FONT OF LIFE : Ambrose, Augustine and the Mystery of Baptism by Garry Wills. Oxford University Press (New York, 2012). 194 pp. $21.95. Reviewed by David Gibson, Catholic News Service
The great St. Ambrose of Milan met 60 times during a period
spanning Lent and the days after Easter with those he baptized in the
second half of the fourth century, according to Garry Wills’ new
book Font of Life.
St. Augustine, who would become one of the most influential church fathers of all time, was among those Ambrose prepared for baptism in Milan in the year 387. Augustine was 33; Ambrose was 48.
Wills writes that “the weeks of baptismal instruction Augustine received twice daily were of crucial importance to him.” Daily, but probably not weekends, Ambrose instructed those to be baptized on Easter.
As one who frequently leads a single, hourlong session to prepare parents in my parish for their babies’ baptisms, I always have cited St. Cyril of Jerusalem for the benefit of anyone tempted to imagine that baptism ever was a mere formality for the church.
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
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 defence 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.”
Copyright (c) 2012 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops