St. Ambrose read without moving his lips!

St. Ambrose of Milan

Sometimes when I am given a book of a certain length to read I’ll quip, “That ought to keep my lips moving for a while!”

Today’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.

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, in 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, people who read, generally 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

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  1. The Masked Chicken says:

    “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. ”

    A colleague and I were having a conversation with one of my students a few months ago and my colleague pointed out something similar with regards to tv. It used to be, before the days of TIVO, that you saw a tv program, once. If you were lucky, you might get to see it once more on re-runs, but that was it. Each moment in front of the tv was salient. It meant so much more in one’s life than it does, today. The same thing happened to music with the advent of the wax (later, vinyl, then digital) record. If you only got to hear Beethoven once in your life and you had to travel 100 miles to hear it (no broadcasts), it would stay with you as one of the most special events of your life.

    What’s really special, today? Not to create an ex nihil rabbit hole, but one could almost say that this same lack of awe and reverence that afflicts the performing arts or, really, any cultural experience, has, also, invaded the Church. Each Mass is unique, it is special (and it may be your last!) and, yet, one, sometimes, gets a sense of blasé from some of Mass attenders. One thing the EF never was was blasé. It may have been unintelligible, but it was never common.

    Personally, I would love to see the return of book-reading clubs. How many young people, today, chastely dating their spouse-to-be, would spend a quiet night in front of a fireplace reading a great book, out loud, to each other.


    The Chicken

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  2. Deirdre Mundy says:

    My Western Civ professor loved this scene– he pointed out that when people learn to read, first they read out loud, then by moving their lips, then silently without moving their lips.

    He saw this as evidence that Ambrose was incredibly well-read and intelligent. And Ambrose’s intelligence became the instrument of Augustine’s conversion, because if this man, one of the most brilliant in the world, thought that there was something to Christianity and admired stupid old MONICA of all people (not that she was stupid, but her wayward son certainly treated her like she was) then…maybe Monica wasn’t so wrong after all.

    Augustine brilliantly illustrates how our admiration for superficial things about other people can STILL bring us to the truth, if the people we admire are worth admiring for deeper reasons too…

    OTOH, there’s the other danger– that our superficial admiration will be spent on a Manichee or some other seller of lies, and we’ll go down the wrong path…..

    Which is why every child needs a Monica praying that he’ll find his own Ambrose…..

  3. mamajen says:

    I’m a lip mover, often whisperer (even when commenting!). If anyone has seen Napoleon Dynamite, picture Kip on the computer. My husband, who reads much more quickly by the way, can just look at the pages. It’s one of my quirks that annoys him a little.

    Amen, Chicken! Very good points. There are lots of people who are trying to recapture that simplicity and awe, but it’s hard with the prevailing culture.

  4. Tom in NY says:

    “The memorial of St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan and Doctor of the Church. He passed away on the fourth of April, but is celebrated on this day, on which he, until then a catechumen, took up a leadership of a famous see, when he held the position of prefect of the city. A true pastor and teacher of the faithful, he greatly exercised charity toward all. He strongly defended both the Church’s freedom and true doctrine against the Arians. He dutifully catechized the people, putting commentaries and hymns together.”
    Reading aloud to children, having children read to you, and having children point to individual words is still part of teaching reading. Teachers of second languages still have the students repeat words, read in chorus and take dictation.
    Salutationes omnibus.

  5. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Narro saepe hanc Augustini historiam discipulis latinitatis meis, explicans quoque modum legendis antiquum. Sed tu, Pater, dedit mihi interpretationes actionum Ambrosi alias, et ergo, gratias tibi ago!

    And Masked Chicken, I too remember those days, like when Charlie Brown’s Christmas came on but once a year, and we were allowed to take our dinner into the living room so as not to miss it. And I recall with a twinge walking in on my own kids, one day in August a decade ago, when they had popped CB’s C’mas into the dvd player. And I thought I had failed to pass on something, something, important.

  6. There’s an old quote regarding the Divine Office (LOH), particularly regarding clerics fulfilling their obligation to pray it daily, that “If you’re not saying it, then you’re not praying it.”

    Though I think that for “saying” it suffices to form each word in your mouth, perhaps silently or in a whisper, though not necessarily to pronounce it aloud. And perhaps without moving your lips perceptively, though some movement of the lips may be almost reflexive with forming the words. Whereas merely reading the office mentally in the sense usual for many people does not suffice to fulfill the duty of praying the office.

  7. The Masked Chicken says:

    “Though I think that for “saying” it suffices to form each word in your mouth, perhaps silently or in a whisper, though not necessarily to pronounce it aloud.”

    It used to be the case before the Lturgy of the Hours, when it was still called the a Divine Office, that there had to be at least a passage of air between the lips for it to count, but there was a footnote in at least some copies of the modern General Instruction for the a Liturgy of the Hours that said the matter was presented to Rome who gave permission for anyone to do silent reading. Unfortunately, that footnote is not in every edition and I cannot find it, on-line.

    The Chicken

  8. vetusta ecclesia says:

    What with St Nicholas on the 6th Dec. and St Ambrose on the 7th poor old Arius gets quite a biffing this week!

  9. Mr. Green says:

    Not only did reading aloud help with remembering, but it helped with reading …back in the day before spaces were invented. It’s very difficult to read words that are all run together, and yet we do not pause between words when speaking. Reading aloud lets your ears decipher the sounds like speech. So I’m even more impressed that Ambrose could pull it off!

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