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Monday, 17 September 2012

Meditation from St. Ambrose Books on the Death of His Brother

A good priest over the weekend suggested I read the two books of St. Ambrose on The Death of Satyrus. Obviously, from the text, Ambrose had a great love for his brother.

But the section recommended to me is the one following: let us go through this together.

35. I die daily, 1 Corinthians 15:31 says the Apostle. Better certainly is this saying than theirs who said that meditation on death was true philosophy, for they praised the study, he exercised the practice of death. And they acted for themselves only, but Paul, himself perfect, died not for his own weakness but for ours. But what is meditation on death but a kind of separation of body and soul, for death itself is defined as nothing else than the separation of body and soul? But this is in accordance with common opinion.

First, Ambrose in true classical style notes that those who are reflective, the true philosophers, think about death and the sacrifice of some deaths. This is a good start. Then, the saint divides death into three parts.

The first is dying to sin but living in God. This happens when we turn from sin and an embrace immortal life over the here and now.

The soul is freed from the fetters of this world, the flesh, and the devil in choosing Christ and His Kingdom. We freely choose this. We choose to live in Christ and not in sin.

Ambrose calls this "spiritual death", when we die to those things which distract us from the Love of God and the Indwelling of the Trinity.

The second death is the real leaving of this world. We all have experienced someone dying in our lives and we understand the grief and separation this causes. We are forever changed in these losses.

36. But according to the Scriptures we have been taught that death is threefold. One death is when we die to sin, but live to God. Blessed, then, is that death which, escaping from sin, and devoted to God, separates us from what is mortal and consecrates us to Him Who is immortal. Another death is the departure from this life, as the patriarch Abraham died, and the patriarch David, and were buried with their fathers; when the soul is set free from the bonds of the body. The third death is that of which it is said: Leave the dead to bury their own dead. Matthew 8:22 In that death not only the flesh but also the soul dies, for the soul that sins, it shall die. Ezekiel 18:4 For it dies to the Lord, through the weakness not of nature but of guilt. But this death is not the discharge from this life, but a fall through error.

The third type is the most serious, that is another type of spiritual death, wherein one turns from the Truth to heresy and deceit. There are consequences in this last death and just as Adam lost all the preternatural gifts by sinning, so too, we are punished. Death was also a gift for the hard life which followed the loss of innocence and Eden. 

37. Spiritual death, then, is one thing, natural death another, a third the death of punishment. But that which is natural is not also penal, for the Lord did not inflict death as a penalty, but as a remedy. And to Adam when he sinned, one thing was appointed as a penalty, another for a remedy, when it was said: Because you have hearkened unto the voice of your wife, and hast eaten of the tree of which I had commanded you that of it alone you should not eat, cursed is the ground in your labor; in sorrow shall you eat its fruit all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face shall you eat your bread, till thou return to the earth from which you were taken.
38. Here you have the days of rest from penalties, for they contain the punishment decreed against the thorns of this life, the cares of the world, and the pleasures of riches which shut out the Word. Death is given for a remedy, because it is the end of evils. For God said not, Because you have hearkened to the voice of the woman you shall return to the earth, for this would have been a penal sentence, as this one is, The earth under curse shall bring forth thorns and thistles to you; but He said:In sweat shall you eat your bread until thou return to the earth. You see that death is rather the goal of our penalties, by which an end is put to the course of this life.

Ambrose writes much more, but I am going to examine just a few more paragraphs.

39. So, then, death is not only not an evil, but is even a good thing. So that it is sought as a good, as it is written: Men shall seek death and shall not find it. Revelation 9:6 They will seek it who shall say to the mountains: Fall on us, and to the hills, Cover us. Luke 23:30 That soul, too, shall seek it which has sinned. That rich man lying in hell shall seek it, who wishes that his tongue should be cooled with the finger of Lazarus. Luke 16:24

Sometimes, death is a good thing. We know this from experience, but only God decides when one dies.

40. We see, then, that this death is a gain and life a penalty, so that Paul says: To me to live is Christ and to die is gain.Philippians 1:21 What is Christ but the death of the body, the breath of life? And so let us die with Him, that we may live with Him. Let there then be in us as it were a daily practice and inclination to dying, that by this separation from bodily desires, of which we have spoken, our soul may learn to withdraw itself, and, as it were placed on high, when earthly lusts cannot approach and attach it to themselves, may take upon herself the likeness of death, that she incur not the penalty of death. For the law of the flesh wars against the law of the mind, and makes it over to the law of error, as the Apostle has made known to us, saying:For I see a law of the flesh in my members warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity in the law ofsin. Romans 7:23 We are all attached, we all feel this; but we are not all delivered. And so a miserable man am I, unless I seek the remedy.

I have highlighted in bold the part I want to emphasize. Daily, we should be inclined to die, in some way. We can get into the habit of dying daily. This is the practice of the religious, who gives up his free will to his superior and follows a rule. This should be the way of the wife, who must defer to her husband at times, as when someone must defer, it should be her. In these ways, our wills are detached from things, people, places and events. One sees artwork showing saints looking at skulls. This is part of the habit of momento mori, the thinking of death. "Remember you will die."

Here are some of those paintings.

St. Jerome--Caravaggio and thanks Wiki

41. But what remedy? Who shall deliver me out of the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.Romans 7:24-25 We have a physician, let us use the remede. Our remedy is the grace of Christ, and the body of death is our body. Let us therefore be as strangers to our body, lest we be strangers to Christ. Though we are in the body, let us not follow the things which are of the body, let us not reject the rightful claims of nature, but desire before all the gifts of graceFor to be dissolved and to be with Christ is far better; yet to abide in the flesh is more needful for your sakes. Philippians 1:23-24

Again, we see that we can deny even what is natural to ourselves for the sake of holiness. The pagans and atheists do NOT understand this. They are dumbfounded that we would fast and abstain, or be chaste, or celibate.

Tintoretto--St. Mary Magdalen
Cornelius the Centurion by Trevisani

El Greco-Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata
One of my favorite paintings--The Ambassadors --Hans Holbein the Younger  and thanks Wiki
42. But this need is not the case of all, Lord Jesus; it is not so with me, who am profitable to none; for to me death is a gain, that I may sin no more. To die is gain to me, who, in the very treatise in which I comfort others, am incited as it were by an intense impulse to the longing for my lost brother, since it suffers me not to forget him. Now I love him more, and long for him more intensely. I long for him when I speak, I long for him when I read again what I have written, and I think that I am more impelled to write this, that I may not ever be without the recollection of him. And in this I am not acting contrary to Scripture, but I am of the same mind with Scripture, that I may grieve with more patience, and long with greater intensity.

I like the idea of patience here. For me, this is the hardest thing to do--to wait for whatever and many times in my life I have made mistakes because of impatience and not waiting.

43. You have caused me, my brother, not to fear death, and I only would that my life might die with yours! This Balaam wished for as the greatest good for himself, when, inspired by the spirit of prophecy, he said: Let my soul die in the souls of the righteous, and let my seed be like the seed of them. And in truth he wished this according to the spirit of prophecy, for as he saw the rising of Christ, so also he saw His triumph, he saw His death, but saw also in Him the everlasting resurrection of men, and therefore feared not to die as he was to rise again. Let not then my soul die in sin, nor admit sin into itself, but let it die in the soul of the righteous, that it may receive his righteousness. Then, too, he who dies in Christ is made a partaker of His gracein the Font.

Ambrose reminds us to look towards the Resurrection. The reference to Baptism is key. In Baptism we receive new life and are born again in Christ, given eternal life as a pledge of our inheritance as children of God.

We must be baptised to be saved. And the baptismal rite is a dying to self efficacious act of removing eternal death and giving us eternal life.

44.Death is not, then, an object of dread, nor bitter to those in need, nor too bitter to the rich, nor unkind to the old, nor a mark of cowardice to the brave, nor everlasting to the faithful nor unexpected to the wise. For how many have consecrated their life by the renown of their death alone, how many have been ashamed to live, and have found death a gain! We have read how often by the death of one great nations have been delivered; the armies of the enemy have been put to flight by the death of the general, who had been unable to conquer them when alive.

There are many ways to consecrate one's life to death. Think on this.

45. By the death of martyrs religion has been defended, faith increased, the Church strengthened; the dead have conquered, the persecutors have been overcome. And so we celebrate the death of those of whose lives we are ignorant. So, too, Davidrejoiced in prophecy at the departure of his own soul, saying: Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints. He esteemed death better than life. The death itself of the martyrs is the prize of their life. And again, by the death of those at variance hatred is put an end to.