Blood: Agony & Allegory 3: Isaiah 63 in the Fathers

To see what the Fathers have to say about Isaiah 63:3, about God treading the winepress of wrath and staining his robes with the blood of his enemies, I have chosen to look at Robert Louis Wilken, The Church’s Bible, volume on Isaiah. Like IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, this is a chain of patristic passages, but Wilken also includes medieval writers, and his passages are longer. I find it easier to read than the former, and I do hope the project as a whole some day finds completion (if Wilken or someone from Eerdmans has wandered by, I volunteer myself to edit/translate a volume).

St Cyprian of Carthage writes:

In Isaiah the Holy Spirit bears witness to this same thing when he speaks of the Lord’s passion in the words: Why are your garments red, and your clothes as if from treading a full and well-trodden wine vat? (63:2). Can water make clothing red? In the wine vat is it water which is trodden by the feet and squeezed out by the press? Clearly wine is referred to here, so that by wine we may understand the blood of the Lord. What was made known later in the cup of the Lord was foretold by the proclamation of the prophets. It also mentions treading and pressing down, because one cannot prepare wine for drinking without the bunch of grapes first being trodden and pressed. In the same way we could not drink the blood of Christ if Christ had not first been trodden upon and pressed down and first drunk the cup that he would pass on for his believers to drink. (493-4)

St Cyprian has here not only confirmed Malcolm Guite’s statement that the Fathers interpret this blood to be that of Christ, he has taken us into the mysteries of God, to, in fact, the mystery of the Eucharist. The wine-dark blood on the garments is a type of the blood of Christ, which is itself the wine at the Eucharist. The life of the Church is caught up mystically in the death of Christ and rotates back to find itself prefigured in the words of the prophet.

Origen:

When they see his right hand dripping with blood — if one must speak this way — and his person covered with blood because of his valorous deeds, they inquire further: Why is your apparel scarlet, and your garments as if fresh from a full winepress that has been trampled down? (63:2) To which he answers: I trampled them (63:3). Indeed, this is why he had to wash his robe in wine and his garments in the blood of grapes (Gen 49:11). For after he bore our infirmities and carried our sicknesses (Isa 53:4), and after he took away the sin of the whole world (John 1:29) and had done so much good to so many, then he received the Baptism that is greater than any imagined by men, to which he alluded when he said: I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished! (Luke 12:50). (494)

One last (Wilken includes several other commentators), St Gregory the Great:

Long ago Isaiah looked upon the garment of Christ, which was stained with the blood of the passion on the cross, and inquired, Why are your garments red, and your clohtes as if from a trodden winepress? (63:2). To which he answered, I alone have trodden the winepress, and of the nations no man is with me (63:3). He alone trod the winepress in which he was trodden, he who by his own power conquered the passion which he endured. For he who suffered unto death on a cross (Phil 2:8) rose from the dead in glory. And rightly is it said, And of the nations no man is with me, since those on whose behalf he came to suffer ought to have shared in his passion. But, inasmuch as that time the nations had not yet come to believe, in his passion he laments those who life he sought in that passion.

So we see here Christian vision transfigured in the light of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. Many people get uneasy about the violence of the Hebrew Bible, and they feel that somehow YHWH there is incompatible with the God and Father of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Yet the transfigured vision of Who God Is, infused with a grasp of His undying love that died for us, with a realisation that God is Jesus, that God is love, that while we were still His enemies, One of the Holy Trinity was crucified and died for us — this transfigured vision sees prophecy in new light.

One of the themes of Guite’s book, Faith, Hope and Poetry, is transfigured vision. We are invited not simply to look at but to look through. Poetry draws us not to stay our eye on the surface of the glass of the window of visible reality but to pass through it to the symbolic realm beneath. The prophetic, apocalyptic, and wisdom literature of Scripture invite us to do this most especially, for in these genres the revelation of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity is made unto us in the poetic mode, through images, through symbols, through ritual acts, through symbolic acts, through utterances resonant with multiple modes of meaning and richnesses of voice.

So we look at Isaiah 63, and at first, if we want to read the Bible as Christians, we see the Rider on the White Horse of Revelation. After all, as Miroslav Volf argues in Exclusion and Embrace, knowing that God as Christ will come to judge the nations with perfect righteousness at the eschaton is what can give us power not to take vengeance now.

This reading is not wrong.

Somehow, though, the imagery of wine and blood together, and the inevitable association of the divine figure of Isaiah 63 with God the Son, lead the Fathers to see the wine and blood as Christ’s blood, in Gethsemane, on the cross, in the Eucharist.

It is a feast of imagery, plentiful with divine truths.

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You know your Isidore is ‘Pseudo-‘ when …

Hincmar of Reims

So I’m in Florence right now. In case you missed that. And for those who were envying the Cypriot weather, the buckets of rain falling from the heavens today as I shivered from San Lorenzo to the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze will make you less envious.

At the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale this afternoon, I was perusing a manuscript containing a large swath of papal letters from Clement I (d. 97) to Leo I (d. 461), with a few items from Constantine and Athanasius thrown in for good measure. I didn’t spend any time determining the veracity of the Constantinian and Athanasian documents. However, there was a clue that not all of these documents were above board. Some of the letters began with the phrase:

seruus seruorum Dei

Now, you’re probably thinking, ‘Isn’t “servant of the servants of God” how all popes start letters?’ And you’d be almost right — it’s how most popes after Gregory I start most of their letters.

Wait. Gregory I?

Wasn’t he pope from 590-604?

He sure was.

Of course, I knew there would be forgeries in this manuscript (see below). However, it can be difficult sometimes to spot a papal forgery. You see, popes all write the same. This is partly because of the extreme conservativism inherent with the office — the Pope’s job is largely to maintain the tradition, but also to interpret it for a new generation. They tended to repeat one another, for one thing. If another pope had said it, the current pope will repeat his official ruling on a subject.

However, they also all write the same because eventually they aren’t writing much at all. The papal chancery is. I mean, they’re composing the letters and overseeing the content, but notarii do the actual writing by some point in the 600s, and probably earlier. We even have a seventh-century papal chancery style guide.

But there are ways to tell. Like ‘seruus seruorum Dei‘ turning up in a pre-Gregorian papal letter. Or early popes who obsess about primates and chorepiscopi. Or a letter from a pope like Leo I or Gregory I, who actually does have his own style, that isn’t in his own style.

But how did I know to expect forgeries?

Well, I knew that this manuscript is from a body of canon-law literature ascribed to ‘Isidorus Mercator’, affectionately known as ‘Pseudo-Isidore’. That ‘Pseudo-‘ on the front is a dead giveaway!

The Pseudo-Isidorian canonical collections, which encompass canons from church councils as well as papal letters from as early as possible — and even earlier (forgeries!) — up to Gregory the Great. The collection is a clever mixture of genuine and false material, alongside genuine material that has been modified to suit the Pseudo-Isidorian forgers.

They emerged in 844 (if I remember correctly) in the context of the later Carolingian wars wherein a number of bishops (esp. Hincmar of Reims) got themselves mixed up in things and wanted to limit the power of the secular authorities over them as well as of their own metropolitan bishops. So the Pseudo-Isidorian forgeries were contrived. What makes them intriguing is the fact that they include so much genuine material, and are therefore of great importance to the transmission of authentic canon law material.

And I got to spend some time with Pseudo-Isidore today. I’ll go visit him again on Wednesday; tomorrow, I’m returning to Collectio Vaticana at the chilly Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana.

Saint of the Week: Benedict of Nursia – The Rule & Its Legacy

If you do a Google Blog search for ‘Benedict of Nursia’, you will get approx. 33,800 hits. A search of Everything gets you 221,000. St. Benedict is one of the most popular saints of western Christianity, unlike the other Italian notables covered by Pope St. Gregory’s Dialogues — so popular even in his own century that, rather than receiving a mere chapter in a Dialogue, he received an entire Dialogue devoted to his life.

Nonetheless, I have a feeling that Benedict’s popularity comes not just from his holiness of life and his miracles but mostly from his Rule, composed for the monks of Monte Cassino and the other monasteries under his care and used by the Carolingian Church as the monastic rule when they sought to regularise and standardise monasticism, a movement that went beyond the Frankish Empire and as far afield as Jarrow.

This Rule is, I believe, a fairly flexible one yet with definite structure, which is why the Carolingians chose it and why the Cistercians and their related order the Trappists (Cistercians of the Strict Observance) chose it as well. It is also used today by individual Eastern Orthodox monasteries, although they are not and have never been organised into religious orders as western monasticism.

The Rule of Benedict is so popular that I can think of seven translations off the top of my head, only one of which does not come with Latin text, as well as this online one. It is, then, one of what I like to call the “overtranslated” texts, such as Augustine’s Confessions or the Iliad or the Bible. There is so much to be said about it that the Sources Chretiennes edition is something like five volumes, despite the small size of the Rule itself.

So, what is this Rule all about? Why is it so popular?

When we consider the Rule, we have to remember that it is not born in a vacuum. Unlike Shenoute’s rule or the rule of the angel as told by Cassian, Benedict’s Rule was not the result of direct intervention from the heavenly realms. It is the product of generations of monastic life, (generations including rules by Pachomius, Augustine of Hippo, Basil of Caesarea, and the anonymous Rule of the Master as well as important monastic literature in the West, especially John Cassian’s Conferences and Institutes both of which are recommended by Benedict) combined with years of monastic experience by Benedict as anchorite and abbot.

The Rule distills much of this tradition and experience into a compendium for how to run a monastery and live in community. From the Prologue to ch. 7 (less than 1/3), Benedict discusses spiritual matters, while the rest of text is about the practical application of spiritual ideas in the monastery. Such weight of space for practical matters is not uncommon; how can one begin to explain the road to contemplation? Indeed, is not the road to Christ, holiness, and visions of glory found in the daily existence of the life of prayer and work?

This is what Benedict provides. The times and pattern for communal prayer are set out, as also are the times for work. Benedict’s monks are not like some of the other ascetics of the fifth and sixth centuries who settled on their country estates and lived the ascetic life in the villa spending all their time reading books and talking to their friends (Paulinus of Nola comes to mind). Benedict follows in the tradition of Cassian who was harshly opposed to this sort of monastic life which he viewed as soft and not a true renunciation. His monks leave behind the world, submit in utter obedience to their abbot, and live lives of hard work and hard prayer. Work is prayer and prayer is work.

A good distillation and application of the Rule‘s wisdom for today’s Christian is found in Esther de Waal’s book Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict. She invites the reader to join her and Benedict by looking the themes from the Rule about listening, stability, change, balance, material things, people, authority, and praying. The Rule helps us look at all of these things.

It also, as I learned in my first encounter with the rule in a course on Mediaeval Society at the University of Ottawa, lays down for the monks how much beer they can drink, and that wine is to be consumed only sparingly, for “too much wine can make even the wise go astray.” Even at its most practical, in those moments about shoes and tunics and drinks and food, the Rule can produce for us a brief glimpse of spiritual wisdom. Praktike and theoretike, to use the terms of the Evagrian system, are never fully divorced as we continue our lives.

Here is an example of praktike and theoretike meeting in Chapter 36, “On Sick Brothers”:

Care should be taken for the sick before all and above all, so that they should be served as indeed Christ would be, because he said himself, “I was sick and you visited me”

Even while the monks eat, they are to encounter the spiritual as they listen to readings. After Compline, when they have finished the toil of the day, they are to listen to a brother read from Cassian’s Conferences or from the Desert Fathers. The goal of the monastic life is purity of heart sought through prayer and meditation, and the Rule of Benedict provides a structure for such a life.

The legacy of the Rule is great. People really liked it, and other monasteries adopted it in the years following Benedict’s death, although there were about two dozen others in active use. As I mentioned above, due to its versatility and popularity, it was chosen by the Carolingians in the eighth century to be the basis for a standardisation of the monastic movement. It has inspired other monastic orders over the centuries and has brought spiritual benefit to those of us completely unconnected to monasteries of any sort.

As the years continue, the Rule shall continue to provide spiritual direction for those seeking an ordered life and a way of meeting Christ in the everday.

Saint of the Week: Benedict of Nursia – The Man and His Life

St. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-543) is one of the most influential figures in the western Christian spiritual heritage, due largely to his Rule which was adopted by much of Western Europe as the Church under the Carolingians and others sought to standardise and regularise the monastic movement — as a result, the Rule is the foundational document for Benedictines and Cistercians (including Trappists). Given the impact of the Rule over the centuries, we shall discuss Benedict in two sections: “The Man & His Life” and “The Rule & Its Legacy”.

The Man & His Life

Benedict was born to noble parents in Italy in the years just following the deposition of Romulus Augustulus by Odoacer, in those years where, although there was no longer an emperor in Rome (or Ravenna, for that matter), life went on in many respects much the same, except that, following Odoacer, Italy was ruled by Goths who were ostensibly under the Emperor in Constantinople, although effectively kings of Italy. Justinian’s (re?)conquest of Italy was not completed at the time of Benedict’s death — yet he still lived through turbulent times.

What follows derives largely from Pope St. Gregory the Great’s Dialogue 2, from St. Gregory’s series of lives of holy men of Italy cast as dialogues. It is available online here., although I read it in Carolinne M. White’s translation for Penguin Classics’ Early Christian Lives.

When a youth, he decided to abandon the usual route of formal secular education for fear of the pagan learning infecting his delicate brain and casting him into eternal hellfire and brimstone. If this is true, he joins the ranks of another learned sixth-century Christian figure with no pagan education, my current companion Cyril of Scythopolis. Anyway, he and his nurse went off to live holily together.

When he was old enough, this young man decided to run off and become a solitary, a hermit, an anchorite. While he was wandering in the woods, a monk named Romanus found him, and Romanus showed him to a cave where Benedict could live in secret. Unlike other secret anchorites such as we see in the Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, Benedict did not immediately draw a crowd but lived in his cave for a long while, fed by Romanus’ who gave him food from his own rations at the monastery.

Eventually, however, the cat was out of the bag, when God decided that Benedict was ready to be shown to the world, and a priest was shown in a vision where to find Benedict and to celebrate Easter with him. Thus, Benedict and the priest celebrated Easter together. Shortly thereafter, some shepherds found Benedict, having first mistaken him for a wild beast. They helped him out and came to him for spiritual comfort (this once happened to, I believe, Savvas in Palestine).

People got to hearing that there was an anchorite around who was pretty holy, and soon Benedict was in the holy man business, giving spiritual counsel and all the usual.

Eventually, the abbot of Romanus’ monastery of Vicovaro died, and the brethren there elected Benedict to be their abbot. He left behind his anchorhold and took up the spiritual leadership of this monastery. However, according to Gregory, the monks at Vicovaro were lazy and not up to living truly spiritual lives. They found the rule that Benedict produced for them to live under too stringent. Soon they were complaining, and after an attempted poisoning, Benedict left them and returned to his cave.

As often happens with famous anchorites, people seeking the holy life started to dwell in the area around Benedict. There in the wilderness he founded twelve monasteries of twelve monks each — this being the ideal number of monks in Benedict’s mind. He himself served as spiritual head of them all, much as his Palestinian contemporaries Barsanuphius and John would, holed up in their cells and never seeing a soul.

As people were taking up the spiritual life, the local priest grew jealous of Benedict and his popularity, thinking that he should be the most popular spiritual man around, so he tried various stratagems, from slander to a troupe of naked dancing girls, to ruin Benedict’s plans. All of them failed, but eventually Benedict felt it was better for all involved if he took his leave of that area. So, appointing priors to continue his work in the monastic foundations he’d made, Benedict departed.

He took up residence at Monte Cassino around 531 and founded a monastery as its abbot. It was for the community of monks gathered here at Monte Cassino that Benedict wrote his famous Rule. His first act upon arrival on Monte Cassino was the destruction of a Temple of Apollo and its grove (still in use!), the site of which he covered with a shrine to St. Martin. As in his old residence, Benedict founded more monasteries in the area as the years passed.

Throughout his life, both as an anchorite and as an abbot, Benedict is recorded to have performed many miracles. Outside of one battle with the spirit of fornication, he never seems to have had any failings, something common to saints of the Early Middle Ages — too bad, really; I like redemption stories. He also helped alleviate the sufferings of the people of Campania during famine (I wonder if the famine was due to the war btwn the Goths and “Romans”?) with great liberality despite the limited resources of the monastery. Furthermore, Benedict was involved in the conversion of many of the pagans still abroad in sixth-century Italy.

