30 October 2007

When in Rome...

Passive research, the kind of research that comes to you, is great, as Eddie Izzard has remarked. A year or so back I signed up with the Vatican Information Service, so pretty much every day I get hefty e-mails from the Vatican telling me what's going on at headquarters.

I don't always read them, I'm afraid to say, but do so often enough to be able to comfortably refute on a regular basis those of my friends who get huffy about the Church being obsessed, as far as they can see, with sex, Amnesty International, or Harry Potter. It's not, as it happens. These are just the things that the general media think newsworthy. The countless other things it does and says are simply ignored.

But anyway, chatting over pints after mass on Sunday, I wound up mentioning the marvellous address the Pope gave last Wednesday on Saint Ambrose of Milan, which had fascinated me after making its way to my inbox. Since May of last year Benedict has been using his Wednesday addresses to meditate on the Church's apostolic tradition, starting with the original apostles themselves, moving on through Stephen, Paul, and the likes of Timothy and Titus, before, with Clement, beginning to speak of those writers we think of as the Church Fathers.

So I raved awhile, as one does in the pub, over how exceptional Wednesday's address had been, starting as it had done in an uncharacteristically dramatic fashion:
Holy Bishop Ambrose - about whom I shall speak to you today - died in Milan in the night between 3 and 4 April 397. It was dawn on Holy Saturday. The day before, at about five o'clock in the afternoon, he had settled down to pray, lying on his bed with his arms wide open in the form of a cross. Thus, he took part in the solemn Easter Triduum, in the death and Resurrection of the Lord. "We saw his lips moving", said Paulinus, the faithful deacon who wrote his Life at St Augustine's suggestion, "but we could not hear his voice". The situation suddenly became dramatic. Honoratus, Bishop of Vercelli, who was assisting Ambrose and was sleeping on the upper floor, was awoken by a voice saying again and again, "Get up quickly! Ambrose is dying...". "Honoratus hurried downstairs", Paulinus continues, "and offered the Saint the Body of the Lord. As soon as he had received and swallowed it, Ambrose gave up his spirit, taking the good Viaticum with him. His soul, thus refreshed by the virtue of that food, now enjoys the company of Angels" (Life, 47). On that Holy Friday 397, the wide open arms of the dying Ambrose expressed his mystical participation in the death and Resurrection of the Lord. This was his last catechesis: in the silence of the words, he continued to speak with the witness of his life.
So anyway, I warbled on, and it was pointed out to me that the recent addresses have all been rather special, as patristics is very much the area in which Benedict has specialised, and this sent me off on one of my hobbyhorses about the importance of the Church Fathers, or more specifically the very earliest of the Church Fathers, the ones who we know as 'the Apostolic Fathers': St Clement of Rome, St Ignatius of Antioch, St Polycarp of Smyrna, St Papias, and the authors of the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Didache.

These were, in effect, the disciples of the disciples, the very first Christians to have been taught by the apostles, those who were introduced to Christ before all the books of the New Testament had been written, let alone collected and canonised. I'm not saying by any means that these are as important as the Bible itself, let alone being more important, just that from the point of view of discerning what the apostles taught and ensuring that what we believe is in line with the teaching of the apostles that the writings of the Apostolic Fathers have an almost deuterocanonical status. Not quite. But almost.

John Wesley recognised the importance of the Fathers when he called them 'the most authenthic commentators on scripture, as being both nearest the fountain, and eminently endued with that Spirit by whom all Scripture was given,' and he surely had a point.

Look, the Bible is often very far from clear. The second letter attributed to St Peter specifically warns against how scripture can be misunderstood and distorted (2 Peter 3.15-18). St Luke shows this to good effect both in his description of how the resurrected Jesus interpreted the Jewish scriptures along the road to Emmaus (Luke 24.25-27) and his tale of the Ethiopian eunuch, lamenting to St Philip that he despairs of ever understanding the scriptures without someone to guide him (Acts 8.27-35).

There are few guides, as Wesley admitted, more sure than the first of the Church Fathers. St Ambrose is a bit later, but as the mentor of St Augustine and the man who introduced the art of lectio divina to the West, we'd be foolish and arrogant to ignore him.

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