In Praise of Ambrose

St Ambrose of Milan
St Ambrose of Milan

I have to admit to being very fond of St Ambrose. Ever since I first sat down to read his Explanatio Psalmorum, a very discursive work, I’ve been enchanted. His story is familiar to most people. (The summary in Wikipedia is more accurate than most but it doesn’t convey the charm of the man.) Here was a great administrator who was also a theologian, but not as good a theologian as he was administrator — enough to endear him to those of us who know we’re better at admin than we are at thinking theologically; a man who was chosen as bishop before he was even baptized — so not a career cleric in any sense of the term, despite his vivid sense of the importance of the episcopal office and the sacredness of the prebyterate; a man who was noted for his charity and courtesy, so that even Arian opponents respected him. Yes, Ambrose does tend to get a little enthusiastic in his exaltation of virginity, but he stood up to the emperor at a time when no one else would and was strong and clear in his ethical teaching. He loved books and allegedly amazed Augustine by reading silently. His view of liturgy was wide and generous, making him fast on Saturdays when in Rome but not when in Milan. Hymn-lovers know him best for some of his musical gems, including Aeterne rerum Conditor. His feast-day is a reminder to all of us of some of the qualities we need to cultivate, not least his courage. When he was asked to cede his church to the Arians, he stood firm:

If you demand my person, I am ready to submit: carry me to prison or to death, I will not resist; but I will never betray the church of Christ. I will not call upon the people to succour me; I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it. The tumult of the people I will not encourage: but God alone can appease it.

O si sic omnes.