If you hear the two words “church father” you might be thinking of an ancient, white-haired man who probably did some good things for the church a long, long time ago. At least that’s what I used to think of.
But when learning more about each one, like actually learning, I realized how big of an impact their lives have had on my own. For example, Saint Ambrose. It is thanks to him that today I love praying with the Bible using Lectio Divina. And it was Saint Ambrose’s intimacy with the Lord through Scripture that prompted Augustine to take a closer look at the faith—making him a great intercessor for those in our own lives who may have fallen away from the faith, or perhaps, have yet to find it.
From Roman Governor to Bishop of Milan
Ambrose was born to a wealthy Christian family in 340 A.D. His father died when he was just a child, so his mother brought him to Rome to be trained for a career in law, where he received a great education in the classics and rhetoric. While in his thirties he was headquartered in Milan as governor of two of the northern provinces in Italy.
Here there was much fallout between the Christians and Arians, even after the Council of Nicea sought to resolve this heretical controversy. Peace was not achieved, and many people still adhered to the heresy that denied Christ’s divinity.
Ambrose continued to work towards this desired peace.
The former Bishop of Milan, Auxentius, was in favor of Arianism and thus considered to be in opposition to the Catholic faith. Ambrose himself believed in the Nicene Creed, disagreed peacefully with the Arians, and was abreast of the theological controversies of the time. So after the death of Auxentius, Ambrose gave a discourse on peace and moderation. It was during this that the crowd began chanting, “Ambrose, Bishop!” But this would become much more than just a chant. Through the influence of the people, he was considered elected. So eight days later, December 7, 374, Ambrose was consecrated Bishop of Milan. In eight days he was baptized, ordained, and consecrated (the custom at the time was to wait to be baptized until as close to death as possible).
While Ambrose was well-educated, he was a layman and didn’t know Scripture very well. His new role as Bishop launched his deep dive into Scripture reading, and eventually, he started praying using lectio divina as his way of listening to the Lord’s words and the promptings of the Holy Spirit to inspire his preaching and writing.
In the words of Saint Ambrose, “When we take up the sacred Scriptures in faith and read them with the Church, we walk once more with God in the Garden” . . . a place where Saint Augustine, a contemporary of Saint Ambrose, had an experience of transformation.
Conversion in a Garden
Augustine was raised by a Pagan father and a devout Christian mother. For himself, he chose Manichaeism, a dualistic religion that taught that the world was evil and salvation could only be found through knowledge.
Like Ambrose, Augustine was known for his rhetoric and eventually became a professor in Milan, where he frequently visited the cathedral just to hear Bishop Ambrose speak. This prompted him to shift his religious views to one that incorporated both the philosophy of the Roman pagans and Milanese Christians.
Augustine admitted that he was a sinful man, but he still grappled with overcoming the temptations he so enjoyed giving into. When looking back on a time in his childhood when he stole pears with his friends, he said, “Our real pleasure consisted in doing something that was forbidden. The evil in me was foul, but I loved it.”
But no matter how evil or foul his sins, his mother Monica prayed fervently for his eventual conversion to Christianity.
As Augustine walked in his garden, reflecting on his life and feeling restless about the choices he made, he heard a child’s voice saying, “Take and read.” He took these words to heart, and picked up the letters of Saint Paul to the Romans.
. . . let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh. // Romans 13:13-14
These are the words that gave Augustine hope in the truths that Scripture held, and he would become further inspired by Ambrose’s example, seeking him out as a mentor and going to him frequently for advice.
The Attractiveness of the Gospel
It was Ambrose’s testimony and the witness of the church in Milan that made Augustine attracted to Christianity. He was moved by the witness of the church community, and by how unified they were in their strong resistance to the influence of Arianism. Ambrose taught in such a way that helped Augustine more fully understand the history of the church and the beauty of the mysteries it holds.
“Searching Out The Meaning”
It was not only Ambrose’s preaching of the Gospel that struck Augustine; it was his personal approach to reading Scripture. When Ambrose wasn’t meeting with people to give spiritual guidance, he himself was pouring over the Word of God. But unlike the custom of the time, he read silently. Augustine wrote in the Confessions:
When Ambrose read, his eyes ran over the columns of writing and his heart searched out the meaning, but his voice and his tongue were at rest. Often when I was present-for he did not close his door to anyone and it was customary to come in unannounced-I have seen him reading silently, never in fact otherwise. I would sit for a long time in silence, not daring to disturb someone so deep in thought, and then go on my way.
This was unusual, because at the time, Scripture was meant to be read aloud, both for others to hear, and for the reader’s own understanding. Augustine was struck by how familiar Ambrose seemed to be with Scripture, and through this close relationship with the text, how well he lived the faith out. This informed Augustine’s own approach to the faith and on April 24, 387, Ambrose baptized Augustine in the Cathedral of Milan.
A Bit Of Honey
In addition to being a patron Saint of Milan, he is also a patron of beekeepers and is known as the “honey-tongued Doctor.” There are a few good reasons for this. The word “ambrosia” is Latin for honey, and his rhetoric, as Augustine experienced, was as sweet as honey to the soul. Legend even says that while he was laying in his crib as a baby, there was a swarm of bees flying in and out of his mouth, but never stinging him!
Saint Ambrose, pray for us to share God’s word as eloquently as you, coming not from head-knowledge but from an experience of the heart.