Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

St. Ambrose of Milan, Letters (1881). pp. 269-324. Letters 41-50.

LETTER XLI. [A.D.388.]

In this Letter to his sister S. Ambrose relates the sequel of the affair referred to in the preceding one. That Letter failed to produce the effect which he had hoped for, and so he was driven to fulfil the threat with which he had ended it, and 'make the Emperor listen to him in the Church.' He gives his sister a full account of the sermon which he preached before the Emperor, and how he insisted on a promise that the matter should be quashed altogether, before he would celebrate the Eucharist, and how the Emperor at last gave way, and so all ended as he had wished.


1.  You have kindly written me word, holy sister, that you are still anxious about me, because I told you of my own anxiety; this makes me wonder that you have not received the letter, in which I told you that tranquillity had been restored to me. Complaints had been made that a synagogue of the Jews had been burnt by the Christians, at the instigation of their Bishop, and also a conventicle of the Valentinians; and while I was at Aquileia a decree was issued that the synagogue should be rebuilt by the Bishop, and that the monks who had set fire to this building of the Valentinians should be punished. Wherefore, when I found that my personal endeavours were of little avail, I wrote and despatched a letter to the Emperor, and on his going to the Church, I delivered this discourse.

2.  In the book of the Prophet it is written, Take to thyself the rod of an almond tree; and with what intent the Lord said this to the prophet we ought to consider, for it |270 was not written without a purpose, and we also read in the Pentateuch that the rod of Aaron the priest, budded after being long laid up. Now the rod seems to signify that prophetic or sacerdotal authority ought to be unswerving, and to exhort rather to what is useful than to what is pleasing.

3.  And the reason why the prophet is bidden to take the rod of an almond is this, that the fruit of this tree has a bitter rind and hard shell, while its inside is juicy, and so in like manner the prophet should hold out what is hard and bitter, and not shrink from declaring painful things. So too with the priest: his teaching may seem bitter for a time to some, and, like Aaron's rod, may for a long while be laid up in the ears of dissemblers, yet afterwards, when it is thought to have withered, it puts forth buds.

4.  Hence the Apostle says, What will ye, shall I come unto you with a rod, or in love, and in the spirit of meekness. First he speaks of a rod, and as with the rod of an almond tree had smitten the wanderers, that he might afterwards comfort them with the spirit of meekness. Just so did meekness restore the man whom the rod had driven from the Divine sacraments. To his disciple too he gave the same injunctions, Reprove, beseech, rebuke. Here are two harsh terms and one gentle; but they are only harsh, that they may themselves be softened. For like as bitter food or drink becomes sweet to these bodies which are laden with excess of gall, and on the other hand sweet repasts are bitter to them, so also when the mind is wounded it languishes under the flattering touch of pleasure, but is healed again by the bitterness of correction.

5.  Thus much let it suffice to have gathered from the lesson from the Prophets, let us next consider what that from the Gospel would teach us: And one of the Pharisees desired the Lord Jesus that He would eat with him; and He went into the Pharisee's house and sat down to meat. And behold, a woman in the city, which teas a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meal in the Pharisee's house brought an alabaster box of ointment, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping. And then the passage was recited as far as the words, Thy faith hath saved thee, go in peace. |271 How simple, I added, are the words of this Gospel lesson, how profound its counsels! Wherefore, seeing that it is spoken by the great Counsellor, let us consider its depth.

6.  Our Lord Jesus Christ believed that kindness has a greater power of constraining and inciting men to do what is right than fear; and that love avails more for correction than terror. And so, when He came on earth by the Virgin's womb, He first sent His free grace, forgiving our sins in baptism to make us more grateful to Him. Then if we will repay Him with such services as befit grateful men, He has declared by this example that He will give fresh gifts of grace to every man. Had He only remitted to us our first debt, He would have seemed cautious rather than merciful, more heedful of our amendment than munificent in His rewards. To allure is merely the cunning of a narrow mind, but it is befitting to God that those whom He has invited by grace He should lead forward by the increase of that grace. And so He first bestows on us His gifts in baptism, and afterwards if we serve him faithfully gives more abundantly. And so the benefits of Christ are both the incentives and the rewards of virtue.

7.  Let no man be alarmed at the word creditor. We were indeed under an unforgiving creditor, who could not be satisfied by anything less than the death of his debtor; then the Lord Jesus came and found us burthened with a heavy debt. This debt no man could satisfy by his natural innocence; I had nothing of my own wherewith to purchase my freedom, and therefore He bestowed on me a new kind of acquittance; He made me debtor to Himself, seeing I had no means of discharging my debt. Now we became debtors not by nature but by our own fault; by our sins we contracted heavy debts, so that we who were free came under a bond; for he is a debtor who has received of his creditor's money. Now sin is from the devil, this is the money which belongs to the wicked one as his patrimony; for as virtues are the treasure of Christ, so crimes are the riches of the devil. He had brought the human race under the perpetual slavery of an inherited liability by that heavy debt which our improvident ancestor transmitted by inheritance to his posterity. But then the Lord Jesus came, |272 He gave His life for the life of all, and shed His blood for the blood of all.

8.  Thus we have changed our creditor, not discharged our debt, nay we may even say we have discharged it, for although it remains, our bond is cancelled, the Lord Jesus having said to the prisoners, Go forth; to them that are in darkness, Shew yourselves; your sins therefore are forgiven. Thus He has forgiven all, nor is there any one to whom He has not shewn mercy. For so it is written, that He has forgiven all trespasses; blotting out the hand-writing of the ordinances that was against us. Why then do we hold the bonds of others? why would we exact our claims from others when we have obtained remission of our own? He Who has shewn mercy to all requires of each of us that what he remembers to have been remitted to himself he should himself remit to others.

9.  Beware lest you begin to incur heavier blame as a creditor than you did as a debtor; as that servant in the Gospel to whom his Lord forgave all his debt began to exact from his fellow servant what he himself had not paid; wherefore his Lord was wroth, and exacted from him with the greatest severity what he had before remitted to him. Let us beware therefore lest the same evil befal us, lest by not remitting our debts we also be called on to pay what had been forgiven us, for so it is written in the words of the Lord Jesus, So likewise shall My heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses. Let us then forgive small things to whom great have been forgiven, and understand that the more we forgive the more acceptable we shall be to God, for we are so much the more acceptable to God the more we have been forgiven.

10.  Further, when the Pharisee was asked by our Lord, Which of them loved him most, he answered, I suppose that he to whom he forgave most. Whereupon the Lord said, Thou hast rightly judged. The Pharisees judgment is praised, but his affection is blamed. Of others he judges correctly, but what he believes of others, he does not believe in his own case. Thus you hear the Jew praising the discipline of the Church, praising its true graces, |273 honouring its priests; but when you exhort him to believe he refuses to do so, and thus follows not himself what he praises in us. His eulogy then is not complete, though Christ has said to him, Thou hast rightly judged, for Cain also offered rightly, but did not divide rightly, wherefore God said unto him, If thou offer rightly, but divide not rightly, thou hast sinned; be still. And so this man offered rightly, because he judges that Christ, having forgiven Christians many sins, ought to be more earnestly loved by them; but he has not divided rightly, because he believes that He Who remitted the sins of men could possibly be ignorant of them.

11.  And therefore He says to Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest Me no water for My feet, but she hath washed My feet with tears. We are all one body of Christ, the Head is God, and we are the members: some perhaps as the Prophets, may be the eyes; others the teeth, as the Apostles, who have filled our hearts with the food of the Evangelical preaching, and of whom it is written, His eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk. They are His hands who perform good works: His belly are they who bestow the strength of nourishment on the poor: Some too are His feet also, and would that I might be counted worthy to be even His heel. He then who pardons the very lowest their sins, pours water on the feet of Christ, and Avhile he frees only the mean, yet washes the feet of Christ Himself.

12.  He also pours water on the feet of Christ who cleanses his conscience from the pollution of sin; for Christ walks in the breast of each of us. Beware then lest your conscience be defiled, or you thus begin to stain the feet of Christ. Beware lest He encounter the thorn of wickedness within you, whereby His heel as He walks in you may be wounded. The reason why the Pharisee did not pour water on the feet of Christ was because his soul was not clean from the stain of wickedness. How could he cleanse his conscience, who had not received that water which Christ gives? But the Church has that water, and the Church has tears, the waters of Baptism and the tears of penitence. For faith, which mourns for former sins, is also wont to |274 avoid fresh ones, wherefore Simon the Pharisee as he had no water so neither had he tears. For how could he have them, who did no penance? but as he believed not in Christ so neither had he tears. Had he had them, he would have washed his eyes that he might see Christ, Whom as yet, when he first sat down, he saw not. For had he seen Him, he would not have doubted of His power.

13.  Nor had the Pharisee hair, in that he knew not the Nazarite; but the Church had hair, and she sought for the Nazarite. Hairs are considered a superfluous part of the body, but if they are anointed they send forth a good smell, and are an ornament to the head, but if not anointed with oil they grow heavy. So likewise riches are a burthen, if you know not how to use them, if you sprinkle them not with the odours of Christ. But if you feed the poor, if you wash and cleanse their filth, their wounds, you have truly wiped the feet of Christ.

14.  Thou gavest Me no kiss, but this woman, since the time I came in, hath not ceased to kiss My feet. A kiss is the sign of love. But how could the Jew possess this, who knew not peace, who received not peace from Christ when He said, Peace I have with you, My peace 1 give unto you? This kiss belongs then not to the Synagogue but to the Church, to her who looked for Him, who loved Him, who said, Let Him kiss me with the kisses of His mouth. For the ardour of that lingering desire, which had grown with waiting for the Lord's coming, she sought slowly to quench by His kiss, and to satisfy her thirst by this gift. Wherefore the holy Prophet says, Thou shalt open my lips, and my mouth shall shew Thy praise. He then who praises the Lord Jesus kisses Him; and he who praises surely believes in Him. Thus David Himself says, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; and before, Let my mouth be filled with Thy praise, and let me sing of Thy glory.

15.  Concerning the gift of special grace the same Scripture also teaches thee that he who receives the Spirit kisses Christ, for the holy Prophet says, I opened my mouth, and drew in the spirit 1. He then kisses Christ, who confesses Him; For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness, and with the month confession is made unto salvation. He |275 kisses the feet of Christ, who, reading the Gospel, recognizes the acts of the Lord Jesus, and admires them with pious affection; thus religiously kissing, as it were, the Lord's steps as He walks. We kiss Christ then with the kiss of Communion; Whoso readeth let him understand.

16.  But how can the Jew have this kiss? For as he believed not in His Advent, so neither did he believe in His Passion, for how can that man believe that He suffered, who believes not that He came? Hence the Pharisee had no kiss save haply that of the traitor Judas. But neither had Judas this kiss, and therefore when he would have shewn to the Jews that kiss which was the concerted sign of his betrayal, the Lord says to him: Judas, betrayest thou the Son of man with a kiss? that is, 'Thou offerest a kiss, though thou hast not the love that the kiss should express, thou offerest a kiss who art ignorant of the mystical meaning2 of the kiss.' What is required is not the kiss of the lips, but of the heart and mind.

17.  But you will say that he kissed the Lord. True it is he kissed Him with his lips, and this kiss the Jewish people has, wherefore it is said, This people honoureth Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. Wherefore he has not the kiss who has not faith and charity; for by a kiss is conveyed the force of love. Where love is not, nor faith, nor charity, how can there be any sweetness in kisses?

19. Now the Church ceases not to kiss the feet of Christ, and therefore in the Song of songs she asks not for one but many kisses; like holy Mary she is attentive to all His discourses, she receives all His words, when the Gospel is read, or the Prophets; she keeps all His sayings in her heart. The Church, alone, then, as being the spouse, has kisses, for a kiss is, as it were, the pledge of marriage and the privilege of wedlock. How can the Jew have kisses who believes not in the Spouse, who knows not that He is already come?

19. Nor is it kisses alone that he lacks, but oil also, wherewith to anoint the feet of Christ, for if he had had oil he would before now have bowed down his neck. For Moses says, It is a stiff-necked people; and the Lord says |276 that the priest and levite passed by on the other side, nor did either of these pour oil and wine into the wounds of him who had been wounded by robbers; had they possessed this oil they would have poured it into their own wounds. But Isaiah says, They cannot apply ointment nor oil nor bandage.

20.  But the Church has oil wherewith she dresses the wounds of her children, that the hardness of the wound may not sink inwards; she has oil, which she has received secretly. With this oil Asher has washed his feet, as it is written, A blessed son is Asher; and he shall be acceptable to his brethren, dip Ms foot in oil. With this oil therefore the Church anoints the necks of her children, that they may receive the yoke of Christ; with this oil she has anointed the martyrs to purify them from the dust of this world; with this oil she has anointed confessors, that so they might not yield to labour, or sink down through weariness, or be overwhelmed by the waves of this world; it is for the purpose of refreshing them with spiritual oil that she has thus anointed them.

21.  The Synagogue possesses not this oil, for she hath not the olive, she did not recognize that dove which brought back the olive branch after the deluge. This same dove afterwards descended, when Christ was being baptized, and abode upon Him, as John testifies in the Gospel, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon Him. But how could he see the dove, who saw Him not upon whom the Spirit descended as a dove?

22.  So then the Church both washes the feet of Christ, and wipes them with her hair, and anoints them with oil, and pours ointment upon them, in that she not only tends the wounded and comforts the weary, but also sprinkles over them the sweet odours of grace. Nor is it upon the rich and powerful only that she sheds this grace, but on men of low birth also, she weighs all in an equal balance, she receives all in the same bosom, and cherishes them in the same lap.

23.  Christ died once, and was buried once, nevertheless He daily desires that ointment should be poured upon His |277 feet. Now what are these feet of Christ whereon we pour ointment? The feet of Christ are they of whom He saith Himself, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me. These feet that woman in the Gospel tends3, and washes with her tears, when the lowest have their sins remitted, their faults washed away, their pardon granted. These feet he kisses who loves even the lowest of the holy congregation. These feet he anoints with ointment, who imparts even to the weaker brethren the graces of His meekness. In these the martyrs, in these the Apostles, in these the Lord Jesus Himself declares that He is honoured.

24. Thou seest what instruction the Lord imparts, how by His example He stimulates thee to devotion; for He instructs by His censure. And He thus accuses the Jews, O My people, what have I done unto thee, and wherein have I wearied thee? testify against Me. For I brought thee up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee out of the house of servants; adding, and I sent before thee Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. Remember what Balak devised against thee, he, that is, who sought the aid of enchantments, but I suffered him not to hurt thee. Truly thou wert oppressed while sojourning in foreign lands, thou wert laden with heavy burthens: I sent Moses Aaron and Miriam before thy face, and he who had spoiled the strangers was himself despoiled. Thou, who hadst lost thine own goods gainedst others, thou wert delivered from the enemies that surrounded thee, and in the midst of the waters thou sawest in safety the death of thine enemies, for the same wave which had separated and carried thee forward flowed back again and drowned the Egyptians. When thou wert in want of food while journeying through the wilderness, did I not rain bread from heaven for thee, and scatter food around thee, whereon thou wentest? Did I not subdue all thy enemies and bring thee into the region of the cluster of grapes? Did I not deliver up to thee Sihon (which means 'proud') king of the Amorites (that is, chief of them that provoked thee); did I not also deliver to thee alive the king of Ai, whom, subject to the sentence of the ancient curse, thou nailedst to the wood and hangedst upon a tree? What shall I say |278 of the slaughter of the hosts of the five kings, who strove to exclude thee from the promised land? And what doth the Lord require of thee, o man, for all these things, but to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

25.   And to king David himself, that meek and holy man, what was His expostulation by the prophet Nathan? I chose thee, He says, the youngest among thy brethren; I filled thee with the spirit of meekness; by the hand of Samuel, in whom was My Spirit and My Name, I anointed thee king. And from an exile I made thee a conqueror, taking out of the way that former king whom an evil spirit instigated to persecute the priests of the Lord. Upon thy throne I set one of thy seed not so much as an heir as a colleague. I made even strangers subject to thee, that they who resisted might serve thee, and wilt thou deliver My servants into the hands of My enemies, wilt thou take away that which was My servant's, whereby both thou wilt be branded with sin, and My adversaries will have whereof to glory?

26.  Seeing therefore, O Emperor, (for I will now not only discourse of you but address myself to you) how severe the Lord's censures are wont to be, you must take care, in proportion as you become more illustrious, to submit so much the more humbly to your Maker. For it is written: When the Lord thy God shall have brought thee into a foreign land, and thou shalt eat the fruits of others, say not,'By my own strength and righteousness I obtained these things,' but, 'The Lord God gave them to me, Christ in His mercy conferred them on me,' and therefore by loving His body, that is, the Church, pour water on His feet and kiss His feet; thus shalt thou not only absolve those who have been taken in sin, but in giving to them peace you will bring them into concord and restore to them rest. Pour ointment on His feet, that the whole house wherein Christ sits at meat may be filled with the odour of thy ointment, and let all who sit at meat with Him rejoice in thy fragrance; that is to say, pay such regard even to the lowest, that in their absolution the Angels may rejoice, as they do over one sinner that repenteth, the Apostles may be glad, |279 the Prophets may exult. For the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee, nor the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Since therefore each member is necessary, do thou protect the whole body of the Lord Jesus, that He also of His divine mercy may protect thy kingdom.

27.  On my coming down he says to me, 'You have been preaching at me to-day.' I replied that in my discourse I had his benefit in view. He then said, 'It is true, I did make too harsh a decree concerning the reparation of the synagogue by the Bishop, but this has been rectified. As for the monks, they commit many crimes.' Then Timasius, one of the Generals-in-chief 4, began to be very vehement against the monks. I replied to him, 'With the Emperor I deal as is fitting, because I know that he fears God, but with you, who speak so rudely, I shall deal differently.'

28.  After standing for some time, I said to the Emperor, 'Enable me to offer for you with a safe conscience, set my mind at rest.' The Emperor sat still, and nodded, but did not promise in plain words; then, seeing that I still remained standing, he said that he would amend the order. I said at once that he must quash the whole enquiry, for fear the Count 5 should make it an opportunity for inflicting wrong on the Christians. He promised that it should be done. I said to him, 'I act on your promise,' and repeated the words again. 'Do so' said he. Then I went to the altar; but I would not have gone, if he had not given me his distinct promise. And indeed so great was the grace attending the oblation, that I myself was sensible that this favour he had granted was very acceptable to our God, and that the divine Presence had not been withheld. Then all was done as I wished. |280 


The Letter of Siricius was addressed to the Church of Milan to inform them of the sentence of excommunication passed against Jovinian and his followers. Jovinian had been a monk, but had abandoned the ascetic life and rushed into extremes of self-indulgence: there is a good description of him in Tillemont, (Vie de S. Ambr. 63, 61,) who calls him 'cet Epicure des Chretiens.' The false doctrines with which he 'barked at the true doctrines of the Church' are stated in this Letter and in the reply of the Synod of the Church of Milan which follows. Jovinian was answered by S. Jerome, who writes against him with much vehemence.


1.   I would fain always, beloved brethren, send you tidings of joys, sincere as you are in love and peace, so that by means of the mutual interchange of letters we might be pleased by the tidings of your welfare 6. Our ancient Adversary however 7 does not suffer us to be free from his attacks, he who is a liar from the beginning, the enemy of truth, envious of man, in order to deceive whom he first deceived himself, the adversary of chastity, the teacher of sensuality, who is fed by cruelty, punished by abstinence, who hates fasts, asserting, as his followers also give out, that they are superfluous, having no hope of things to come, obnoxious to the censure of the Apostle, Let us eat and drink for to-morrow we die.

2.  O miserable boldness, O craft of a desperate mind! Already was this unknown language of heresy spreading through the Church like a cancer, seeking to fill the breast, and plunge the whole man in destruction: and unless the Lord of Sabaoth had broken through the snare which they had laid, the public exhibition of so much evil and hypocrisy would have led to ruin the hearts of many simple ones, for the human mind is easily drawn aside towards evil, choosing rather to fly through open space, than to travel with pain along the narrow way.

3.    Wherefore it was very necessary, most dearly beloved, to commend what has been done here to your notice and consideration, lest through the ignorance of any priest, the Church might he infected by the contagion of these most wicked men who are breaking in upon it under a religious pretext, as it is written and the Lord has said, Many |281 come to you in sheeps' clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves; ye shall know them by their fruits.

These are they who under a mean garb boast themselves as Christians, that walking under the semblance of piety they may enter the house of prayer and utter the words of wily disputation, that they may privily shoot at them which are true of heart, and, seducing them from Catholic truth, may draw them over, after the example of Satan, to the madness of their own doctrines, beguiling the simplicity of the flock.

4.  And indeed from the times of the Apostles up to now we have heard and known by experience of many malignant heresies, but the sacred truth of the Church has never been assailed by the barking of such dogs as those who have now suddenly broken in upon us, with the doctrines of unbelief fully sprouted, enemies of the faith; who by the fruit of their works have betrayed whose disciples they are. For while other heretics misunderstanding single points have proposed to bear away and abstract from the Divine system of teaching, these men, not having on a wedding garment, wound the Catholics, perverting, as I have said, the continuity of the New and Old Testament, and interpreting it in a diabolical spirit, have by their alluring and false arguments already begun to ruin some Christians, and to make them associates of their madness, not keeping within themselves the poison of their iniquity: but some of their chosen ones have betrayed their blasphemies by writing a rash discourse, which the rage of a desperate mind has led them openly to publish, favouring, as it does, the cause of the Heathens.

5.  But of their madness I suddenly received intelligence by means of a shocking writing which certain faithful Christians, men of high rank, and signal piety, caused to be conveyed to me, unworthy as I am, in order that the opposition of these men to the Divine Law might be detected by the discernment of the Clergy and repressed by a spiritual sentence. Assuredly we receive without scorn the vows of those marriages which we assist at with the veil 8, but virgins, for whose existence marriage is necessary, as being devoted to God, we honour more highly.

6. Having therefore held an assembly of my clergy it became clear that their sentiments were contrary to our doctrine, that is, to the Christian law. Therefore, following the Apostolic precept, we, seeing that they were preaching another Gospel than that which we received, have excommunicated them. Know therefore that it was the unanimous sentence of us all, as well of the presbyters and deacons as |282 of the other clergy, that Jovinian, Auxentius, Genialis, Germinator, Felix, Prontinus 9, Martianus, Januarius, and Ingeniosus, who were discovered to be the promoters of the new heresy and blasphemy, should be condemned by the Divine sentence and our judgment, and remain in perpetual exclusion from the Church.

7. Nothing doubting that your Holinesses will observe the aforesaid decree, I have sent you this Epistle by my brethren and fellow-priests, Crescens, Leopardus and Alexander, that they, with a fervent spirit, may perform a religious and faithful service.

LETTER XLII.  [A.D.389.]

In this, their reply to Siricius, drawn up in all probability by S. Ambrose himself, the Council of Milan thank him for his care, and announce that they have followed his example and condemned Jovinian and his followers in the same way. They dwell upon his errors, particularly on his disparagement of virginity, on his denial of the true virginity of our Lord's Mother, on his contempt of widowhood, and of fasting, and condemn him as a follower of Manes. They argue in especial detail against his argument with regard to the Virgin Mary, which differs from that of Helvidius and other assailants of the a_ei\ pa&rqenoj.


1. In your Holiness' Letter we recognized the vigilance of a good shepherd, for you faithfully guard the door which has been entrusted to you, and with pious solicitude watch over the fold of Christ, being worthy to be heard and followed by the sheep of the Lord. Knowing therefore the lambs of Christ, you will easily discover the wolves, and meet them as a wary shepherd, so as to keep them from scattering the Lord's flock by their unbelieving life and dismal barking.

