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St. Ambrose’s impact on St. Augustine: Excerpts from The Confessions

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 08, 2016

Since yesterday was the feast of St. Ambrose, and St. Ambrose played an important role in the conversion of St. Augustine, I wanted to highlight what Augustine said about Ambrose in his spiritual autobiography, The Confessions. While putting this together, I was called away to occupy my six-month-old grandson, Paul, while his Mom and Dad finished packing and preparing for their upcoming move. So here I am a day late and a dollar short, as usual.

St. Ambrose was born in about 340 AD and died on April 4, 397. A Father of the Church, Ambrose was raised Catholic and followed in his father’s footsteps as a government official. He became the governor (consular prefect) in the northern Italian region of Aemilia-Liguria, with headquarters in Milan. During the struggle with Arianism, Milan’s bishop died, and the choice of his successor was contentious. In order to keep the peace, Ambrose went to the meeting where people were trying to select a new bishop, but in so doing he was chosen as bishop himself by popular acclaim, and was appointed by the Pope in 374. He became acquainted with St. Augustine when the latter took a position as professor of rhetoric at the Imperial court in Milan.

Born on November 13, 354 in northern Africa, St. Augustine was nearly fifteen years younger than Ambrose, who had been similarly trained as a rhetorician. When he won the position in Milan, at the age of 30, he was still under the influence of Manichaenism. Deeply attached to a concubine, he also had a son, Adeodatus—all this despite the deep Catholic faith of his mother, St. Monica, who prayed unceasingly for his conversion. But Augustine was a sincere seeker of the truth, and under the influence of Monica, Ambrose and others, he was ultimately baptized in 387.

Augustine committed himself to celibacy and prepared to return with his mother to northern Africa. Monica died before their departure, and Adeodatus shortly after, whereupon Augustine sold the family property and distributed the income to the poor. He retained his house, and converted it into a monastery. Augustine was ordained in 391, became bishop of Hippo (in what is now Algeria) in 395 and suffered the siege of Hippo by the Arian Vandals on his deathbed in 430. For his remarkable Christian writings, he is widely acknowledged as the greatest of the Church fathers. Augustine is often called the Doctor of Grace.


The Confessions is divided into 13 “books”, which we would call chapters. Augustine recounted his life in long, flowing sentences, with considerable psychological and spiritual detail, so it is often difficult to extract very brief highlights.

Initial interest in Ambrose:

We begin In Book 5, where Augustine describes his initial interest in Ambrose after arriving to teach in Milan:

To Milan I came, to Ambrose the Bishop… whose eloquent discourse did then plentifully dispense unto Thy people the flour of Thy wheat, the gladness of Thy oil, and the sober inebriation of Thy wine. To him was I unknowing led by Thee, that by him I might knowingly be led to Thee. That man of God received me as a father, and showed me an Episcopal kindness on my coming. Thenceforth I began to love him…. And I listened diligently to him preaching to the people, not with that intent I ought, but, as it were, trying his eloquence, whether it answered the fame thereof, or flowed fuller or lower than was reported; and I hung on his words attentively; but of the matter I was as a careless and scornful looker-on….
And while I opened my heart to admit “how eloquently he spake,” there also entered “how truly he spake”; but this by degrees. For first, these things also had now begun to appear to me capable of defence; and the Catholic faith, for which I had thought nothing could be said against the Manichees’ objections, I now thought might be maintained without shamelessness; especially after I had heard one or two places of the Old Testament resolved, and ofttimes “in a figure,” which when I understood literally, I was slain spiritually…. Yet did I not therefore then see that the Catholic way was to be held…for the Catholic cause seemed to me in such sort not vanquished, as still not as yet to be victorious.
Hereupon I earnestly bent my mind, to see if in any way I could by any certain proof convict the Manichees of falsehood…. I determined therefore so long to be a Catechumen in the Catholic Church, to which I had been commended by my parents, till something certain should dawn upon me, whither I might steer my course.

Monica’s trust in Ambrose:

Shortly thereafter, Monica followed Augustine out of Africa and joined him in Milan, arranging a marriage for Augustine, and continuing her tears and prayers for his conversion, as recounted in Book 6:

My mother had now come to me, resolute through piety, following me over sea and land, in all perils confiding in Thee…. She found me in grievous peril, through despair of ever finding truth. But when I had discovered to her that I was now no longer a Manichee, though not yet a Catholic Christian, she was not overjoyed, as at something unexpected; although she was now assured concerning that part of my misery, for which she bewailed me as one dead, though to be reawakened by Thee, carrying me forth upon the bier of her thoughts, that Thou mightest say to the son of the widow, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise; and he should revive, and begin to speak, and Thou shouldest deliver him to his mother….
But to Thee, Fountain of mercies, poured she forth more copious prayers and tears, that Thou wouldest hasten Thy help, and enlighten my darkness; and she hastened the more eagerly to the Church, and hung upon the lips of Ambrose, praying for the fountain of that water, which springeth up unto life everlasting. But that man she loved as an angel of God, because she knew that by him I had been brought for the present to that doubtful state of faith I now was in, through which she anticipated most confidently that I should pass from sickness unto health, after the access, as it were, of a sharper fit, which physicians call “the crisis”.

Augustine wishing to learn more from Ambrose:

About this time, also in Book 6, Augustine explains that his access to Ambrose was inescapably limited. He would have liked to learn more from him. In a section not quoted here, he explains that he ultimately sought out an old rhetorician named Simplicianus, because he had taught Ambrose. Gradually also, Augustine’s attitude toward Scripture changed, from a necessary study of texts which he judged rhetorically inferior, to a genuine love. (This passage also indicates that it was a novelty for Augustine to see Ambrose reading silently, without mouthing the words, which apparently was rare among rhetoricians at that time.)

Nor did I yet groan in my prayers, that Thou wouldest help me; but my spirit was wholly intent on learning, and restless to dispute. And Ambrose himself, as the world counts happy, I esteemed a happy man, whom personages so great held in such honour; only his celibacy seemed to me a painful course. But what hope he bore within him, what struggles he had against the temptations which beset his very excellencies, or what comfort in adversities, and what sweet joys Thy Bread had for the hidden mouth of his spirit, when chewing the cud thereof, I neither could conjecture, nor had experienced. Nor did he know the tides of my feelings, or the abyss of my danger. For I could not ask of him, what I would as I would, being shut out both from his ear and speech by multitudes of busy people, whose weaknesses he served. With whom when he was not taken up (which was but a little time), he was either refreshing his body with the sustenance absolutely necessary, or his mind with reading. But when he was reading, his eye glided over the pages, and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were at rest. Ofttimes when we had come (for no man was forbidden to enter, nor was it his wont that any who came should be announced to him), we saw him thus reading to himself, and never otherwise; and having long sat silent (for who durst intrude on one so intent?) we were fain to depart....
I however certainly had no opportunity of enquiring what I wished of that so holy oracle of Thine, his breast, unless the thing might be answered briefly. But those tides in me, to be poured out to him, required his full leisure, and never found it. I heard him indeed every Lord’s day, rightly expounding the Word of truth among the people; and I was more and more convinced that all the knots of those crafty calumnies, which those our deceivers had knit against the Divine Books, could be unravelled.
I joyed also that the old Scriptures of the law and the Prophets were laid before me, not now to be perused with that eye to which before they seemed absurd, when I reviled Thy holy ones for so thinking, whereas indeed they thought not so: and with joy I heard Ambrose in his sermons to the people, oftentimes most diligently recommend this text for a rule, The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life; whilst he drew aside the mystic veil, laying open spiritually what, according to the letter, seemed to teach something unsound; teaching herein nothing that offended me, though he taught what I knew not as yet, whether it were true.

The attraction of the monastic life:

In Book 8, Augustine recounts how he began to learn something of the monastic life and the virginity this entailed. Once again, Ambrose is key, because there was a monastery in Milan, under the bishop’s protection. Then, when Augustine was given the grace to embrace chastity, he recounts his entry into the Church in Book 9, received by Ambrose, along with his son, Adeodatus:

The vintage-vacation ended, I gave notice to the Milanese to provide their scholars with another master to sell words to them; for that I had both made choice to serve Thee, and through my difficulty of breathing and pain in my chest was not equal to the Professorship. And by letters I signified to Thy Prelate, the holy man Ambrose, my former errors and present desires, begging his advice what of Thy Scriptures I had best read, to become readier and fitter for receiving so great grace. He recommended Isaiah the Prophet: I believe, because he above the rest is a more clear foreshower of the Gospel and of the calling of the Gentiles. But I, not understanding the first lesson in him, and imagining the whole to be like it, laid it by, to be resumed when better practised in our Lord’s own words.
Thence, when the time was come wherein I was to give in my name, we left the country and returned to Milan. It pleased Alypius also to be with me born again in Thee, being already clothed with the humility befitting Thy Sacraments; and a most valiant tamer of the body, so as, with unwonted venture, to wear the frozen ground of Italy with his bare feet. We joined with us the boy Adeodatus, born after the flesh, of my sin. Excellently hadst Thou made him. He was not quite fifteen, and in wit surpassed many grave and learned men. I confess unto Thee Thy gifts, O Lord my God, Creator of all, and abundantly able to reform our deformities: for I had no part in that boy, but the sin. For that we brought him up in Thy discipline, it was Thou, none else, had inspired us with it. I confess unto Thee Thy gifts. There is a book of ours entitled The Master; it is a dialogue between him and me. Thou knowest that all there ascribed to the person conversing with me were his ideas, in his sixteenth year. Much besides, and yet more admirable, I found in him. That talent struck awe into me. And who but Thou could be the workmaster of such wonders? Soon didst Thou take his life from the earth: and I now remember him without anxiety, fearing nothing for his childhood or youth, or his whole self. Him we joined with us, our contemporary in grace, to be brought up in Thy discipline: and we were baptised, and anxiety for our past life vanished from us. Nor was I sated in those days with the wondrous sweetness of considering the depth of Thy counsels concerning the salvation of mankind. How did I weep, in Thy Hymns and Canticles, touched to the quick by the voices of Thy sweet-attuned Church! The voices flowed into mine ears, and the Truth distilled into my heart, whence the affections of my devotion overflowed, and tears ran down, and happy was I therein.

Troubles for both Ambrose and Augustine:

Also in Book 9, Augustine recounts the new custom of sacred song in Milan, some troubles that Ambrose suffered, and also the death of his mother, Monica, in response to which verses written by Ambrose gave him great consolation:

Not long had the Church of Milan begun to use this kind of consolation and exhortation, the brethren zealously joining with harmony of voice and hearts. For it was a year, or not much more, that Justina, mother to the Emperor Valentinian, a child, persecuted Thy servant Ambrose, in favour of her heresy, to which she was seduced by the Arians. The devout people kept watch in the Church, ready to die with their Bishop Thy servant. There my mother Thy handmaid, bearing a chief part of those anxieties and watchings, lived for prayer. We, yet unwarmed by the heat of Thy Spirit, still were stirred up by the sight of the amazed and disquieted city. Then it was first instituted that after the manner of the Eastern Churches, Hymns and Psalms should be sung, lest the people should wax faint through the tediousness of sorrow: and from that day to this the custom is retained, divers (yea, almost all) Thy congregations, throughout other parts of the world following herein.
And behold, the corpse was carried to the burial; we went and returned without tears. For neither in those prayers which we poured forth unto Thee, when the Sacrifice of our ransom was offered for her, when now the corpse was by the grave’s side, as the manner there is, previous to its being laid therein, did I weep even during those prayers; yet was I the whole day in secret heavily sad, and with troubled mind prayed Thee, as I could, to heal my sorrow, yet Thou didst not; impressing, I believe, upon my memory by this one instance, how strong is the bond of all habit, even upon a soul, which now feeds upon no deceiving Word. It seemed also good to me to go and bathe, having heard that the bath had its name (balneum) from the Greek Balaneion for that it drives sadness from the mind. And this also I confess unto Thy mercy, Father of the fatherless, that I bathed, and was the same as before I bathed. For the bitterness of sorrow could not exude out of my heart. Then I slept, and woke up again, and found my grief not a little softened; and as I was alone in my bed, I remembered those true verses of Thy Ambrose. For Thou art the

“Maker of all, the Lord,
And Ruler of the height,
Who, robing day in light, hast poured
Soft slumbers o’er the night,
That to our limbs the power
Of toil may be renew’d,
And sorrows be subdu’d.”

And then by little and little I recovered my former thoughts of Thy handmaid, her holy conversation towards Thee, her holy tenderness and observance towards us, whereof I was suddenly deprived: and I was minded to weep in Thy sight, for her and for myself, in her behalf and in my own.

Editorial Note: To avoid copyright infringement, I have used the edition of The Confessions translated by the Anglican E. B. Pusey in the nineteenth century, which is available online through Project Gutenberg. Pusey was a companion of Blessed John Henry Newman in the Anglican Oxford Movement, but did not join Newman in his famous embrace of the Catholic Faith. A link to the edition I first read and studied in 1968 or 1969, which I love for its more contemporary but extraordinarily fine translation, appears below. The translator is Rex Warner and there is an excellent historical introduction by Vernon Bourke. It is still available, but only used. Other editions featuring the same translator are available new as well, but sometimes the editors have doctored the text to suit their own theological sensibilities, and sometimes those who provide the introductions and forewords are pretty bad. It pays to check the Amazon reader reviews, which often note such problems.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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