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Chapter I.

St. Ambrose, reflecting upon the account he will have to give of his talents, determines to write, and consoles himself with certain examples of God’s mercy. Then recognizing his own deficiencies desires that he may be dealt with like the fig-tree in the Gospel, and expresses a hope that words will not fail him in his endeavour to preach Christ.

1. If, according to the decree of heavenly truth, we have to give account of every idle word which we have spoken,31613161    S. Matt. xii. 36. and if every servant will incur no small blame when his lord returns, who, either like a timid money-lender or covetous owner, has hidden in the earth the talents of spiritual grace which were entrusted to him in order that they might be multiplied by increasing interest, I, who, although possessed of but moderate ability, yet have a great necessity laid on me of making increase of the sayings of God entrusted to me, must rightly fear lest an account of the profit of my words be demanded of me, especially seeing that the Lord exacts of us effort, not profit. Wherefore I determined to write something, since, too, my words are listened to with greater risk to modesty than when they are written, for a book has no feeling of modesty.

2. And so distrusting indeed my own ability, but encouraged by the instances of divine mercy, I venture to compose an address, for when God willed even the ass spoke.31623162    Num. xxii. 28. And I will open my mouth long dumb, that the angel may assist me also, engaged in the burdens of this world, for He can do away with the hindrances of unskilfulness, Who in the ass did away those of nature. In the ark of the Old Testament the priest’s rod budded;31633163    Num. xvii. 8. with God it is easy that in Holy Church a flower should spring from our knots also. And why should we despair that God should speak in men, Who spoke in the thorn bush?31643164    Exod. iii. 4. God did not despise the bush, and would He might give light also to my thorns. Perhaps some may wonder that there is some light even in our thorns; some our thorns will not burn; there will be some whose shoes shall be put off their feet at the sound of my voice, that the steps of the mind may be freed from bodily hindrances.

3. But these things are gained by holy men. Would that Jesus would cast a glance upon me still lying under that barren fig-tree,31653165    S. John i. 48. and that my fig-tree might also after three years bear fruit.31663166    S. Luke xiii. 6 ff. But whence should sinners have so great hope? Would that at least that Gospel dresser of the vineyard, perhaps already bidden to cut down my fig-tree, would let it alone this year also, until he dig about it and dung it, that he may perchance lift the helpless out of the dust, and lift the poor out of the mire.31673167    Ps. cxiii. [cxii.] 6. Blessed are they who bind their horses under the vine and olive,31683168    Gen. xlix. 11. consecrating the course of their labours to light and joy: the fig-tree, that is, the tempting attraction of the pleasures of the world, still overshadows me, low in height, brittle for working, soft for use, and barren of fruit.

4. And perhaps some one may wonder why I, who cannot speak, venture to write. And yet if we consider what we read in the writings of the Gospel, and the deeds of the priests, and the holy prophet Zacharias is 364taken as an instance, he will find that there is something which the voice cannot explain, but the pen can write. And if the name John restored speech to his father,31693169    S. Luke i. 63, 64. I, too, ought not to despair that although dumb I may yet receive speech, if I speak of Christ, of Whom, according to the prophet’s word: “Who shall declare the generation?”31703170    Isa. liii. 8. And so as a servant I will announce the family of the Lord, for the Lord has consecrated to Himself a family even in this body of humanity replete with frailty.

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