2. We praise you for this, our Lord and brother dearly beloved, and join in cordial commendations of it. Nor are we surprised that the Lord's flock was terrified at the rage of wolves in whom they recognized not the voice of |283 Christ. For it is a savage barking to shew no reverence to virginity, observe no rule of chastity, to seek to place every thing on a level, to abolish the different degrees of merit, and to introduce a certain meagreness in heavenly rewards, as if Christ had only one palm to bestow, and there was no copious diversity in His rewards.

3. They pretend that they are giving honour to marriage. But what praise can rightly be given to marriage if no distinction is paid to virginity? We do not deny that marriage was hallowed by Christ, for the Divine words say, And they twain shall be one flesh, and one spirit, but our birth precedes our calling, and the mystery of the Divine operation is much more excellent than the remedy of human frailty. A good wife is deservedly praised, but a pious virgin is more properly preferred, for the Apostle says, He that giveth his virgin in marriage doeth well, but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better; for the one careth for the things of the Lord, the other for the things of the world. The one is bound by the chains of marriage, the other is free from chains; the one is under the Law, the other under Grace. Marriage is good, for thereby the means of continuing the human race has been devised, but virginity is better, for thereby the heritage of the heavenly kingdom is regained, and the mode of attaining to heavenly rewards discovered. By a woman care entered the world; by a virgin salvation was brought to pass. Lastly, Christ chose virginity as His own special gift, and displayed the grace of chastity, thus making an exhibition of that in His own person which in His Mother He had made the object of His choice.

4. How great is the madness of their dismal barkings, that the same persons should say that Christ could not be born of a virgin, and yet assert that women, after having given birth to human pledges, remain virgins? Does Christ grant to others what, as they assert, He could not grant to Himself? But He, although He took on Him our flesh, although He was made man that He might redeem man, and recal him from death, still, as being God, came upon earth in an extraordinary way, that as He had said, Behold I make all things new, so also He might be |284 born of an immaculate virgin, and be believed to be, as it is written, God with us. But from their perverse ways they are induced to say 'She was a virgin when she conceived, but not a virgin when she brought forth.' Could she then conceive as a virgin, and yet not be able to bring forth as a virgin, when conception always precedes, and birth follows?

5.  But if they will not believe the doctrines of the Clergy, let them believe the oracles of Christ, let them believe the admonitions of Angels who say, For with God nothing shall be impossible. Let them give credit to the Creed of the Apostles, which the Roman Church has always kept and preserved undefiled. Mary heard the voice of the Angel, and she who before had said How shall this be? not asking from want of faith in the mode of generation, afterwards replied, Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word. This is the virgin who conceived, this the virgin who brought forth a Son. For thus it is written, Behold a Virgin shall conceive and bear a Son; declaring not only that she should conceive as a virgin, but also that she bring forth as a virgin.

6.  But what is that gate of the sanctuary, that outward gate which looketh towards the East, which remains shut, and no man, it is said, shall enter in by it but the Lord, the God of Israel. Is not Mary this gate, by whom the Saviour entered into the world? This is the gate of righteousness, as He Himself said, Suffer us to fulfil all righteousness. Blessed Mary is the gate, whereof it is written that the Lord hath entered in by it, therefore it shall be shut after birth; for as a virgin she both conceived and brought forth.

7.  But why should it be incredible that Mary, contrary to the usage of natural birth, should bring forth and yet remain a virgin; when contrary to the usage of nature, the sea saw and fled, and the floods of Jordan retired to their source. It should not exceed our belief that a virgin should bring forth, when we read that a rock poured forth water, and the waves of the sea were gathered up like a wall. Nor need it, again, exceed our belief that a man should be born of a virgin, when a running stream gushed |285 forth from the rock, when iron swam upon the waters, and a man walked upon them. If therefore the waves carried a man, could not a virgin bring forth a man? But what man? Him of Whom we read, The Lord shall send them a Man Who shall deliver them; and the Lord shall be known to Egypt. Wherefore in the old Testament a Hebrew virgin led the people through the sea, in the New Testament a royal virgin was elected to be a heavenly abode for our salvation.

8.  But what more? let us also subjoin the praises of widowhood, since in the Gospel next after that most illustrious birth from a virgin, comes the widow Anna; she who had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; and she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served with fastings and prayers night and day.

9.  And fitting it is that these men should despise widowhood, which is wont to keep fasts, for they regret that they should have been mortified by these for any time, and avenge the wrong they inflicted on themselves, and by daily banquets and habits of luxury seek to ward off the pain of abstinence. They do nothing more rightly than in thus condemning themselves out of their own mouth.

10.  But they even fear lest their former fasting should be reckoned against them. Let them choose whichever they like: if they ever fasted, let them repent of their good work, if never, let them confess their own intemperance and luxury. And so they assert that Paul was a teacher of excess. But who can be a teacher of temperance if he was a teacher of excess, who chastised his body and brought it into subjection, and recorded his performance of the service he owed to Christ by many fastings; and this not for the purpose of praising himself and his doings, but that he might teach us, what example to follow. Did he then teach excess who said, Why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances? Touch not, taste not, handle not, which all are to perish with the using; who also says, Not in indulgence of the body, not in any honour to the satisfying and love of the flesh, not in the lusts of error; but in the Spirit by Whom we are renewed. |286 

11.  If what the Apostle has said is not enough, let them hear the Prophet saying, I chastened myself with fasting. He therefore who fasts not is uncovered and naked and exposed to wounds. And if Adam had clothed himself with fasting he would not have been found to be naked. Nineveh delivered itself from death by fasting. And the Lord Himself says, This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.

12.  But why need we say more to our master and teacher? seeing that these persons have now paid the worthy price of their perfidy, who have on this account come even hither, that no place might remain where they were not condemned; who have proved themselves to be truly Manichees, by not believing that He came forth from a virgin. What madness is this, almost equal to that of the modern Jews? If He is not believed so to have come, neither is He believed to have taken upon Him our flesh, therefore He was seen only in figure, He was crucified only in figure. But He was crucified for us in truth, He is in truth our Redeemer.

13.  He is a Manichee who denies the truth, who denies that Christ came in the flesh; and therefore the remission of sins is not their's; but it is the impiety of the Manichees which both the most merciful Emperor has abhorred 10, and all who saw them have fled from as a plague. Witnesses thereof are our brethren and fellow-presbyters, Crescens, Leopardus, and Alexander, fervent in the Holy Spirit, by whose means they have been exposed to common execration, and driven as fugitives from the city of Milan.

14.  Wherefore you are to know that Jovinian, Auxentius, Germinator, Felix, Plotinus, Genialis, Martianus, Januarius and Ingeniosus, whom your Holiness has condemned, have also, in accordance with your judgment, been condemned by ourselves.

May our Almighty God keep you in safety and prosperity, Lord and brother most beloved. |287 

Here follows the subscription.

I Eventius 11, Bishop, salute your Holiness in the Lord, and have subscribed this Epistle.
Maximus, Bishop.
Felix, Bishop.
Bassianus, Bishop.
Theodorus, Bishop.
Constantius, Bishop.
By command of my lord Geminianus Bishop, and in his presence, I Aper, Presbyter, have subscribed.
Eustasius, Bishop, and all the Orders have subscribed.


This Letter is a reply to a question from Horontianus, why man, the highest work of God's creation, was made the Fast. S. Ambrose brings forward various analogies to shew that the last is first, and each with an enthusiastic and poetical description of man's greatness, and of his dominion over the other works of creation.


1. You have intimated to me your surprise at finding in my Treatise on the Six days of Creation, that, while you found both the Sacred Narrative and the tenor of my discourse assigning greater gifts to man than to any other creature in the earth, still that the land and the waters brought forth all flying and creeping things and things in the waters before him for whose sake they were all created: and you ask me the reason of this, which Moses was silent about, and I did not venture to touch upon.

2. And perhaps that spokesman of the Divine Oracles purposely kept silence, lest he should seem to render himself the judge and counsellor of the Divine ordinances; for to give utterance to that with which he was inspired by the Spirit of God is one thing, to interpret the will of God is |288 another. I am of opinion however that we, not as speaking in God's Name, but as gathering up scattered principles of reason from human usage, may he able, from the way in which God has disposed other things for man's use, to come to the conclusion that it was fitting for man to be the last work of creation.

3.  For he who sets out a banquet, like that rich man in the Gospel, (for we must compare Divine things with each other the better to draw our conclusion,) prepares every thing first, kills his oxen and fatlings, and then bids his friends to supper. The more trivial things therefore are prepared in the first place, and then he who is worthy of honour is invited. Hence the Lord also first provided for the food of man all other animals, and then invited to the feast man himself, as His friend: and truly His friend, seeing that he was partaker of the Divine Charity and heir of His Glory. To man himself it is that He says: Friend, how camest thou in hither? So then all things that precede are to minister to the need of the friend, and it is the friend who is invited last.

4.   Take another instance. What is the world but a sort of arena of continual strife? Wherefore also in the Apocalypse the Lord says, To him that overcometh will I give a crown of life; and Paul says, I have fought a good fight; and in another place, No man is crowned except he strive lawfully. He who institutes this combat is Almighty God. Now he who in this world offers a combat, does he not first provide all things which are necessary thereto, and prepare the chaplets of victory before he summons the athletics to contend for the prize; and all this that the conqueror may not suffer delay, but retire from the contest crowned with his reward? Now the rewards of man are the fruits of the earth and the lights of heaven; the former for the use of this present life, the latter for the hope of life eternal.

5.  As a wrestler therefore he enters the lists last of all; he raises his eyes to heaven, he sees that even the heavenly creation was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope. He sees that the whole creation groaneth in pain together, waiting |289 for redemption. He sees that labour awaits us all. He raises his eyes, he sees the circlets of lights, he surveys the orbs of the moon and stars: For the just, who overcome, shall be as the stars in heaven. And he chastises his body, that it may not be his enemy in the combat, he anoints it with the oil of mercy, he exercises it with daily trials of virtue, he smears himself with dust, he runs to the goal of the course but not as uncertainly, he aims his blows, he darts forth his arms, but not into empty space, he strikes the adversary whom he sees not, for he has respect to Him alone to Whom all enemies give way, even those who are invisible, in Whose Name the powers of the air were turned aside. It is he therefore who poises the blow, but it is Christ Who strikes, it is he who lifts up his heel, but Christ Who directs it to the ground. Lastly, although Paul saw not those whom he struck, he was not as one that beateth the air, because by the preaching of Christ he wounded those evil spirits which assaulted him. Rightly therefore did man, for whom a race was prepared, enter the course last, that he might be preceded by heaven which was to be, as it were, his reward.

6.  But we wrestle not only against spiritualities of wicked-ness in high places, but also against flesh and blood. We wrestle with satiety, with the very fruits of the earth, with wine, by which even a righteous man was made drunk, and the whole people of the Jews overthrown; we wrestle with wild animals, with the fowls of the air; for our flesh, if pampered by these, cannot be brought to subjection; we wrestle with perils of the way, with perils of waters, as Paul says; we wrestle with rods of the wood, those rods with which the Apostles were beaten. You see how severe are our combats. Thus the earth is man's trial-ground, heaven is his crown; and fitting therefore it was that as a friend, what was to minister to his wants should precede him, as a combatant, his reward.

7.  Take another illustration. In all things the beginning and the ending are most excellent. If you look upon a house, it is the foundation and the roof which are more considerable than the other parts, if you look upon a field it is the sowing and the harvest, the planting and the |290 vintage. How sweet are the grafts of trees, how pleasant are the fruits! In the same manner also was the heaven created first, and man last, as a kind of heavenly creature upon earth. For although in body he is compared with the beasts, in mind he is numbered among the inhabitants of heaven; for as we have borne the image of the earthy; we shall also bear the image of the heavenly. How should he not be heavenly, who is made after the image and likeness of God?

8.  Rightly therefore in the creation of the world the heaven is both first and last, wherein is that which is beyond heaven, even the God of heaven. And of man is rather to be understood the text, Heaven is my throne, for God does not sit above the element, but in the heart of man. Wherefore the Lord also says, We will come unto Him, and make our abode with Him. Heaven therefore is the first work in the creation of the world, and man the last.

9.  Heaven is of the world, man above the world; for the former is a portion of the world, the latter is an inhabitant of Paradise, and the possession of Christ. Heaven is thought to be undecaying, yet it passes away; man is deemed to be incorruptible, yet he puts on incorruption; the fashion of the first perishes, the latter rises again as being immortal; yet the hands of the Lord, according to the authority of Scripture, formed them both. For as we read of the heavens, And the heavens are the work of Thy hands; so also man says, Thy hands have made me and fashioned me; and again, The heavens declare the glory of

God. And as the heaven is resplendent with stars, so are men bright with the light of good works, for their works shine before their Father Which is in heaven. The former is the firmament of heaven which is on high, and the latter firmament is not unlike to it, whereof it is said, Upon this rock will I build My Church; the one is the firmament of the elements, the other of virtues, and the last is more excellent; they sucked honey out of the firm rock, for the Rock is the flesh of Christ, which redeemed the heaven and the whole world.

10.  Why should I add further, carrying you, as it were, |291 through the whole course, that God made man partaker of the Divine nature, as we read in the Epistle of Peter? Whence one says not improperly, We also are His offspring, for He made us akin to Himself, and we are of a rational nature, that we might seek for that Godhead Which is not far from each one of us, in Whom we live and move and have our being.

11.  Having therefore conferred on man that which is the greatest of graces, He granted to him as to that creature who was dearest and very nearest to Him, all the things which are in this world, that he might want for nothing which is necessary either for life or for a good life, some of which things were to be supplied by the abundance of earthly plenty to minister pleasure, others again by the knowledge of heavenly secrets, to arouse man's mind by the love and desire of that discipline which should enable us to reach the summit of the Divine mysteries. Both these therefore are most excellent gifts, both to have all the riches of the world subject to him, all flying and creeping-things and fishes, and, as being lord of the elements, the use of the sea, and without toil or want, after the model and likeness of his adorable Creator, to abound in all things, living in the greatest plenty, and also to open paths for himself, and make progress, so as to ascend to the royal abode of heaven.

12.  You will easily discover that the traveller along this arduous path is the man, who has been so fashioned in purpose of heart and will, as to be, as far as possible, estranged from his body, as not to enter into any fellowship with vice, nor suffer himself to be smoothed down by the words of flatterers: one who does not, when riding on the chariot of prosperity, despise the humble, shun sorrow, discard and disparage the praises of the holy, nor, by desire of glory or of wealth, grasped at too prematurely, exhaust all the ardour of hope; one whose mind is not bowed down by sadness nor broken by injury, which is not har-rassed by suspicion, nor excited by lust, whom the passions of the body do not overcome, whom no desire of vanities or charms of pleasure disquiet and disturb. Add to all this the virtues of chastity, soberness and temperance; let |292 him be able easily to curb the irregular sallies of light passion, set bounds to his pleasures and desires, clear up ambiguity by an equitable judgment, by tranquillity of mind settle what is doubtful, and with all the strifes of the mind and body reconciled, so to speak, preserve in a just balance the concord of the exterior and interior man unimpaired, stilling them as they lie within his own breast, while, should he be called to it, no evil counsellor is able to turn him away from the crown of suffering, such a man surely will be adopted not only as a friend but a son by the Father, that he may obtain the riches of His glory and inheritance.

13.  Rightly therefore did he come last, being, as it were, the end of nature, formed to righteousness, and the arbiter of right among other creatures. And, if we may employ the illustration, as among men Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to every one that believeth, so are we as beasts in the sight of the Lord, for thus says the Prophet, I became as a beast before Thee. Yet what comparison is there between the two, when He has redeemed those who were ready to perish, and we put them to death, He calls slaves to liberty and we inflict bondage on the free? But who is like God?

14. Man however came forth the last of all created things, in form comely, in mind lofty, to be admired by all creatures, having in him, after the image of the eternal God, an invisible intelligence 12 clothed in human form. This is that intelligence or power of the soul which claims to itself, as the ruling principle, authority over the soul and body. This it is that all other living creatures dread although they see it not, just as we fear God Whom we see not, and fear Him only the more because we see Him not.

15.  For, if we may presume to speak of ourselves after His image and likeness, as Scripture says, in the same way as He is established in the fulness of His Majesty, and sees all things, heaven, air, earth and sea, embracing the universe and penetrating each part, so that nothing escapes Him, and there is nothing which does not consist in Him and depend on Him, and which is not full of Him, as He Himself says, I fill heaven and earth, saith the Lord, so |293 likewise the mind of man sees all things and is not seen, but maintains its own essence invisible. By means of discipline forethought and perception she apprehends hidden things, dives into the secret of the deep, and those lurking-places which are spread throughout all lands, scrutinizing the nature of both elements, after the likeness of the great God Whom she imitates and follows, Whose image in minute portions is represented in each individual. She raises herself likewise into the air, and rising above the cloudy region, soars, in zeal for knowledge and thirst for wisdom, to the height of heaven, and resting there awhile, rapt in wonder at the heavenly constellations and charmed with their brightness, looks down upon the things of earth. Then she approaches also to Hesperus and Arcturus and those other stars which although Planets err not, and sees that they keep their coarse without stumbling, that course along which, in order the better to visit all regions, they seem to circuit and to wander. And thus with greater ardour she raises herself to the very bosom of the Father, wherein is the Only-Begotten Son of God Who declares the secrets of God, which in the time to come are to be revealed face to face. But even now He discloses them partly and in a figure to those whom He deems worthy, and at the same time sheds forth from the Spirit and from His own countenance floods of resplendent light, so that he who is illuminated thereby may say, But it was as a fire blazing in my bones and I am melted on all sides, and cannot stay. And David says, Let my sentence come forth from Thy presence!

16. By this vigour of mind, therefore, to return to the point from whence I have digressed, whereby she subjects to herself things external, comprehends in her view things distant and separate from each other, and subdues the more powerful animals, she has inspired the rest with such reverence for herself, that they emulously obey her as their king, and pay ready attention to her voice. Nay, although they are irrational they still acknowledge reason, and fix within themselves that discipline which nature has not given them. Furthermore wild beasts, seeing man's gentleness, grow gentle under his rule. Often have they closed their jaws, |294 recalled by the sound of the human voice. We see hares caught without injury by the harmless fangs of dogs, and even lions, if they hear man's voice, letting their prey escape: leopards also and bears urged on and recalled by the sound of his voice: the horses stimulated by the applause of man, and slackening their speed at his silence: nay, often, untouched by the lash they outstrip others that are scourged on, so much more powerfully does the scourge of the tongue incite them.

17.  But what shall I say of the creatures' services to man? In order to please him the ram nourishes his fleece, and is plunged in the stream to enhance its beauty; sheep also crop the best herbage to distend with sweeter juice of milk their teeming udders; and, that they may offer to man their gifts, suffer the pangs of travail; bulls groan all day under the plough pressed down in the furrows; camels, besides the service of bearing burthens, suffer themselves to be shorn like rams, so that each animal contributes to man, as to a king, its service, and pays its annual tribute. The horse, exulting in such a rider, prances proudly, and curving his neck when his master mounts, gives his back to afford him a seat. And if you are still at a loss why man was made last, let the same animal teach us that this is to be deemed an honour not a slight. For he bears one who came after him, not despising but fearing him, and bearing him with pain to himself from place to place. In a moment of time man reaches far distant places and traverses long distances, transported sometimes on single horses, sometimes in triumphal chariots 13.

18.  And since I have mentioned triumphal chariots it is needful that I should add thereto the chariot of Elijah which carried him through the air, and those of elephants, whereon man sits as conqueror, and governs although he be last and they precede him. And thus the steersman of a ship sits in the stern, and yet guides the whole ship. Whence I deem it not without a purpose that we are told in the Gospel that the Lord Jesus was asleep in the stern of the ship; and that when awakened He commanded the wind and the sea, and laid the storm, shewing thereby that |295 He came last because He came as the Pilot. Wherefore the Apostle says, The first man Adam was made a living soul, the last Adam was made a quickening Spirit. How-beit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural, and afterwards that which is spiritual; and then he adds, The first man is of the earth, earthy, the second man is from heaven, heavenly.

19.  Rightly therefore is man the last, being as it were the consummation of the whole work, the cause of the world, for whose sake all things were made; the habitant, as it were, of all the elements, he lives among beasts, swims with fishes, soars above birds, converses with Angels, dwells upon the earth, and has his warfare in heaven, ploughs the sea, feeds upon air, tills the soil, is a voyager over the deep, a fisher in the floods, a fowler in the air, in heaven an heir even joint-heir with Christ. These things he does by his diligence.

20.  Hear also things above man's natural power. Moses walked along the bottom of the sea, the Apostles upon the surface, Habbacuc flew without wings, Elijah conquered upon earth, and triumphed in heaven.14

Farewell, my son; love me for I also love you.


S.Ambrose here first dwells on the distinction between God and the Universe which is His work. He then speaks of the six days of Creation, and of the mystical meaning of the numbers seven and eight, applying various passages of Scripture in which they occur, and bringing forward analogies from nature.


1. You have done well to mark the prophet's distinction between the Creator and His works, or rather, God's own distinction, for Moses wrote not of himself, but by inspiration and revelation, particularly in what relates to the formation of the world. For the One being impassible, |296 the other liable to suffering, he has referred that which was impassible to God the Creator, but the passible part, without life or motion of its own, but receiving life and motion and form from its Creator, he has assigned to the world; and as this world, after its creation, ought not to be left without a ruler, or unprotected by any father, he therefore plainly describes the invisible God as the Ruler and Governor of this visible world. For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

2.  He therefore states the creation of the world to have taken place in six days, not that God required time to form it in, for He can do in a moment what He wills, for He spake the word, and they were created, but because things which are made, need some certain order, and order requires both time and number. And especially for the purpose of giving us a model for our works has He observed a certain number of days and certain seasons; for we also require time wherein to do aught perfectly, so as not to be precipitate in our counsels and works; nor to neglect their proper order. For when we read that God, as Scripture tells us, has made all things in wisdom, and by a certain counsel disposition and order, it is agreeable to reason that He should first have made the heavens which are the most beautiful; it is fitting also that we should first raise our eyes thither and conceive that it behoves us to aim at arriving thither, and that we should consider that it is to be preferred to all earthly habitations.

3.  Wherefore in six days He created the world, on the seventh day He rested from His works. The number seven is good, and we treat it not according to the manner of Pythagoras and other philosophers, but according to the form and divisions of spiritual grace, for the prophet Isaiah has set forth the seven principal virtues of the Holy Spirit. This sacred seven, like the venerable Trinity of the Father Son and Holy Ghost, knows neither time nor order, and is the origin of number, not bound by any of its laws. Wherefore as the heaven the earth and the sea were formed in honour of the eternal Trinity, and also the sun moon and stars, so in like manner we observe that it is according to this sevenfold circle of spiritual virtues, and this swiftly |297 revolving orbit of Divine operation, that a certain sevenfold ministry of planets, whereby this world is illuminated, has been created. And their service is said to agree with the number of these stars, which are fixed, or, as they are called in Greek, a)planei=j 15. The North has likewise received its Latin name (Septemtrio) from being irradiated by seven stars, upon the brightness of which as their guide pilots are said specially to fix their gaze.

4.  And this peculiar property has come down from heaven to earth; for not to speak of the sevenfold fashion of the head, in the two eyes, the two ears and nostrils, and the mouth whereby we enjoy the taste of great sweetness, how wonderful is it that in the seventh month most men are conceived, and he that is afterwards born receives at that time the commencement of his vital course. But in the eighth month we perceive that by a natural law the season of bringing forth is suspended, and if some fatal compulsion has opened the barriers of the womb, the danger both of the mother and her offspring is nigh at hand.

5.  But he who is born on the seventh day, although he be born well, is born to labour, but he who on the eighth day, obtains the mysteries of regeneration, is consecrated by grace, and called to the inheritance of the celestial kingdom. Great in the virtues of the Spirit is the grace of the holy number seven, but the same grace answers to the number seven, and consecrates the number eight. In the first we have the name, but in the latter the fruit, and therefore the grace of the Spirit, conferred on the eighth day, restored to Paradise those whom their own fault had banished.

6.  The Old Testament too knew this number eight which in Latin we call the Octave, for the preacher says, give a portion to seven and also to eight. The number seven belongs to the Old Testament, the number eight to the New, for then Christ rose, and the day of new salvation shone upon all. This is the day whereof the Prophet says, This is the day which the Lord hath made, let us rejoice and be glad in it: for on that day the brightness of full and |298 perfect circumcision was infused into the hearts of men. On this account the Old Testament also gave a part to eight in the solemnity of circumcision. But this still lay in darkness: then came the Sun of righteousness, and by the consummation of His passion revealed His rays of light; these He unfolded to all, and opened the brightness of eternal life.

7.  These then are that seven and eight whereof Hosea says that by that number he purchased to himself, and acquired the fulness of faith, for thus it is written, So I bought her to me for fifteen pieces of silver, and for an homer of barley, and an half homer of barley, and a measure of wine 16. But in the former verses God had commanded him to hire to himself an harlot, and it is manifest that he did so, in that he has mentioned the price of her hiring. Now the fifteen pieces of silver are made up of the numbers seven and eight, wherefore they represent these numbers. And by the price of the two Testaments, that is, of perfect faith, the prophecy hath received the consummation of its faith and the Church her fulness. For by the first Testament the people of Israel were gained, by the second the heathen and Gentiles. And so by a perfect faith the harlot is hired, seeking herself a consort either among the Gentiles, or from the adulterous people of the Jews, who had deserted their Lord, the Author of their virgin faith, and spread their congregations over the breadth of the whole world.

8.  With regard to the words, an homer of barley, and half an homer of barley, in the homer we have a full measure, in the half homer the measure is but partly full; thus we read in our Lord's own words, I am not come to destroy the law, but to fulfil the law. And in another place the Lord says by the prophet Micah, Then shall there be peace in the land of Israel, when the Assyrian shall come into his land; and there arose against him seven shepherds, and eight bites 17 of men. For the faithful people will then enjoy perfect peace and be freed from all temptations and vanities, when peace and grace shall have shut out the vanity of this world from our hearts, the peace, that is, of the Old, the grace of the New Testament. |299 

9. The seven shepherds are the precepts of the law, whereby the flock not yet endued with reason are led through the wilderness by the rod of Moses, and governed. The eight bites of man are the commandments of the Gospel, and the words of the Lord's mouth. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. Those bites are good whereby we have tasted the gift of eternal life, and in the Body of Christ have received the remission of sins. In the Old Testament the bite of death is bitter, wherefore it is said, Prevailing death has devoured 18. In the New Testament sweet is the taste of life, which has swallowed up death, wherefore the Apostle says, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sling, O grave, where is thy victory?

10.  Moreover, to use the testimony of the Apostles, when God made man, He rested from all His works on the seventh day. But when the Jews wilfully disobeyed the commands of their God, the Lord said, If they shall enter into My rest. And therefore the Lord appointed another day, whereof He says, To-day if ye will hear My voice. For in general Scripture speaks of two days, yesterday and to-day, of which it is said, Jesus Christ the same, yesterday to-day and for ever. On the first day the promise is made, on the second it is fulfilled. But since on the former day neither Moses nor Joshua brought the people into their rest, Christ, to Whom the Father said, This day have I begotten Thee, has brought them in to-day, for by His Resurrection Jesus has obtained peace for His people. The Lord Jesus is our rest; Who says, To-day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise. For rest is in heaven, not on earth.

11. Why then need I watch the rising and setting of the stars, at whose rising the fallows should be ploughed up and pierced by the hard plough-shares, and at whose setting the fruitful crop should be cut down by the sickle? One star suffices for me in the place of all others, the bright and morning Star, at Whose rising was sown the seed not |300 of corn but of martyrs; when Rachel wept for her children, and offered in the stead of Christ her children washed in her own tears. The setting of this Star raised from the tomb not the senseless relics of the funeral pile, but the triumphant bands of the re-animated dead.

12. Let then this number seven be observed by us, seeing that the life of man passes through seven stages to old age, as Hippocrates the teacher of medicine has explained in his writings. The first age is infancy, the second boyhood, the third youth, the fourth adult age, the fifth manhood, the sixth fulness of years, the seventh old age. Thus we have the infant, the boy, the youth, the young man, the man, the elder, the aged.

13.  Solon however made ten periods of life, each of seven years; so that the first period, or infancy, should extend to the growth of the teeth, to chew its food, and utter articulate words so as to seem intelligible; boyhood again extends to the time of puberty and of carnal temptation; youth to the growth of the beard; adult age lasts until virtue has attained its perfection; the fifth is the age of manhood, fitted, during its whole course, for marriage; the sixth belongs also to manhood, in that it is adapted to the combat of prudence, and is strenuous in action; the seventh and eighth period also exhibit man ripe in years, vigourous in faculties, and his discourse endowed with a grace of utterance not unpleasing; the ninth period has still some strength remaining, and it speech and wisdom are of a chastened kind; the tenth period fills up the measure, and he who has strength to reach it, will after a full period of years knock late at the gate of death.

14. Thus Hippocrates and Solon recognized either seven ages, or periods of age consisting of seven years. In this then let the number seven prevail; but the octave introduces one uninterrupted period during which we grow up into a perfect man, in the knowledge of God, in the fulness of faith, wherein the measure of a legitimate period of life is completed.

15.  In our inward parts also the virtue of the seventh number is manifested; for it is said that we have within us seven organs, the stomach, heart, lungs, spleen, liver. |301 and the two kidneys, and outwardly seven also, the head, the hinder parts, the belly, two hands and two feet.

16.  Very excellent are these members, but subject to pain. Who then can doubt that the office of the Octave, which has renewed the whole man, so as not to be susceptible of pain, is more exalted? Wherefore the seventh age of the world being completed, the grace of the Octave has shone upon us, that grace which has made man to be no longer of this world, but above the world. But now we live not according to our own life but to that of Christ. For to us to live is Christ, and to die is gain, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God. So says the Apostle, whence we gather that the day of the world is come to a close. Again, at the last hour the Lord Jesus came, and died for us, and we are all dead in Him, that we may live to God. It is not then our former selves that now live, but Christ liveth in us.

17.  The number seven is passed away, the octave is arrived. Yesterday is gone, to-day is come, that promised day wherein we are admonished to hear and follow the word of God. That day of the Old Testament is passed away, that new day is come, wherein the New Testament is perfected, whereof it is said, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah; not according to the covenant that I made ivith their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. He adds too the reason why the Testament was changed, Because they continued not in My covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord.

18. The priests of the Law, the tribunals of the Law have passed away; let us draw nigh to our new High Priest, to the throne of grace, to the guest of our souls, to the Priest, Who is not made after the law of the carnal commandment, but elected after the power of an endless life 19. For He took not this honour to himself, but was chosen by the Father, as the Father Himself saith, Thou art a Priest for ever, after the order of Melchisedech. Other priests offered for |302 themselves and for their people; this Man, not having sin, that He should offer for Himself, offered Himself for the whole world, and by His own blood entered into the Sanctuary.

19. He then is the new Priest and the new Victim, not of the law but above the law, the universal Mediator, the Light of the world, Who said, Lo I come, and came. To Him then let us draw near in the fulness of faith, adoring and beseeching and hoping in Him, Whom with our eyes we see not, but Whom we embrace with our hearts, to Whom be glory and honour for ever, Farewell, my son; love me, for I love you,

LETTER XLV. [A.D. 385.]

S. Ambrose replies to the inquiry of Sabinus whether he had written concerning Paradise, and what was his opinion concerning it. Having first touched on the historical description of the place, he proceeds to the mystical explanation of it. And having shewn that Paradise is situate in the principal region of the soul, he teaches what is signified by the several parts thereof, and what men should imitate in the serpent. Lastly, having declared the greatness of human weakness and what great love God hns shewn us from the beginning, he exhorts men to fly the pleasures of the senses,


1,  Having read my work on the six days of creation, you have thought good to enquire whether I have added ought concerning Paradise, and to express your strong desire to know what opinion I hold concerning it. I have, in truth, written on this subject, though not yet a veteran priest.

2.  The opinions about it I have found to be many and various. Josephus, as an historian, tells us it is a place filled with trees and thick shrubs, and that it is watered by a river which divides itself into four streams. Its waters being thus gathered into one, this region does not entirely empty and deprive itself of its feeders, but up to this day bursts out into fountains and sends forth its winding streams, nourishing by them her offspring as from the full breasts of a pious mother. |303 

3.  Others expound it differently, but all agree that in Paradise is the deep rooted Tree of life, and the Tree of Knowledge whereby good and evil are discerned, the other trees also, full of vigor, and life, endued both with breath and reason. Wherefore we conclude that the real Paradise is no earthly one which can be seen; that it is placed in no spot of ground, but in the highest part of our own nature, which receives animation and life from the powers of the soul, and from the communication of the Spirit of God.

4.  Moreover, Solomon by inspiration of the Spirit has plainly shown that Paradise is in man himself. And seeing that he declares the mysteries either of the soul and the Word, or of Christ and the Church, he says of the virgin soul, or of the Church which he wished to present as a chaste virgin to Christ, A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse, a spring scaled up, a fountain closed.

5.  'Paradisus' is the Greek, 'hortus' the Latin name. And in the Latin text we read that Susannah was in a paradise. Adam too was in a paradise. Let it not trouble you then that some Latin manuscripts have the word 'hortus,' others 'paradisus.'

6.  Where the chaste wife is, there also is the virgin; the chosen virgin has indeed her barriers and enclosures, but both are in a garden, that thus by the shade of virtue they may be shielded from the heats of the body and concupiscence of the flesh.

7.  Hence also Paradise is in our highest part, thick set with the growth of many opinions, and wherein chiefly God hath placed the Tree of life, that is, the root of piety, for this is the true substance of our life, that we should offer due service to our Lord and God.

8.  He has likewise planted within us a seed-plot of the knowledge of good and evil; for man alone of all creatures of the earth possesses the knowledge of good and evil. Divers other plants are also there, whose fruits are virtues.

9.  Now since God knew that man's affections, once endued with knowledge, would more readily incline towards craft than towards perfect prudence, (for how could the qualities of His work be concealed from His discerning |304 eye, Who had set up certain boundaries in our soul?) He desired to cast out craft from Paradise, and as the provident Author of our salvation, to place therein the desire of life and the discipline of piety. Wherefore He commanded man to eat of every tree which is in Paradise, but that of the tree of knowledge of good and evil he should not eat.

10.  But since all creatures are subject to passions, lust, with the stealth of a serpent, has crept over man's affections: well therefore has holy Moses represented lust under the similitude of a serpent; for it creeps upon its belly like a serpent, not walking on foot, nor raised up on legs, gliding along by the sinuous contortions, as it were, of its whole body. Its food, as that of the serpent, is earthly, for it knows not heavenly food, but feeds on carnal things, and changes itself into various kinds of desire, and bends to and fro in tortuous wreaths. It has poison in its fangs, whereby the belly of every luxurious man is ripped up, the glutton is slain, the licker up of dishes perishes. How many have been burst by wine, weakened by drunkenness, distended by gluttony.

11.  Now I understand why the Lord God breathed on the face of man; for there is the seat and there are the incitements to lust, the eyes, the ears, the nose and the mouth; it was to fortify our senses against lust. Now it was this lust, which, as a serpent, inspired us with craft, for it is not lust but labour and constant meditation, which, by God's grace, gives perfect wisdom.

12.  Now since the posterity of Adam are involved in the snares of the serpent, let us imitate herein the fraud of the serpent, and not run our head into danger, but be careful of its security beyond that of our other members, for the head of every man is Christ. Let this remain safe, that the poison of the serpent may not harm us. For Wisdom is good with an inheritance, that is, with faith, for there is an inheritance to them that believe in God.

13.  But if that first man, who, dwelling in Paradise, conversed with God, could fall so easily, though made of that virgin clay which had lately been formed and created by the word of God, nor as yet clotted with gore and the murder of kindred, nor polluted by iniquity and shame; |305 nor condemned in our flesh to the curse of a guilty posterity; how much more easily afterwards did the smooth-worn path of sin lead the human race to a greater fall, when, one after another, generations more and more depraved succeeded others less wicked?

14.  For if the magnet has such natural power as to attract iron to it, and transfuse itself into the character of iron, so that often when persons, wishing to try the experiment, apply iron rings to the same stone, it retains all equally firmly: whereas, if to that ring to which the stone adheres you add another, and so on in succession, although the natural power of the magnet reaches through all in succession, it hinds the first with a firm, the hindermost with a slighter bond: if such he the case, how much more must the condition and nature of the human race have fallen from a pure state into one less pure, seeing that it was always attracted to a generation more wicked than itself?

15.  For if the power of nature is diminished even by passing through those substances which are not capable of sin, how much more must its vigour be abated by minds and bodies polluted by the stain of crime? Wherefore, seeing that wickedness had increased, that innocence had decayed, that there was no one that did good, no, not one; the Lord came in order to form anew, nay to augment, the grace of nature; that where sin had abounded, grace might much more abound. It is plain then both that God is the Creator of man, and that there is one God not many gods; but that there is one God Who made the world, and one world, not many worlds, as the philosophers assert.

10. First therefore He created the world, and then its inhabitant, man, that the whole world might be his country. For if, up to this day, wherever the wise man goes, he finds himself a citizen, he understands his own position, he considers himself no where as a stranger or sojourner, how much more was that first man an inhabitant of the whole world, and, as the Greeks say, a cosmopolite, he who was the recent creation of God, conversing continually with Him, the fellow-citizen of the saints, the seed-plot of virtue, set over all creatures in the earth sea and |306 air, who considered the whole world to be his dominion; whom the Lord defended as His own work, and as a loving Father and Maker never deserted? In fine He so cherished this His creation, as to redeem him when lost, to receive him when banished, when dead to raise him to life by the passion of His Only-begotten Son. Wherefore God is the Author of man, and, as a good Creator, loves His own work, as a gracious Father, abandons not him, whom, in the character of a rich householder, He has redeemed at the cost of His own possessions.

17. Let us be on our guard therefore that this man, that is, our understanding 20 be not enervated by that woman, that is passion, who was herself deceived and beguiled by the pleasure of our senses; that she do not circumvent and draw him over to her own maxims and opinions. Let us fly pleasure as a serpent; it has many allurements, and especially as regards man. For other animals arc captivated by greediness after food; man, in that the powers of his eyes and ears are more varied, is exposed to greater dangers.

Farewell; love me, as you indeed do, for I love you.

LETTER XLVI.  [A.D.389.]

Sabinus, who was Bishop of Placentia, had written to S. Ambrose to tell him of an Apollinarian heretic, who appears, after being condemned at Placentia, to have gone to Milan. S. Ambrose in this reply states how he had answered him from Holy Scripture, and refuted his false interpretations, especially of the passage in the Epistle to the Philippians, and announces that he has baffled him, and that he is 'preparing to flee.'


1. The man of whom you have written to me as a disseminator of pernicious doctrines is a very light character, and has already received the reward of his poison. For he has been replied to publicly, and what he had sown in private he has reaped openly. I had previously esteemed him vain and envious only, but when this language of his reached |307 my ears, I immediately answered that he was infected by the venom of Apollinaris, who will not admit that our Lord Jesus became a servant for us when He took upon Him our flesh; and this, although the Apostle declares that He took on Him the form of a servant. This is the bulwark, this is the hedge of our faith; he who destroys this shall be destroyed himself, as it is written, Whoso breaketh an hedge, a serpent shall bite him.

2. At first I gently asked him, Why do you what is in itself good with evil intent? For I esteem it a favour if any one who reads my writings will tell me of any thing which causes him surprise. And this, first, because even in things which I know I may be deceived. Many things pass by the ear unheeded, many tilings sound differently to others, it is well, if it be possible, to be on one's guard in all matters. Next, because it does not become me to be disturbed, seeing that many questions are mooted concerning the words of the Apostles and those of the Gospel and our Lord Himself, if things are found in my writings also, which people consider subjects of dispute. For many indulge their own humour, like that man who compassed the whole world, that he might find some one to censure, not one whom he might deem worthy of imitation.

3.  Now this man discovered a nasty means of cavilling at something in my writings, since in commenting upon the passage in which the Lord Jesus said, I thank Thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, I stated that it was intended to show that He is the Father of the Son and the Lord of the creature. Nevertheless in the Psalm the Son has plainly called the Father, Lord: They that looked upon Me shaked their heads: help Me, O Lord My God. For speaking in the form of a servant He called Him Lord Whom He knew to be His Father; though equal in the form of God, proclaiming Himself to be a servant according to the substance of His flesh; for slavery is of the flesh, lordship of the Godhead.

4.  First then your great sagacity perceives that what is said in the Gospel has reference to the times of the Gospel, when the Lord Jesus dwelt among men in human form; but now we know Christ according to the flesh no longer. |308 Be it that He was so seen and known by them of old, now old things are passed aivay, all things are become new. But all things are from God, Who has reconciled us by Christ unto Himself; for we were dead, and therefore One was made a servant for all. Why do I say, a servant? He was made sin, a reproach, a curse. For the Apostle has said that He was made sin for us, that the Lord Jesus was made a curse for us. He has said, when all things shall be subdued unto Him, then shall He also Himself be subject. Peter also said in the Acts of the Apostles, In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk. Then he said also, that God had glorified His Servant Jesus, and no one brings any charge against him concerning the time. But in the Apocalypse He is called a Lamb by John, in the Psalm He is called a worm and no man. He was made all these things that He might blunt the sting of our death, that He might take away our slavery, that He might abolish our curses, our sins, our reproaches.

5. These things and others and many more you have written me word that you answered to one who consulted you; and, seeing that they are contained in Holy Scripture, how should any one hesitate to utter what has been thus piously written, tending as they do to the glory of Christ, not to His disparagement? For if it is said of His gift, that is, of the manna, that he that gathered little had no lack 21, he that gathered much had nothing over 22, could He Himself suffer diminution or increase? For in what respect was He diminished by taking upon Him our bondage, our infirmities? He was humbled, He was in the form of a servant, but He was also in the glory of God the Father. He was a worm upon the Cross, but He also forgave the sins of His persecutors. He was a reproach, but He is also the glory of the Lord, as it is written, The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. What did He lose Who is wanting in nothing? He had indeed no form or comeliness, but He had the fulness of the Godhead. He was accounted weak, but He ceased not to be the Power of God. He was seen in human form, but there shone upon earth the Divine Majesty and the glory of the Father.

6. Well therefore has the Apostle repeated the same |309 word, saying of the Lord Jesus, Who being in the form of God thought it not robbery to be equal with God; but made Himself of no reputation and took upon Him the form of a servant. What is the meaning of in the form of God but in the fulness of the Godhead, in the expression of the Divine perfection? Being therefore in the fulness of the Godhead, He emptied Himself of it, and received the fulness of human nature and perfection: as nothing was wanting to Him as God so neither was there any thing wanting to His completeness as Man, that in either form He might be perfect. Wherefore David also says, Thou art fairer than the children of men.

7.  The Apollinarian is confuted, he has no refuge to turn to, he is caught in his own net. For he himself had said, He took upon him the form of a servant, He was not chosen to be a servant. I ask again therefore, what is the meaning of in the form of God? He replies, In the nature of God. For there are those, says the Apostle, which by nature are no gods. I enquire, what is the meaning of took upon Him the form of a servant? Doubtless, as I have stated, the perfection of the nature and condition of man, that He might be in the likeness of man. And he has said well the likeness, not of the flesh, but of men, for He is in the same flesh. But since He alone was without sin, but all men are in sin, He was seen in the form of man. Wherefore the prophet also says, He is a man yet who can know him 23? Man according to the flesh, but beyond man according to the Divine operation. When he touched the leper He was seen as man, but above man when He cleansed him. When He wept over Lazarus dead, He wept as man, but He was above men when He commanded the dead to come forth with bound feet. He was seen as man when He hung upon the cross, but above man when the graves were opened and He raised the dead.

8.  Nor has the Apollinarian venom any cause for complaining because it is thus written, And being found in fashion 24 as a man, for Jesus is not hereby denied to be man, for in another place Paul himself calls Him, The Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, but |310 rather His manhood is established. For it is the custom and manner of Scripture so to express itself, and we read also in the Gospel, And we beheld His glory, the glory as of the Only-begotten of the Father. In the same way therefore that He is called as the only-begotten, yet it is not denied that He is truly the only-begotten Son of God, so He is said to be as man, yet it is not denied that the perfection of manhood existed in Him.

9.  While, then, He was in the form of a servant, humbled even unto death, He yet remained in the glory of God. What injury then was His state of subjection to Him? We read that He was made a servant, because we read that He was made of a Virgin and created in the flesh, for every creature is a servant, as the Prophet says; For all things serve Thee. Wherefore also God the Father says, I have found David My servant, with My holy oil have 1 anointed him. He shall call Me, Thou art my Father, my God, and my strong salvation; and I will make him My first-born; and in another Psalm, Preserve Thou my soul for I am holy: save Thy servant, and afterwards in the same Psalm, Give Thy strength unto Thy servant, and help the son of Thy handmaid. Thus I have collected the words of the Father and of the Son, that I may answer not with human arguments but by the Divine oracles.

10.  In another passage He says, Into Thy hands I commend My spirit, and, Thou hast set My feel in a large room, and, I became a reproof among all Mine enemies. And in the same Psalm, Shew Thy servant the light of Thy countenance. By the mouth of Isaiah too the Son of God Himself says, From my mother's womb the Lord hath called My name, and He hath made My mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of His hand hath He hid Me, and made Me a polished shaft; in His quiver hath He hid Me; and said unto Me, Thou art My servant, O Israel. For the Son of God is also called Israel, as in another place, But thou, Israel, My Servant Jacob, whom I have chosen. For He alone hath truly not only seen but also declared God the Father.

11.  And it goes on, In whom I will he glorified. Then I said, I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for  |311nought, and in vain: yet surely my judgment is with the Lord, and my work with my God. And now saith the Lord that formed me from the womb to be His servant, to bring Jacob again to Him and Israel. Who hath gathered the people of God but Christ? Who is glorified before the Lord? Who is the Power of God? He to Whom the Father hath said, It is a light thing that Thou shouldest be My servant 25, and He to Whom He says Behold, I will give Thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles, that Thou mightest be My Salvation unto the end of the earth. Of Him He has also spoken by the mouth of the prophet Ezekiel, saying, I will set up one Shepherd over them, and He shall feed them, even My Servant David, He shall feed them, and He shall be their Shepherd. And I the Lord will be their God, and My Servant David a Prince among them. Now king David was already dead, and therefore the true David, the truly humble, the truly meek, the true Son of God, strong of hand, is announced by this name; he also is intended in the book of the prophet Zechariah, where God the Father says, Behold I will send my servant, the Orient 26 is His name. Did then His being clothed in filthy garments deprive the Sun of righteousness of the brightness of His Godhead?

12. And why need I say more? Shall we deem servitude to be a state of greater weakness than that of being made sin, of being a curse, a reproach, than the infirmities which He bore for our sakes that we might be saved from them? For He was made all of these that He might relieve the world from them. But they will not admit that He was made a servant, a reproach, a curse, because they affirm that the Word and the flesh are of one substance, and say, Because He redeemed us He is called a servant, and ought to be called sin. And they do not perceive this to be the glory of Christ, that in His Incarnation He took upon Him the state of a servant that He |312 might restore liberty to all; He bore our sins, that He might take away the sin of the world.

13.   He was made a servant, He was made sin and a curse, that thou mightest cease to be a servant of sin, and that He might absolve thee from the curse of the Divine judgment. He therefore took upon Him thy curse, for Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree. He was made a curse upon the cross, that thou mightest be blessed in the kingdom of God. He was disgraced, He was vilified and set at nought. He said, I have laboured in vain, through Whom Paul was enabled to say, I have not laboured in vain. This He did that He might confer on His servants the fruit of good works and the glory of the preaching of the Gospel, whereby the world might be released from the burthen of its toil.

14.  On hearing these things the partridge 27 was left in the midst of her days, she who cried that she might gather the things which she did not lay, and was overcome by the voice of the Lord Jesus. And even now is she preparing for flight.

Farewell; love me, for I love you.

LETTER XLVII.  [A.D. 390.]

This brief letter was sent with a book which Sabinus had asked for. It is a friendly invitation to a regular correspondence, as bringing friends together in spirit who are several in body.


1.  I have transmitted the volume you asked for, written more clearly and neatly than the one which I had previously sent, in order that by the facility of its perusal your judgment of it might be unimpeded. For the original copy was written not for appearance, but for use, for I do not always employ a scribe, especially at night, at which time I am unwilling to be a trouble and a burthen to others, and further, because the words I am then dictating flow on with a kind of impetuosity, and in a rapid stream.

2.  But as I am desirous to select with precision the |313 words which my old age employs in its familiar intercourse, and to proceed with a slow step, I think the use of my own hands in writing befits me better; that I may seem rather to conceal my words than lustily give vent to them; and may not have to blush at the presence of him who is writing for me, but, having no one in the secret of my words, may weigh what I write with eye as well as with ears. For, in the words of Scripture, the tongue is swifter than the hand; My tongue is the pen of a ready writer.

3.  And though you may perhaps say that the swiftness is here attributed to the writer, the meaning will nevertheless not escape you that it is only the swiftness of a ready writer which can take down the words of the prophetic tongue. The Apostle Paul also wrote with his own hand, as he says himself, I have written unto you with mine own hand. He did it to show honour, we do it from bashfulness.

4.  But while your judgement of my book is still in suspense, let us entertain each other by letters; the advantage whereof is that although severed from each other by distance of space we may be united in affection; for by this means the absent have the image of each other's presence reflected back upon them, and conversation by writing unites the severed. By this means also we interchange thoughts with our friend, and transpose our mind into his.

5.  Now if, according to your admonition, there is any savour of ancient writings in our letters, not only do our minds seem to be united by this progress in true doctrine, but also the form and fashion of a more intimate converse seems to be set forth, in that the discussion which is thus entered upon by mutual inquiry and reply appears to place in presence of each other those friends who in this manner challenge and engage one another.

6.  And why need I produce the example of our ancestors, who by their letters have instilled faith into the minds of the people, and have written to whole nations together, and have shewn themselves to be present although writing from a distance, according to the words of the Apostle, that he was absent in body, but present in spirit, not only in writing but also in judging. Again, he condemned them |314 while absent by epistle, and also absolved them by epistle; for the epistle of Paul was a certain image of his presence and form of his work.

7. For the epistles of the Apostles were not, like those of others, weighty and powerful, but his bodily presence weak, and his speech contemptible, but his letter was of that kind that such as was the substance of his work such also was the form of his precept; for such, says he, as we are in word by letters when absent, such will we be also in deed when we are present. He imprinted the image of his presence on his letters, he declared its fruit and testimony in his work.

Farewell; love me, as indeed you do, for I love you.


S. Ambrose in this letter begs Sabinus to examine the books which he sends to him carefully, and to criticise them freely, as a proof of true friendship, and at the same time adding to the value of the works.


1. You have sent me back my volumes, and I shall hold them in greater esteem owing to your judgment. I have therefore sent you others, not so much because I was delighted at wishing for your favourable judgment, as of that truth which I have asked and you have promised to declare to me; for should any thing strike you I would rather it had the correction of your judgment before it goes abroad beyond the power of recal, than that you should praise what is blamed by others. It is on this account that I have requested to have your opinion of those things which you asked me to write, for I have not so much desired that what I publish from time to time should be read by you, as that they should be submitted to the account which your judgment shall take of them. And this judgment, as one said of old, will not require 28 a long sitting and delay. For surely it is easy for you to judge of my writings. |315 

2.  Thus far, on your invitation, I have thought it right to proceed; it is now your part to discern clearly and examine carefully what requires correction, that you may thus escape being inculpated in those faults which may have stolen unawares upon myself. For somehow over and above that want of caution which envelops me as with a mist, every one is beguiled in what he himself writes, and its faults escape his ear. And as a man takes pleasure in his children even though deformed, so also is a writer flattered by his own discourses however ungraceful. How frequently are words put forth uncautiously or understood less charitably than one means; or some ambiguity escapes from us; things, moreover, which are to be subjected to the judgment of others we ought to weigh not so much by our own as by another's opinion, and to separate from it every grain of malevolence.

3.  Be so kind therefore as to lend an ear of keen attention, peruse the whole thoroughly, test my discourses, see whether they contain, not rhetorical charms and persuasive words, but a sound faith and a sober confession. Affix a mark on words of doubtful weight and which are deceitful in the scales, that the adversary may not make out any thing to tell in his favour. Let him meet with defeat if he enters into the contest. That book is in a bad condition, which cannot be defended without a champion; for a book which goes forth without a mediator has to speak for itself; my book however shall not go forth from me, unless it receive authority from you. When then you bid it go forth, and give your word for it, let it be left to its own keeping.

4.  But, since the kingdom of God is not in word but in power, if a word offend you consider the power of its profession. By profession I mean that decision of faith which we hold, as handed down by our fathers, against the Sabellians and Arians, that we worship God the Father and His Only-begotten Son and the Holy Spirit, that this Trinity is of one Substance Majesty and Divinity; that in this Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, we baptize, as it is written; that the Son, co-eternal with the Father, took upon Him our flesh, born of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary, equal to the Father as touching His |316 Godhead, in the form of God, that is, in all the fulness of the Godhead Which dwells in Him, as the Apostle says, bodily; Who, in the person of man, took upon Him the form of a servant, and humbled Himself even unto death.

5. Wherefore as against Photinus this is our sentence, and as against Apollinaris it is also a proper safeguard; our confession, namely, that as in the form of God He lacked nothing of the Divine nature and fulness, so in that human form there was nothing wanting in Him so as to cause Him to be judged imperfect as Man; for He came in order to save man altogether. Truly it would not have been fitting that He Who had accomplished a perfect work in others should suffer it to be imperfect in Himself; for if aught was wanting to Him as Man, then He did not redeem the whole man, and if He did not redeem the whole man, He deceived us, for He said that He had come in order to save the whole man. But since it is impossible for God to lie, He deceived us not; wherefore, seeing that He came to redeem and save the whole man, He took upon Him the whole of that which belonged to human perfection.

6. Such, as you will remember, is my belief. Should my words in any passage raise a doubt, still they will not raise any prejudice as to my faith, for if the mind continue sted-fast, it extends its protection over ambiguous language, and preserves it from error.

7. This preface then I send you, and will insert it, if you please, in the books of our letters, and place it among their number; that so it may be recommended by your name, and by our letters to each other our mutual love in the Lord, may be increased: that, finally, you may so read as to give me your judgment, and to communicate to me whatever may strike you, for true love is proved by constancy. For the present we have chosen that which old men find more easy, the writing of letters in ordinary and familiar language: subjoining, should such present itself, any appropriate passage from the sacred Scriptures. Farewell, my brother, and love one who is your lover, for I greatly love you. |317 

LETTER XLIX.  [A.D. 390.]

S. Ambrose says that he never feels less solitary, than when by himself writing to a friend. He then dwells on the benefit of solitude; especially in that we may then have God present with us, and lay open our souls to Him.


1.  Since you also take pleasure in receiving my letters, by means of which, although separated from each other, we discourse together as if present, I will for the future more frequently converse with you by letter when I am alone. For 29 I am never less alone than when I seem to be so, nor ever less at leisure than in the intervals of labour. For then I summon at pleasure whom I will, and associate to myself those whom I love most or find most congenial; no man interrupts or intrudes upon us. Then it is that I more intimately enjoy you, that I confer with you in the Scriptures, that we converse together more at length.

2.  Mary was alone when addressed by the Angel, alone when the Holy Ghost came upon her, and the power of the Highest overshadowed her. She was alone when she effected the salvation of the world, and conceived the Redemption of the universe. Peter was alone when the mystery of the sanctification of the Gentiles all over the world was made known to him. Adam was alone, and he fell not, because his mind adhered to God. But when the woman was joined to him he lost his power of abiding by the celestial precepts, and therefore he hid himself when God walked in Paradise.

3.  And even now, while I read the sacred Scriptures, God walks in Paradise. The book of Genesis, wherein the virtues of the Patriarchs bud forth, is Paradise; Deuteronomy, wherein grow the precepts of the Law, is also |318 Paradise, wherein the tree of life brings forth good fruit, and diffuses over all nations the precepts of eternal hope.

4.  So when I hear, Love your enemies, when I hear, Sell that thou hast, and give to the poor; when I hear, unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; when I hear these things and do not perform them, nay, when I barely love him who loves me, when I will not part with what I have, when I desire to avenge the injuries I have received, and to recover what has been wrested from me, whereas the Scripture bids me give up more than I have been asked for or deprived of, I perceive that I am acting contrary to the commands of God. Thus opening the eyes of my conscience, I perceive that God is present and walking with me; I desire to hide, I desire to clothe myself; but I am naked in His sight unto Whom all things are naked and opened! I am abashed therefore, and desire to conceal the shame of my crimes as though they were the secret members of my body; but since God sees all things, since I am manifest to Him, though covered with leaves and shaded by thickets, I think to conceal myself from Him by the covering of my body. This is that coat of skins, in which Adam was clothed when he was cast out of Paradise, neither shielded from the cold, nor protected from scorn, but exposed to misery as well as guilt.

5.  From whence it appears that it is when alone that we offer ourselves to God, that we open to Him our souls, that we put off the cloak of fraud. Adam was alone when placed in Paradise; alone also when made in the image of God: but when cast out of Paradise he was not alone. The Lord Jesus was alone when He redeemed the world; for it was no herald or messenger, but the Lord Himself alone Who redeemed His people, although He, in Whom the Father always dwells, can never be alone. Let us also then be alone, that the Lord may be with us. Farewell: love me, for I also love you. |319 


This letter contains an interesting discussion of the question how an evil man like Balaam could be employed by God to utter true prophecies, and deals with other difficulties which arise out of Balaam's history.


1.  Does God lie? Truly He lies not, because it is impossible for God to lie. And further, does this impossibility arise from infirmity? No, truly, for how can He be Almighty if He cannot do all things? What then is impossible to Him? Not that which is difficult to His Power, but what is contrary to His Nature. It is impossible, it is said, for Him to lie. This impossibility comes not of infirmity, but of Power and Majesty, for truth admits not of falsehood, nor God's Power of the weakness of error. Wherefore let God be true and every man a liar.

2.  The truth therefore is always in Him; He remains faithful; change or deny Himself He cannot. But if He deny that He is true, He lies, but to lie belongs not to power but to weakness. Nor can He change, for His nature admits not infirmity. This impossibility therefore comes of His fulness, which cannot be diminished or increased, not of infirmity, which, in that it increases itself, is weak. Whence we gather that this impossibility on the part of God is indeed most powerful. For what can be more powerful than to be ignorant of all infirmity?

3.  There is however another weakness of God which is stronger than men, and a foolishness of God which is wiser than men, but this has reference to the Cross, the former to His Godhead. If then His weakness is strength, how can that which comes of His power be weak? Let it therefore be an axiom with us that God lies not.

4.  But there was no diviner of auguries in Israel according to the law of God. How then was it that Balaam said that he was forbidden by the oracle of God to go and curse the people of Israel, and yet he went, and the Angel of the Lord who had forbidden his going, met him, and stood in the way of the ass that carried him, and nevertheless the Angel himself bid him go, only he must speak that which |320 should be put into his mouth? If there was to be no deceiver in Israel, how did this oracle of God, declaring things for true, come to him who was a deceiver? If he spoke as the oracle of God, whence did he derive the grace of the Divine inspiration?

5. But you are not to wonder that the Lord should put into the mouth of a diviner what he should speak, when you read in the Gospel that it was put into the mouth even of the prince of the Synagogue, one of the persecutors of Christ, that it is expedient that one man should die for the people? Herein then is no merit of prophecy, but an assertion of the truth; that by the testimony even of adversaries the truth might be declared, so that the perfidy of unbelievers might be confuted by the words even of their own diviners. Just so Abraham 30 the Chaldaean is called to belief, that the superstition of the Chaldaeans might be put to silence. It is not therefore the merit of him who utters, but rather the oracle of God Who calls, the grace of God Who reveals.

6. Now what was the guilt which Balaam incurred, but that he spoke one thing, and designed another? For God requires a clean vessel, not one defiled by uncleanness and pollution. Balaam therefore was tried, not approved, for he was full of deceit and treachery. Again, when he first enquired whether he should go to that vain people, and was forbidden, he excused himself: afterwards, when more honourable messages were sent, he who ought to have refused consent, seduced by ampler promises and more abundant gifts, was led again to enquire of God, as if many gifts could influence the mind of God.

7. Answer was made to him as to a covetous man, not as to one who sought the truths that so he might rather be deceived than rightly informed. He set out, an Angel met him in a narrow place, and shewed himself to the ass, |321 but not to the diviner. To the former he revealed himself, the latter he crushed; yet, that he might at length be recognized by him, he opened his eyes also. He saw, but even yet he did not believe the manifest oracle, and though his very eyes ought to have convinced him, he answered confusedly and doubtingly.

8. Then the Lord, being angry, said to him by the Angel, Go with the men, but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that shall thou speak. As an empty instrument you shall give utterance to My words. It is I Who will speak, not you; you will only echo what you hear and do not understand. You will gain no advantage by going, because you will return without either a reward of money or progress in grace. Again, these are his first words, How shall I curse whom God hath not cursed? in order to shew that the benediction of the Hebrew people depended not on his will but on the grace of God.

9.  From the top of the rocks, he says, I see him; for I cannot embrace within my ken this people, which shall dwell alone, marking out their boundaries, not so much by the occupation of space as by the abode of virtue, and extending them into eternal ages by the distinctive peculiarity of their manners. For which of the bordering nations shall be numbered with this one, which is raised above their fellowship by its exalted righteousness? Who shall understand the nature of its generation? Their bodies we indeed perceive to have been compounded and fashioned of human seed, but their minds have sprung from higher and wondrous seed-plots.

10.  Let my soul die with their souls, die to this bodily life, that with the souls of the just it may attain to the grace of that eternal life. Herein even then was revealed the excellence of our heavenly Sacrament and of holy Baptism, by the operation whereof men die to original sin and to evil works; that being transformed by newness of life into fellowship with the just they may rise again to live as do the just. And what wonder is it that it should be so, when men die to sin in order to live to God?

11.  Balak hearing this, was wroth and said, 'I brought thee to curse and thou blessest.' He answered, 'I am |322 reproved for that of which I am not conscious; for I speak nothing of my own, but utter sounds like a tinkling cymbal.' Again, being carried to a second and a third place, although he wished to curse, he blessed; He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel; the Lord his God is with him. And afterwards he commands seven altars and sacrifices to be prepared. He ought, indeed, to have departed, but his weak mind and mutability of purpose led him to believe that he could turn aside the Will of God: he himself, the while, being in a trance, desired one thing but spoke another.

12.  How goodly, said he, are thy tents, O host of the Hebrews! As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river's side and as cedar trees beside the waters. A man shall come out of Jacob, and shall subdue many nations, and his kingdom shall be exalted on high: in the earth also he shall extend his dominion in Egypt. Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee. Now to whom did he point but to the people of Christ? God blesses him into whose heart the Word of God enters, even to the dividing asunder of the soul, and of the joints and marrow; in him Balaam would have found the grace of the Lord if he had acted according to the intent and purpose of his heart. But since an evil mind is confuted by its own counsels, and the secrets of the soul are betrayed by events, his mind was thus discovered by the treachery which followed.

13.  Therefore also he met with a worthy reward of his malice. For finding while in his trance that he could not curse, he gives his advice to the king, saying, ' Such is the utterance of what God has commanded, hear now my counsel against the oracles of God. This people is just, it has the protection of God: since it has not given itself to divinations and auguries, but to the eternal God above; and therefore its faith excels that of others. But sometimes even faithful minds fall through corporeal charms and the blandishments of beauty. Numerous are your women, and many of them not uncomely; now the male sex is in no respect more prone to fall than through the frailty with which it is captivated by female beauty, particularly if their |323 minds are excited by frequent converse, and thus become inflamed as by a torch; if, while they drink in the hope of enjoying, their passions are kept in suspense. Let your women therefore cast their hooks by their converse, let them offer no obstacles to a first access, but roam abroad and spread themselves through the camp, exposed to view and affable of speech. Let them so artfully deal with these men as not to admit them to carnal intercourse until they shall have proved the strength of their love by becoming participators in sacrilege. For they may thus be deprived of the protection of heaven, if they shall themselves depart by sacrilege from the Lord their God.'

14.  Unrighteous therefore, as the counsellor of fornication and sacrilege, was Balaam; for thus it is plainly written in the Apocalypse of John the Evangelist, when the Lord Jesus says to the Angel of the Church of Pergamos; Thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication; so hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans. Wherefore it appears that from hence has flowed the impiety of the Manichees, like that of Manasseh, who mingle and unite sacrilege with impurity.

15.   Neither, then, was God unjust, nor His purpose mutable; for He detected Balaam's mind and the secrets of his heart, and He therefore tried him as a diviner, He did not choose him as a prophet. Surely he ought to have been converted if it were only by the grace of such great oracles and the sublimity of his revelations, but his mind, full of iniquity, brought forth words but did not yield belief, seeking to frustrate by its counsels that event which it had predicted. And since he could not defeat the prophecy, he suggested deceitful counsels whereby the fickle people of the Jews were tempted but not overcome; for by the righteousness of one priest all the counsel of this wicked man was overthrown, and that the host of our fathers could be delivered by one man was much more wonderful than that it could be deceived by one man.

10. This little gift I have sent to your Holiness, because |324 you wish me to compile somewhat from the interpretations of the ancient authors. But I had undertaken to write letters in a familiar style, savouring of the tone of thought of our fathers; and should you relish their flavour I shall be emboldened to send you of the same kind hereafter. For I prefer conversing garrulously with you like an old man concerning heavenly things, which is called in Greek adolesxh~sai: Isaac went forth into the field, adolesxh~sai, seeing in his mind, on the approach of Rebecca, the mysteries of the Church which was to come: this conversing with you with the words of an old man, that I may not seem to have abandoned my art, I prefer, I say, to uttering in a more vehement style things no longer adapted to our studies or strength.

Farewell: love me, for I also love you.

[Footnotes moved to the end and numbered.  Marginal biblical references and running headers mostly omitted]

1. 1 spiritum. Rom. x. 10.

2. 2 sacramentum.

3. 1 refrigerat.

4. a The Latin title is 'Magister equitum et peditum 'When the Praefecti Praetorio became civil rather than military officers, the chief command of the armies was transferred to two high officers, called, one 'Magister equitum,'and the other 'Magister peditum. When the empire was divided these became four, and eventually the number was increased to eight, who were all called 'Magistri equitum et peditum.' See Gibbon ch. xvii. 3.

5. b i. e. the 'Comes Orientis,' under whose jurisdiction the matter was, and who had sent the report to the Emperor, see Lett. xl. 6.

6. 1 sospitatis indicio.

7. a This sentence as it stands in the text is incomplete, the 'quia' having no correlative. The 'at vero quia seems like 'at enim' in Classical Latin, or perhaps the 'quia' should be omitted.

8. b See Letter xix, 7. S. Ambrose in De Abraham B 1. c 9, 93 alludes to the use of the veil in Christian marriages.

9. c This name appears in the reply of the Milan Synod as Plotinus, which is probably the true form.

10. a There are three laws in the code of Theodosius directed against the Manichees, one of the year 372, A.D. which forbade them to hold assemblies, one of 389, A.D. and one of 391. A.D. ordering their banishment. It is probably the second of these that is referred to, though Gothofred refers it to the third, in which case the date of the Letter must be altered.

11. b All these names except Geminianus occur in the list of Bishops present at the Council of Aquileia. See p. 60.

12. 1 nou~j.

13. a This whole passage is full of expressions borrowed from Virgil.

14. Exod. xiv. 29. S. John xxi. 7. Bel and the Dragon 36.

15. a This title seems here to be applied especially to the constellations of the Pleiades and Hyades, each of which consisted of seven stars.

16. b See note on Letter xxvi. 9.

17. 1 morsus hominum. E.V. 'principal men.'

18. c Devoravit mors praevalens. The E. V. is, 'He will swallow up death in victory.' The Vulg. has, 'Praecipitabit mortem in sempiternum.'

19. d The word 'vitae' is here inserted as necessary to the sense, and to the accuracy of the quotation.

20. 1 nouj.

21. 1 diminuit. Exod. xvi. 18.

22. 2 ampliavit.

23. a This agrees with the LXX, kai\ a!nqrwpo&j e0sti kai\ gnw&setai au)to&n;

24. 1 specie.

25. 2 puerum.

26. b 'Ecce ego mittam servum meum, Oriens nomen Ejus.' Vulg. has 'Ecce ego adducam servum meum Orientem.' 'Oriens nomen Ejus' comes in v. 12. 'Behold I will bring forth my servant the Branch.' The same word in the original is used also in Is. iv. 2. Jerem. xxiii. 5. xxxiii. 15. and in all those passages the Vulg. renders it by 'Germen.' In the passages of Zech. and, Jerem. the LXX. have the word a0natolh&. The word in the original means 'a sprout' or 'shoot.'

27. b See Letter xxxii. 1.

28. a He is quoting from a letter of Cicero's. Ep. ix. 3. Longi subsellii, ut noster Pompeius appellat, judicatio et mora.

29. a He is here quoting from Cicero De off. iii. 1, when; Cicero gives as a saying of Scipio Africanus, on the authoritvof Cato, 'nuquam se minus otiosum esse quam quum otiosus, nec minus solum quam quum solus esset.' It is quoted, again by S. Ambrose in De off. Min. iii. 1, 107.

30. a This is the reading of most MSS, according to the, Benedictine Editors. And, though the connection of ideas is somewhat abrupt, they explain it to be, that, as the gift of faith was bestowed on Abraham the Chaldean, so the gift of prophecy was bestowed on Balaam. All the other Editions have 'Balaam' instead of 'Abraham.' This makes the connection easier, but then 'adscitur ad fidem' is strangely applied to him, and it could only mean, 'is employed to utter the truth.' He might be called a Chaldean as the common name among the Romans for Eastern diviners generally.

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

This text was transcribed by Roger Pearse, 2004.  All material on this page is in the public domain - copy freely.
Greek text is rendered using the Scholars Press SPIonic font, free from here.

Early Church Fathers - Additional Texts