Saint of the Day – 7 December – St Ambrose (c 340-397) – Father and Doctor of the Church – Patron of Bee keepers; bees; bishops; candle makers; domestic animals; French Commissariat; geese; learning; livestock; Milan; police officers; students; wax refiners
Ambrose was born into a Roman Christian family about 340 AD and was raised in Trier, Belgic Gaul (present-day Germany). His father is sometimes identified with Aurelius Ambrosius, a praetorian prefect of Gaul but some scholars identify his father as an official named Uranius who received an imperial constitution dated 3 February 339 AD (addressed in a brief extract from one of the three emperors ruling in 339, Constantinus, Constantius, or Constans, in the Theodosian Code, book XI.5).
His mother was a woman of intellect and piety. Ambrose’s siblings, Satyrus (who is the subject of Ambrose’s De excessu fratris Satyri) and Marcellina, are also venerated as saints. There is a legend that as an infant, a swarm of bees settled on his face while he lay in his cradle, leaving behind a drop of honey. His father considered this a sign of his future eloquence and honeyed tongue. For this reason, bees and beehives often appear in the saint’s symbology.
After the early death of his father, Ambrose followed his father’s career. He was educated in Rome, studying literature, law, and rhetoric. Praetorian prefect Probus first gave him a place in the council and then in about 372 made him consular prefect or “Governor” of Liguria and Emilia, with headquarters at Milan, which was then (beside Rome) the second capital in Italy.
Ambrose was the Governor of Aemilia-Liguria in northern Italy until 374 when he became the Bishop of Milan. He was a very popular political figure, and since he was the Governor in the effective capital in the Roman West, he was a recognizable figure in the court of the Emperor Valentinian I. Ambrose never married.
In the late 4th century there was a deep conflict in the diocese of Milan between the Nicene Church and Arians. In 374 the bishop of Milan, Auxentius, an Arian, died, and the Arians challenged the succession. Ambrose went to the church where the election was to take place, to prevent an uproar, which was probable in this crisis. His address was interrupted by a call “Ambrose, bishop!”, which was taken up by the whole assembly.
Ambrose was known to be Nicene Christian in belief, but also acceptable to Arians due to the charity shown in theological matters in this regard. At first he energetically refused the office, for which he was in no way prepared: Ambrose was neither baptized nor formally trained in theology. Upon his appointment, Ambrose fled to a colleague’s home seeking to hide. Upon receiving a letter from the Emperor Gratian praising the appropriateness of Rome appointing individuals evidently worthy of holy positions, Ambrose’s host gave him up. Within a week, he was baptized, ordained and duly consecrated bishop of Milan.
As bishop, he immediately adopted an ascetic lifestyle, apportioned his money to the poor, donating all of his land, making only provision for his sister Marcellina (who later became a nun) and committed the care of his family to his brother. This raised his popularity even further, giving him considerable political leverage over even the emperor. Ambrose also wrote a treatise by the name of “The Goodness of Death”.
One of Ambrose’s biographers observed that at the Last Judgment, people would still be divided between those who admired Ambrose and those who heartily disliked him. He emerges as the man of action who cut a furrow through the lives of his contemporaries. Even royal personages were numbered among those who were to suffer crushing divine punishments for standing in Ambrose’s way.
When the Empress Justina attempted to wrest two basilicas from Ambrose’s Catholics and give them to the Arians, he dared the eunuchs of the court to execute him. His own people rallied behind him in the face of imperial troops. In the midst of riots, he both spurred and calmed his people with bewitching new hymns set to exciting Eastern melodies.
In his disputes with the Emperor Auxentius, he coined the principle: “The emperor is in the Church, not above the Church.” He publicly admonished Emperor Theodosius for the massacre of 7,000 innocent people. The emperor did public penance for his crime. This was Ambrose, the fighter, sent to Milan as Roman governor and chosen while yet a catechumen to be the people’s bishop.
There is yet another side of Ambrose—one which influenced Augustine of Hippo, whom Ambrose converted. Ambrose was a passionate little man with a high forehead, a long melancholy face, and great eyes. We can picture him as a frail figure clasping the codex of sacred Scripture. This was the Ambrose of aristocratic heritage and learning.
Augustine found the oratory of Ambrose less soothing and entertaining but far more learned than that of other contemporaries. Ambrose’s sermons were often modeled on Cicero and his ideas betrayed the influence of contemporary thinkers and philosophers. He had no scruples in borrowing at length from pagan authors. He gloried in the pulpit in his ability to parade his spoils—“gold of the Egyptians”—taken over from the pagan philosophers.
His sermons, his writings, and his personal life reveal him as an otherworldly man involved in the great issues of his day. Humanity, for Ambrose, was, above all, spirit. In order to think rightly of God and the human soul, the closest thing to God, no material reality at all was to be dwelt upon. He was an enthusiastic champion of consecrated virginity.
The influence of Ambrose on Augustine will always be open for discussion. The Confessions reveal some manly, brusque encounters between Ambrose and Augustine but there can be no doubt of Augustine’s profound esteem for the learned bishop.
Neither is there any doubt that St. Monica loved Ambrose as an angel of God who uprooted her son from his former ways and led him to his convictions about Christ. It was Ambrose, after all, who placed his hands on the shoulders of the naked Augustine as he descended into the baptismal fountain to put on Christ.