So we see that Christ sanctified his servant Benedict and demonstrated his own power through Benedict’s miracles and spiritual leadership. Indeed, the greatest reminder that Christ was with this saint lies not in the miracles, not in the visitations from Gothic kings, but in the spiritual movement that rose up around his teachings and way of life, drawing men to holiness in Benedict’s lifetime and for centuries beyond.

Despite Benedict’s many miracles, Gregory reminds us in an interchange with his interlocutor Peter that the focus of all our lives, as those of the saints, is to be on Christ:

Peter: … In my estimation, Benedict was filled with the spirit of all just men.

Gregory: Actually, Peter, Benedict the man of the Lord possessed the spirit of only one person, of Him who has filled the hearts of all the elect by granting them the grace of the redemption. John said of Him, He was the true light who illuminates every man coming into this world, and it is also written of Him, Of his fullness we have all received. For the holy men of God might possess special powers from the Lord but they could not grant them to others. (8.8-9, trans. White)

The Venerable Bede a Church Father?

You may have noticed that when St. Bede the Venerable was Saint of the Week on Wednesay that I mentioned his commentaries on Scripture being used in IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. This may seem more than a little odd, given that the Venerable Bede is, well, mediaeval.

Indeed, Bede is thoroughly and indisputably mediaeval. He was born in the 600’s and died in 735. The fiction of a Roman Empire existed in the West as Italy was nominally under the Emperor in Constantinople, but in reality the Roman Empire in the West was long gone, with no Emperor in Italy since 476. Justinian, the great codifier of Roman law and sponsor of the last flourishing of Classical art as well as the first flourishing of Byzantine art had died in 566. Barbarians had divided the West into a variety of kingdoms — Frankish, Anglo-Saxon, Visigothic, and so forth.

Bede is not ancient.

So why include him in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture?

Those, such as Thomas C. Oden, who are calling for mainline and evangelical Christians alike to rediscover the Church Fathers and “paleo-orthodoxy” usually call us to the first five centuries of consensual Christian thought. Yet even Oden, general editor of IVP’s ACCS, knows that that isn’t really enough.

AD 500 is an acceptable cut-off point for the Classical world, although I’m willing to stretch it to Justinian’s death because of how monumental his reign was and how decidedly different the map of the world was — legally, artistically, politically — be the end of his reign. Yet if we cut of the age of the Church Fathers at 500, we’re missing Second Constantinople and its very important recasting of Chalcedonian doctrine into terms a Monophysite could hopefully reconcile with.

By cutting off the Age of the Fathers at 500, in the East, we’re missing Severus of Antioch and his brilliant statements of Cyrilline Christology in the 500’s. We’re missing St. Maximus the Confessor and St. John Climacus (saint of the week here) in the 600’s — one very important for Christology, the other for mysticism East and West — and St. John of Damascus (saint of the week here) in the 700’s — very important for his defence of icons and consolidation of orthodox doctrine.

In the West, we miss St. Benedict of Nursia and St. Gregory the Great in the 500’s — one vital for the development of monasticism and spirituality in the West, the other for biblical interpretation, conversion of the Germanic peoples, and pastoral concern — as well, of course, as Boethius and Cassiodorus, also very important and very popular Christian writers of the 500’s. We have to leave out Isidore of Seville from the 600’s — important for pretty much every idea under the sun (and beyond) throughout the Middle Ages.

Perhaps a temporal designation for “Church Father” does not quite work. The Eastern Orthodox do not do this, but instead consider the Fathers as a conceptual designation, thus including St. Simeon the New Theologian (1100’s) and St. Gregory Palamas (1300’s) as Church Fathers although they stand outside the Age of the Fathers.

Nonetheless, the idea of a Church Father tends towards the early, not the late, towards the ancient, not the mediaeval.

The Church Fathers are those who men* who have left behind a written legacy that is orthodox, who had a certain holiness of life, and who were part of the formation of Christian orthodoxy. So men like the Cappadocians or St. Augustine of Hippo who have laid foundations of theology that are so important that even today’s heterodox read them to gain insight, or those like St. Benedict and the Desert Fathers and Mothers who laid the foundations for monasticism and spirituality that are so important that our vision of monasticism would have been wildly different without them are easy choices for Church Fathers.

However, there is no ancient consensus, just as there was no mediaeval consensus, no Reformation consensus, and there is no contemporary consensus. What the early mediaeval and Byzantine theologians and spiritual writers provide us is a consolidation and synthesis of the patristic legacy.

Thus we get settlements over the date of Easter, the spread of Benedictine monasticism and Augustinianism in the West as well as a certain level of liturgical systemisation. By 735, the western church was inescapably mediaeval, but without the early mediaeval synthesists, the shape of the mediaeval church and beyond would have been very different.

In the East we have a similar story with Christology, icons, hesychastic monasticism and so forth in the early Byzantine world. By 749, with the death of John of Damascus, we have a thoroughly Byzantine church in the East.

Back to the Venerable Bede. What Bede provides us is the same thing any of the other Fathers provides us. He gives us a different perspective from today’s. He provides us an insight into an older form of orthodoxy and an older way of reading Scripture. He also gives us insight into the holiness of the people who lived in the age that forged our own orthodoxy and our reading of Scripture.

So, no, Bede isn’t ancient. But I believe that Bede is a Church Father and well worth reading, especially since he is the only Englishman whom the Church of Rome recognises as a Doctor of the Church!

*The “Church Mothers”, sadly, do not exist because most women in antiquity and the Early Middle Ages did not write. Our ancient Christian female writers are Perpetua (possibly), a few of the Desert Mothers (who are not so much writers as part of an oral tradition), and Egeria who left us a travelogue of her trip to the Holy Land in the fourth century. Sadly, the other holy women of this period did not leave us a written record, despite the high level of literacy amongst many of them.

Saint of the Week: St. Ambrose of Milan

I had been tempted to continue the Scotland-related theme, but St. Ambrose’s feast was yesterday, so I couldn’t pass over this one.

If you had been in Milan in the year 390 while the August Emperor Theodosius I was there, you would have noticed something peculiar about the Emperor’s behaviour at the divine liturgy: he did not receive the sacrament.  Of course, the truly remarkable fact is that Theodosius was receiving it by Christmastide, for he had been excommunicated by Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, for massacring up to 7000 people in Thessalonica (according to Theodoret of Cyrus, but who can be sure with the figures of ancient historians?) in the middle of the year.  The rehabilitation of someone so soon after penance for so great a crime was not common in the ancient world.

St. Ambrose and Theodosius by van Dyck

This event is one of the most famous events of an illustrious career, and it shows us how powerful St. Ambrose (340-397) was, for he secured the penitence of the emperor for an act akin to what many an emperor before and after had perpetrated.

Yet when we consider the Italy of the late fourth century, then the Bishop of Milan is an easy choice for the role of ‘powerful man,’ for by this stage, the emperors were not regularly living at Rome.  Constantine had spent much of his early reign in Trier, and had later moved to Constantinople.  This trend continued with the most popular western choices falling to Milan and Ravenna.

Furthermore, the papacy in Rome, where many of us would expect to find at least a very influential bishop, was in a bit of hot water in these days.  366 had seen the great low point of the ancient bishopric of Rome, when a contested episcopal election led the deaths of around 160 people within a basilica.  It would take St. Leo the Great (read about him here and here) to raise the papacy to the heights that its dignity as a patriarchal see required.

With the papacy in disarray, and Milan one of the most powerful cities in the Empire, the rising star of St. Ambrose strikes me as almost to be expected.  This is especially the case when we consider his outstanding talents.

St. Ambrose, according to his biographer Paulinus, had no great intention of becoming an ecclesiastic.  His was a standard career for many aristocratic Romans ever since someone inscribed the Twelve Tables of Roman law (c. 450 BC): that of advocate/lawyer.  And what is a lawyer in the ancient world but a great orator?

But this orator was everyone’s choice when the see of Milan became vacant, so he reluctantly left behind the lawcourts and was duly ordained then consecrated bishop of Milan.  We know that he was well-skilled in oratory not only from the wealth of homilies he left us but also from the testimony of St. Augustine of Hippo who held the chair of rhetoric in Milan for a while, who would go to church just to hear St. Ambrose preach.

St. Augustine also demonstrates St. Ambrose’s ability to communicate the truths of the Gospel, not simply beautiful orations, for it was through this saint’s sermons that St. Augustine was converted, and it was by the Bishop of Milan that he was baptised.  For some, this is all they know of St. Ambrose of Milan.

I heard somewhere (this is officially hearsay) that upon his election to the episcopate, St. Ambrose melted down a large quantity of the Church’s flatware and gave to the poor.  If this is true, then we see his concern for the evangelical injunctions to help the poor.  Worship is not only what goes on in the liturgy.

Of course, worship certainly includes what goes on in the liturgy!  It is here that we see more of St. Ambrose’s genius, for he wrote many hymns and has a style of chant and an entire liturgical use named after him.  But more on that tomorrow.

Another aspect of Ambrose’s force and sheer awesomeness is his relentless attack on Arianism.  He preached against it; he wrote the Emperor Gratian his On the Faith concerning what orthodoxy believes; he did his best to keep Arians away from the emperors and out of bishoprics, especially after Theodosius declared orthodoxy the only orthodoxy allowed in 381.

This attitude towards Arianism and the establishment of orthodoxy is parallelled in his attitude towards pagans & Jewish people and the establishment of Christianity.  He was involved in a letter-writing campaign against Symmachus, Rome Prefect and one of the last great pagans, who wanted to reinstall the Altar of Victory in the Senate House.  Symmachus’ case may have been as much about tradition and culture as about paganism.  Ambrose’s was as much about Christianity as it was about what he believed a Christian emperor should endorse.

This question of Christian-imperial endorsement also explains his chastising of Theodosius regarding the emperor’s shelling out coin for the rebuilding of a synagogue.  This was not a matter of ‘Jews are bad; don’t do stuff for Jews,’ as so much else in the ancient Christian world was, but, rather, a matter of, ‘Jews aren’t Christians.  You are a Christian emperor.  The role of the Christian emperor is to build churches, not synagogues.’  One could argue with that logic, but it was a logic informed by religion and an increasingly Christianised sense of civic duty rather than by racism.*

Ambrose was a man of many talents: an orator, a poet, a politician, a lawyer, a liturgist, a letter-writer, a theologian.  He was able to bring the emperor to repentance.  He was able to convert pagan philosophers.  He truly belongs with the other three ancient doctors of the western church, with St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Jerome, and St. Gregory the Great.

*There are explicit cases of racism in late-ancient Christianity.  Or at least, the closest thing the ancient world gets to racism, given that their concept of ‘race’ is not the same as ours.

Saint of the Week: St. Augustine of Canterbury

For those still curious about the doings of the Classic Christian Reading Group, this past week we read Bede’s account of St. Augustine, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People Book 1, chh. 23-26, par. 1 of 27, 29, 31, 33, 34; Book 2, Chh. 2, 3.

In the year of Our Lord 596, Pope St. Gregory the Great, Doctor of the Church, sent missionaries to the island of Britain to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxon peoples dwelling there.  At the head of this expedition was the abbot (for the missionaries were monastics) Augustine (not of Hippo).  As these Italian missionaries got closer to the English Channel, they wavered in their commitment.  Why on earth were they going amongst a barbarian people who did not worship the Most Holy Trinity, did not honour the name of Christ, had strange customs, and spoke a language they did not even know?

They sent Augustine back to Gregory in Rome, but Gregory would hear none of it, but instead exhorted them not to turn back having put their hand to the plough, for it would have been better never to have started at all than to have chickened out in Gaul (France) — a common piece of advice to ancient and mediaeval monks and missionaries.

Strengthened by Pope Gregory’s words, they crossed over to the island of Thanet and made their presence known to Ethelbert, King of Kent.  Ethelbert went over and met them, allowing them to stay on the island for a while until he was certain of their motives.  Ethelbert’s wife was a Frankish princess named Bertha and herself a Catholic Christian (this is in distinction to Arian Vandals or Goths), so he had some knowledge of the faith.

Once King Ethelbert was convinced the were of good intent, the missionaries were given an old church in Canterbury to operate from.  Although he did not wish to convert at first, since it is a big deal to turn away from the customs and beliefs of one’s ancestors, Ethelbert saw no harm in allowing the Christians to preach among his people, allowing the people of Kent to believe as they chose.  If we consider the attitude of a good many Christian princes and bishops at this point in time, King Ethelbert’s tolerance is outstanding.

The missionaries lived together in monastic simplicity, sharing everything in common, and providing a stipend to the married missionaries who seem to have been involved in the project.  Their simplicity of life, miraculous signs, and clarity of preaching won many souls from among the English.  Canterbury became the seat of episcopal power in Kent, and remains the see city for the Church of England to this day.  Before long, King Ethelbert converted and was baptised, giving even greater freedom of movement to the missionaries both to preach and to restore old Roman churches that had fallen into disuse during the centuries of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of the old province of Britannia.

Augustine was accordingly consecrated bishop in Arles, the nearest major episcopal seat.  Now that he was a bishop and the growth of the Church amongst the English was a more secure reality, he wrote to Pope Gregory about various questions concerning the life and order of the Church as it would become established in its new home, as well as questions surrounding the life and practice of the bishop.  Notable amongst St. Gregory’s replies to St. Augustine’s questions was the following encouragement:

… if you have found customs, whether in the Church of Rome or of Gaul or any other that may be more acceptable to God, I wish you to make a careful selection of them, and teach the Church of the English, which is still young in the Faith, whatever you have been able to learn with profit from the various Churches.  For things should not be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things.  (Bede, Ecclesiastical History 1.26, trans. Shirley-Price, p. 79)

Such an attitude would seem shocking to people reared on Reformation myths of mediaeval Christianity, or with the knowledge of Charlemagne’s attempts at making all liturgy and practice uniform in the eighth century.  Yet this is not so surprising if we consider the vast world of ancient Christianity which spread from Ireland to Mesopotamia and even India and included various cultures.  There was and is much similarity among the traditional liturgies, be they Roman, Gallican, Byzantine, Coptic, Syrian, and so forth, but with flexibility for local variation.

According to one book I read, this embracing of the good from both the Roman and Celtic practices is what helped shape and form the Use of Sarum, the particular liturgy in use in England until the Reformation.  No doubt it was less florid in St. Augustine’s day.

This willingness to take what is good from the pre-existing culture is demonstrated in the evidence that remains of Anglo-Saxon Christianity as established by men like Augustine and Cuthbert and as it stood until the coming of the Frenchified Viking Normans in 1066.  For example, the Anglo-Saxon Lindisfarne Gospels demonstrate an artistic aesthetic that stands proudly beside the Celtic art of the Book of Kells.  Many of the considerations and prayers we find from the Saxons resonate with those we find amongst the monks of Iona.

Although there was some clash between the Roman missionary enterprise from the South and East and the Celtic from the North and West, much of what the modern Celtic movement in Christianity treasures existed within Anglo-Saxon Christianity as well.

However, the encounters between St. Augustine and the Celts were not all afternoon tea and crumpets.  The Celtic Church was not following the same date for Easter as the rest of the Church (ie. the Church from Spain and France to Mesopotamia, from Germany to Ethiopia), and they had their own monastic system.  St. Augustine tried to force the Celtic Christians to accept the universal date for Easter and to adopt Roman (ie. Benedictine) monastic practices.  They refused; many were slain by an Anglo-Saxon pagan king years later.  Bede attributes their deaths to their refusal to submit to St. Augustine.

As St. Augustine’s mission grew, he consecrated bishops in London and Rochester.  Many of the English became Christians during this time, and because of King Ethelbert’s conversion, many people with senior positions within the realm adopted Christianity or were promoted because they were Christians.  Ethelbert did not force his people to convert, maintaining his previous openness to people of other beliefs.

In 604, St. Augustine died.  The Church he helped found spread throughout all of England, and those worshipping communities have their successors amongst the worldwide Anglicans as well as English Roman Catholics.  A great harvest has been reaped, to glory of God Almighty.