Document: Letter 20
Date: 385
Addressee: Marcellina, sister
English Translation: FC 26.365-375
Summary of Contents: On the attempts of Arians to seize a basilica at Milan

In most of your letters you make anxious inquiry about the church. Hear, then, what is going on: The day after I received your letter, in which you remarked that your dreams were troubling you, a great wave of serious disturbances began overwhelming us. This time it was not the Portian Basilica, that is, the one outside the walls, which was being demanded [by the Arians], but the new basilica, that is, the one inside the walls, the larger one.

First, the military authorities, imperial counts, came with their command to me to hand over the [new] basilica and also to see to it that the people caused no disturbance, I answered, as was proper, that a bishop could not hand over the temple of God.

On the following day in church this [statement of mine] was loudly approved by the people; then the praetorian prefect arrived there and began to urge us to give up the Portian Basilica. The people protested again, whereupon he left, saying that he would make a report of matters to the emperor.

The following day, the Lord’s day, after the lessons and sermon, I dismissed the catechumens and then went on giving an exposition of the Creed to several candidates for baptism in the baptisteries of the basilica. There I was informed that some of the people were flocking over to the Portian Basilica since they had learned that officers had been sent from the palace and were hanging up the imperial banners. Yet I stayed at my duty and began to celebrate Mass.

While I was offering [Mass] I learned that a certain Castulus, whom the Arians declared to be a priest, had been seized by the people as they encountered him in the public square. I began to weep very bitterly and to pray God precisely at the Offertory that there would be no blood shed in a case involving the Church, or, at least, that it would be my blood which would be poured out, not alone for the salvation of my people but also for the unbelievers themselves. To be brief, I dispatched priests and deacons and rescued the man from harm.

Very severe penalties were decreed then and there, first on the entire class of merchants. Consequently, during the holy days of the last week [of Lent], when the bonds of debtors are customarily loosed, chains rattled and were put upon the necks of innocent people, and they were taxed 200 pounds’ weight of gold [to be paid] in three days’ time. People said they would give that much, or double, if asked, provided that they might practice their faith. The prisons, too, were packed with tradesmen.

All the palace officials, the clerks, the agents of affairs, the attendants of various counts were ordered to avoid going out on the pretext that they were forbidden to take part in the rebellion. Men of high rank were threatened with many dire consequences unless they effected the surrender of the basilica. The persecution spread, and, had they opened their doors, the people seemed on the verge of breaking forth into every sort of abuse.

To effect a speedy surrender of the basilica I myself was approached by counts and tribunes who said that the emperor was using his rights inasmuch as all property was under his jurisdiction. I answered that if he were asking for what was mine my estate, my money, or anything of this sort I would not resist, even though all my property belongs to the poor; but sacred objects are not subject to the jurisdiction even of the emperor. If he wants my patrimony, come take it; my person, I am here; do you want to drag me off to prison, or to death? The pleasure is mine, I will not shelter myself with a throng of people, nor cling to the altars, begging for my life. Instead, I will more gladly be sacrificed before the altars.

Actually, in my heart I was frightened, since I knew that armed men had been sent to seize the basilica of the church; [I feared] that in defending the basilica bloodshed would occur and turn to the harm of the whole city. I kept praying that I would not live to see the ruin of this great city or, possibly, of all Italy. I dreaded the ill-will that would arise from the spilling of blood; I offered my own throat. Some tribunes of the Goths were there; I assailed them, saying: “Is this why the Roman state has taken you in, to make you agents of a public riot? Where will you go if these lands are destroyed?”

I was told to quiet the people. I retorted that it was in my power to arouse them, but to quell them rested with God. Then I said that if I was considered the troublemaker I should be punished, or banished to any lonely spot on earth they wished. After these words, they went off, and I spent the entire day in the old basilica. Then I went home to sleep, so that, if anyone wanted to arrest me, he might find me ready.

Before dawn when I set foot out of doors, the basilica had been surrounded and was being occupied by soldiers. The soldiers were said to have told the emperor that if he wished to leave he would be given the opportunity; too, they would escort him if they saw him joining the Catholics; otherwise, they would join the meeting called by Ambrose.

None of the Arians dared appear, for there were none among the citizens; they consisted of a few who belonged to the imperial household and several Goths. Just as formerly they had a wagon for a dwelling, so now the church is their wagon. Wherever that woman goes, she takes along with her all her retinue.

From the groaning populace I understood that the basilica was surrounded. But, while the lessons were being read, I was informed that even the new basilica was filled with the populace; the crowd seemed to be greater than when they were all free to go there, and they were clamoring for a reader. In short, the soldiers themselves, who appeared to be besieging the basilica, after learning that I had ordered them kept from membership in our communion, began coming over to our meeting. Some of the women were deeply troubled when they saw them and one rushed out. But the soldiers declared they had come to pray, not to fight. The people broke into some kind of shouting. With what restraint, with what steadfastness, with what reliance on God did they keep begging that we go to that basilica! It was said that in that basilica, too, the people were demanding my presence. Then I began the following discourse: Brethren, you have heard the Book of Job being read which we follow during this solemn service and season. Even the Devil knew from experience that this book would be made known where all the power of his temptation is revealed and set forth. On that account he hurled himself today with greater strength. But, thanks be to our God who so confirmed you in faith and patience. I mounted the pulpit to praise one man, Job; I have found all of you to be Jobs whom I admire. In each of you Job has lived again, in each the patience and virtue of that holy man has shone again. For, what more timely could be said by Christian men than what the Holy Spirit has said in you today? We beg, O Augustus, we do not battle. We are not afraid, but we are begging. It befits Christians to hope for the tranquility of peace and not to check the steadfastness of faith and truth when faced with danger of death. The Lord is our Head who will save those who hope in Him.

But let us come to the lessons before us. You see, permission is granted to the Devil to be a tempter in order that the good may be tried. The Devil envies the progress of the good; he tempts them in various ways. He tempted Job in his possessions; he tempted him in his children; he tempted him in pain of body. The strong man is tempted in his own body, the weak man in another’s. And he wanted to take from me the riches which I have in you, and he desired to scatter this inheritance of your tranquility. He longed to snatch you away, too, my very good sons, for whom I daily renew the Sacrifice. He was trying to drag you into the ruins of public disorder. I have, therefore, experienced two kinds of temptations. And perhaps because the Lord God knows that I am weak, He still has not given him [the Devil] power over my body. Although I make it my will and make the offering, He judges me still unequal to this struggle, and He tries me with various labors. And Job did not begin but ended with this struggle.

Moreover, Job was tried by accumulated tidings of evils; he was even tried by his wife who said: “Speak a word against God, and die.” You see what great disturbances are suddenly at hand Goths, armed men, heathens, fining of merchants, punishment of saints. You see what is asked when this command is given: Hand over the basilica that is: “Speak a word against God, and die, do not merely speak a word opposing God, but make yourself an opponent of God. The order is: Hand over the altars of God.

We are hard-pressed by the royal edicts, but we are strengthened by the words of Scripture, which answered: “You have spoken like one of the senseless. And that was no slight temptation, because we know that those temptations are more severe which are brought about through women. Indeed, through Eve Adam was deceived, and thus did it come about that he departed from the divine commands. When he learned his mistake and was conscious of the sin within himself, he wished to hide but could not. And so God said to him: “Adam, where are you?” that is, what were you before? Where now have you begun to stay? Where did I put you? Whither have you wandered? You realize that you are naked because you have lost the robes of good faith. Those are leaves with which you now seek to cover yourself. You have repudiated the fruit, wishing to hide under the leaves of the law, but you are betrayed. You desired to leave the Lord your God for one woman, and you are fleeing One whom formerly you wished to behold. With one woman you have preferred to hide yourself, to abandon the Mirror of the world, the abode of paradise, the grace of Christ.”

Why should I tell of how Jezabel severely persecuted Elias, and Herodias caused John the Baptist to be put to death? Individual women persecuted individual men, but in so far as my merits are far less, so are these trials of mine heavier. My strength is weaker, my danger greater. Women’s fortune changes, their hatreds are replaced by others, their contrivances vary, they are following their elders and making a pretext [of protecting] the king from harm. What reason is there for such serious trials against a mere worm, except that they are persecuting not me but the Church?

Then the command is given: “Hand over the basilica.” I answer: “It is not lawful for me to hand it over, nor is it expedient for you, O Emperor, to receive it. If you cannot rightly violate the house of a private individual, do you think that the house of God can be appropriated?” It is alleged that all things are permitted the emperor, that everything is his. To this I reply: “Do not burden yourself with thinking that you have imperial power over things which are divine. Do not exalt yourself, but, if you wish to be emperor for a long time, be subject to God. Scripture says: ‘What things are God’s to God, what are Caesar’s to Caesar.’ Palaces belong to the emperor, churches to the bishop. You have been given authority over public edifices, not over sacred ones.” Again it is said the order came from the emperor: “I too, ought to have a basilica.” I answered: “lt is not lawful for you to have one. What have you to do with an adulteress? She is an adulteress who is not joined to Christ by lawful union!”

While I was treating of these matters, word was brought to me that the royal hangings had been gathered up, the basilica was filling with people, and they were demanding my presence. At once I turned my discourse in that direction, saying: How lofty and deep are the sayings of the Holy Spirit! As you remember, brethren, we responded with great sorrow of soul to the words read at Matins: “O God, the heathen have invaded your inheritance. In reality, the heathen have invaded, and even more than the heathen have invaded. For the Goths have invaded, and men of different nations; they invaded with arms and surrounded and seized the basilica. We lamented this, being ignorant of your greatness, but our want of wisdom drew forth this [lament].

The heathen have invaded, and truly they have invaded your inheritance, for those who invaded as heathen have become Christians. Those who came to invade the inheritance became co-heirs of God. I have as defenders those whom I thought to be enemies; I possess as allies those whom I thought to be adversaries. That is fulfilled which David the Prophet sang of the Lord Jesus: “His abode is in peace” and “There he has broken the sides of the bows, the shield, the sword and the war!” Whose task is this, whose work but Yours, O Lord Jesus? You saw armed men coming to Your temple, people groaning for this reason and coming in crowds that they might not seem to be handing over God’s basilica, and, on the other hand, the soldiers were under orders to do violence. Death was before my eyes, but that amid these events madness should be given no right You put Yourself in our midst, O Lord, and made both one. You quieted the armed men, saying, no doubt: “If you rush to arms, if those shut up in my temple are disturbed, ‘What profit will be from my blood?’” Thanks be to You, Christ! Not a legate or messenger, but “You, O Lord, have made safe your people. You have tossed away my sackcloth, and you have girded me with gladness.”

These things I said and marveled that the feeling of the emperor could have grown gentle through the zeal of the soldiers, the entreaty of the counts, and the prayers of the people. Meanwhile the message came to me that an envoy had been sent to bring me a decree. I withdrew a little and he acquainted me with the decree. “What,” he said, “is your idea in acting contrary to the emperor’s wish?” “I do not know his wish,” I answered, “nor am I certain of what I have done in disobedience.” “Why,” he asked, “did you assign priests to the basilica? If you are a usurper, I want to know how to prepare myself against you.” I replied, saying that I had done nothing to harm the church, that when I had heard that the basilica was besieged by soldiers, I only gave free vent to my lament, and when many urged me to go there I stated: “I cannot hand over the basilica, yet I cannot wage a fight.” And after I learned that the royal hangings had been taken away when the people demanded that I go there, I sent some priests. I was unwilling to go myself, but I told them: In Christ I believe that the emperor himself will join us.

If these seem to be the acts of a usurper, I have weapons, but only in the name of Christ. I can offer my life. Why does he delay striking if he thinks I am a usurper. Under the Old Testament imperial power was bestowed by priests, not despotically claimed, and it is commonly said that emperors aspired to the priesthood rather than priests to the imperial power. Christ fled lest He be made a king. We have a power of our own. The power of the priest is weakness. He [St. Paul] said: “When I am weak, then I am strong.”He should take care not to make himself a usurper, he against whom God has not raised up an adversary. Maximus does not say that I am a usurper of Valentinian, though he complained that through the intervention of my delegation he was unable to come to Italy. I said, too, that bishops were never usurpers but often had suffered from usurpers.

That whole day was spent in sorrow on our part. The royal hangings were torn by children in their play. I could not return home because soldiers were stationed around the basilica, keeping it under guard. We recited the Psalms with the brethren in the smaller chapel of the church.

The next day the Book of Jonas was read according to custom, and when it was finished I began this sermon: Brethren, a book has been read in which it is prophesied that sinners shall return to penance. It is understood to mean that they may hope for the future in the present. I added that the just man had been willing to receive even blame, so as not to see or prophesy destruction for the city. And because that sentence was mournful, he grew sad when the gourd withered. God said to the Prophet: “Are you sad over the gourd?” Jonas answered: “I am sad.” The Lord said that if he was grieving because the gourd had withered, how much greater should his care be for the salvation of so many people! And, in fact, he did away with the destruction which had been prepared for all the city. Word came promptly that the emperor had ordered the soldiers to withdraw from the basilica, and fines which had been levied on the merchants were

being returned to them. What, then, was the joy of all the people! What cheering from the whole crowd! What thanksgiving! It was the day on which the Lord had delivered Himself for us, the day when penance in the Church is ended. Soldiers vied with one another in spreading the good news; rushing to the altars, and kissing them, they gave tokens of peace. Then I knew that God had smitten the early worm so that the whole city might be saved.

These events took place, and would that they were now at an end! But the words of the emperor, full of turmoil, point to greater disturbances. I am called a usurper; even worse than a usurper. For when the counts begged the emperor to give in to the Church, and said that they did this at the request of the soldiers, he answered: “If Ambrose ordered you, you will give me to him in chains.” After such a speech, just think what is coming! All were horrified at this statement, but some of his men are urging him on.

Finally, too, Calligonus, the grand chamberlain, dared to address me in this fashion: “While I live, do you treat Valentinian with contempt? I will take your life!” I answered: “May God grant you to fulfill what you threaten, for I shall suffer what bishops suffer, and you will act as eunuchs act. May God turn them from the Church and direct their weapons all on me, and slake their thirst with my blood.

Translation from FC 26.365-375, adapted by SMT

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