On Monday afternoon in Milan, James C. and I went over to the Basilica of St. Ambrose to pray and see the venerable church, which was founded by the saint himself, who served as Milan’s bishop from the year 374 until his death in 397. His body was interred in the crypt directly underneath the altar, along with the remains of the second-century martyrs Gervasius and Protasius, which had been discovered by Bishop Ambrose and moved to the new basilica. Gervasius and Protasius were brothers, sons of martyrs. Today, you can see St. Ambrose’s remains displayed behind glass in the crypt. Buried on his left, in martyr’s robes of red, is one of the brothers; the other brother is on the other side of the holy bishop, but it is not possible to see him.
You want to see the early church? There is the early church. The hands there, the ones emerging from the golden robes of a bishop, are the very hands that baptized St. Augustine. That’s how close ancient history is in the Basilica of St. Ambrose.
The crypt at the Basilica of St. Ambrose is in the darkened and lowered apse behind the altar. The church itself is full of light, but the crypt, appropriately, is cool, dark, and silent. When we saw the relics of the saints, James and I knelt on the prayer benches to pray. I was so stunned and grateful to be in their presence that I made prostrations as well.
I didn’t want to leave. We sat for a short while, and I reflected on how, in the general resurrection, all the flesh will be mysteriously regathered to these saints, and they will arise from their slumber, united once again with their bodies. I held that thought in my mind there in the cool darkness of the crypt, and thought that this small room, hidden away beneath the streets of Milan, contains the axis around which this busy world spins.
Then these words of T.S. Eliot, from Burnt Norton, came to mind:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.
There we were, keeping vigil with the bones of these great saints — de-fleshed by time, but not quite fleshless, because we could see their bones, all that remains of their incarnate humanity. And in the future, these bones shall again be enfleshed, and rise from their grave. In this ancient past of the Church is our present — we were there with them, after all — but also our future. In that sense, James and I had wandered into a moment of eternity, in the tenebrous garden of stone and bones consecrated to the Eternal One.
I could have stayed there all night.
Since returning home, I find that I can’t stop thinking about St. Ambrose, and that respite in the crypt. Ambrose was one of the Fathers of the Church, and as such is one of the greatest Christians who ever lived. In his day, he was known for his steadfast defense of Christian orthodoxy against the Arian heresy, even once defying the Emperor’s orders to leave his cathedral and give it to the Arians. He famously said that he feared Almighty God more than any mortal. That same resolve came forth in the most well-known incident of his life, recalled here:
Ambrose’s most lasting contribution, though, was in the area of church-state relations. He wrestled with three emperors—and won each time. His relationship with Theodosius, the first emperor to try to make Rome a Christian state, is the most well-known example.
In 390, local authorities imprisoned a charioteer of Thessalonica for homosexuality. Unfortunately, the charioteer was one of the city’s favorites, and riots broke out when the governor refused to release him. The governor and a few others were killed in the melee, and the charioteer was freed.
Fuming, Theodosius exacted revenge. He announced another chariot race, but after the crowds arrived, the gates were locked and the townspeople were massacred by the emperor’s soldiers. Within three hours, 7,000 were dead.
Ambrose was horrified. He wrote an angry letter to Theodosius demanding his repentance. “I exhort, I beg, I entreat, I admonish you, because it is grief to me that the perishing of so many innocent is no grief to you,” he wrote. “And now I call on you to repent.” He forbade the emperor to attend worship until he prostrated himself at the altar.
Theodosius obeyed, marking the first time church triumphed over state.
The bishop and the Emperor remained close. Theodosius later died in Ambrose’s presence. Ambrose delivered the funeral oration before the Emperor’s body left Milan for burial in Constantinople. From the eulogy:
‘I have loved a man who esteemed those who reprove more than those who flatters. [Theodosius] threw on the ground all the royal attire that he was wearing. He wept publicly in church for his sin. . . He prayed for pardon with groans and with tears. What private citizens are ashamed to do, the emperor was not ashamed to do, namely, to perform penance publicly’ (34).
I have loved a man who in his dying hour kept asking for me with his last breath. I have loved a man who, when he was already being released from the body, was more concerned about the condition of the Church than about his own trials. I have loved him, therefore, I confess, and for that reason I have suffered my sorrow in the depths of my heart’ (35).
‘I have loved, and so I accompany him to the land of the living, and I will not abandon him until, by my tears and prayers, I shall lead the man whither his merits summon, unto the holy mountain of God, where there is eternal life, where there is no corruption, no sickness, no mourning, no sorrow, no companionship with the dead’
Ambrose was fearless. When the Visigoths threatened Milan, he inspired his flock to stand fast. When the State ordered him to hand the cathedral over to heretics, he refused, at the risk of his life, saying:
If you demand my person, I am ready to submit: carry me to prison or to death, I will not resist; but I will never betray the church of Christ. I will not call upon the people to succour me; I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it.
And, as we have seen, when his friend Emperor Theodosius massacred 7,000, Bishop Ambrose excommunicated him and demanded that he publicly repent. Ambrose was certainly not opposed to the Roman state, but he did not see shoring up the Imperium as coterminous with Christianity. (Ahem.)
We Christians need that kind of courage today. We need that kind of independence from the Imperium (by which I mean not only the State, but also the post-Christian social order). We need the kind of ascetic dedication Ambrose preached, and we need Christian leaders who have his gift for teaching. In his Confessions, St. Augustine writes that listening to Bishop Ambrose preach and teach made Christianity comprehensible to him, and led to his conversion. But that was not the primary thing about Ambrose that moved Augustine towards conversion. As Pope Benedict XVI said in 2007:
What moved the heart of the young African rhetorician, sceptic and downhearted, and what impelled him to definitive conversion was not above all Ambrose’s splendid homilies (although he deeply appreciated them). It was rather the testimony of the Bishop and his Milanese Church that prayed and sang as one intact body. It was a Church that could resist the tyrannical ploys of the Emperor and his mother, who in early 386 again demanded a church building for the Arians’ celebrations. In the building that was to be requisitioned, Augustine relates, “the devout people watched, ready to die with their Bishop”. This testimony of the Confessions is precious because it points out that something was moving in Augustine, who continues: “We too, although spiritually tepid, shared in the excitement of the whole people” (Confessions 9, 7).
Listen, Christian readers: what if we had a church that strong in the faith — one in which both the leaders and the laity were ready to lay down their lives, if that’s what fidelity required?
I have written that we Christians need today a new and very different St. Benedict. We could also use a new and very different St. Ambrose. We have in the lives of saints like these examples of how to live. St. Ambrose and the church of the patristic era is not only ancient history. It is our present, and our future. In the stillness of that crypt lie the seeds for the church’s rebirth in this time of turmoil — if we will receive that grace.