St. Ambrose of Milan is, unsurprisingly, best remembered for his role in the conversion of St. Augustine of Hippo. Many also remember him for his humbling of the Emperor Theodosius. At Orthodox Vespers the other night, this was a recurring theme in the hymns. He is also well-remembered for the dispute surrounding the Altar of Victory.
But how many remember him as the writer of many a hymn (see the list at the CyberHymnal)?
Indeed, St. Ambrose was a hymnist. And why not? Who better to supply the people of Milan with hymns than their bishop? Especially when we consider that they didn’t really have any Latin hymns before St. Ambrose.
What? No hymns?
It seems that congregational singing — ie. everyone singing a hymn together — was an innovation in the West on the part of St. Ambrose.
Furthermore, although we have a certain amount of pre-Ambrosian Christian Latin poetry, the only hymnist who predates dear St. Ambrose is Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300-368). Not only this, but Christian Latin poetry doesn’t really start rolling until the fourth century, anyway.
Why? Because poetry is pagan, of course! No, seriously — poetry’s relationship to paganism, ribaldry, and myth gave it a certain stigma in Rome, thanks to such illustrious Romans as Plautus, Terence, Virgil, and Ovid. Oh, and Catullus. Dirty, dirty Catullus. Anyway, poetry was not associated with the sorts of things Christians liked to be associated with. Nevertheless, Christians did write poetry in the 300’s, like Juvencus’ harmony of the Gospels in epic meter.
Anyway, there weren’t very many Latin hymns to go around in St. Ambrose’s day, anyway. So he wrote a bunch and encouraged the whole congregation to sing. I imagine it must have been like Vespers the other night with Fr. Raphael singing everything alone. So here’s a hymn of Ambrose for you today, translated by Carolinne M. White in Early Christian Latin Poets:
Splendor paternae gloriae
Radiance of the Father’s glory
Bringing forth light out of light,
Light of light and source of all light,
Daylight, illuminating days,
True sun, come down upon us,
Shining with brightness eternal,
And pour forth into our minds
The Holy Spirit’s brilliance.
Let us pray to the Father, too,
Father of eternal glory,
Father of all-powerful grace,
To rid us of seductive sin
And to fill us with energy,
Blunt the tooth of the envious,
Support us in times of hardship
And give us the grace to endure.
May he guide and control our minds
In bodies pure and full of faith;
May our faith be fervent, burning strong,
Far from the poisons of deceit.
Let our nourishment be Christ,
Let our refreshment be the faith,
Let us with joy drink in the Spirit
Who inebriates us soberly.*
May this day be spent joyfully;
May our purity be like the dawn,
May our faith be like the noontide,
May our minds never know the dusk.
As dawn moves steadily on her course
May the Dawn entire advance,
In the Father the Son entire,
In the Word the Father entire.
*Albert Blaise notes this as typical of Christian Latin’s love of anithesis (Manuel du Latin Chretien)