St Ambrose – the man who invented silent reading

St Ambrose, at St Peter's Basilica

St Ambrose, whose feast we celebrated yesterday, is one of the great saints of the Western Church; he is one of the two Western doctors holding up the Chair in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome, along with St Augustine. The comparison with Augustine is always unfortunate, because Ambrose’s writings are far less interesting than Augustine’s, but there again, so are most people’s. But there are two things about Ambrose that are of the very greatest interest.

Firstly, Ambrose was elected Bishop of Milan by acclamation. The story is well known; he was the Prefect of Liguria and Emilia, resident in Milan, a Catholic Christian, but still a catechumen, not even baptised. The election for bishop was taking place in a church, and trouble was expected, as the Church was split between Arians and Catholics; Ambrose came along to keep order, and was himself the unanimous choice of the assembly. Despite his reluctance, he was eventually persuaded to accept election and was baptised and ordained within the week. He had at that stage no formal theological training.

Some years ago there was a move by the government to recruit managers from industry, who had no formal teaching qualifications, as Headteachers of schools. Perhaps Ambrose’s case can be seen as a parallel: a secular governor recruited to have oversight over the flock of God. Some Tory politician, I forget who, suggested that Mrs Thatcher might, having finished as Prime Minister, become Archbishop of Canterbury, and do for the Church what she had done for the State. I think that might have been a joke, but you get the idea.

Ambrose’s case interests me, because he was clearly the best man for the job, and everyone saw that. Indeed he was the only man for the job, for there were no rival candidates. Moreover, in those days bishops were elected. It has been suggested that we should return to the ancient way of doing things, but how would that work in practice? Could we acclaim men as bishops? How would this change matters in the contemporary Church?

The second thing about Ambrose has nothing to do with Church government, but will interest everyone reading this. Some have disputed this, but it is claimed that Ambrose invented silent reading. The Romans were in the habit of declaiming a text, even in private, reading aloud to audiences, even an audience consisting only of oneself. But Augustine says of Ambrose, in Book 6, chapter 3 of his Confessions:

When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.

It strikes me that Augustine would not have mentioned this if it had not struck him as something completly novel. But why is it important? Silent reading is something interior, which involves listening to the quiet inner voice. Ambrose’s discovery of silent reading marks the beginning of the Western way of doing things, our quite appropriate emphasis on the importance of our inner and interior lives. This is something of which we are in danger of losing sight: what counts is the interior person, and my real life is my inner life: this is the locus of salvation. Because Ambrose is the first to point to this through reading, he stands at the head of a great tradition. Perhaps that is why he deserves to be one of the two Western doctors supporting the Chair of Peter.