Rt. Revd. Prof Bishop Irenei of London and Western Europe

NOTE: The following paper was delivered by Bishop Irenei to the 7th Annual Patristics Conference of the Postgraduate Institute of Sts Cyril and Methodius in Moscow, Russia, on 30th September 2021. The conference was dedicated to ‘St Ambrose of Milan: His Theological Legacy’, and Bishop Irenei’s present paper addresses the unique manner in which St Ambrose assesses emotions positively, not only as a way to console the grieving, but also to explore complex doctrinal themes in a manner that exposes their importance to Christian thought and life. (The footnotes to the paper are not included in this on-line edition.)

In the writings of St Ambrose of Milan, the Church discovers a mouthpiece for theology expressed in a voice of unique rhetorical capability. While he is not the only member of the erudite political class to be called to the service of the episcopacy (though he may well be considered the first in the west to have been so), St Ambrose is surely marked out by the degree to which his rhetorical training in Rome, following the death of his father (ca. AD 354), influenced the shape of his theological approach. The ancient Graeco-Roman modes of public discourse, emphasising as they did the shaping of court, conciliar and public opinion through carefully-crafted rhetoric that resonated with hearers’ backgrounds, emotional states and circumstances, was not something cast aside when Ambrose was suddenly promoted from Governor to Bishop by popular acclamation in 374. Indeed, the artistry by which he was able to speak comfortably with the populous as well as emperors and legates — stemming at least in part from his ability to shape his words in manners that resonated with each group, each individual, and their shared circumstances — would serve him well throughout his episcopacy.

In a sense, it continues to serve him today, because in St Ambrose we find something of a treasure: a Church Father deeply conscious of the impact of his words as words — that is, as language — as well as the impact of the theological or ecclesial messages they were employed to convey. This is, of course, not to suggest that there are not many other patristic sources whose knowledge of rhetorical conventions was used to serve them, and often well; but in St Ambrose we find a collection of writings in which the artistry of the word becomes an intimate part of the theological voice of the saint — something we can surely say was held in common by his contemporary, St Augustine. St Ambrose was once described to me (I have long since forgotten by whom) as ‘the Shakespeare of the Fathers’ — for those of you not English-speakers by background, I can assure you this is most exalted praise — on account of what is often the near-poetry of his prose: the fact that he utilises voice and emotion, both his own and that of his hearers, to craft a theological expression that is uniquely poignant, even when at times dealing either with commonplace or doctrinally-intricate themes (e.g. in writing against Arianism, or political influences).

It is precisely this utilisation of voice and emotion that I wish to examine here, specifically with respect to the manner in which emotive states are employed by St Ambrose to raise dogmatic, theological issues. In this I find St Ambrose to be in some manner unique (or, at least, unique in concert with Augustine, of whom similar things can certainly be said), in taking something with which the Holy Fathers oftentimes have a fairly negative view — namely, emotions — and embracing them positively, constructively, not only as something to be lauded at a personal and spiritual level when embraced correctly, but also employed as a means to expose intricate and nuanced elements of theological discourse.

This St Ambrose, who remarked that ‘it is the mark of a prudent man to know himself,’ was intimately acquainted with the rhetorical principle of self-knowledge being linked to external discovery; that is, the fact that one’s interior disposition is both a sounding board for truth (i.e., that what is true is refracted against what one knows, or thinks one knows, already), as well as an instrument for approaching truth (that is, that one’s disposition may incline one towards the approach to certain materials, or away from it). Thus it was that he would routinely call upon his hearers’ present emotional state as a framework for imparting some truth or specific interpretation — something familiar in the agora or senate, but less so in the realm of theological discourse. Perhaps among the most beautiful singular examples of this is his unique explanation of what is meant by the Scriptural phrase, ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’ (Psalm 18.1). Recounted in a letter to his sister, Marcellina, St Ambrose recalls the unveiling of the relics of the martyrs Gervasius and Protasius, translated anew to a place of veneration, and standing before the relics as he speaks to the awe-struck faithful, one of whom had been healed during their translation:

By chance in today’s readings it is made clear just which ‘heavens’ declare the glory of God. Look at the holy relics at my right hand and at my left, see men of heavenly conversation, behold the trophies of a heavenly mind. These are the heavens which declare the glory of God; these are His handiwork which the firmament proclaims. (Letter 22.4)

Ambrose then goes on to explain this mode of interpretation: the ‘heavens’ are those who live in Godly manner and become sources of guidance for those on earth: Paul was a heaven, he says; James and John were heavens; etc. (ibid., 22.5). While this particular allegorical reading of the Psalm is thought-provoking in its own right, what is of particular interest at the present moment is the means by which St Ambrose offers it, and leads his hearers into it. They are gathered around relics, they are filled with zeal and overwhelmed by the examples of piety (Ambrose clarified to his sister that ‘the power of the holy martyrs became so manifest, that even whilst I was still silent, one man was seized and thrown prostrate at the holy burial-place…’; ibid., 22.2); and he directly takes up these circumstances, and the emotions they produce, as the foundation of his rhetorical approach. Look here, at my right, and here, at my left, he says: see, yourselves, this power. Witness the experience of heaven, that awe which you presently feel in your chest — and I shall explain to you the connection between your present experience (i.e. your emotions, your reaction) and a truth revealed in the Scriptures. The emotion is a direct avenue to explain a spiritual truth.

On the decease of his brother

While this principle is revealed tellingly in this small example, it is perhaps nowhere more powerfully put to use than in St Ambrose’s response to his brother’s death. On 17th October 379, Satyrus died from an illness, and suffice it to say that St Ambrose’s grief was substantial. We possess what amount essentially to two funeral orations (though stylistically and in content they are for more than this), collected together as the ‘Two Books’ of St Ambrose on the decease of his brother, neither of which is precisely brief, and the second of which (delivered a week after the funeral, whereas the first was, presumably, delivered at it) would have taken nearly two hours to read aloud (commonly referred to as The Two Books of St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, on the Decease of His Brother Satyrus; throughout the remainder of this paper, references that do not indicate a different work are drawn from these two books). What is to me the most interesting about these two orations — of which I personally find the first by far the most compelling — is precisely the manner in which St Ambrose employs circumstance to shape the manner of his theological discourse. While in this case the circumstances may be personal loss, grief and sorrow, nevertheless he is ready to employ these, with significant artistry and skill, to provoke theological understanding amidst an audience of those sharing in those circumstances.

‘Joy has tears of its own’: the doctrinal testimony of emotion

Perhaps most interesting in this rhetorical approach is the manner in which St Ambrose makes a positive assessment of grief itself. Whereas in the encounter with the newly-discovered relics of the martyrs he could call upon the common sense of awe and wonder felt by all present at their translation, at the funeral of his brother St Ambrose recognises that his own grief is shared by his hearers — and indeed, that in witnessing his personal grief at the loss of a brother, friend, counsellor and example in piety, new grief would swell within the hearts of compassionate Christians; and rather than discount this emotive state, St Ambrose proves ready to embrace and employ it. While there are many examples in Christian writing of at best a tense relationship with emotion (and oftentimes an outright rejection of any positive value to it), St Ambrose here does not shy from a positive assessment of emotive feeling.

‘Today I have undertaken the office of consolation, not of discussion,’ he says, ‘although it is customary in consoling to draw away the mind from its grief by application to discussion’ (1.14), later noting that ‘we ought not to grieve for those whom we see to be set free, and we bear in mind that so many holy souls are, not without a purpose, at this time loosed from the chains of the body’ (1.67). Such comments are fairly customary, noting the need to focus on the life beyond death that is the substance of Christian hope in the resurrection. So, too, with his longer comment at his brother’s bier:

So, then, my tears shall cease, for one must yield to healthful remedies, since there ought to be some difference between believers and unbelievers (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4.13). Let them, therefore, weep who cannot have the hope of the resurrection, of which not the sentence of God but the strictness of the faith deprives them. Let there be this difference between the servants of Christ and the worshippers of idols, that the latter weep for their friends, whom they suppose to have perished for ever; that they should never cease from tears, and gain no rest from sorrow, who think that the dead have no rest. But from us, for whom death is the end not of our nature but of this life only, since our nature itself is restored to a better state, let the advent of death wipe away all tears (1.70).

But St Ambrose’s comments begin to take on a special flavour when he ruminates precisely on the emotions, and the tears, that might yet, yes, be ‘wiped away’ (cf. Apocalypse 21.4), but which nevertheless are real in the moment. ‘So, then, I hold thee, my brother, and neither death nor time shall tear thee from me’, he says, adding, ‘tears themselves are sweet, and weeping itself a pleasure, for by these the eagerness of the soul is assuaged, and affection, being eased, is quieted’ (1.74). Here we begin to see the positive assessment of the emotions of grief that characterise, in fact, the whole of his first oration at his brother’s death. Rather than focus solely on the elimination of tears that comes in the joy of the resurrection, St Ambrose proves ready to employ the real feelings of grief, as well as the tears they produce, to explore the nature of faith in a redemptive God. So he speaks:

The poor, too, wept; and, which is of much more worth, and much more fruitful, washed away his transgressions with their tears. Those are redeeming tears, those are groanings which hide the grief of death, that grief which through the plenteousness of eternal joy covers over the feeling of former grief (1.5).

And this is most tellingly exposed in his remarks a few moments later:

Not all weeping proceeds from unbelief or weakness. Natural grief is one thing, distrustful sadness is another, and there is a very great difference between longing for what you have lost and lamenting that you have lost it. Not only grief has tears, joy also has tears of its own. […] I confess, then, that I too wept; but the Lord also wept (cf. John 11.35) (1.10).

Here, in a manner not dissimilar to his employment of a shared sense of awe before relics to create a context for exploring an interpretation of a Scriptural text, St Ambrose takes up a sense of shared grief to create a context for exploring a theology of resurrection, permitting both grief and tears to be seen as positive tools for interpreting, or re-interpreting, the activities of the heart and mind. You are weeping tears of grief, he says, as am I; but ponder for a moment that joy also evokes tears, that ‘joy has tears of its own’; and this may provoke an understanding that the heart already longs for the joy beyond grief — that is to say, that in accepting that your tears may be the soul’s cry of joy, the soul is itself teaching you something about the nature of resurrection.

St Ambrose is willing even to employ the sense of futility, common to the experience of sudden and unexpected death, especially amongst the young, as something that can likewise lead towards an openness to deeper truths. Satyrus’ sudden decease came as a surprise, and in St Ambrose’s day as in our own, such events provoke questions as to what is lost, missed out on, etc. St Ambrose not only expects this, but employs it rhetorically:

Who is so patient in suffering as not to pray for death? Who has such endurance in weakness as not to wish rather to die than to live in debility? Who is so brave in sorrow as not to desire to escape from it even by death? But if we ourselves are dissatisfied while life lasts, although we know that a limit is fixed for it, how much more weary should we become of this life if we saw that the troubles of the body would be with us without end! For who is there who would wish to be excepted from death? Or what would be more unendurable than a miserable immortality? […] but Christ has prepared another life for those who hope in Him. For this life is liable to sin, that life is reserved for the reward (2.124).

From tears to impassibility: Death and dogma

St Ambrose has thus opened the door to a theological discussion of death and resurrection, precisely by calling upon the emotive states of the mourners present to hear him; and this door being opened, he can continue to assess these themes through the principle of relating present experience to higher realities. What is experienced now, is a lens through which one can behold a reality beyond.

That a ‘miserable immortality’ would be something unendurable to ponder, drives St Ambrose to reflect upon the higher life — the ‘positive’ immortality, if we might extend his imagery — for which the Christian hopes. This is the life that Christ prepares for the faithful, he says, putting it in rather poetic terms in reference to his brother’s body in repose:

Though He [Christ] has not now touched the bier, yet He has received the spirit commended to Him; and if He has not called the dead by the bodily voice, yet He has by the authority of His divine power delivered my brother’s soul from the pains of death and from the attacks of wicked spirits. And though he that was dead has not sat up on the bier, yet he has found rest in Christ (1.29).

This whole approach leads St Ambrose to follow many patristic writers before him, in making a positive assessment of death itself. ‘Death is not an evil,’ he writes at his most plain, ‘because it is the refuge from all miseries and all evils, a safe harbour of security, and a haven of rest’ (2.22). But the call upon the emotional awareness of Christ being ‘here at the bier’, if unseen, permits St Ambrose to take this positive assessment further and employ it as a basis to make theological observations about death, grounded in the nature of God and creation. Thus he can say, in his second funerary speech:

Death is not to be shunned, for the Son of God did not think it unworthy of Him, and did not shun it. The order of nature is not to be loosed, for what is common to all cannot admit of exception in individuals (2.46).

This is to say, the positive assessment of death (as a gift from God, rather than a punishment or curse) speaks to the nature of nature itself: it affects all, because it touches upon the nature common to all — the same nature that Christ Himself adopted in the incarnation. Yet despite this universality, it must be understood as something ‘unnatural’, for God did not create death at the first; rather, it must be perceived as something granted by God — and which therefore must be understood as a good, coming from the Giver of Good. So St Ambrose:

Indeed, death was no part of man’s nature, but became natural; for God did not institute death at first, but gave it as a remedy. […] It was fitting that an end should be set to evils, and that death should restore what life had lost. For immortality, unless grace breathed upon it, would be rather a burden than an advantage (2.47). […] And if one consider accurately, it is not the death of our being, but of evil, for being continues, it is evil that perishes (2.48).

The line of St Ambrose’s rhetorical approach here is interesting. Beginning with the emotion of grief and tears, one acknowledges that joy also produces tears, and that therefore tears may point to a good rather than solely a loss. This, in turn, leads to an acknowledgement that death is itself the good that the soul is feeling, that provokes an awareness of such tear-creating joy. That death may be the good leads to a reflection on death as a remedy rather than a curse, which, in turn, leads to a reflection on death as God’s imposition upon man’s nature, in order that the evils wrought into that nature by man’s sin might have a limit and an immortality without them might be obtained. And all this, within the context of observing that Christ Himself died, just as Christ Himself had wept; and therefore the good has its origin in man’s experience of what God has adopted and sanctified. This St Ambrose makes explicit:

What is a greater consolation to us than that according to the flesh Christ also died? Or why should I weep too violently for my brother, knowing as I do that that divine love could not die (1.4).

Knowing that ‘divine love could not die’ then leads St Ambrose into a remarkable series of reflections on the nature of the Godhead, in which his broader preoccupations (e.g. with countering ‘Arian’ and promoting pro-Nicene thought) are evident. Returning to the question of Christ weeping, he says:

He wept for what affected us, not Himself; for the Godhead sheds no tears; but He wept in that nature in which He was sad; He wept in that in which He was crucified, in that in which He died, in that in which He was buried. […] He wept in that nature in which He called Sion Mother, born in Judaea, conceived by the Virgin. But according to His Divine Nature He could not have a mother, for He is the Creator of His mother. So far as He was made, it was not by divine but by human generation, because He was made man, God was born (1.11).

And a short time later:

For one is the Son of God, both born of the Father and sprung from the Virgin, differing in order, but in name agreeing in one (1.12).

