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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : III THE MEETING BETWEEN AMBROSE AND AUGUSTIN

Saint Augustin by Louis Bertrand

III THE MEETING BETWEEN AMBROSE AND AUGUSTIN

Before he left Rome, and during his journey to Milan, Augustin must have recalled more than once the verses of Terence which his friend Marcianus had quoted by way of encouragement and advice the night he set sail for Italy:

|This day which brings to thee another life
Demands that thou another man shalt be.|

He was thirty years old. The time of youthful wilfulness was over. Age, disappointments, the difficulties of life, had developed his character. He was now become a man of position, an eminent official, in a very large city which was the second capital of the Western Empire and the principal residence of the Court. If he wished to avoid further set-backs in his career, it behoved him to choose a line of conduct carefully thought out.

And first of all, it was time to get rid of Manicheeism. A Manichee would have made a scandal in a city where the greatest part of the population was Christian, and the Court was Catholic, although it did not conceal its sympathy with Arianism. It was a long time now since Augustin had been a Manichee in his heart. Accordingly, he was not obliged to feign in order to re-enter a Church which already included him formally among its catechumens. Doubtless he was a very lukewarm catechumen, since at intervals he inclined to scepticism. But he thought it decent to remain, at least for the time being, in the Catholic body, in which his mother had brought him up, until the day when some sure light should arise to direct his path. Now St. Ambrose was at that time the Catholic Bishop of Milan. Augustin was very eager to gain his goodwill. Ambrose was an undoubted political power, an important personage, a celebrated orator whose renown was shed all across the Roman world. He belonged to an illustrious family. His father had been Praetorian prefect of Gaul. He himself, with the title of Consul, was governing the provinces of Emilia and Liguria when the Milanese forced him, much against his will, to become their bishop. Baptized, ordained priest, and consecrated, one on top of the other, it was only apparently that he gave up his civil functions. From the height of his episcopal throne he always personified the highest authority in the country.

As soon as he arrived at Milan, Augustin hurried to call upon his bishop. Knowing him as we do, he must have approached Ambrose in a great transport of enthusiasm. His imagination, too, was kindled. In his thought this was a man of letters, an orator, a famous writer, almost a fellow-worker, that he was going to see. The young professor admired in Bishop Ambrose all the glory that he was ambitious of, and all that he already believed himself to be. He fancied, that however great might be the difference in their positions, he would find himself at once on an equal footing with this high personage, and would have a familiar talk with him, as he used to have at Carthage with the Proconsul Vindicianus. He told himself also that Ambrose was a priest, that is to say, a doctor of souls: he meant to open to him all his spiritual wretchedness, the anguish of his mind and heart. He expected consolation from him, if not cure.

Well, he was mistaken. Although in all his writings he speaks of |the holy Bishop of Milan| with feelings of sincere respect and admiration, he lets it be understood that his expectations were not realized. If the Manichean bishop of Rome had offended him by his rough manners, Ambrose disconcerted him alike by his politeness, his kindliness, and by the reserve, perhaps involuntarily haughty, of his reception. |He received me,| says Augustin, |like a father, and as a bishop he was pleased enough at my coming:| -- peregrinationem meam satis episcopaliter dilexit. This satis episcopaliter looks very like a sly banter at the expense of the saint. It is infinitely probable that St. Ambrose received Augustin, not exactly as a man of no account, but still, as a sheep of his flock, and not as a gifted orator, and that, in short, he shewed him the same |episcopal| benevolence as he had from a sense of duty for all his hearers. It is possible too that Ambrose was on his guard from the outset with this African, appointed a municipal professor through the good offices of the pagan Symmachus, his personal enemy. In the opinion of the Italian Catholics, nothing good came from Carthage: these Carthaginians were generally Manichees or Donatists -- sectaries the more dangerous because they claimed to be orthodox, and, mingling with the faithful, hypocritically contaminated them. And then Ambrose, the great lord, the former Governor of Liguria, the counsellor of the Emperors, may not have quite concealed a certain ironic commiseration for this |dealer in words,| this young rhetorician who was still puffed up with his own importance.

Be this as it will, it was a lesson in humility that St. Ambrose, without intending it, gave to Augustin. The lesson was not understood. The rhetoric professor gathered only one thing from the visit, which was, that the Bishop of Milan had received him well. And as human vanity immediately lends vast significance to the least advances of distinguished or powerful persons, Augustin felt thankful for it. He began to love Ambrose almost as much as he admired him, and he admired him for reasons altogether worldly. |Ambrose I counted one of the happy ones of this world, because he was held in such honour by the great.| The qualification which immediately follows shews naively enough the sensual Augustin's state of mind at that time: |Only it seemed to me that celibacy must be a heavy burthen upon him.|

In those years the Bishop of Milan might, indeed, pass for a happy man in the eyes of the world. He was the friend of the very glorious and very victorious Theodosius; he had been the adviser of the young Emperor Gratian, but lately assassinated; and although the Empress Justina, devoted to the Arians, plotted against him, he had still great influence in the council of Valentinian II -- a little Emperor thirteen years old, whom a Court of pagans and Arians endeavoured to draw into an anti-Catholic reaction.

Almost as soon as Augustin arrived in Milan, he was able to see for himself the great authority and esteem which Ambrose possessed, the occasion being a dispute which made a great noise.

Two years earlier, Gratian had had the statue and altar of Victory removed from the Curia, declaring that this pagan emblem and its accompaniments no longer served any purpose in an assembly of which the majority was Christian. By the same stroke, he suppressed the incomes of the sacerdotal colleges with all their privileges, particularly those of the Vestals; confiscated for the revenue the sums granted for the exercise of religion; seized the property of the temples; and forbade the priests to receive bequests of real estate. This meant the complete separation of the State and the ancient religion. The pagan minority in the Senate, with Symmachus, the Prefect, at its head, protested against this edict. A deputation was sent to Milan to place the pagan grievances before the Emperor. Gratian refused to receive them. It was thought that his successor, Valentinian II, being feebler, would be more obliging. A new senatorial committee presented themselves with a petition drawn up by Symmachus -- a genuine piece of oratory which Ambrose himself admired, or pretended to admire. This speech made a deep impression when it was read in the Imperial Council. But Ambrose intervened with all his eloquence. He demanded that the common law should be applied equally to pagans as to Christians, and it was he who won the day. Victory was not replaced in the Roman Curia, neither were the goods of the temples returned.

Augustin must have been very much struck by this advantage which Catholicism had gained. It became clear that henceforth this was to be the State religion. And he who envied so much the fortunate of the world, might take note, besides, that the new religion brought, along with the faith, riches and honours to its adepts. At Rome he had listened to the disparaging by pagans and his Manichee friends of the popes and their clergy. They made fun of the fashionable clerics and legacy hunters. It was related that the Roman Pontiff, servant of the God of the poor, maintained a gorgeous establishment, and that his table rivalled the Imperial table in luxury. The prefect Praetextatus, a resolute pagan, said scoffingly to Pope Damasus: |Make me Bishop of Rome, and I'll become a Christian at once.|

Certainly, commonplace human reasons can neither bring about nor account for a sincere conversion. Conversion is a divine work. But human reasons, arranged by a mysterious Will with regard to this work, may at least prepare a soul for it. Anyhow, it cannot be neglected that Augustin, coming to Milan full of ambitious plans, there saw Catholicism treated with so much importance in the person of Ambrose. This religion, which till then he had despised, now appeared to him as a triumphant religion worth serving.

But though such considerations might attract Augustin's attention, they took no hold on his conscience. It was well enough for an intriguer about the Court to get converted from self-interest. As for him, he wanted all or nothing; the chief good in his eyes was certainty and truth. He scarcely believed in this any longer, and surely had no hope of finding it among the Catholics; but still he went to hear Ambrose's sermons. He went in the first place as a critic of language, with the rather jealous curiosity of the trained man who watches how another man does it. He wanted to judge himself if the sacred orator was as good as his reputation. The firm and substantial eloquence of this former official, this statesman who was more than anything a man of action, immediately got control of the frivolous rhetorician. To be sure, he did not find in Ambrose's sermons the exhilaration or the verbal caress which had captivated him in those of Faustus the Manichean; but yet they had a persuasive grace which held him. Augustin heard the bishop with pleasure. Still, if he liked to hear him talk, he remained contemptuous of the doctrine he preached.

Then, little by little, this doctrine forced itself on his meditations: he perceived that it was more serious than he had thought hitherto, or, at least, that it could be defended. Ambrose had started in Italy the exegetical methods of the Orientals. He discovered in Scripture allegorical meanings, sometimes edifying, sometimes deep, always satisfying for a reasonable mind. Augustin, who was inclined to subtilty, much relished these explanations which, if ingenious, were often forced. The Bible no longer seemed to him so absurd. Finally, the immoralities which the Manichees made such a great point of against the Holy Writ, were justified, according to Ambrose, by historical considerations: what God did not allow to-day, He allowed formerly by reason of the conditions of existence. However, though the Bible might be neither absurd nor contrary to morals, this did not prove that it was true. Augustin found no outlet for his doubts.

