A New Chapter

One of the most memorable moments in all of Western literature is in Augustine’s Confessions. […]

Richard Mammana / 3.2.18

One of the most memorable moments in all of Western literature is in Augustine’s Confessions. In 383, the future Bishop of Hippo was 29 years old, and not yet a baptized Christian. He was, however, a brilliant and earnest inquirer after truth, and Christianity was a young thing with many sharp competitors. Augustine had traveled from his birthplace in North Africa to Rome: the capital of its time and world, if not yet of gelato. He sought learning there in the schools of rhetoric, supported by his holy mother Monica, and working as a teacher to patrician Latin-speakers. In attitudes of thanksgiving and penance that would not abate for the next 35 years, the man was subsequently transformed by the renewing of his mind, and much of this process came about through the grace that shone in his teacher St. Ambrose—and through reading. He was baptized with his son Adeodatus (we never learn the name of the concubine who gave him birth) on Easter 387, ordained to the priesthood in 391, and became a bishop in 395.

Scholars debate whether Augustine is the very first person who ever saw someone reading silently—this seems improbable, even if the practice is not attested in quite the way that he writes about a transformative encounter with the Ambrose who would become his father in Christ—but the passage is as strong as it is clear:

“When he 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.” (Confessions 6:3)

Any reading of Ambrose’s life marks him as one of the greatest figures of the Church after Constantine. He was an unbaptized spectator in the episcopal election in which a disembodied child’s voice was heard by all present to indicate that he should be Bishop of Milan. He went on to clarify the boundaries of post-Nicene orthodoxy, and shaped lasting Christian attitudes about celibacy, music, and the care of the poor.

For Augustine, one of the most remarkable things about his mother’s friend Ambrose is that he can read without his voice, and without even moving his lips. His reading takes place in a semi-public space—he is, after all, a bishop and a teacher—but his silence roots him in the visual meaning of a text, rather than in a communal recitation or performance. Augustine was amazed by the union of his teacher’s heart with his vision. His eyes and his soul worked together to inform one another in a collaboration that would give birth to fifteen centuries of teaching and hymns. The ability to receive and share knowledge without speaking—the novelty of it—informs our understanding of what reading and prayer looked like until the fifth century. They were common activities and experiences in some wise—common prayer, common language—that became after the Ambrosian Moment something more like our Lord’s direction that when we pray, it should be with our doors closed, and in our closets.

My first daughter Emilia is named for that ancient mother of ten children, five of whom came to be commemorated on the calendars of liturgical churches until today: St. Basil the Great, St. Macrina the Younger, St. Peter of Sebaste, St. Naucratius, and the little-known St. Gregory of Nyssa. Emilia and her family made the world-changing steps of their ancient lives around the time when reading was undergoing a major change in the lives of persons around the Mediterranean—a time in which literacy expanded through the circulation of scriptures, through the education of women, through monasteries, through epistolary culture, through the beginnings of scriptoria and the flourishing of ancient libraries. I have been a keen student of their actions and writings. She will not likely have ten children, and we should all be fortunate if a good God lifts five of any of us to the calendar, but I have slipped in my life as a father into the wonder of that magical sixth book of the Confessions.

Nothing intelligent or understood could have prepared me for the series of moments over the last year in which I have become the amazed Augustine to Emilia’s quiet and knowledgeable Ambrose: my first baby has her nose in a book at every opportunity, and each time I have seen it tears fill my eyes with gratitude or pride or blessing. I do not know what has driven her zeal for the chapter-book unless the experience of being read to aloud since her first days, or unless the cooperation of the genes of parents who love reading, or unless the Spirit, or unless the help of teachers in an excellent public education system, but a thankfulness I have never known wells up. Her eyes are moving across the page—God willing in time, the sacred page—with understanding in her heart, and enjoyment for her imagination. She pulls in facts and characters and language with the same delight that have always been mine from reading. She is not of course the Archbishop of Milan, and she still sounds out plenty of things, and ask questions about the text; but the new world of her mind is as receptive as Ambrose’s must have been: ready and happy to learn, full of the wonder that comes with every fresh turn of a leaf.

And so a new chapter begins for us with chapter books, and with the Psalmist I can say “my soul shall make her rejoicing in the Lord and be glad.”