Adrian Murdoch finds it hard to warm to Ambrose of Milan, or at least to Ambrose’s writings. And he calls Jerome to witness.
Ambrose does come across as stodgy in his addresses, but a little bit warmer in his letters and his mystagogical sermons (which were probably taken down by a scribe). Nowhere, though, is he as approachable as in Augustine’s various reminiscences and in the biography written by his secretary Paulinus. The spiritual direction Ambrose gave to Augustine and Monica is some of the best we’ll find this side of purgatory — for example, the advice usually summarized as “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” That line is usually attributed to Augustine, and it is indeed a summary of his famous Letter to Januarius. But the Bishop of Hippo was merely passing on the advice Ambrose had given to Augustine’s scrupulous mother.
Adrian’s right in saying that Ambrose was a politician — and maybe even an operator. (So was Cyril of Alexandria, to name just one other shrewd saint of the patristic era.) But it’s arguable that we needed a politically savvy bishop in that key city at that time. Ambrose had been governor of Liguria and Aemilia before he was bishop. He knew how to work with the mighty, and he knew how to work them. In his Milanese standoffs with the emperors, Ambrose set the West’s agenda for throne-altar relations. And it’s served us fairly well, preserving us, at least to some degree, from manipulation by the state. Yes, our record has been far from spotless; but not every episcopal operator is a saint, like Ambrose.
Look for more Ambrosian material at Bread and Circuses in the coming weeks, as Adrian continues his research on Gratian.