Matthias Stomer (Amersfoort, 1600 - Sicily, after 1650)
Saint Ambroise/Saint Ambrose
Oil on canvas 110 x 130 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rennes, Rennes
St Augustine, in his Confessions [Book Six, Chapter Three] has a curious anecdote which bears on the history of reading:
“When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud”
St Augustine wondered why St Ambrose read silently and was not even moving his lips. He puts forward some reasons:
"Perhaps he was afraid, that if he read out loud, a difficult passage by the author he was reading would raise a question in the mind of an attentive listener, and he would then have to explain what it meant or even argue about some of the more abstruse points."
The implication is that this method of reading, this silent perusing of the page, was in his time something out of the ordinary, and that normal reading was performed out loud.
Even though instances of silent reading can be traced to earlier dates, not until the tenth century does this manner of reading become usual in the West
Following the teachings of Aristotle, St Augustine knew that letters, "invented so that we might be able to converse even with the absent", were "signs of sounds" and these in turn were "signs of things we think".
The written text was a conversation, put on paper so that the absent partner would be able to pronounce the words intended for him. For Augustine, a professor of rhetoric who was well versed in poetics and the rhythms of prose, the spoken word was an intricate part of the text itself.
But what St Augustine thought as the norm: this pattern—reading aloud (and “hearing”) a text of Scripture, thinking about it, praying it, and sitting in the silence of God’s presence in the midst of the text—has been one of the primary elements of monastic life from its inception.
The historian Jean Leclercq, wrote of the practice of reading aloud:
“For the ancients, to meditate is to read a text and to learn it “by heart” in the fullest sense of this expression, that is, with one’s whole being: with the body, since the mouth pronounced it, with the memory which fixes it, with the intelligence which understands its meaning, and with the will which desires to put it into practice.”
(Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, translated by Catherine Misrahi (New York: Fordham University Press, 1961), 17).
This placing of one’s self before Scripture and before God together in prayerful reading/response is still done every day in the hours of reading and prayer which in religious orders are known as The Divine Office.
But St Augustine`s view of St Ambrose`s silent reading was one of marvel and admiration, just as he admired everything about St Ambrose and his acts.
Pope Benedict XVI put it this way:
“Augustine learned from the life and example of Bishop Ambrose to believe and to preach. We can refer to a famous sermon of the African, which centuries later merited citation in the conciliar Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum: "Therefore, all clerics, particularly priests of Christ and others who, as deacons or catechists, are officially engaged in the ministry of the Word", Dei Verbum recommends, "should immerse themselves in the Scriptures by constant sacred reading and diligent study. For it must not happen that anyone becomes" - and this is Augustine's citation - ""an empty preacher of the Word of God to others, not being a hearer of the Word in his own heart'" (n. 25).
Augustine had learned precisely from Ambrose how to "hear in his own heart" this perseverance in reading Sacred Scripture with a prayerful approach, so as truly to absorb and assimilate the Word of God in one's heart...
Here Augustine marvels because Ambrose read the Scriptures with his mouth shut, only with his eyes (cf. Confessions, 6, 3). Indeed, in the early Christian centuries reading was conceived of strictly for proclamation, and reading aloud also facilitated the reader's understanding. That Ambrose could scan the pages with his eyes alone suggested to the admiring Augustine a rare ability for reading and familiarity with the Scriptures.
Well, in that "reading under one's breath", where the heart is committed to achieving knowledge of the Word of God - this is the "icon" to which we are referring -, one can glimpse the method of Ambrosian catechesis; it is Scripture itself, intimately assimilated, which suggests the content to proclaim that will lead to the conversion of hearts.”
(Benedict XVI on Saint Ambrose of Milan: General Audience: Saint Peter's Square: Wednesday, 24 October 2007 )