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from issue no. 07 - 2003

Th heart he had. The umanity of Saint Ambrose

The sermon given by Montini, as Archbishop of Milan, in the basilica of Saint Ambrose on 7 December 1959, on the occasion of the feast of the patron saint

by Giovanni Battista Montini

Paul VI

Paul VI

Master of good feeling
One of the aspects which should reward our devotion to Saint Ambrose is his human sensibility.
Because it brings him close to us, makes him more comprehensible to us, allows us in some way to measure ourselves with him. The knowledge of Saint Ambrose, from this aspect, easily becomes a liking. Once again, in our hagiographic cult, we are aware of the man, and as a consequence love the saint. His story becomes psychology; and psychology leads us to a common experience, to man eternally equal, in his essential elements, to himself and therefore to us. What Saint Ambrose has of greatness and of exceptional, and therefore well beyond our measure, when considered in the context of his psychology, does not distance us anymore, but invites us instead to communicate with him, to understand him, to love him. The historical picture does not make us strangers to his life, does not strain us in our reconstructing and understanding of him, but simply serves us as background and framework; what interests us is him, his spirit and heart. Thus the richness of his teaching, which still furnishes the thought of the Church and the culture of the learned, does not threaten our simplicity as inexpert disciples; but it gives us pleasure that, even without knowing it, it bestows credit on the richness of his sensibility.
I won’t now take time to explain with the proper tools of analysis what we then mean by sensibility. It is enough for us to think of it in its current meaning as the affective apprehension of things, of facts and also of one’s own consciousness and of one’s own conscience; it is an instinctive and primitive evaluation of what falls on to the screen of our experience, and which is registered more by psychic emotions rather than by rational judgments. So perceived, so it expresses itself, more through affective than through logical language; it precedes thought, and if it expresses it, it clothes it in lyrical, artistic, emotive language. As precedent to and inferior to reason, it is the easier and more accessible; we say more human, not to take away from reason its prerogative of giving man his essential definition, but because shared by all, even those who are not trained in the art of thinking and logical expression, and because in all, in infants, in the weak, it is the primary index of a personal life. As consequent on reason, however, in the attempt to cross borders that reason barely touches on, sensibility dares to understand the inexpressible, makes song, music, poetry, mysticism. And when, from the stimulus that has provoked it, sensibility turns to the subject who experiences it, it becomes feeling; and affection is the return to the object on which feeling poses. Known things.
Things known, things about men today, who are in a phase of reaction against rationality. They keep enough of it to serve for the elaborations of science, but for the rest, to construct the light of life that is, there is no trust in reason. Experience, and therefore sensibility, are preferred to rationality; and where an authentic sensibility pulses we feel that we have reached an authentic truth. We should discuss this subject at length, and rectify much; but let us content ourselves now with observing how the modern preference for the sensibility finds some arguments, if not of kinship, at least of use, in the great soul of Ambrose. Often our tendency towards sensible experience deprives itself of critical judgment and moral guidance; often it exalts instinct and demotes thought; often it leans towards inhuman exaggerations such as anguish, madness, boredom, the nausea of many modern existentialists; often it degrades itself in shameful turpitude, of which - alas! - literature and entertainment today are brazenly greedy.
Saint Ambrose can be a teacher of good feeling for us. This is humanism. Yes, it was a legacy which came to him from the classics, and which, Christianity, compiling the inventory of the human values of Greco-Roman civilization, knew how to select and make its own. Virgil, for example, was master for Saint Ambrose even before he was for Dante. From him, for example, he drew much of his capacity to perceive the beauties of nature. In Ambrose “reminiscences present themselves as natural support to an ornate and robust way of expressing himself; perhaps it is also thought, without difficult references, defined in itself by those same memories”.1
In his most important exegetical work, the Hexaemeron, the description of creatures is continuous and highly wrought, and though the natural knowledge of things had importance for Ambrose only in their reference to God and for the teachings of God which are reflected in them, nevertheless he “describes in a splendid fashion the creatures he talks about: heaven and earth and sea and stars and plants and animals, together with their phenomena and the physical questions that come with them. So much so that his work was soon taken as a true, and one could say the best natural history of its time”. 2
And there is a spiritual comment on everything, a moral teaching: the birds “are for us a great spur to devotion. In fact, which of us who has human sense, is not ashamed to conclude the day without reciting the Psalms, when the birds, even the smallest of them, greet the beginning of the days and the nights with great devotion and sweet song?”. 3
But it takes too much time to pick out quotations. One tempts me: it is that of the magnificent acclamation of water which we find in the commentary on the Gospel of Saint Luke,4 and which is echoed in the Roman Pontificals, when the so called Gregorian waters for the consecration of churches are blessed, and is heard again in the great preface for the blessing of the font in the Ambrosian rite on Holy Saturday: “O water, which has merited being sacrament of Christ, you who wash everything and are not washed! O water, who constrained in the mountains, does not remain shut in, who crashing against rocks does not shatter, who absorbed by the earth, is not dispersed!”.
One must not forget that Ambrose is a man of letters. He absorbed deeply the school of the word of his time, rhetoric and eloquence, the art, that is, of speaking well, with propriety and elegance. In him, as in Saint Jerome, this is style, not artifice, not affectation; it is mannered but is not laziness; exigency of form, of which he was not to rid himself even when the feeling should show itself heedless of verbal effects so as to yield itself completely to conceptual ones. The incomparable spontaneity of Saint Augustine was to achieve that. In Saint Ambrose also, however, form was not to prevail over the content, even if it is always studied, a little sought after and too polished at times.
And that the mind of Saint Ambrose had notes capable of moving others one sees from his own emotivity. He cried easily. And not only is the bishop’s unarmed defense against the armed bullying of his adversaries testimony of this (“lacrimae meae arma sunt; talia enim munimenta sunt sacerdotis”: my tears are my arms; such are the defenses of a bishop); but also because he was immediately moved to sympathy…
But still more than sensibility towards nature, he has it towards human things. One who formed a concept of Saint Ambrose from the episodes which made him celebrated for his fortitude, or from the writings which give the idea of him as a scholar rather inclined to allegorical transpositions of the scriptural texts, would miss full knowledge of him: he was not an authoritarian or severe man; energetic and intrepid, yes, but full of human understanding and goodness. Indeed he makes goodness the mother of all the virtues: “omnes virtutes bonitas tamquam mater fecunda amplectitur”. 5 And he made a program of goodness for himself and for his priests: “First of all” – he writes in the book De Officiis – “it is necessary to know that nothing is so useful as being loved, and nothing is so useless as not being loved” and therefore we try “before everything else to influence through serenity of mind and goodness of spirit the good dispositions of men. Goodness, in fact, is dear to people and pleases all, and there is nothing that penetrates more into human feelings”.6 And that goodness was in him a virtue even more evident than his gravity, wherewith his personality is so strongly marked, his manner of dealing and speaking tells us: it was no accident that the honeycomb became his symbol 7, and Saint Augustine always remembered the loving way he was received on coming to see Ambrose in Milan, when he was immediately enchanted by his sweet talk. 8
It was the language of the pastor. And, as we know, Ambrose was pastor in an excellent manner, so much so as to become in the following centuries a model of this charity aimed entirely at understanding, at helping, at caring for, at teaching, at correcting whoever entered into the sphere of his encounters.
Ambrose was a man of magnanimous heart, and of immense love, which emerges in countless references, he loved the Church. When he speaks of it he vibrates with enthusiasm. And he loved the Empire, as magistrate, as bishop, we know. He loved the people: who does not remember the generosity with which he sold the sacred vessels of his churches to ransom prisoners from the barbarians after the Roman defeat at Adrianopolis?. “Better to preserve the chalices of living men than those of metal”,9 he was later to write, recalling the event. The Church loses nothing when charity gains. And for the poor he uses tones warm with tenderness, just as he addressed vehement words at the spendthrift and egoistical rich of his time.
Then the virgins: in the fourth century the garden of the Church, already rich with a sanctity lived secretly, began to flower luxuriantly with souls attracted by the ideal of Christian perfection; asceticism offered to the first generous followers an incipient but rigorous discipline in every sphere, and in the ranks of female adolescents, already devastated by the relentless dissoluteness of paganism, a reviving force of spirituality, of austerity and of purity flowed: like sparks of a new light, angelic souls began pricking through and then embroidering the corrupt social fabric. Ambrose, the grave, the solemn, was a man with a soft fatherly heart; and though still hesitant with humility and inexperience and also because he was still quite young, wrote his first book dedicated to the training of virgins: “Perhaps someone”, he writes, “will marvel that I dare to write, I who don’t even know how to speak”.10 But this reached his character well, so much so that four other works (and perhaps five), again dedicated to virgins, came from his heart and pen, writings of pastoral wisdom, celebrated for centuries in the Christian West, spontaneous impressions of his most gentle spirit.

His tears
And that the mind of Saint Ambrose had notes capable of moving others one sees from his own emotivity. He cried easily. And not only is the bishop’s unarmed defense against the armed bullying of his adversaries testimony of this (“lacrimae meae arma sunt; talia enim munimenta sunt sacerdotis”: my tears are my arms; such are the defenses of a bishop); but also because he was immediately moved to sympathy.11 His biographer Paulinus recounts that when someone came to him to declare himself guilty and to submit himself to penance, Ambrose “cried so, that the penitent was also led to cry”.12 And one sees that emotion was so natural to Ambrose, that he attributes it also to joy: “Habet et laetitia lacrimas suas”, joy also has its tears.13
And likewise the tears flowed when the news of the death of one of his priests was brought to him; those priests whom he said he loved no less for having generated them in the Gospel than if they were his own natural sons.14 And at the thought of the benefits received from Christ, almost a cry escaped him: “Vae mihi, si non dilexero!” woe to me if I do not love.15
And so much richness of feeling was to have innumerable and delightful expressions towards individuals; towards every class of person. He was touched by the cough of the child Faustinus as he exclaimed in his funeral oration for the Emperor Theodosius, the Emperor whom Ambrose had three times made submit to Christian and human change of herat: “I loved this man!”.16 He was teacher to two young emperors, whom he loved as sons: Gratian, first of all, for whom he wrote the books on the Faith and on the Holy Spirit; Valentinian II afterwards, for whose death he wrote an elegy, full of sadness and tenderness: a small sample, almost Ciceronian, of his delicacy of mind. To his friend Felix, the Bishop of Como, he sent a note full of affectionate courtesy: “You sent me mushrooms of rare size. Part of them I gave to my friends and part I kept for myself. The gift was undoubtedly a pretty on, but it is not equal to your visit…behave in such a way that your absence always displeases me, since the reason for my complaint is the affection with which I want you here”. 17
He was friend to many, a friend of great heart and great loyalty. What is left to us of his correspondence provide magnificent proof of it.
And then, we know, he was an matchless brother. Marcellina and Satyrus are historical characters because of all we are told about them by Ambrose, most tender brother, most devoted brother. The famous letter to Marcellina (the twentieth of the first collection) is a historical document of the first order. And the two funeral orations which Ambrose delivered on the death of Satyrus are so famous as to make a family event one of the classic examples of the literature on human affections, and to characterize not only the figure of the splendid brother who died at the start of the episcopacy of Ambrose, when he still had great need of him, but to reveal to us the deep human psychology of our saint. Perhaps oratorical emphasis somewhat tips the bishop’s emotional speech into the rhetorical afflatus proper to the time, but here however he shows himself and grieves with the unchallengeable sincerity of a humble man: “You were the only one who helped me in the house, were decorousness outside,” he exclaimed addressing his dead brother. “You were judge in counsel. You participated in my work. You softened the bitterness of loneliness. You banished my sadness. You were the witness of my life, the defense of my projects ….”.18 One has to come perhaps to the most sentimental saint we know, Bernard, to find similar tones when his brother Gerard died.
…His biographer Paulinus recounts that when someone came to him to declare himself guilty and to submit himself to penance, Ambrose “cried so, that the penitent was also led to cry”. And one sees that emotion was so natural to Ambrose, that he attributes it also to joy: “Habet et laetitia lacrimas suas”, joy also has its tears
But why am I considering our great patron from a point of view which seems to lower him to our level as people who feel, who love, who cry in human fashion? First of all, because that’s how he was. He comes across to his children so. He also wanted to be known and approached as such. And then there is, let me say, our affectionate family cult. If we venerate Ambrose from other standpoints as teacher and bishop, as hero and poet, from this one we feel him father, we feel him friend.
And we learn a lesson in humanity from him, one which we have need of today. Sensibility clearly can’t be the guide to life but it can be an enrichment of life, and can give it a fullness which often so many of our scientific, technical, professional activities wither and deny. And if sensibility is eased back into the channel of the good life, then it too is good, and gives human strength to thought and action. Art is aware of this. A pity that it too often tempts it and leads it astray into the impasse of instinct and passion. While it can be employed magnificently for the religious and spiritual life also. We can place Saint Ambrose among those masters of the spirit who have made the most of affective love in Christian education, which is not stoical, is not cynical, is not vulgar. But strong and gentle, of perfect and weak humanity. He did not hesitate to appeal to the example of Christ. With an expression of winning beauty and extraordinary effectiveness he echoes a simple and moving phrase of the Gospel which gives us Jesus in front of Lazarus’ tomb: Jesus wept. Ambrose adds: Jesus also wept, “Lacrimavit et Dominus!”.19 Jesus, companion in our human frailty, teaches us, and Ambrose with Him, how to cry, how to enjoy, how to love.
And looking at Saint Ambrose from this aspect brings to mind the famous lines of Dante, which we can apply to him and to us:
“and if the world knew the heart he had ….
….much it praises him and would praise him even more”.20

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