He began to go to the bishop's sermons, not so much with an expectation of profiting by them as to gratify his curiosity. For Augustine’s unhappy time at Rome in the year 384, the chair of rhetoric at Milan was to prove a godsend for him - literally. This was not because of the fact that Milan was then the city of the Emperor and his court but because it was the home of the bishop, Ambrose. At that time, the name of Ambrose was ever on the lips of any master of oratory and rhetoric.
He was then the most eminent bishop in the Western church, and locally was an extremely popular public figure. The way that Ambrose preached the Scriptures swayed Augustine. Ambrose showed Augustine how to appreciate the Bible in spiritual terms. His sermons were quite mystical, and used the concept of the soul taken from Neo-Platonism. Ambrose immediately became another incentive in the roundabout route of Augustine towards conversion to the Christian religion. Ambrose had been born in Trier, Germany in about the year 340. By the age of thirty-three Ambrose had a successful career as a lawyer, an important position as the governor of Milan, the approval and friendship of the emperor, and a large estate. And then the people insisted he become their priest and bishop. Reluctantly he accepted about the year 373, and was baptised, ordained and made Bishop of Milan all within a period of two days.
In his new role in the church, he acted decisively. He spoke out against errors in belief, converted pagans, built churches, and wrote books of instruction about the faith. Tradition holds that he wrote the great hymn of thanksgiving, the Te Deum. A further tradition, which is now very seriously doubted, was that Ambrose and Augustine spontaneously composed the Te Deum at the baptism of Augustine by Ambrose. As well as compose religious hymns, Ambrose wrote books on Scripture, dogma, and morality. As a bishop he lived in a spirit of prayer and material simplicity. He slept little and fasted frequently. He gave liberally of his wealth to the poor. As a result, he attracted huge crowds wherever he went. In his writings about the duties of the clergy, Ambrose provided humane rules for dealing with those in need, the old, the sick, and children without parents. Ambrose urged his priests not to lavish attention upon the wealthy, but rather to favour the poor.
Ambrose did a lot for the quality and style of Catholic worship in Milan. He introduced choral singing and antiphonal psalm chant in an effort to equal that of the Eastern church. His hymns include "Savior of the Nations, Come," "O Trinity, O Blessed Light," and others that are still sung. The public veneration of relics grew in importance and geographic scope during the last decades of the fourth and first decades of the fifth century, particularly under the impetus provided by Ambrose. This practice by Ambrose was to influence Augustine when he was a bishop, particularly in his later years.
Ambrose obtained the bones of Gervasius and Protasius, who had died for the Christian faith. He placed them in a grave under the altar of his principal church in Milan. In this is seen the associating of the altar (the table of sacrifice) with relics of the martyrs (who lay down their lives in sacrifice). The practice was inspired in at least part by the following passage from the New Testament: "I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held." (Apocalypse 6:9) In the year 401 the Council of Carthage declared that all altars should contain relics, a canon that was often repeated elsewhere at councils in later centuries. This articulates the meaning of the altar as a tomb both for the saint whose relics are contained in it, but also symbolically for Christ.
Ambrose died on 4th April 397, by which time Augustine had recently become Bishop of Hippo on the death of Valerius, his aged predecessor. A "Life of Ambrose" was written soon after the death of Ambrose. Its author was Paulinus, his former secretary. He is listed as one of the eight great Doctors of the early Church (Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nazianzus). In comparison with the two of these great men of the early Western (Latin) Church with whom Augustine had contact, Augustine was more profound than Ambrose of Milan, his spiritual father. And he was more original and systematic than Jerome, the Biblical translator of the Bible with whom Augustine exchanged letters. The feast day of Ambrose is celebrated on 7th December each year, which was the date of his ordination.
Augustine owed Ambrose much
This included the role Ambrose played in the journey of Augustine from spiritual unease ("restlessness") to Christian faith. It also involved how the Neo-Platonic philosophical underpinning to the Christian faith amongst some Christians in Milan allowed the intellectual conversion of Augustine to the Christian Faith as simultaneously his moral conversion moved apace. The approach of Ambrose to preaching the Bible liberated Augustine from some reservations he had held earlier in his life against accepting the Bible with any intellectual comfort. Augustine acknowledged Ambrose in his Confessions as having facilitated the removal of his objections to the first sections of the Bible. In this way, it was thanks to Ambrose that Augustine later as a bishop himself succeeded in leaving the legacy of bringing together parts of the classicist philosophy of his youth and the popular - and almost anti-intellectual - Christian expression by quite provincial congregation in Hippo. In doing so, he created a theology that has remained basic to the Christian religion of the West, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, ever since.
Augustine soon met Ambrose in person. He found that Ambrose had a sharp mind and that he patiently answered many of his objections to orthodox Christian belief. In particular, he helped Augustine work through the Bible stories that had once horrified him, suggesting that some of them could be read allegorically. Augustine later wrote in his Confessions, "To Milan I came, to Ambrose the Bishop... To him was I quietly led by You, that by him I might knowingly be led to Thee. That man of God received me as a father... .I hung on his words attentively." Augustine also had Ambrose to thank for the example of his living in community with the priests who served with him, as had another Italian bishop, Eusebius of Vercelli, just before him. For Augustine this later became a whole way of life, as shown in his Rule. It was to be Ambrose at the Easter vigil at the cathedral at Milan on the night of Holy Saturday, 23rd-24th April 387 who led Augustine through the waters of baptism, and his two good friends, Alypius and Nebridius, and his son, Adeodatus, as well. The old baptistry found under the church in Milan a few decades ago is thought to have been the one in use in the time of Ambrose.
Augustine as a disciple of Ambrose
There is evidence in the writings of Augustine that he regarded himself as a disciple of Ambrose. He saw Ambrose as one of his mentors. Augustine read and recycled the written statements of Ambrose, and these Ambrosian thoughts enhanced the purpose and coherence of Augustine’s subsequent life as a Christian leader and theologian. Augustine lived in a Romanised culture in which the practices of patronage and discipleship were central to the lives of public figures and educated persons. This was dramatically so in the life of a person such as Augustine who had a financially-ungifted childhood in the family of Patricius and Monica.
Augustine would not have received any higher education without the patronage of a person like Rominianus of Thagaste, who knew Augustine’s father. What Ambrose thought of Augustine is not recorded, but, without a doubt, Augustine regarded Ambrose as one of his valued mentors. Ambrose and Augustine had much in common. Before each accepted baptism, both were trained in rhetoric, public officials and skilled in philosophy. After baptism, both became church leaders, Scriptural exegetes, catechists, authors and ascetics - there were "many Augustines" within the one person. As ascetics, both Ambrose and Augustine became part of contemporary Christian movements that formalised ascetic communities (viz., Ambrose’s clerical community that Augustine imitated, and the written Rule and lifestyle adopted by Augustine). Both also write some literature with ascetical intent.
In the Life of Augustine written by Possidius, it clearly states that Augustine used to repeat the sayings of Ambrose. This was one way that Augustine helped to preserve the memory of Ambrose. Another practical step Augustine took for this purpose was successfully to persuade Paulinus, the former secretary of Ambrose, to write a biography of his late master.It would be easy to portray Augustine simplistically as a “modern” figure, bombarded by time pressures, sometimes a prisoner of the demands of his correspondents for pastoral solutions or a theological treatise, apparently being tossed from one demand to the next with little time to himself. (Admittedly, Augustine sometimes wrote of himself in this vein.)
As supposedly relevant as such a portrayal may make Augustine to contemporary Western society, it cannot be accepted as a full picture of the man. Yes, Augustine was often able to respond to external demands on his time, talent and person – and to do so to the remarkable age of seventy-six years – because of his spiritual and ascetical foundations of the God that he sense within himself. And in this Augustine himself would be willing to credit, amongst other factors, the fruits of his witness of and his relationship with Ambrose of Milan. AN1413