St. Ambrose: silent reader, admired by St. Augustine

St. Ambrose of MilanToday’s first entry in the Martyrologium Romanum says:

1. Memoria sancti Ambrosii, episcopi Mediolanensis et Ecclesiae doctoris, qui pridie Nonas aprilis in Domino obdormivit, sed hac die potissimum colitur, qua celebrem sedem adhuc catechumenus gubernandam suscepit, cum civitatis praefecturae officio fungebatur.  Verus pastor et doctor fidelium, maxime in omnes caritatem exercuit, libertatem Ecclesiae ac rectae fidei doctrinam adversus arianos strenue defendit et commentariis hymnisque concinendis populum pie catechizavit.

How about you readers providing your own flawless yet elegant rendering?

St. Ambrose of Milan (+4 April 397), a titanic figure of the late 4th century who changed the shape of Church and State relations for a thousand years, who brought much of the wisdom of Greek writings to the West, and who helped to bring St. Augustine of Hippo into the fold.

Would that we might see his like again in the great capitals of the world.

There are too many interesting things about Ambrose for them all to be shared here, but we have space for a couple.

There is a famous moment recounted by St. Augustine in his Confessions (Bk VI) about visiting St. Ambrose.

Augustine walked into the room where Ambrose was sitting and saw him staring at a book! Ambrose was reading and not even moving his lips!

Augustine was so impressed by this that slipped silently out of the room without saying anything to Ambrose, lest he disturb him.

Augustine was very impressed by Ambrose and had wanted to talk to him about various problems and doubts. Because of all the people pressing around Ambrose, who was tremendously important and sought after, Augustine was never able to get near him in public.

Let’s read the text and hear about it from Augustine himself!

Remember, at this point Augustine is a hot property in Milan and not yet Christian, though interiorly twisting on the spikes of difficult doubts and problems.

Augustine wasn’t really praying yet and he he still was considering things in very worldly terms.

6,3. Nor had I come yet to groan in my prayers that thou wouldst help me. My mind was wholly intent on knowledge and eager for disputation. Ambrose himself I esteemed a happy man, as the world counted happiness, because great personages held him in honor. Only his celibacy appeared to me a painful burden. [Augustine was not chaste at the time and he was angling for a politically favorable marriage.] But what hope he cherished, what struggles he had against the temptations that beset his high station, what solace in adversity, and what savory joys thy bread possessed for the hidden mouth of his heart when feeding on it, I could neither conjecture nor experience.

Nor did [Ambrose] know my own frustrations, nor the pit of my danger. For I could not request of him what I wanted as I wanted it, because I was debarred from hearing and speaking to him by crowds of busy people to whose infirmities he devoted himself. And when he was not engaged with them—which was never for long at a time—he was either refreshing his body with necessary food or his mind with reading.

Now, as he read, his eyes glanced over the pages and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent. Often when we came to his room—for no one was forbidden to enter, nor was it his custom that the arrival of visitors should be announced to him—we would see him thus reading to himself. After we had sat for a long time in silence—for who would dare interrupt one so intent?—we would then depart, realizing that he was unwilling to be distracted in the little time he could gain for the recruiting of his mind, free from the clamor of other men’s business. Perhaps he was fearful lest, if the author he was studying should express himself vaguely, some doubtful and attentive hearer would ask him to expound it or discuss some of the more abstruse questions, so that he could not get over as much material as he wished, if his time was occupied with others. And even a truer reason for his reading to himself might have been the care for preserving his voice, which was very easily weakened. Whatever his motive was in so doing, it was doubtless, in such a man, a good one.

Amazing stuff there.

Keep in mind that, i the ancient world, books were rare. If you had a book, you were probably wealthy. If you got your hands on a book, you had to remember what you read because you might not ever see that particular book again. There would be public readings of books so that more people could hear them. People had to read aloud, actually, to help their memory. The more senses you could involve, the easier it was to remember the material. This holds true today! But, in the ancient world, everyone who read, read aloud.

Notice that Augustine, writing many years after the scene he recounts, and now a bishops himself, understands what it is to be entirely lacking in free time. He wonders if Ambrose read quietly so that the intellectually hungry people around him wouldn’t ask him to explain what he was reading, thus cutting short his own time for study. Also, Augustine himself later in life suffered from having a very weakened voice. In his sermons we actually hear him saying once in a while to the crowd that they had to stop making so much noise in their reactions to him, because his voice to too weak to shout over them! At any rate, Augustine puts a positive spin on what Ambrose did.

Busy tired clergymen understand each other.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Gail F says:

    I love that passage. I don’t know whether it’s legitimate to say that people never read silently then — to me, St. Augustine seems to be as much impressed that St. Ambrose was doing something intently by himself rather than reading aloud with others, which he himself loved to do and which requires one person to read out loud so that the rest can discuss — but I do think it’s fair to say that it seems as if it wasn’t a universal practice. What your readers might find interesting is that St. Augustine didn’t write the way we do either, that is, he didn’t sit at a table by himself and write his books with a pen. Instead he composed in his head and dictated to secretaries (who jotted things down on wax tablets), much the way that the newspaper reporters used to phone in their stories to the copy desks in the 1920s. I was trained as a reporter right before the age of computers, and believe me we would compose mostly in our heads so that we didn’t have to type things over and over again! But when you have a computer, you compose at the keyboard and change it as much as you want. Anyway, I can’t imagine writing such long books that way, but the ancients did.

  2. De Tribulis says:

    1. Commemoration of St. Ambrosius, bishop of Milan and doctor of the Church, who fell asleep in the Lord on the 4th of April, but is most preferably celebrated on this day on which, still a catechumen, he received this famous seat to govern when he was exercising the office of prefect of the city. A true shepherd and teacher of the faithful, he exercised the greatest charity toward all, resolutely defended the freedom of the Church and the teaching of the true faith against the Arians, and piously catechised the people with commentaries and hymns to be sung.

  3. Jason C. says:

    People had to read aloud, actually, to help their memory.

    For more information on ancient reading, see “In the Vineyard of the Text” by Ivan Illich, which is a commentary of Hugh of St. Victor’s “Didascalicon.” Illich explores how in that time words being read were like fruit in a vineyard. You had to chew the words, so speaking them as you read was part of the total experience. Illich also argues that they had a very different conception of “memory” than developed in later centuries. We conceive of memory as a “text,” as a blank page on which you print things. Illich argues that this conception of memory came into existence in the 12th century. He contrasts it with Hugh’s (and Plato’s, and the ancient Romans’, etc.) conceptions of memory.

  4. albinus1 says:

    People had to read aloud, actually, to help their memory.

    That may have been part of the reason, but in the ancient world the distinction between an oral culture and a written culture wasn’t as well-defined as it became later. Literature was, to a great extent, an oral phenomenon — prose literature was clearly rooted in rhetoric, and poetry was often recited. The “sound” of the text was an important consideration even for authors composing in writing, and was considered an important aspect when reading, even when reading to oneself.

  5. cerimoniere says:

    Herewith a few further suggestions:

    The memorial of St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan and Doctor of the Church, who fell asleep in the Lord the day before the Nones of April, but is chiefly honoured on this day on which, while still a catechumen, he received that famous see to govern, while he was still exercising the office of Prefect of the City. A true shepherd and teacher of the faithful, he exercised charity most greatly towards all, strenuously defended the freedom of the Church and the doctrine of the correct faith against the Arians, and dutifully catechized the people with commentaries and hymns to be sung.

  6. PaterAugustinus says:

    The commemoration of Saint Ambrose, bishop of Milan and teacher of the Church, who fell asleep in the Lord on the 4th of April, yet (whose commemoration) is pre-eminently kept on this day, wherein, still a catechumen, he received the governance of that renowned see even as he discharged the office of the city’s prefecture. A true shepherd and teacher of the faithful, he especially practiced charity towards all, strenuously defended the Church’s liberty and the teaching of the upright faith against the Arians, and piously instructed the people with both commentaries and hymns for their singing.

    Sancte Ambrosie, ora pro nobis!

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