which stood in the hall of the Roman senate, to tolerate the worship and the sanctuaries of the ancient gods, Ambrose met him with an admirable reply, and prevented the granting of his request.

The most imposing appearance of our bishop against the temporal power was in his dealing with Theodosius, when this truly great, but passionate and despotic, emperor, enraged at Thessalonica for a riot, had caused many thousand innocent persons to be put to death with the guilty, and Ambrose, interesting himself for the unfortunate, like a Nathan with David, demanded repentance of the emperor, and refused him the holy communion. “How wilt thou,” said he to him in the vestibule of the church, “how wilt thou lift up in prayer the hands still dripping with the blood of the murdered? How wilt thou receive with such hands the most holy body of the Lord? How wilt thou bring to thy mouth his precious blood? Get thee away, and dare not to heap crime upon crime.” When Theodosius appealed to David’s murder and adultery, the bishop answered: “Well, if thou hast imitated David in sin, imitate him also in repentance.”20762076   “Qui sequutus es errantem, sequere corrigentem” Paulinus, Vita Ambr. c. 24. The emperor actually submitted to ecclesiastical discipline, made public confession of his sin, and did not receive absolution until he had issued a law that the sentence of death should never be executed till thirty days after it was pronounced.20772077   Paulinus, l. c. c. 24: “Quod ubi audivit clementissimus imperator, ita suscepit, ut publicam poenitentiam non abhorreret,” &c. Ambrosehimself says in his funeral oration on Theodosius: “Stravit omne, quo utebatur insigne regium, deflevit in ecclesia publice peccatum suum, neque ullus postea dies fuit, quo non illum doleret errorem.” The main fact is beyond doubt; but the details are not all reliable, and may have been exaggerated for hierarchical ends.

From this time the relation between Ambrose and Theodosius continued undisturbed, and the emperor is reported to have said afterwards with reference to the bishop, that he had recently found the first man who told him the truth, and that he knew only one man who was worthy to be bishop. He died in the arms of Ambrose at Milan in 395. The bishop delivered his funeral oration in which he tells, to his honor, that on his dying bed he was more concerned for the condition of the church than for himself, and says to the soldiers: “The faith of Theodosius was your victory; let your truth and faith be the strength of his sons. Where unbelief is, there is blindness, but where fidelity is, there is the host of angels.”

Two years after this, Ambrose himself was fatally sick. All Milan was in terror. When he was urged to pray God for a lengthening of his life, he answered: “I have so lived among you that I cannot be ashamed to live longer; but neither do I fear to die; for we have a good Lord.” During his sickness he had miraculous intimations and heard heavenly voices, and he himself related that Christ appeared to him smiling. His notary and biographer, the deacon Paulinus, who adorns his life throughout with miraculous incidents, tells us:20782078   Vita Ambr. c. 42. “Not long before his death, while he was dictating to me his exposition of the Forty-third Psalm, I saw upon his head a flame in the form of a small shield; hereupon his face became white as snow, and not till some time after did it return to its natural color.” In the night of Good Friday, on Saturday, the 4th of April, 397, he died, at the age of fifty-seven years, having first spent several hours, with his hands crossed, in uninterrupted prayer. Even Jews and pagans lamented his death. On the night of Easter following many were baptized in the church where his body was exposed Not a few of the newly baptized children saw him seated in the episcopal chair with a shining star upon his head. Even after his death he wrought miracles in many places, in proof of which Paulinus gives his own experience, credible persons, and documents.

