You’re probably familiar with St Ambrose to some extent. It would be for one or two reasons. Firstly, you would know him as the great influence on St Augustine’s conversion to Catholicism, while he was Archbishop of Milan. Secondly, you might know him as the man who, on 7 December 374 AD, was baptised, ordained a priest, and consecrated as a bishop in one fell swoop.
Things happened a bit differently back then.
If you read Augustine’s Confessions, though, something else sticks out (something that I had never noticed before). It has to do with the way Augustine initially describes his experience of Ambrose’s preaching and rhetoric.
Prior to becoming a bishop, Ambrose (or Aurelius Ambrosius) was actually a statesman. He was a student of law and literature and, following his father’s footsteps, became Consular Prefect (the Governor) of Liguria and Emilia in Northern Italy. He was widely recognised to have an extraordinary gift of rhetoric, much like St John Chrysostom did. In fact, it was this experience of Ambrose’s rhetoric that began to win Augustine over.
At the time, Augustine was philosophically a Manichean, which was, simply put, a belief in the cosmic struggle between good and evil or light and dark. In this vision, evil was a positive force in the world, eternally wrestling with the equally competing force of the good (Star Wars is a pretty good pop-culture reiteration of this ancient philosophy). This contrasts to the position Augustine would later adopt – and that is standard fare in the Catholic tradition – that holds evil to be a corruption of what is good, and not a positive, active force in and of itself (because if it was, evil would be a thing, and all things are created by God, so that would render God the creator of evil and thus partly evil himself).
When Augustine first met Ambrose, he had no qualms about what he thought of the Catholic faith. Here is what he writes in recollecting his first encounter with Ambrose.
My heart warmed to him, not at first as a teacher of the truth, which I had quite despaired of finding in your Church, but simply as a man who showed me kindness’ (V.XIII).
It was, first of all, the warmth with which Ambrose embraced Augustine. Augustine, just a sentence before, said that he did so ‘like a father,’ and Ambrose told him explicitly ‘how glad he was that I had come.’
Secondly, Augustine was taken by the beauty of Ambrose’s rhetoric, being ‘delighted by his charming delivery.’ In the next section, Augustine teases out an idea that is so relevant for us today.
For although I did not trouble to take what Ambrose said to heart, but only to listen to the manner in which he said it . . . nevertheless his meaning, which I tried to ignore, found its way into my mind together with his words, which I admired so much. I could not keep the two apart, and while I was all ears to seize upon his eloquence, I also began to sense the truth of what he said, though only gradually’ (V.XIV).
What we have right here is an ancient example of the via pulchritudinis, ‘the way of beauty.’ It is one famously espoused by Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar in the twentieth century, and Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire ministry today. In an era that is sceptical of claims to truth, beauty has a strangely alluring power, one that works its way into our sceptical minds to win us over.
‘I could not keep the two apart,’ Augustine said, referring to the beauty of Ambrose’s rhetoric and the truth of his preaching. Nor should they be kept apart.
The link between Ambrose and Augustine is a brilliant example of the way saints influence saints. And this happens not only through the beauty of their sanctity – ‘the kindness he showed to me’ – but through the beauty they display in their ministry, their art, and their life.
Don’t believe those who try to dismiss the way of beauty as ineffective and irrelevant to our own age. It is always relevant, and one of the greatest minds in the Catholic tradition, St Augustine, was first won over by beauty. How many other giants of Catholicism could we help raise if we followed the via pulchritudinis?
Sr Mary Helen OP10 August 2022