Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Beam on Our Bewilder'd Mind

Today is the Feast of St. Ambrose of Milan. Ambrose was what we might call a Renaissance man except that he lived in the late Roman Imperial period rather than the Renaissance; this was actually why the still-seeking Augustine was so thoroughly impressed by him. He was, among other things, a poet who invented a new poetic genre that became very popular, the Ambrosian hymn. So it seems fitting to put up a poem by Ambrose today. The following is John Henry Newman's Englishing of one of the Ambrosian hymns that we know was actually written by Ambrose (because Augustine quotes it and attributes it to him), Aeterne rerum conditor. It is the best known of Ambrose's hymns because of its role in the Roman Breviary (where it was assigned to Lauds on Sundays from Epiphany to Lent and from early October to the beginning of Advent).

Lauds—Sunday
by John Henry Newman


Æterne rerum conditor.

Framer of the earth and sky,
Ruler of the day and night,
With a glad variety,
Tempering all, and making light;

Gleams upon our dark path flinging,
Cutting short each night begun,
Hark! for chanticleer is singing,
Hark! he chides the lingering sun.

And the morning star replies,
And lets loose the imprison'd day;
And the godless bandit flies
From his haunt and from his prey.

Shrill it sounds, the storm relenting
Soothes the weary seaman's ears;
Once it wrought a great repenting,
In that flood of Peter's tears.

Rouse we; let the blithesome cry
Of that bird our hearts awaken;
Chide the slumberers as they lie,
And arrest the sin-o'ertaken.

Hope and health are in his strain,
To the fearful and the ailing;
Murder sheathes his blade profane,
Faith revives when faith was failing.

Jesu, Master! when we sin,
Turn on us Thy healing face;
It will melt the offence within
Into penitential grace:

Beam on our bewilder'd mind,
Till its dreamy shadows flee;
Stones cry out where Thou hast shined,
Jesu! musical with Thee.

To the Father and the Son,
And the Spirit, who in Heaven
Ever witness, Three and One,
Praise on Earth be ever given.

One interesting fact about Ambrose is that he read silently, even when other people were present. We know this, again, because Augustine mentions it as a remarkable fact (Confessions Book VI, Chapter III):

Now, as he read, his eyes glanced over the pages and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent. Often when we came to his room--for no one was forbidden to enter, nor was it his custom that the arrival of visitors should be announced to him--we would see him thus reading to himself. After we had sat for a long time in silence--for who would dare interrupt one so intent?--we would then depart, realizing that he was unwilling to be distracted in the little time he could gain for the recruiting of his mind, free from the clamor of other men’s business. Perhaps he was fearful lest, if the author he was studying should express himself vaguely, some doubtful and attentive hearer would ask him to expound it or discuss some of the more abstruse questions, so that he could not get over as much material as he wished, if his time was occupied with others. And even a truer reason for his reading to himself might have been the care for preserving his voice, which was very easily weakened. Whatever his motive was in so doing, it was doubtless, in such a man, a good one.

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