Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Augustine on Ambrose's Practice of Pastoral Care

In the last post, I noted Augustine’s high esteem for Ambrose, expressed in his Confessions, Book V, Chapter XIII.

He returns to Ambrose in Book VI, Chapter III, noting that he esteemed him to be “a happy man, as the world counts happiness, because great personages held him in honor.” He adds: “Only his celibacy appeared to me to be a painful burden.”

Augustine also describes, however, how the great pastor seemed sometimes to be aloof, indifferent to him and others, or too busy to bother with him.

So he writes of Ambrose:

But what hope he cherished, what stuggles he had against the temptations that beset his high station, what solace in adversity, and what savory joys thy bread possessed for the hidden mouth of his heart when feeding on it, I could neither conjecture nor experience.

Nor did he know my own frustrations, nor the pit of my danger. For I could not request of him what I wanted as I wanted it, because I was debarred from hearing and speaking to him by crowds of busy people to whose infirmities he devoted himself. And when he was not engaged with them—which was never for long at a time—he was either refreshing his body with necessary food or his mind with reading.

Augustine notes how Ambrose (apparently strange for the times) would often sit and read in silence (as opposed to reading aloud): “Now, as he read, his eyes glanced over the pages and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent.”

He recalls how he and some friends often went to Ambrose’s room “for no one was forbidden to enter” only to find the esteemed bishop reading to himself in silence. He then says:

After we had sat a long time in silence—for who would dare interrupt one so intent?—we would then depart, realizing that he was unwilling to be distracted in the little time he could gain from for the recruiting of his mind, free from the clamor of other men’s business.

Augustine confides: “But actually I could find no opportunity of putting the questions I desired to that holy oracle of thine in his heart, unless it could be dealt with briefly. However, those surgings in me required that he should give me his full leisure so that I might pour them out to him; but I never found him so.”

Though he did not get the personal, pastoral attention he desired, Augustine notes that still, “I heard him, indeed, every Lord’s Day, ‘rightly dividing the word of truth’ among the people.” This proved adequate slowly to unravel “all those knots of crafty calumnies” which the Manicheans “had knit together against the divine books.”

Though one might not necessarily commend Ambrose’s pastoral care methods, one can at least perhaps surmise that while there might not always be adequate time or opportunity for personal work, the public ministry of the Word can still prove effective.


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