Chapter II.—She, on the Prohibition of Ambrose, Abstains from Honouring the Memory of the Martyrs.
2. When, therefore, my mother had at one time—as was her custom in Africa—brought to the oratories built in the memory of the saints 438 certain cakes, and bread, and wine, and was forbidden by the door-keeper, so soon as she learnt that it was the bishop who had forbidden it, she so piously and obediently acceded to it, that I myself marvelled how readily she could bring herself to accuse her own custom, rather than question his prohibition. For wine-bibbing did not take possession of her spirit, nor did the love of wine stimulate her to hatred of the truth, as it doth too many, both male and female, who nauseate at a song of sobriety, as men well drunk at a draught of water. But she, when she had brought her basket with the festive meats, of which she would taste herself first and give the rest away, would never allow herself more than one little cup of wine, diluted according to her own temperate palate, which, out of courtesy, she would taste. And if there were many oratories of departed saints that ought to be honoured in the same way, she still carried round with her the selfsame cup, to be used everywhere; and this, which was not only very much watered, but was also very tepid with carrying about, she would distribute by small sips to those around; for she sought their devotion, not pleasure. As soon, therefore, as she found this custom to be forbidden by that famous preacher and most pious prelate, even to those who would use it with moderation, lest thereby an occasion of excess 439 might be given to such as were drunken, and because these, so to say, festivals in honour of the dead were very like unto the superstition of the Gentiles, she most willingly abstained from it. And in lieu of a basket filled with fruits of the earth, she had learned to bring to the oratories of the martyrs a heart full of more purified petitions, and to give all that she could to the poor; 440 that so the communion of the Lords body might be rightly celebrated there, where, after the example of His passion, the martyrs had been sacrificed and crowned. But yet it seems to me, O Lord my God, and thus my heart thinks of it in thy sight, that my mother perhaps would not so easily have given way to the relinquishment of this custom had it been forbidden by another whom she loved not as Ambrose, 441 whom, out of regard for my salvation, she loved most dearly; and he loved her truly, on account of her most religious conversation, whereby, in good works so “fervent in spirit,” 442 she frequented the church; so that he would often, when he saw me, burst forth into her praises, congratulating me that I had such a mother—little knowing what a son she had in me, who was in doubt as to all these things, p. 91 and did not imagine the way of life could be found out.
That is, as is explained further on in the section, the Martyrs. Tertullian gives us many indications of the veneration in which the martyrs were held towards the close of the second century. The anniversary of the martyrs death was called his natalitium, or natal day, as his martyrdom ushered him into eternal life, and oblationes pro defunctis were then offered. (De Exhor. Cast. c. 11; De Coro. c. 3). Many extravagant things were said about the glory of martyrdom, with the view, doubtless, of preventing apostasy in time of persecution. It was described (De Bap. c. 16; and De Pat. c. 13.) as a second baptism, and said to secure for a man immediate entrance into heaven, and complete enjoyment of its happiness. These views developed in Augustins time into all the wildness of Donatism. Augustin gives us an insight into the customs prevailing in his day, and their significance, which greatly illustrates the present section. In his De Civ. Dei, viii. 27, we read: “But, nevertheless, we do not build temples, and ordain priests, rites, and sacrifices for these same martyrs; for they are not our gods, but their God is our God. Certainly we honour their reliquaries, as the memorials of holy men of God, who strove for the truth even to the death of their bodies, that the true religion might be made known, and false and fictitious religions exposed.…But who ever heard a priest of the faithful, standing at an altar built for the honour and worship of God over the holy body of some martyr, say in the prayers, I offer to thee a sacrifice, O Peter, or O Paul, or O Cyprian? For it is to God that sacrifices are offered at their tombs,—the God who made them both men and martyrs, and associated them with holy angels in celestial honour; and the reason why we pay such honours to their memory is, that by so doing we may both give thanks to the true God for their victories, and, by recalling them afresh to remembrance, may stir ourselves up to imitate them by seeking to obtain like crowns and palms, calling to our help that same God on whom they called. Therefore, whatever honours the religious may pay in the places of the martyrs, they are but honours rendered to their memory [ornamenta memoriarum], not sacred rites or sacrifices offered to dead men as to gods. And even such as bring thither food—which, indeed, is not done by the better Christians, and in most places of the world is not done at all—do so in order that it may be sanctified to them through the merits of the martyrs, in the name of the Lord of the martyrs, first presenting the food and offering prayer, and thereafter taking it away to be eaten, or to be in part bestowed upon the needy. But he who knows the one sacrifice of Christians, which is the sacrifice offered in those places, also knows that these are not sacrifices offered to the martyrs.” He speaks to the same effect in Book xxii. sec. 10; and in his Reply to Faustus (xx. 21), who had charged the Christians with imitating the Pagans, “and appeasing the shades of the departed with wine and food.” See v. sec. 17, note.90:439
Following the example of Ambrose, Augustin used all his influence and eloquence to correct such shocking abuses in the churches. In his letter to Alypius, Bishop of Thagaste (when as yet only a presbyter assisting the venerable Valerius), he gives an account of his efforts to overcome them in the church of Hippo. The following passage is instructive (Ep. xxix. 9):—“I explained to them the circumstances out of which this custom seems to have necessarily risen in the Church, namely, that when, in the peace which came after such numerous and violent persecutions, crowds of heathen who wished to assume the Christian religion were kept back, because, having been accustomed to celebrate the feasts connected with their worship of idols in revelling and drunkenness, they could not easily refrain from pleasures so hurtful and so habitual, it had seemed good to our ancestors, making for the time a concession to this infirmity, to permit them to celebrate, instead of the festivals which they renounced, other feasts in honour of the holy martyrs, which were observed, not as before with a profane design, but with similar self-indulgence.”90:440
See v. sec. 17, note 5, above.90:441
On another occasion, when Monicas mind was exercised as to non-essentials, Ambrose gave her advice which has perhaps given origin to the proverb, “When at Rome, do as Rome does.” It will be found in the letter to Casulanus (Ep. xxxvi. 32), and is as follows:—“When my mother was with me in that city, I, as being only a catechumen, felt no concern about these questions; but it was to her a question causing anxiety, whether she ought, after the custom of our own town, to fast on the Saturday, or, after the custom of the church of Milan, not to fast. To deliver her from perplexity, I put the question to the man of God whom I have first named. He answered, What else can I recommend to others than what I do myself? When I thought that by this he intended simply to prescribe to us that we should take food on Saturdays,—for I knew this to be his own practice,—he, following me, added these words: When I am here I do not fast on Saturday, but when I am at Rome I do; Whatever church you may come to, conform to its custom, if you would avoid either receiving or giving offence.” We find the same incident referred to in Ep. liv. 3.90:442