On Ambrose Autpert, "1st Mariologist of the West"

«Christ Must Daily Be Born, Die, and Rise in Us»

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

VATICAN CITY, APRIL 22, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today at the general audience in St. Peter’s Square, part of a catechetical series he is giving about great writers of the Church in the Middle Ages.

* * *

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

The Church lives in people and whoever wants to get to know the Church, to understand its mystery, must consider the people who have lived and who continue to live its message, its mystery. It is for this reason that I have spoken in the Wednesday catecheses of people from whom we can learn what the Church is. We started with the Apostles and the Fathers of the Church and have slowly arrived to the eighth century, the period of Charlemagne. Today I would like to talk about Ambrose Autpert, a relatively unknown author: His works were in fact largely attributed to other better-known personalities, from St. Ambrose of Milan to St. Ildephonsus, not to mention those that the monks of Montecassino have held as coming from the pen of a certain one of their abates who lived almost a century later. Apart from some brief autobiographical references inserted in his great commentary on the book of Revelation, we have little definite information about [Autpert’s] life. Careful reading of the works that critics gradually recognized as his authorship allows for the discovery in his teaching of a theological and spiritual treasure precious also for our times.

Born in Provenza, from a distinguished family, Ambrose Autpert — according to his biographer, John — was an official at the court of King Pepin the Short. He also played, in some way, the role of tutor to the future emperor Charlemagne. Probably as one following Pope Stephen II, who in 753-54 had gone to the court of the Franks, Autpert travelled to Italy and was able to visit the famous Benedictine abbey of St. Vincent, located at the source of the Volturno, in the Duchy of Benevento. Founded at the beginning of that century by the three Beneventan brothers Paldone, Riceman and Tasone, the abbey was known as a haven of classical and Christian culture. Shortly after his visit, Ambrose Autpert decided to embrace the religious life and entered the monastery, where he could train in an appropriate manner, especially in matters of theology and spirituality, according to the tradition of the Fathers. Around the year 761 he was ordained a priest and on October 4, 777, he was elected abbot with the support of the French monks and despite the opposition of some monks in favor of Lombard Potone.

The tension due to nationalistic divisions did not quiet in the months ahead, and as a result, Autpert, a year later in 778, intended to step down and retire with some French monks to Spoleto, where they could count on the protection of Charlemagne. This, however, did not eliminate the dissension in the monastery of St. Vincent, and some years later, when the abbot who succeeded Autpert died and Lombard Potone was elected as successor (a. 782), the conflict flared up again, which eventually lead to the denunciation of the new abbot to Charlemagne. The contenders were referred to the court of the Pope, who summoned them to Rome. Autpert was also called as a witness, but suddenly died during the trip, perhaps killed, January 30, 784.

Ambrose Autpert was a monk and abbot in an age marked by strong political tension, tensions which also had repercussions on life inside the monasteries. Of this we have frequent and concerned echoes in his writings. He denounces, for example, the contradiction between the beautiful outer appearance of the monasteries and the monks’ lukewarmness; certainly his own abbey was included in this criticism. For his monastery he wrote the life of the three founders with the clear intention to offer the new generation of monks a benchmark with which to compare themselves. He also wrote the brief ascetic treatise «Conflictus vitiorum et virtutum» [Conflict between the vices and virtues] with the same intention, which had great success in the Middle Ages and was published in 1473 in Utrecht under the name of Gregory the Great, and a year later in Strasbourg under the name of St. Augustine. With these writings Ambrose Autpert intended to train the monks specifically on how to address the spiritual battle on a daily basis. In an important way he applies the truth expressed in 2 Timothy 3:12: «All those who want to live fully in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,» no longer external persecution, but he refers to the assault of the forces of evil that Christians must face within themselves. He presents 24 pairs of combatants in a kind of juxtaposition: each vice tries to persuade the soul with subtle reasoning, while the respective virtues refute such insinuations preferably using the words of Scripture.

In this treatise on the conflict between vice and virtue, Autpert opposed the vice of «cupiditas» [greed] to the virtue of «contemptus mundi» [contempt of the world], which becomes an important element in the spirituality of the monks. This contempt of the world is not a contempt of creation, beauty and goodness of creation and the Creator, but a contempt of the false vision of the world presented and insinuated to us by our own greed. This greed affirms that the value of «having» is the supreme value of our being, of our living in the world and our image of ourselves as important. And so greed falsifies the creation of the world and destroys the world. Autpert notes that the desire for profit of the rich and powerful in the society of his time also exists within the souls of the monks and because of this he wrote a treatise titled «De cupiditate» [On Greed], in which, with the Apostle Paul, he denounces from the outset the vice of greed as the root of all evil. He writes: «From the soil of the earth several sharp spines sprout from various roots, however, in the heart of man, the sting of all the defects come from a single root, greed» (De cupiditate 1: CCCM 27B, p. 963 ).

I offer this reflection, which, in light of this global economic crisis, is revealed in all its relevance. We see that from this very root of greed this crisis is born. Ambrose foresaw the objection that the rich and powerful would raise, saying: but we are not monks, these ascetic standards don’t apply to us. And he answers: «It is true what you say, but also for you, in your own way and to the best of your ability, the hard and narrow way applies to you, because the Lord has proposed only two doors and two ways — i.e. the narrow gate and the wide, the hard and comfortable; he did not indicate a third door or a third way»(ibid, p. 978). He saw clearly that the life styles are very different. But even for the man in this world, even for the rich it is necessary to fight against greed, against the desire to possess, to appear, against the false notion of freedom as the right to dispose of everything according to one’s own will. Even the rich must find the authentic path of truth, of love and in this way the path of moral rectitude. So Autpert, as a prudent shepherd of souls, knew then to say at the end of his preaching of repentance a word of comfort: «I have not spoken against the greedy, but against greed, not against nature, but against vice» (lc, p. 981).

The most important work of Ambrose Autpert is his commentary on Revelation in ten books: it constitutes, after centuries, the first extensive comment in the Latin world on last book of Sacred Scripture. This was the fruit of a long work, which took place in two stages between 758 and 767, therefore before his election as abate. In the preface, he indicates precisely its sources, which is completely abnormal in the Middle Ages. Through its perhaps most significant source, the comments of the Bishop Primasio Adrumetano, written around the middle of the sixth century, Autpert comes into contact with the interpretation of Revelation of the African Tycho, who had lived a generation before St. Augustine. He was not a Catholic; he belonged to the schismatic church of the Donatists, however, he
was a great theologian. In his commentary, he saw the mystery of the Church reveal itself, above all in the book of Revelation. Tycho had reached the conviction that the Church was a body with two parts: One part, he says, belongs to Christ, but there is another part of the Church that belongs to the devil. Augustine read this commentary and benefitted from it, but strongly emphasized that the Church is in the hands of Christ, it remains his body, forming with him a single entity, a participant in the mediation of grace. He emphasizes therefore that the Church can never be separated from Jesus Christ.

In his reading of Revelation, which is similar to that of Tycho, Autpert is interested not so much in the second coming of Christ at the end of time, but in the consequences for the Church of his first coming, the Incarnation in the womb of the Virgin Mary. It tells us something very important: In reality, Christ, «must daily be born, die, and rise in us who are his body.» (In Apoc. III: CCCM 27, p. 205). In the context of the mystical dimension that surrounds every Christian, he looks to Mary as a model of the Church, a model for us all, because also in us and between us Christ must be born. On the basis that the Fathers saw in the «woman clothed with the sun» of Revelation 12:1 the image of the Church, Autpert argues: «The blessed and pious Virgin […] daily gives birth to new people, from which is formed the General Body of the Mediator. It is not therefore surprising that she, in whose blessed womb the Church itself deserved to be united to his head, represents the image of the Church.»

In this sense Autpert sees a decisive role of the Virgin Mary in the work of Redemption — see also his homilies in the occasions of the purification and the assumption of the Blessed Virgin. His great reverence, and his deep love for the Mother of God at times inspired formulations that somehow anticipate those of St. Bernard and the Franciscan spirit, but without diverging toward questionable forms of sentimentalism, because he never separated the mystery of the Church from Mary. With good reason then Ambrose Autpert is considered the first great mariologist in the West. The piety that, in his view, must free the soul from attachment to earthly and transient pleasures, he believes should be united with the deep study of the sacred sciences, especially the meditation of Sacred Scripture, which he describes as a «deep sky, an unfathomable abyss» (In Apoc.IX). In the beautiful prayer with which he concludes his remarks on the book of Revelation, emphasizing the priority which in every theological search for truth relies on love, he speaks to God with these words: «When you are scrutinized intellectually by us, you’re not discovered as you truly are; it’s only when you are loved that we reach you.»

We can see today in Ambrose Autpert a person who lived in a time of intense political exploitation of the Church, in which nationalism and tribalism had disfigured the face of the Church. But he, in the midst of all these difficulties that we also experience, was able to discover the true face of the Church in Mary, in the saints. And so he was able to understand what it means to be Catholic, Christian, to live the Word of God, to enter into this abyss, and so live the mystery of the Mother of God: to give new life to the Word of God, to offer to the Word of God one’s own body at the present time. And with all his theological experience, the depth of his knowledge, Autpert understood that with mere theological research God can not be known as he really is. Only love can reach him. Let us listen to this message and ask the Lord to help us live the mystery of the Church today, in this our time.

[The Pope greeted the pilgrims in various languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today I would like to speak about the writings of a little-known author from the eighth century — the Benedictine monk and abbot Ambrose Autpert. The turbulence of the times in which he lived affected life within the monasteries, and many of Autpert’s writings summon his brethren to rekindle the fervor of their monastic vocation. One of his most widely-read works is his «Conflict between the vices and the virtues,» designed to assist his monks in their daily spiritual struggle. For each of twenty-four vices threatening the soul, he indicated the corresponding virtue that would help the Christian to overcome temptation. Observing the widespread thirst for power and wealth in society of that time, he taught that greed is the root of all vices, and he urged his contemporaries to seek the narrow gate that leads to life. In his extensive commentary on the Book of Revelation, viewed as a treatise on the Church, Autpert taught that Christ must «be born, die and rise again every day in us, his body.» Hence the Virgin Mary serves as a model of the Church. Indeed, Autpert is considered the first great Marian theologian in the West, and he writes with an almost mystical love for the Blessed Virgin. Love, he says, is the key to our knowledge of God. Intellectual study may point the way, but only when we love God do we truly know him. Following Autpert’s teaching, let us strive to grow daily in our love for God.

I am pleased to welcome the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors here today, including groups from Britain and Ireland, Scandinavia, Australia, Canada and the United States of America. I extend a special greeting to the young people from India. Upon all of you, and upon your families and loved ones, I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace.

[After the greetings, the Holy Father continued in Italian:]

I now greet the young, the sick and the newly married. May the Risen Lord fill with his love the hearts of each of you, dear young people, so that you will be ready to follow him with the enthusiasm and freshness of your age; sustain you, dear sick people, in the serene acceptance of the burden of suffering; guide you, dear new spouses, in forging, through mutual and faithful self giving, families replete with the perfume of evangelical sanctity.

Finally, I would like to say a special word to the youth of the International Youth Center of San Lorenzo, who remember today the 25th anniversary of the delivery of the Cross of the Holy Year to the youth of the world. It was, in fact, April 22, 1984, when at the end of the Holy Year of Redemption, the beloved John Paul II entrusted to the youth of the world the great cross of wood, which by his own desire, was kept at the high altar of the basilica of St. Peter’s during the special Jubilee Year. Since then, the cross was accepted in the International Youth Center of San Lorenzo, and from there began to travel to the continents, opening the hearts of many young men and women to Christ the Redeemer. This its pilgrimage continues still, especially in preparation for World Youth Day, so much so as to be known now as «the World Youth Day Cross.» Dear friends, I entrust this cross to you again! Continue to carry it to every corner of the earth, so that the next generation may also discover the mercy of God and have the hope in Christ crucified and risen renewed in their hearts!

[Translation by Matthew Pollock]

© Copyright 2009 — Libreria Editrice Vaticana

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation