The Silence of Saint Ambrose

Image of bees, as Saint Ambrose was the patron saint of bees and beekeepers. Photo by SHOT on Unsplash.

Saint Augustine, merely a disciple back then, was disturbed to a degree when he saw Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. The Bishop’s eyes were moving along the page and across the words scattered upon it, yet his mouth remained shut.

Over a decade after witnessing the sight, Augustine was still as confused as ever.

Saint Ambrose’s actions would’ve possibly horrified Clement of Alexandria, as he firmly believed spoken-word and verbal communication was superior over that of words written to a page.

Of course, after living in today’s world — where there’s words sent through texts, emails, posters, and so many other forms of media — one could only wonder why Clement felt this way. Why would he be against the sharing of ideas through pen and paper if it meant carrying his ideas further along? If it meant writing sentiments to a loved one? If it meant advancing education through textbooks and passing history to the next generation?

Perhaps Clement’s fears and dislike are rooted in the accurate prediction that using one’s mind to concentrate will do one of two things: 1) a writer’s idea(s) will get lost as a reader attempts to make it their own, or 2) there’s a lack of connection and understanding between the reader and the writing.

When one opens a text message they have difficulty understanding, they will often mumble it to themselves, trying to crack a code that’s hidden. Oftentimes, students will complain they had difficulty understanding a problem or a block of text until they hear it read aloud for the first time.

As time wore on and people began writing things for the sake of entertainment and not a guide on how to live better, Clement’s predictions became true with people taking the time to read on their own schedule.

However, it became very popular — especially among small presses with the space for it — to hold readings of almost any genre. We still have plays because even if it were performed on a bare stage, it’s more enjoyable for a play to be read than it is to sit and attempting to imagine all these things at once.

Perhaps Clement had the right to fear for what oral reading has become, or the lack thereof. But there could have been an even bigger greivance aired if it weren’t for silent reading: the lack of classic literature and poems that would’ve been tossed aside simply because we began reading and writing in our heads too late.

Plus, Saint Ambrose seemed to have made a fine name for himself, despite these shortcomings.

Works cited:

Borges, Jorge Luis. “On the Cult of Books.” Selected Non-Fictions. Translated by Eliot Weinberger, Penguin, 2000, 358-363.

6 thoughts on “The Silence of Saint Ambrose”

  1. Erin, I think you have hit on what maybe the greatest detractor of the written word as opposed to the spoken. Your example so instant messaging and plays illuminate what is lost. I think most people have experienced the misinterpretation of a text message which presents all the explicit content but leaves the attitude for the reader to decode. The same can be said of plays and any storytelling. I know I have read a play and later watched it only to see how I imagined it was different from that of what I saw. While I find the value distinction between oral and written to be misguided, I can appreciate the benefits that each brings to bear.

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  2. I really like how you mention that people will “mumble it to themselves” when they don’t understand something they’re trying to read! It’s a really common thing to do, especially for little kids, that most people tend to forget is really common in even adulthood. There’s a lot of people out there that believe silent reading is the end all be all, that if you don’t know how to read silently you shouldn’t be reading at all; I think you’re post captures the importance of being able to read aloud really well!

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  3. I hadn’t thought about how reading aloud difficult to understand pieces still connects us today to the worries and beliefs that Clement of Alexandria, and now realizing it, I I think he may have/would have found some comforts that we still read aloud to best understand pieces of text.
    I also just love the addition about Saint Ambrose being the Patron Saint of bees. it’s a neat and interesting part to bring in about him.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You briefly hit upon the idea that, if not for the development of silent reading coming at the time it did, then many works of classical literature and poetry would have been tossed aside. Yet I cannot help but wonder if the reverse is true as well. After all, the expectation of widespread literacy had to come after the development of the technology that could mass produce written works for the populace at large. How might the literary works of the time have encouraged the development of silent reading? The allure of the written text could have coaxed this skill to emerge just as easily as the skill of silent reading could have prompted the writing of new forms of literature.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This almost seemed like the conflicts between St. Augustine and St. Ambrose as told with a modern perspective, while still serving as a response trying to seek out the answers to the questions it raises along with them. This would certainly engage the reader to look back at the essay with these reflections in mind, and prompt their brain to absorb essences they hadn’t the first time.

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  6. The angle you take here is extremely intriguing, looking at silent reading through, what seems to me at least, the lens of Clement of Alexandria. You raise several interesting points I hadn’t considered while doing my own silent-versus-spoken reading, not least of all being that the continued prevalence of theater in our society seems to be the result of oral storytelling and the power that it lends to the written word. Perhaps Clement was right to fear the rise of the written word, but as you also address, so much of our literary tradition would have been lost without the written word. Would we have the great fables and folklore spanning across all cultures of the world without the written word to document them?

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