On December 7 we honour a titanic figure who changed the shape of church and state relations for a thousand years, who brought much wisdom of Greek writings to the West, and who guided St Augustine of Hippo into the fold: St Ambrose of Milan (d 397).

Will we see his like again in the great capitals of the world? Ambrose was not silent in the face of the powerful. He once brought the Emperor Theodosius to his knees to beg forgiveness in public for his part in a massacre. He did not temporise, cluck, wring his hands, pull punches.

There are too many interesting things about Ambrose for them all to be shared here, but we have space for one.

Speaking of being silent, St Augustine in his Confessions (6.3) recounts something about silence and Ambrose which can give us pause today.

Augustine was terribly impressed by Ambrose. He wanted to talk to the bishop about problems and doubts. Not yet a Christian, he wasn’t really praying and he still was considering his life in quite worldly terms. Augustine walked into the room where Ambrose was sitting and saw him staring at a book. The bishop was reading and not even moving his lips! In the ancient world everyone generally moved their lips as they read. Augustine recounts:

Often when we came to his room – for no one was forbidden to enter, nor was it his custom that the arrival of visitors should be announced to him – we would see him thus reading to himself. After we had sat for a long time in silence – for who would dare interrupt one so intent? – we would then depart, realising that he was unwilling to be distracted in the little time he could gain for the recruiting of his mind, free from the clamour of other men’s business … Whatever his motive was in so doing, it was doubtless, in such a man, a good one.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection