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Confessions: Secret Mouth

[Regarding Ambrose] I had no experience of a life like his and couldn’t guess at what hopes he cherished, what struggles he had against the temptations his preeminence brought, and what consolation he enjoyed when things went against him; I didn’t know his secret mouth, which was in his heart, or how savory the joys were that he ruminated in the form of your bread.——Saint Augustine, Confessions 6.3

Augustine’s standard of happiness was clout and fame. From his perspective, Ambrose had everything he needed to be happy and live a good life, mainly, the respect of many influential people. Augustine begins chapter 6 by describing how his mother Monica ceased to drink wine and bring offerings to gravesites because Ambrose taught that it resembled paganism. Augustine reflects, “my mother wouldn’t have yielded so easily in pruning away this habit if the prohibition had come from someone she had less affection for than Ambrose” (6.2.5). Anyone who is acquainted with Saint Monica will immediately recognize the strength of Ambrose’s influence for it to impact her in this way.

The only hardship he could perceive Ambrose had was his celibacy. Augustine had desired this kind of notoriety but had never experienced it. Augustine asked himself, “what kind of hopes does he have? What kind of temptations must he have? How does he console himself when life gets hard?” Surely a person of such notoriety hoped to find love, was tempted to have women, and consoled himself with sex and wine. Augustine burned with curiosity but could not get Ambrose alone. If he was not surrounded by people he was in his study silently reading.[1]

Later Augustine would learn that the desires of a holy heart are not the same as the ones of an unholy heart. If one wants fame, then surely all the desires and temptations of fame will come along with it. But Ambrose did not want fame, but holiness. Holy men are tempted to have the same things but their desire are beyond them. I am tempted every day to be violent, harsh, and proud but my desire to be meek, gentle, and humble goes beyond my worst impulses.

What Augustine perceived to be Ambrose’s hardship was no hardship at all. But Augustine did not know that because he did not know Ambrose's “secret mouth” and “how savory the joys” of the Living Word were (6.3.2). The heart is the “secret mouth” that feeds on what it is given. Augustine had not yet tasted the delight of the Word to understand how it could satisfy completely.

But when his secret mouth finally tasted the Bread of Life, he would say of Jesus, you are “my flowing Spring of mercies” (6.1.6).

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.—John 6:35

Living Word, my flowing Spring of mercies, may my secret mouth feast on the Bread of Life that my soul may find joy.

[1] I learned something fascinating during this read about how people read at the time. The entirety of verse 3 is an important indication that silent reading was an anomaly in the ancient world. Augustine spends the whole verse talking about how strange it was that Ambrose would not read out loud but instead “his eye moved over the pages… but his voice, his tongue, was inactive” (6.3.4). Ambrose did not prevent anyone from coming into his study nor did he have a habit of making appointments. As a result, people would come into his study and watch him silently read in “prolonged silence” (6.3.5).

Note: These are my daily reflections as I go through Saint Agustine's Confessions. Unless otherwise noted, I am using Sarah Ruden's translation of the original text, and the NIV.


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