The Bizarre Life of St. Ambrose, Doctor of the Church
By Jean M. Heimann
Today is the memorial of St. Ambrose, one of the most illustrious Fathers and Doctors of the Church. He was one of the four original Doctors of the Latin Church and the bishop who baptized St. Augustine. His life story is fascinating and even a bit bizarre.
Ambrose was born into a noble family around 340 in Trier, Germany. As a young man, he went to Rome and began a career in law and politics. He later became the Imperial governor of Northern Italy. He was a man who seemingly had it all – a fruitful career as a lawyer, an influential position as governor of Milan, and a large estate. What more could a man ask for?
God had something else in mind for Ambrose. When the bishop of Milan died in 374, a fierce fight erupted between the Catholics and the Arians over his replacement. Ambrose intervened and the people were so impressed with the way he handled the situation that they demanded that be made their bishop, although he was only a catechumen and had not even been baptized yet. He resisted, explaining that he was not worthy. However, they continued to insist that Ambrose serve as their bishop. But Ambrose had no desire to be bishop, so he went into hiding. When the Emperor Valentinian heard of this, he set severe penalties on anyone who would provide shelter to Ambrose. This forced Ambrose to come out of hiding and to accept his ordination as bishop.
Approximately one week later, Ambrose was baptized, ordained a priest, and consecrated a bishop all within a short period of time. He immediately changed his life and began studying prayer, Scripture and theology. He gave away all his money and possessions to the poor. His spirituality deepened and he became known as a brilliant preacher, Biblical scholar, and a writer of liturgical hymns.
The Arians thought Ambrose would side with them and become their bishop because he had been a member of court and many in government were Arians. However, Ambrose used his skills as a lawyer and orator to defeat the Arians in church, court, senate, and even the emperor’s own family. The same obstinacy that had made him refuse the position in the first place was now his weapon in fighting heresy and pursuing holiness. He was a dauntless warrior against paganism and the Arians.
St. Ambrose died on Holy Saturday (April 4) in the year 397 AD. His feast day in the Roman calendar is December 7, the day he was ordained bishop.
Quotes of St. Ambrose
“There is no time of life past learning something.”
“No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks. Neither angel, nor archangel, not yet even the Lord Himself (who alone can say ‘I am with you’), can, when we have sinned, release us, unless we bring repentance with us”.
“The Church of the Lord is built upon the rock of the apostles among so many dangers in the world; it therefore remains unmoved. The Church’s foundation is unshakable and firm against assaults of the raging sea. Waves lash at the Church but do not shatter it. Although the elements of this world constantly beat upon the Church with crashing sounds, the Church possesses the safest harbor of salvation for all in distress. There is a stream which flows down on God’s saints like a torrent. There is also a rushing river giving joy to the heart that is at peace and makes for peace.”
Contemplating the wounds of Christ, by which we have been saved, St. Ambrose said, “I can revel in none of my deeds, I have nothing to boast about; therefore, I will glory in Christ. I will not glory because I am just, but I will glory because I have been redeemed. I will not glory because I am exempt from sins, but I will glory because my sins have been forgiven. I will not glory because I have been a help nor because someone has helped me, but because Christ is my advocate with the Father, and Christ’s blood was poured out on me. My sin has become for me the price of the Redemption through which Christ came to me. For my sake, Christ tasted death. Sin is more profitable than innocence. Innocence had made me arrogant, sin made me humble.”
Prayer That We May Seek God and Find Him
Lord, teach me to seek you, and reveal yourself to me when I seek you. For I cannot seek you unless you first teach me, nor find you unless you first reveal yourself to me. Let me seek you in longing and long for you in seeking. Let me find you in love, and love you in finding.
~ St Ambrose of Milan, Bishop, Writer, Doctor