Tag Archives: Saint Ambrose

Meet Saint Ambrose

st-ambrose-1Do you enjoy singing hymns in church?  Then thank Saint Ambrose; he is generally credited with introducing hymnody into the Western church from the East.  And that was only one of his many accomplishments.

Ambrose was born around 340 and raised in Trier in present-day Germany. ¬†His father was a praetorian prefect (an administrator of justice), and his mother was known for her intellect and her piety. Like his later protege, Augustine, Ambrose showed intellectual promise early in life. ¬†He was educated in Rome and was elected Bishop of Milan at age 34. ¬†He had to be hastily baptized before he could take the job. ¬†Late-life baptism was common in early Christianity and Ambrose hadn’t gotten around to being baptized yet when he was elected bishop!

I selected the above image of Ambrose from among many choices, because it seemed the closest to descriptions of what he looked like.  He is said to have been small and frail, with very large eyes and a melancholy face.

Ambrose may have been physically small and weak, but his character was mighty. ¬†In 386, the emperor’s mother demanded that Ambrose cede control of two Milan churches to followers of the Arian heresy (short version: ¬†Arians denied that the Son was co-eternal with the father; people got very excited about these things in the 4th century). Ambrose refused, barricaded himself in one of the churches, and got most of the Christians of Milan on his side – including the emperor’s own troops, who surrounded the church protectively. ¬†Ambrose prevailed over the imperial family, and the churches remained in the hands of the Catholics.

Ambrose was also known as a powerful and persuasive speaker, with a voice out of proportion to his small stature. ¬†His sermons were sensational entertainment. ¬†During her time in Milan, Saint Augustine’s mother, Saint Monica, befriended Ambrose, and Ambrose is generally given a lot of credit for finally converting Augustine to the Christian faith. ¬†Augustine admired Ambrose’s wisdom and learning. ¬†He was awed by Ambrose’s ability to read silently. ¬†This was unusual in the 4th century. ¬†Most people who could read, read aloud, even when they were alone. ¬†It was Ambrose who persuaded Augustine to accept the Christian Bible, by explaining that it should not always be taken literally but should instead be read for deeper truth. Thus, we may owe to Saint Ambrose, a great man himself, the conversion of one of the greatest fathers of the Church.

Saint Ambrose’s body was preserved and can still be viewed at the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan. ¬†My husband and I saw it there in 2009, when I was doing my research for The Saint’s Mistress – along with the remains of Gervasius and Protasius, of whose authenticity Augustine is initially skeptical in my book.







Augustine and His World (Part One)

I wrote in an earlier post about the similarities I saw between life 21st-century America and the late Roman Empire.  People living in cities in the late Empire enjoyed many modern-ish conveniences and were surprisingly cosmopolitan.

But, the world of Leona and Aurelius Augustine was also a unique culture, which inevitably formed the future saint.  In this post, I examine the state of Christianity in North Africa while Augustine was growing to maturity.

In general, the native North Africans had never adopted the Romans gods. The cult of Mithras had its adherents, but most North Africans of Augustine’s era were either Christian or still worshipped the old Berber high gods like Ammon or Dea Caelestis.

North African Christians were generally more legalistic and rigid than Christians elsewhere. They were warm, passionate argumentative people compared to the cool, self-controlled Romans.  This led to literal Biblical interpretation and to the bitterness of their schisms.

Augustine would later be instrumental in establishing Christian orthodoxy, but in his youth the rising church was anything but united.¬† In North Africa in particular, sects and heresies abounded.¬† As I portray in my book, Donatists and Caecelians clashed bitterly and often violently.¬† The schism between the two sects went back to the Diocletan persecution.¬† Certain priests compromised during the persecution; others went to their deaths defending the faith.¬† 80 years later, North African Christians were still fighting about that.¬† And then there were the quasi-Christians.¬† Hoping to ride on the coattails of the rising Christian church, basically pagan sects like the Manicheans adopted some of the tenets and language of Christianity to gain adherents ‚Äď including, for a short time, Augustine himself.

Faith-centered conflict infected even Augustine’s home.  His mother, the future Saint Monica, was a devout Christian.  Although his father, Patricius, accepted baptism on his deathbed, he was a casual pagan for most of his life.

I wonder if this over-heated atmosphere of conflict had a negative impact on Augustine’s opinion of Christianity.  Certainly, the literalism of the North African Church was a turnoff for him.  He could not accept Christianity until Ambrose and Simplicianus taught him to interpret the Old Testament allegorically.

People accepted Christianity for many complex reasons in the 4th century.  I tried to convey that my book.  Some joined the church as a path to power, or because all their friends had joined.  Augustine came under pressure from both his friends and his mother.  But, in my conception of him, he would never have accepted the faith unless he were truly convinced.  I think he had to escape the legalistic, bitterly conflicted atmosphere of North Africa to come to that conviction.

Leap of Faith


My son and I took my 10-year-old grandson zip-lining last week.¬† Ben tends to be a bit of a scaredy-cat and we were surprised that he readily agreed to go along with us.¬† He did great at climbing the first rope ladder and walking across a bridge that swayed between the trees.¬† But the first time he had to step off a platform into thin air and rely on his tethers to keep him from plummeting to the ground, he froze.¬† He wanted to do it, he almost did it, and then he stepped back ‚Äď 7 or 8 times.¬† It took about 10 minutes of reassurance from his grandmother, his uncle, the guide on the ground and they very patient people waiting behind us before he stepped to the edge, closed his eyes, leaned forward‚Ķ‚Ķand finally let go.

For some people, I think faith is like that.  They want to believe.  Many of their friends are believers.  But they hold back.  Saint Augustine’s experience was like that.  Disillusioned with both Manicheism and Platonism, he had slowly become attracted to Christianity.  His mother and many of his close friends urged him to accept Christ.  He had personal access to some of the greatest minds of the early Christian world, such as Simplicianus and Ambrose, and was enlightened by their thinking. Like Ben on that wooden platform in the trees, he was intellectually convinced that he should take the step, and he had caring people around him who urged him on, yet he hesitated.

Augustine movingly describes his conversion moment in Book 8 of his Confessions.¬† Sitting in a garden, he felt moved to open his Bible and, reading the first verse his eyes fell on, he writes, ‚Äúby a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.‚ÄĚ

Just as Ben wanted a guarantee that he wouldn’t fall, I think Augustine was hoping for certain intellectual proof.  I think we’d all like that.  But that is called knowledge, not faith.  Faith paradoxically requires a surrender of both doubt and certainty.  Faith ultimately asks us to take a leap, just like the leap that Ben had to take up in the trees.

As you can probably guess, once Ben stepped off that first platform, his fears ‚Äúvanished away‚ÄĚ just like Saint Augustine‚Äôs doubt, and we spent a wonderful day swinging through the trees.