He would have been glad to have Ambrose help him to get rid of them. Many a time he tried to have a talk with him about these things. But the Bishop of Milan was so very busy a personage! |I could not ask him,| says Augustin, |what I wanted as I wanted, because the shoals of busy people who consulted him about their affairs, and to whose infirmities he ministered, came between me and his ear and lips. And in the few moments when he was not thus surrounded, he was refreshing either his body with needful food, or his mind with reading. While he read his eye wandered along the page and his heart searched out the meaning, but his voice and his tongue were at rest. Often when we attended (for the door was open to all, and no one was announced), we saw him reading silently, but never otherwise, and after sitting for some time without speaking (for who would presume to trouble one so occupied?) we went away again. We divined that, for the little space of time which was all that he could secure for the refreshment of his mind, he allowed himself a holiday from the distraction of other people's business, and did not wish to be interrupted; and perhaps he was afraid lest eager listeners should invite him to explain the harder passages of his author, or to enter upon the discussion of difficult topics, and hinder him from perusing as many volumes as he wished.... Of course the reason that guided a man of such remarkable virtue must have been good....|

Nobody could comment more subtly -- nor, be it said also, more maliciously -- the attitude of St. Ambrose towards Augustin, than Augustin himself does it here. At the time he wrote this page, the events he was relating had happened a long time ago. But he is a Christian, and, in his turn, he is a bishop: he understands now what he could not understand then. He feels thoroughly at heart that if Ambrose withdrew himself, it was because the professor of rhetoric was not in a state of mind to have a profitable discussion with a believer: he lacked the necessary humility of heart and intellect. But at the moment, he must have taken things in quite another way, and have felt rather hurt, not to say more, at the bishop's apparent indifference.

Just picture a young writer of to-day, pretty well convinced of his value, but uneasy about his future, coming to ask advice of an older man already famous -- well, Augustin's advances to Ambrose were not unlike that, save that they had a much more serious character, since it was not a question of literature, but of the salvation of a soul. At this period, what Augustin saw in Ambrose, even when he consulted him on sacred matters, was chiefly the orator, that is to say, a rather older rival.... He enters. He is shewn into the private room of the great man, without being announced, like any ordinary person. The great man does not lay aside his book to greet him, does not even speak a word to him.... What would the official professor of Rhetoric to the City of Milan think of such a reception? One can make out clearly enough through the lines of the Confessions. He said to himself that Ambrose, being a bishop, had charge of souls, and he was surprised that the bishop, no matter how great a lord he might be, made no attempt whatever to offer him spiritual aid. And as he was still devoid of Christian charity, no doubt he thought too that Ambrose was conscious that he had not the ability to wrestle with a dialectician of Augustin's strength, and that, into the bargain, the prelate was to seek in knowledge of the Scriptures. And, in truth, Ambrose had been made a bishop so suddenly that he must have found himself obliged to improvise a hasty knowledge. Anyhow, Augustin concluded that if he refused to discuss, it was because he was afraid of being at a disadvantage.

Very surely St. Ambrose had no notion of what the catechumen was thinking. He soared too high to trouble about miserable stings to self-respect. In his ministry he was for all alike, and he would have thought it against Christian equality to shew any special favour to Augustin. If, in the brief talks he had with the young rhetorician, he was able to gather anything of his character, he could not have formed a very favourable opinion of it. The high-strung temperament of the African, these vague yearnings of the spirit, these sterile melancholies, this continual temporizing before the faith -- all that could only displease Ambrose, the practical Roman, the official used all his life to command.

However that was, Augustin, in following years, never allowed himself the least reproach towards Ambrose. On the contrary, everywhere he loads him with praise, quotes him repeatedly in his treatises, and takes refuge on his authority. He calls him his |father.| But once, when he is speaking of the spiritual desolation in which he was plunged at Milan, there does escape him something like a veiled complaint which appears to be aimed at Ambrose. After recalling the eagerness with which he sought truth in those days, he adds: |If any one could have been found then to trouble about instructing me, he would have had a most willing and docile pupil.|

This phrase, in such marked contrast with so many laudatory passages in the Confessions about St. Ambrose, seems to be indeed a statement of the plain truth. If God made use of Ambrose to convert Augustin, it is nevertheless likely that Ambrose personally did nothing, or very little, to bring about this conversion.

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