Ambrose’s Advice to Augustine When Visiting Other Churches

A beautiful example of Christian discipleship

When I was in graduate school preparing for my doctoral comprehensive examinations on the history of eucharistic theology, I came across an insightful passage in Augustine’s letter to Januarius (Letter 54, found here). In this letter, Augustine relays to Januarius a situation he had with his mother who was scandalized when visiting a church in a distant city that did not worship the way she was accustomed. You see, Augustine was raised by his mother, Monica, according to the Roman rite, and during her sojourn with her son in Milan she was confronted with the different practices of the Milanese rite. All that to say that when traveling, she and Augustine went to church and she was putt off by the way they worshiped (the exact details are contained in the text below).

Now when I came across this passage I was a bit younger and more strident in my opinions about worship. To be sure, I still have a developed liturgical theology, but as I have aged a bit and grown from experience, I have softened a good deal. One of the things that softened me was Ambrose’s advice to Augustine (Was Monica’s scruple really his own?), and Augustine’s advice in turn to Januarius.

Here is another example how the wise Ambrose’s shepherding helped the young Augustine to mature. I think it’s a beautiful picture of Christian discipleship. Like Augustine, my own opinions in my younger days were such that I could not truly participate in worship with any sort of true and humble spirit of unity for all the scruples my sinful heart was throwing before my eyes. I’ve had to repent of that, and this passage from Augustine helped me to do that. Perhaps it will help you as well.

Be mindful that Augustine uses some strong words at the end of the passage, but we can forgive him as he was confronted by violent schism in his native diocese of Hippo and the surrounding areas near Carthage in Northern Africa.

There are other things, however, which are different in different places and countries: e.g., some fast on Saturday, others do not; some partake daily of the body and blood of Christ, others receive it on stated days: in some places no day passes without the sacrifice being offered; in others it is only on Saturday and the Lord’s day, or it may be only on the Lord’s day. In regard to these and all other variable observances which may be met anywhere, one is at liberty to comply with them or not as he chooses; and there is no better rule for the wise and serious Christian in this matter, than to conform to the practice which he finds prevailing in the Church to which it may be his lot to come. For such a custom, if it is clearly not contrary to the faith nor to sound morality, is to be held as a thing indifferent, and ought to be observed for the sake of fellowship with those among whom we live.

I think you may have heard me relate before, what I will nevertheless now mention. When my mother followed me to Milan, she found the Church there not fasting on Saturday. She began to be troubled, and to hesitate as to what she should do; upon which I, though not taking a personal interest then in such things, applied on her behalf to Ambrose, of most blessed memory, for his advice. He answered that he could not teach me anything but what he himself practised, because if he knew any better rule, he would observe it himself. When I supposed that he intended, on the ground of his authority alone, and without supporting it by any argument, to recommend us to give up fasting on Saturday, he followed me, and said: “When I visit Rome, I fast on Saturday; when I am here, I do not fast. On the same principle, do you observe the custom prevailing in whatever Church you come to, if you desire neither to give offence by your conduct, nor to find cause of offence in another’s.” When I reported this to my mother, she accepted it gladly; and for myself, after frequently reconsidering his decision, I have always esteemed it as if I had received it by an oracle from heaven. For often have I perceived, with extreme sorrow, many disquietudes caused to weak brethren by the contentious pertinacity or superstitious vacillation of some who, in matters of this kind, which do not admit of final decision by the authority of Holy Scripture, or by the tradition of the universal Church or by their manifest good influence on manners raise questions, it may be, from some crotchet of their own, or from attachment to the custom followed in one’s own country, or from preference for that which one has seen abroad, supposing that wisdom is increased in proportion to the distance to which men travel from home, and agitate these questions with such keenness, that they think all is wrong except what they do themselves.

SOURCE: Augustine, Letter 54 to Januarius, CCEL (accessed here).

IMAGE: Gozzoli, Ambrose baptizing Augustine with the words of the hymn Te deum (Source: Wikimedia Commons) 15th c.

Author: Tim LeCroy

Tim LeCroy is Pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Columbia, MO. He is husband of Rachel and father of Ruby and Lucy