St Ambrose has arrived at is what is not a light reflection on the nature of impassibility and incarnational experience in the Divine Son — perhaps not what one might at first expect in a funeral oration. And yet what is telling is precisely the manner in which the funerary experience has enabled him to come to this theological point. This is a discussion on divine nature and impassibility that is arrived at, not through metaphysical curiosity or doctrinal argumentation: it is arrived at through the embrace of the experience of grief, which leads ultimately to the point of recognition that a God who entered into such a death, but who was bound by it in the same manner as all men appear to be, is not a God whose experience of death could be redemptive. Confession of what scholars might later call the passibility of the impassible God is arrived at, for St Ambrose, precisely through the emotive confession of hope. It is, rhetorically, a pastoral arrival rather than a dogmatic one — and this is something I find most remarkable, and indeed wonderful, in his approach.

The doctrinal reflections that can be drawn from it, however, are more than only a few. As but one further example, St Ambrose sets out numerous times in his funeral remarks the dogmatic division of nature versus grace, again in terms of present experience versus expectation. So he can say:

I cannot be ungrateful concerning my brother, for he has given back that which was common to nature, and has gained what is peculiar to grace alone (1.4).

And say even more emphatically:

The working of power, then, is one thing, the order of nature is another (2.81). […] Divine action has no need of human assistance (2.85).

Thus the emotive experience of the present moment opens the door to yet other dogmatic arenas, demonstrating just how powerful this unique method of approach can be in providing an alternative means of assessing doctrinal matters.

Concluding remarks

It is with this observation, precisely, that I would like to end: namely, the alternative means of approaching tried doctrinal conversations. Already by St Ambrose’s time — as I am sure we shall learn more about later in the papers of Dr Ayres and others — the dogmatic discourse on anti-Arian matters, and the pro-Nicene thrust of widespread theological discussion in the second half of the fourth century, was becoming not only tried, but somewhat tired. Parties had been making, debating, refuting and defending the same essential dogmatic arguments for over five decades; and the transition from the fourth into the fifth century is surely marked out, amongst other things, by the focus on increasingly technical and nuanced questions about established dogmatic principles (the distinctions between ousia and hypostasis; the characteristics of generation and birth; the precision of mutability and passibility in incarnational terms tied to flesh, soul, will, etc.).

In this light, St Ambrose’s rhetorical approach is a fascinating glimpse at a very different way to examine the same questions. Surely, he was as involved in the dogmatic discourse as anyone else in the region, even more so; but what is witnessed in the texts we have examined here is a very different way to disclose those doctrinal truths — and, more than this, the importance of these truths. By arriving at a discussion of divine impassibility through the embrace of grief and the desire to explain it, one discovers not only the doctrinal substance, but the reason for its emphasis in the Christian confession. It is the impassible God who nevertheless suffers, who has the power to make tears of grief into tears of joy; and so the cries of the heart that St Ambrose feels become the foundation to understand this theological truth. And so he can cry out in beautiful words, filled with all the genuine pain of a man mourning his brother and friend:

What shall I, succeeding to my own heir, do? What shall I do who outlive my own life? What shall I do, no longer sharing this light which yet shines on me? What thanks, what good offices, can I repay to thee? (1.15).

And then, precisely because these cries are employed to seek a deeper understanding of the truths to which emotions may point, the same St Ambrose can ultimately proclaim, in words delivered to his brother’s lifeless body:

Go before us to that home, common and waiting for all, and certainly now longed for by me beyond others (1.78) […] For who is there who ought not to wish for himself beyond all else that ‘this corruptible should put on incorruption, and this mortal put on immortality’? that we who succumb to death through the frailty of the body, being raised above nature, may no longer have to fear death (2.136).

He has established the dogmatic basis of this solid Christian hope precisely through the emotion he and his hearers feel; and in this, he offers a testimony to the Church that further marks out his uniqueness and significance in the catalogue of the Holy Fathers.