Stories of Saints and Martyrs - Jetta S. Wolff

St. Ambrose of Milan

April 4; A.D. 397

St. Ambrose was the youngest of the three children of Ambrosius, Prefect of Treves under the Gauls. Theirs was a Christian family, and from the days of their earliest childhood till parted by death, the two brothers and the sister remained tenderly attached to each other.

It happened one summer day that the little child Ambrose was lying asleep in his cot in the court of his father's palace, when a swarm of bees came towards him, settled on the face of the ruddy baby boy, and flew in and out of the child's open mouth. The nurse in a panic of fear was about to make war upon the bees, but just at that moment the father, mother, and little ten years old sister came by.

"Do not touch them!" cried the father. He knew, no doubt, that if the bees were made angry they would be sure to sting the child very badly. Also there was a common notion that the swarming of bees in a house or on a person was a good omen. Anxiously the parents stood by the cradle of their still sleeping boy, but the father forbade any movement that might disturb the swarm. Very soon the bees flew up high in the air, so that they were no longer to be seen; the child was unhurt, and the father said, "My boy will be something great."

The little Marcellina heard the words, and they took deep root in her young sisterly heart. Their father died while the children were still young, and we read of Marcellina helping her mother in the care of her little brothers, who were both some years younger than she was; and as Ambrose grew up she never ceased to hold before him the high ideal she had formed of what he should one day become. Later the young girl took the veil as a Sister of Mercy, devoting herself to acts of charity in the service of GOD; but for some years all four, the two brothers, Marcellina, and their mother, lived together at Rome, where they went after the father's death, and where the boys carried on their studies.

They were a happy and united Christian family. Ambrose always looked up to Marcellina, and called her his "holy, venerable sister." At Rome they met with people of all kinds. The city was still in great part pagan; temples for the worship of the gods were on every side, and among their friends the family of St. Ambrose counted many who were not Christians. But they kept firm in their own faith, and they were always held in high esteem in Rome and throughout all Italy.

By-and-by an office under government was given to Ambrose. The Emperors lived at Milan at this time, and there affairs of State were carried on; so quite early in his life Ambrose was sent to that city, which to this day honours him as the patron saint of the town and of all the country near. In the grand old city itself and in the little villages for miles round, St. Ambrose of Milan is spoken of with pride—" Our St. Ambrose."

"Go," said the Prefect Probus, who sent him thither, "and act not merely as an officer of the law, but as a Bishop." By this he meant that Ambrose was to have a fatherly care for the city, to be wise and kind as well as just; but the words "as a Bishop "were to come true to their very letter.

There were great disputes going on in Milan at this time. The Bishop of the city, who had been a bad man, and had held wrong ideas about the Godhead of CHRIST, had just died. A meeting was called to elect a new one. In the nave of the old cathedral, or basilica as it was then called, were the people; a curtain separated them from the clergy in the choir. Affairs were in disorder, and the people in an uproar. Ambrose went into the building and began to speak to the crowd.

There was a moment's silence as the words of the young stranger fell upon their ears. In the midst of the lull the voice of a child was heard crying, "Ambrose is Bishop! Ambrose is Bishop!" The young prefect drew back. He had not yet even received the Sacrament of Baptism, for it was the custom in his day, in many Christian families, that Baptism should take place after long preparation at a mature age. But the people had taken up the cry. As they looked upon the noble form of the young man, and heard his clear frank voice, it seemed to them that no better person could be found to govern them and their Church, for the Bishop at this time had much to do with the ordinary affairs of the city. Surely, they thought, the voice of the child was the voice of GOD directing their choice. So, after much resistance, he was forced at last to yield. In a few days he was baptized by what is termed "immersion," or going bodily into the water, like our Saviour. Then a week later he was ordained Priest, and consecrated Bishop.

With earnestness and faith he gave himself up to the work of his new and sacred office. His brother Satyrus went to join him at Milan, and was of great help to him. His sister, the devoted Marcellina, also came at times, nursed him when he was sick, and set in order the affairs of his household. When not together the brothers and sister wrote to each other, and their letters remain to this day a record of pure devoted lives and true family affection.

But soon a great grief came to them. Their brother Satyrus was shipwrecked in a journey to Africa. He threw himself into the sea and swam to shore, but an illness followed from which he did not recover. For a few days St. Ambrose was prostrate with sorrow, but he roused himself to preach at the funeral, and the sermon still exists.

So devoted and noble was the daily life of the saint, so full of power his preaching, that he gained unusual influence over the rest of the clergy, and indeed over all men. Everywhere he was looked up to as a great leader: it was said to be his voice that guided the whole of Italy in the right way. He lived through the reigns of four Emperors of Rome, and it can never be known how great was the power for good which St. Ambrose in his wisdom had over them. It was a power which made itself the more felt because the saint was always so personally humble and simple, while at the same time so brave and fearless when he saw rebuke needful. Never would he give consent to a deed that he thought wrong or unjust, however urgently king or Emperor might press it on him, however great his own danger in refusing to bend to the will of those in power.

He had many troubles. Once he was in great peril of losing his life. There were tumults in Milan. Justina, the widow of the Emperor Valentinian I., was what is termed an Arian—that is, one who denies that JESUS CHRIST as the SON of the FATHER is Himself really GOD . It was on account of this heresy in the Church that the Creed of St. Athanasius was drawn up, in which, you know, we say clearly we believe JESUS to be perfect Man and perfect GOD . Justina wished to turn one of the chief Christian churches in the city into a temple for her own way of worship. Her son, Valentinian II., took her part.

St. Ambrose strove indeed to teach Christians to be just to all who did not think as they did, but give up the House of GOD for false worship, that he would never do.

It was in the Lent of the year 385. On Palm Sunday, just as St. Ambrose had ended his sermon and was about to celebrate the Holy Eucharist, news was brought him that agents of the Emperor were storming the church for the Arians. A few moments later he was told that an Arian Priest had been taken prisoner.

"Molest no one," was his order. "Touch no man; only guard the sacred building." And he at once sent some of his clergy to set free the captive.

Then came officers of Valentinian demanding whether he would not now give up the church.

"Never!" was his reply. "Take all I have, though indeed I have nothing; my goods are only in keeping for the use of the poor. But take all, rob GOD'S poor if you will, and take my life. I am ready to give it to save the altar of the LORD."

Holy Week was truly a time of suffering for the faithful Bishop. But the citizens of Milan were devoted to him. They did not wish to use arms against the Emperor, but never would they desert their Bishop. They went in bands, some to protect the church against the Arians, some to listen to the preaching of St. Ambrose, and to defend him if attacked.

Valentinian, who was not bad at heart, saw that he would do well to yield, and before Easter Day he withdrew the order he had given to take the Christian church.

It was indeed with joy that the Feast of Easter was kept in the city of Milan in the year of our LORD 385.

But the young Emperor could not repress a feeling of jealousy at the love shown by the people to St. Ambrose, and at their courage in his behalf.

You would give me up bound hand and foot to your Bishop if he but said the word!" he cried in anger. Then one of the chief officers of the State, wishing to gain favour in the eyes of his master, swore he would take the life of the saint. He gave secret orders for his murder, and it is said that one night an assassin made his way to the bed where St. Ambrose lay sleeping, but that at the moment when he was about to raise his hand, it fell useless, stricken by the terrible malady of paralysis.

The next year the Arians tried again to get the church for their temple. The Bishop was threatened with exile; but again the people of Milan kept true to him, and he was protected against his foes. Then the Emperor gave way entirely, and himself came under the influence of the saint.

It was at this time that St. Augustine of Hippo was turned to CHRIST. The story of his conversion is very striking.

