A Poem of St. Ambrose

Given that today is the Feast of St. Ambrose of Milan (Saint of the Week here), a man whose hymnody we have discussed in the past, here is a Christmassy/Advently hymn for your enjoyment. The translation is mine, based on the text of Early Latin Hymns (ed. A. S. Walpole for Cambridge Patristic Texts, 1922: pp. 35-39).

It is known by first line as ‘Splendor Paternae Gloriae’:

Splendour of the Father’s glory,
bringing forth light from light,
light of light and source of brightness,
the brightening day of days,

and true Sun slide in,
gleaming with eternal brilliance,
and radiance of the Holy Spirit
pour into our senses.

 

With prayers let us also call the Father—
the Father of eternal glory,
the Father of mighty grace—
that he may remove the deceitful blame,

that he may shape our actions of vigour,
dullen the teeth of the grudging one,
favourably guide harsh occurrences,
bestow the grace of carrying things through,

guide the mind and rule it
with a chaste, faithful body;
may faith be inflamed with heat,
may it not know the poisons of fraud.

And may Christ be food for us,
and may faith be our drink;
happy, may we drink the sober
inebriation of the Spirit.

May this happy day come to pass,
may modesty exist as the dawn,
faith like the noonday,
and may the mind not know the dusk.

Dawn pulls the chariot,
may the complete dawn come,
the Son complete in the Father,
and the Father complete in the Word.

St. Ambrose and hymnody

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)

Tap into the Tradition: The Remedy for “Matthewism”

As may be known, I have a habit of listening to Ancient Faith Radio and reading Eastern Orthodox books (the most recent being Being As Communion).  The Eastern Orthodox are a voice worth listening to, and one of the main reasons they are worth listening to is because they, in turn, listen to the Fathers.  They are, thus, deeply traditional, preserving that which has been handed down to them.

Frederica Mathewes-Green, one of the many Orthodox converts on Ancient Faith Radio, says:

I realized that my selections [in my spiritual life] were inevitably conditioned by my own tastes, prejudices, and blind spots. I was patching together a Frankenstein God in my own image, and it would never be taller than five foot one. (Quoted here.)

This is the Christianised version of the religion cited by Miroslav Volf in Exclusion and Embrace of “Sheilaism” — whatever you feel like believing, however you feel like worshipping, however you feel like living is what comprises your worldview, religion, and lifestyle.

What Mathewes-Green discovered in Orthodoxy was the corrective of tradition.  We all have our idiosyncrasies that we bring to how we think and live, and as Christians we have them when we approach Scripture and worship.  Tradition is the accumulation of what has been handed down from the Apostles and generally approved of in each generation.  It challenges our presuppositions and idiosyncrasies, sometimes very uncomfortably, but when entered into prayerfully, the Spirit will use it to conform us more and more into the image of Christ rather than the accumulation of stuff and culture and self that we bring with us to begin with.

I decided that, while Orthodoxy is interesting and all, I already have a tradition of my own, and it sprang up in England around 596 with the arrival of St. Augustine of Canterbury.  To ensure that I actually am part of this tradition, I recently re-read the 39 Articles of Religion, and I find myself in agreement with them.  So, besides reading the 39 Articles, what am I to do to engage with the Anglican tradition in all its richness?

1.  I have decided to plug into the Book of Common Prayer more frequently, using Morning & Evening Prayer and Compline, but also on occasion the Anglican Society of Saint Francis’ Celebrating Common Prayer for the divine office.  The daily office is an important part of traditional English spirituality.  It is a way to pray to and draw near to God while at the same time joining with believers within the tradition throughout the world and throughout time.

2.  I want to read the classics of the Anglican moral/ethical tradition.  This will first mean finishing off William Law’s Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, but moving on to Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and John Wesley’s Plain Account of Christian Perfection.  This aspect of the tradition includes both virtuous living and the call to social justice, both of which are part of the endless movement towards holiness and perfection (on this endless movement, see St. Gregory of Nyssa).

3.  The Anglican tradition also includes the English Reformers, so the Book of Homilies and Richard Hooker at large are to be part of my long-range plan, as is Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

4.  The Anglican tradition has a large component of hymnody worth exploring, and since I have 3 copies of Canada’s 1938 Hymn Book, I am well-prepared for this angle.  Alongside hymnody are the poets — Donne, Herbert, et al.

5. The pre-Reformation English tradition, from St. Augustine of Canterbury to the Venerable Bede to St. Anselm to Lady Julian of Norwich and more is part of the tradition as well.  I think a study of the mediaeval roots of “Reformation” thought would be a worthy activity.  Despite the arguments over the date of Easter and monasticism, mediaeval English Christianity tried to adapt local Celtic customs as part of their own, thus making “Celtic” Christianity also fair game.

6.  Patristics is fair game, being the root of much mediaeval Christian thought as well as much Reformation thought.  The Fathers are the Fathers of all Christendom, not just the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox bits.

7.  The theologians other than the Reformers, up to the present day.  The emphasis on Tradition means that, while I should probably grapple with the likes of Spong, Ingham, and more, my emphasis should fall on the Wesleys, the Anglo-Catholics/Oxford Movement, C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, J.I. Packer, John Stott, and their ilk.

The above should probably last me until I’m dead.  Re those within Anglicanism who are divergent voices of dissent who attack and judge the tradition, I believe that the way to approach them is to look at them through the lens of the tradition, taking those bits that fall beyond the bounds of Scripture, the Creeds, and the 39 Articles, and providing cogent, reasonable, biblical, and traditional critique.

What about your tradition?  What are the roots and classic writings of Baptists, Mennonites, the Christian Reformed Church, Roman Catholicism, Pentecostalism?  With these in one hand, the Bible in the other, large doses of prayer, and the enlivening of the Holy Spirit, we should be more clearly drawn towards the image of the likeness of Christ than when our own idiosyncrasies take control as we read our Bibles all alone in our rooms.  Oh, also, take along a worshipping ecclesial community for the journey.  God will use them to shape you mightily as well.