Ambrose, like Cyprian before him, and Leo I. after him, was greatest in administration. As bishop he towered above the contemporary popes. As a theologian and author he is only a star of the second magnitude among the church fathers, yielding by far to Jerome and Augustine. We have from this distinguished prelate several exegetical, doctrinal, and ascetic works, besides homilies, orations, and letters. In exegesis he adopts the allegorical method entire, and yields little substantial information. The most important among his exegetical works are his homilies on the history of creation (Hexaëmeron, written 389), an Exposition of twenty-one Psalms (390–397), and a Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (386).20792079   The exegetical works are in tom. i. of the Bened. ed., excepting Ambrosiaster, which is in the Appendix to tom. ii. Jeromehad a contemptuous opinion of his exegetical writings. In the preface to his translation of the thirty-nine Homilies of Origen on Luke, he compares the superficial and meagre Commentary of Ambroseon Luke to the croaking of a raven which makes sport of the colors of all other birds, and yet is itself dark all over (totus ipse tenebrosus). Against this attack Rufinus felt it his duty to defend Ambrose, “qui non solum Mediolanensis ecclesiae, verum etiam omnium ecclesiarum columna quaedam et turris inexpugnabilis fuit” (Invect. ii. adv. Hieron.). In his Catalogus vir. illustr. c. 124, Jeromedisposes of Ambrosewith the following frosty and equivocal notice: “Ambrosius Mediolanensis episcopus, usque in presentem diem scribit, de quo, quia superest, meum judicium subtraham, ne in alterutram partem aut adulatio in me reprehendatur, aut veritas.” In his Epistles, however, he occasionally makes favorable allusion to his ascetic writings which fell in with his own taste. Augustine, from a sense of gratitude to his spiritual father, always mentions his name with respect. The passages of Augustineon Ambroseare collected in the Selecta veterum testimonia at the beginning of the first tome of the Bened. edition. But the unfavorable notice of Jeromequoted above is omitted there. The Commentary on the Pauline Epistles (Ambrosiaster so called or Pseudo-Ambrosius) which found its way among his works, is of uncertain authorship, perhaps the work of the Roman deacon Hilary under pope Damasus, and resembles in many respects the commentaries of Pelagius. Among his doctrinal writings his five books On Faith, three On the Holy Ghost, and six On the Sacraments (catechetical sermons on baptism, confirmation, and the eucharist) are worthy of mention. Among his ethical writings the work On Duties is the most important. It resembles in form the well-known work of Cicero on the same subject, and reproduces it in a Christian spirit. It is a collection of rules of living for the clergy, and is the first attempt at a Christian doctrine of morals, though without systematic method.20802080   De officiis ministrorum in three books (in the Bened. ed. tom. ii. f. 1-142). Comp. F. Hassler: Ueber das Verhältniss der heidnischen und christlichen Ethik auf Grund einer Vergleichung des ciceronianischen Buches De officiis mit dem gleichnamigen des heiligen Ambrosius, München, 1866. Besides this he composed several ascetic essays: Three books on Virgins; On Virginity; On the Institution of the Virgin; On Exhortation to Virginity; On the Fall of a Consecrated Virgin, &c., which contributed much to the spread of celibacy and monastic piety. Of his ninety-one Epistles several are of considerable historical interest.

In his exegesis and in his theology, especially in the doctrine of the incarnation and the Trinity, Ambrose is entirely dependent on the Greek fathers; most on Basil, whose Hexaëmeron he almost slavishly copied. In anthropology he forms the transition from the Oriental doctrine to the system of Augustine, whose teacher and forerunner he was. He is most peculiar in his ethics, which he has set forth in his three books De Officiis. As a pulpit orator he possessed great dignity, force, and unction, and made a deep impression on Augustine, to whose conversion he contributed a considerable share. Many mothers forbade their daughters to hear him lest he should induce them to lead a life of celibacy.

Ambrose has also a very important place in the history of worship, and did immortal service for the music and poetry of the church, as in a former section we have seen.20812081   Paulinus, in Vita Ambr. c. 13, relates: “Hoc in tempore primum antiphonae hymni ac vigiliae in ecclesia Mediolanensi celebrari coeperunt. Cuius celebritatis devotio usque in hodiernum diem non solum in eadem ecclesia, verum per omnes pene occidentis provincias manet.” Here again, as in theology and exegesis, he brought over the treasures of the Greek church into the Latin. The church of Milan uses to this day a peculiar liturgy which is called after him the ritus Ambrosianus.



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