Saint Ambrose, the silent reader

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Basilica of Saint Ambrose, Milan

Whenever I think of the great Saint Ambrose, bishop of Milan and doctor of the church, I remember a piece of trivia I learned while reading the Confessions of Saint Augustine in college.

Saint Ambrose is remembered for his great knowledge and wisdom.  Few of his contemporaries surpassed him in courage and astuteness.  His greatest student was Saint Augustine of Hippo who arrived to Milan in 384 to teach at an imperial school.  Augustine speaks of Ambrose, in particular the influence this great learned man had on him, who was still a young, non-Christian who desperately yearned for Truth.

Among the many things Augustine notes of Ambrose, he writes this, “Ambrose was an extraordinary reader.  When he read his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still.  Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found his reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.”

This is the trivia knowledge of Saint Ambrose: he read in his head, he did not read out loud.  This may sound silly to us moderns, but some argue this passage from Augustine’s Confessions is the first recorded description of a human being reading silently in Western culture.  Historically human beings when reading would read out loud.  If you look at texts and inscriptions from antiquity into the medieval world, you notice there is very little if any punctuation and that all letters are jammed together.  By reading out loud, the reader would decipher when words began and ended.  Words were written to be pronounced, not to be kept to oneself.

Today the local Milanese Church continues to use one of the ancient rites of the Latin Church named after Ambrose, the Ambrosian Rite.  Most of us are  familiar with the Roman Rite which dominates in Western Europe and the New World.  If you go to Mass in Milan, be prepared for things to be done a little bit differently!

Saint Ambrose, pray for us

San Ambrogio - Tomb of St. Ambrose
Tomb of Saint Ambrose at the Basilica of San Ambrogio, Milan

 

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