Augustine was a highly educated young Roman, clever, excitable, and quick-spirited. He had been brought up as a Christian, though not baptized; but on going to college he had let himself be led away from all the good he had been taught at home, and for some years he lived a very wild, evil life. Augustine had a mother named Monica—S. Monica, as she is called in the Roman calendar—she was a good and holy Christian woman, and she ceased not day and night to pray for her son, whom she loved very dearly. He had come to live at Milan, and here he met St. Ambrose. Augustine was so struck by the life and bearing of the saint that, unbeliever though he was, he would often go to hear him preach, and he loved nothing better than to take every chance of talking with the Bishop. But still he kept his evil way of life and his unbelief.

When Monica saw the respect which her son felt for St. Ambrose, she went one day and begged to speak with him. As she was led into his room, the mother, overcome by her feelings, burst into tears. Then, weeping still, she spoke and implored the Bishop to talk to her son, and urge him by every means in his power to change his life and become a Christian.

Ambrose did not say much in reply; he had already marked the young man, he had also taken note of his character, and he knew that if he were to gain over him the power the mother wished, he must work very slowly and gently, and must not be hasty in urging him to take up the cross. So he would not promise what Monica asked, but only bade her be patient.

At this the poor mother's tears flowed afresh. She told St. Ambrose how she ceased not to pray for her son; "and now, my lord, I beg but this one thing—hear the pleadings of a mother, and speak to my child." Still all the Bishop could say was, Patience!"

Weeping, Monica turned away. Then Ambrose called her back. Be comforted," he said, "the child of those tears can never perish."

And now in the spring of the year 386 the mother's tears were changed into smiles of eternal thankfulness. It was during the few days that the Bishop, guarded by his faithful flock, was kept shut up in his basilica at the second attempt to set up Arian worship in the city, that St. Augustine was fully gained to the faith of CHRIST. St. Ambrose spent the time in teaching and preaching, and Augustine was among the throng that listened. The services he held were bright, for the Bishop was very musical, and he taught the people to sing psalms and hymns. He also composed many beautiful prayers for them, which remain to this day, some of which indeed we use among the collects of our Prayer Book.

And now the soul of Augustine was touched and overcome. He felt that the GOD of St. Ambrose was GOD indeed, and he begged for Baptism. It is believed that our glorious psalm of praise, the Te Deum, was composed by SS. Ambrose and Augustine when the Baptism took place.

Augustine soon afterwards went to Africa, and he became one of the grandest and noblest saints and Bishops of the Church in after days.

One can picture the joy of St. Monica now. She did not live long after this. But she died truly, entirely happy. Her eyes had seen the salvation of the LORD, and her heart over-flowed with thanksgiving.

St. Ambrose was now left at peace. Theodosius became Emperor and was much attached to him, but the Bishop was as firm with him as with others when there was a question of right and wrong.

Once, after a rising up against him, Theodosius had caused numbers of the people to be put to death without even staying to see who among them were guilty, who innocent. Then, with the soldiers of his guard, he appeared before the basilica, thinking to give thanks to GOD for his victory over the rebels. But St. Ambrose met him at the door and forbade him to enter. Firmly and plainly the Bishop spoke, showing the Emperor how wrong he had been, and bidding him return and repent of his hastiness, and make amends to the living for the dreadful slaughter of the dead. First be reconciled to thy brother, then come and offer thy gifts."

Theodosius listened, till, sorry and ashamed, he turned from the House of GOD to come back as a penitent—that is, one who goes openly to church to beg forgiveness for a particular sin.

Justly proud may be the city of Milan to have had such a Bishop, and proud his country of an Emperor who humbly bore the rebuke of the Priest of GOD, and in the eyes of his people confessed, saying, "I have done wrong."

The beautiful old Church of St. Ambrogio stands to remind us of this noble saint. Few travellers pass through Milan without visiting it. Every corner tells us something of the work, the life, the teaching of him whose name it bears. And in the centre of the choir, beneath the high altar is his tomb, where lights are still always kept burning.

He died in the year 397. He was not yet fifty years of age, but his strength was worn out. He had seen trouble in the Church in his day, but it was a time of peace and quiet for the Christians when the faithful servant was called to keep his Easter-tide in heaven. His arms crossed upon his breast, his lips moving in prayer, he passed from earth.

"Lord now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace,

for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation."