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NPNF2-10. Ambrose: Selected Works and Letters
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Chapter X.

In order to do away with the feeling of shame which holds back the guilty from public penance, St. Ambrose points out the advantage of prayers offered by the whole Church, and sets forth the example of saints who have sorrowed. Then, after reproving those who imagine that penance may be often repeated, he points out the difficulty of repentance, and how it is to be carried out.

91. Can any one endure that you should blush to entreat God, when you do not blush to entreat a man? That you should be ashamed to entreat Him Who knows you fully, when you are not ashamed to confess your sins to a man who knows you not?31393139    A good deal of controversy has arisen about this passage, which certainly appears, prima facie, to contrast confession to God and to a man obviously priest or bishop. The Benedictine editors insist much upon the use of the singular number, homini, a man. But the word might conceivably be used in a general sense. There is no real doubt as to the practice of the Early Church. See note at the end of this treatise. Do you shrink from witnesses and sympathizers in your prayers, when, if you have to satisfy a man, you must visit many and entreat them to be kind enough to intervene; when you throw yourself at a man’s knees, kiss his feet, bring your children, still unconscious of guilt, to entreat also for their father’s pardon? And you disdain to do this in the Church in order to entreat God, in order to gain for yourself the support of the holy congregation; where there is no cause for shame, except indeed not to confess, since we are all sinners, amongst whom he is the most praiseworthy who is the most humble; he is the most just who feels himself the lowest.

92. Let the Church, our Mother, weep for you, and wash away your guilt with her tears; let Christ see you mourning and say, “Blessed are ye that are sad, for ye shall rejoice.” It pleases Him that many should entreat for one. In the Gospel, too, moved by the widow’s tears, because many were weeping for her, He raised her son. He heard Peter more quickly when He raised Dorcas, because the poor were mourning over the death of the woman. He also forthwith forgave Peter, for he wept most bitterly. And if you weep bitterly Christ will look upon you and your guilt shall leave you. For the application of pain does away with the enjoyment of the wickedness and the delight of the sin. And so while mourning over our past sins we shut the door against fresh ones, and from the condemnation of our guilt there arises as it were a training in innocence.

93. Let, then, nothing call you away from penitence, for this you have in common with the saints, and would that such sorrowing for sin as that of the saints were copied by you. David, as it were, “ate ashes for bread, and mingled his drink with weeping,”31403140    Ps. cii. [ci.] 9. and therefore now rejoices the more because he wept the more: “Mine eyes ran down,” he said, “with rivers of water.”31413141    Ps. cxix. [cxviii.] 136.

94. John wept sore,31423142    Rev. v. 4. and, as he tells us, the mysteries of Christ were revealed to him. But that woman who, when she was in sin and ought to have wept, nevertheless rejoiced, and covered herself with a robe of purple and scarlet,31433143    Rev. xvii. 4. and adorned herself with much gold and precious stones, now mourns the misery of eternal weeping.

95. Deservedly are they blamed who think that they often do penance, for they are wanton against Christ. For if they went through their penance in truth, they would not think that it could be repeated again; for as there is but one baptism, so there is but one course of penance, so far as the outward practice goes, for we must repent of our daily faults, but this latter has to do with lighter faults, the former with such as are graver.

96. But I have more easily found such as had preserved their innocence than such as had fittingly repented. Does any one think that that is penitence where there still exists the striving after earthly honours, where wine flows, and even conjugal connection takes place? The world must be renounced; less sleep must be indulged in than nature demands; it must be broken by groans, interrupted by sighs, put aside by prayers; the mode of life must be such that we die to the usual habits of life. Let the man deny himself and be wholly changed, as in the fable they relate of a certain youth, who left his home because of his love for a harlot, and, having subdued his love, returned; then one day meeting his old favourite and not speaking to her, she, being surprised and supposing that he had not recognized her, said, when they met again, “It is I.” “But,” was his answer, “I am not the former I.”

97. Well then did the Lord say: “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.”31443144    S. Matt. xvi. 24. For they who are dead and buried in Christ ought not again to make their conclusions as though living in the world. “Touch not,” it is said, “nor attend to those things which tend to corruption by their very use,31453145    Col. ii. 21. We have here an instance of a very extreme kind, of the way in which St. Ambrose and other writers occasionally quote the words of holy Scripture without reference to their context or real meaning. The words suit the argument of St. Ambrose and he uses them. But they mean almost the very opposite in the original. They are part of the argument which St. Paul is opposing, not his argument. for the very customs of this life corrupt integrity.”


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