Today the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Ambrose (337-397 A.D.), Doctor of the Church, Bishop of Milan, confessor to St. Augustine, and friend to St. Augustine’s mother, St. Monica. For many of us in the present day, St. Augustine is someone whose life story often resonates because, as most Christians know, he led a rather hedonistic lifestyle before his conversion to Christianity at the age of 32. Yet we ought not to forget the example of St. Ambrose, who patiently waited for his friend to come around to the right way of living, when many others might have given up long before. St. Ambrose’s life reminds us that we should never refrain from calling a spade a spade, when we see our friend doing something wrong, but at the same time we should be patient, and keep in mind that a change for the better is not only always possible, but also that we never know what good our friend might achieve if and when they do get on the right path.
As most of my readers undoubtedly know, St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) lived during a time period when paganism was still very much around, and many people felt free to practice a hedonistic lifestyle. The worse among these persons saw no problem with treating other human beings as objects for their own pleasure or utility; the more moderate took the stance that, so long as they were not harming anyone else, their actions were morally good, or at least morally neutral. Sound familiar, gentle reader?
During his youth and early adulthood, St. Augustine had many experiences with prostitutes, including a particular mistress he kept for well over a decade, whom he never married and who bore him a son. On the urging of his mother, he left this mistress to enter into an arranged marriage with a girl considerably younger than he was. In the meantime he picked up another mistress to tide him over while he was waiting two years for his bride-to-be to come of age so that he could legally marry her. However, he subsequently ended both of these relationships as he underwent his conversion to Christianity. It would have seemed amazing to someone who knew St. Augustine prior to his conversion that he would have voluntarily left that lifestyle, given how much he clearly enjoyed it.
Although I am not a member of Opus Dei – I do not like to join things as a rule – one of the sayings of its founder, St. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, has always resonated with me, whenever I find myself despairing of a friend who seems to be headed in the wrong direction, with eternal implications to their behavior. In No. 675 of his highly influential book, “The Way”, St. Josemaria writes that we cannot assume that someone who is on the wrong path, living in sin, is always going to stay that way. “It’s true that he was a sinner,” he writes. “But don’t pass so final a judgment on him. Have pity in your heart, and don’t forget that he may yet be an Augustine, while you remain just another mediocrity.”
Of course, St. Ambrose was no slouch, as it turned out. He was a very active and successful bishop and theologian, who made a profound impact on the history of Christianity. As a result, he brought many people to the Faith, with St. Augustine being perhaps the most famous of them. St. Augustine writes the following in his famous spiritual autobiography, “Confessions”, about the first time he went to hear St. Ambrose give a sermon which started to change his mind about the Church. He had gone along only out of curiosity, because St. Ambrose had a reputation for being a great thinker and public speaker, but what happened at that mass would have a tremendous impact not just on St. Augustine himself, but on the history of the Western World:
Alongside his language, which I admired, the subject matter also, to which I had been indifferent, began to enter my mind. Indeed, I could not separate one from the other. And as I opened my heart and recognized how eloquently [Ambrose] was speaking, it occurred to me at the same time – though this realization came on gradually – how much truth he was speaking. First, I started to see that the points he made were defensible. I had thought that nothing could be said for the Catholic faith…but now it appeared to me that this faith could be upheld on the grounds of reason — especially when I had heard one or two passages in the Old Testament explained in their symbolism which, when I had taken them literally, had been like death to me. I was pleased that the Old Testament of the Law and the Prophets was set before me in such a way that I could now read in a different spirit from how I had previously, when I used to criticize [God's] holy ones for holding to various opinions which, clearly, they never held at all. And I was also happy when I heard Ambrose emphatically recommend this Scripture passage as a rule of thumb: ‘For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’.
From this point on, of course, after debating with St. Ambrose and others, St. Augustine is on the path. He goes on to write some of the most influential spiritual books in the history of Christianity, to become an influential bishop, and to inspire countless Christian souls down the centuries. While something of an over-simplification, if you do not have St. Augustine, then you do not have the end of classical paganism, the beginning of the Middle Ages, or later the writings of theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas and their influence in leading up to the Renaissance. And all of this, because St. Ambrose took the time to talk with St. Augustine and be his friend.
Perhaps, gentle reader, you may not be possessed of as towering an intellect as St. Ambrose of Milan was widely reported to have had – I for one am certainly not so gifted. Yet like St. Ambrose all of us are confronted with people in our lives whom we feel drawn to making our friends, but are simultaneously repulsed by because of some aspect of the way they behave. If as great a man as St. Ambrose did not shy away from trying to help his friend St. Augustine find the right path, then surely we should not turn our backs on our friends who need our example of love, friendship, and charity as well.