Cyril’s historic “Catechetical Lectures” indicate he spoke at least 23 times to those he prepared for baptism earlier in the fourth century.
But now, after reading Wills’ book, I doubt I ever will omit mention in the parish class of Ambrose’s quite amazing regimen.
What I appreciated most about “Font of Life” was how it described baptism in the early church and demonstrated the esteem accorded this sacrament.
A renewed accent in our times on baptism as the first source of all vocations makes these recollections of baptism in the ancient church all the more valuable.
In Milan, “baptism took place at the earliest dawn” on Easter, Wills says. After baptism, “the neophytes in their ‘snow white’ garb” probably led a procession out of the baptismal site.
Ambrose thought that in coming up from the pool of baptismal water they were “like Christ coming from the tomb.” Then, “wearing their white garments all week long,” these new Christians “had a special place in the basilica when they attended Mass.”
Wills’ goal in this little book is not just to point out baptism’s meaning for these early church fathers. He also investigates the extent to which Ambrose may have influenced Augustine’s future theology.
That is of interest because Ambrose and Augustine, together with St. Jerome, “make up the core of the church’s ‘Western fathers,'” Wills suggests.
But he insists it was not Ambrose who converted Augustine. It seems Ambrose initially did not overly impress Augustine. “Ambrose and Augustine were temperamentally very different,” Wills observes.
Moreover, the scope of Ambrose’s responsibilities and public defense of the church apparently meant he was not as available for conversation as Augustine might have wished.
So, Wills says, “though Augustine received from Ambrose a wonderful scriptural education in the Lent and Easter season of 387,” it would take decades for him “to warm to Ambrose as a person.”
Yet, Ambrose made a “real impact” on Augustine during his weeks of baptismal preparation. Ambrose’s approach to interpreting Scripture would leave a “lasting mark” on Augustine’s “later readings of the Bible.”
It is difficult to say who Wills envisioned as the audience for “Font of Life.” He writes as a historian, and other historians of the church and the liturgy, along with the theological community in general, will form part of the book’s readership.
Of course, the era of the church fathers is a source of endless fascination. In that light, many more general readers could be drawn to the book.
I did feel, though, that the book presumed some basic awareness of the often-hostile turmoil surrounding the Christological controversies of the church’s early centuries.
Not only bishops and theologians, but imperial leaders in the Milan of Ambrose’s time were caught up in debates and struggles over Christ’s identity — whether, indeed, he was divine from all eternity or was created by God.
Augustine’s baptism “was especially dramatic in 387 because, among other things, it marked the first anniversary of Ambrose’s most emotional conflict with his imperial opponents and their heretical allies,” Wills says.
Wills, a prolific writer, is professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University in Illinois. I’m sure he is known to many for writing “Lincoln at Gettysburg.” Some undoubtedly know him from a TV appearance here or there.
Interestingly enough, “Font of Life” does not represent the first time Wills has written on Augustine. This time Wills virtually invites readers to Augustine’s baptism.
The book, I must confess, left me wanting to visit Milan to learn more of its history in Ambrose’s time.
“The story of Ambrose and Augustine is a tangled one, full of surprises,” Wills says. He adds that whether “by luck or providence,” they, with Jerome, “helped one another transcend their individual shortcomings.”
Thus, Wills concludes, they “became stronger together than any of them could have been standing alone.”
Gibson was the founding editor of Origins, Catholic News Service’s documentary service. He retired in 2007 after holding that post for 36 years.