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Font of Life: Ambrose, Augustine, and the Mystery of Baptism (Emblems of Antiquity)
Oxford University Press, 2012
208 pp., $21.95
Early on the morning of Easter 387, just after dawn, the man whom history would come to know as "Augustine of Hippo" was baptized, along with a small group of fellow catechumens, in the large, octagonal baptistery behind Milan's imposing Basilica Nova. The baptism itself, as well as the extensive instruction preceding and following it, was performed by another memorable historical figure: the tenacious and formidable bishop "Ambrose of Milan." The relationship between these two towering figures of church history is the subject of Garry Wills' Font of Life. Curiously, the relationship he describes was not based on personal affinity or compatibility of belief. Rather, according to Wills, the story of Ambrose and Augustine was "a tangled one, full of surprises," a strange admixture of mystagogical initiation and retrospective invocation, deeply rooted in the nuances of early Christian liturgical practice and the conflicts of ecclesiastical politics. In this truly foreign context, Wills masterfully steers his historical reconstruction, artfully avoiding the twin shoals of reductive simplicity and overwhelming complexity by anchoring his narrative in the "sacred drama" of 4th-century baptism. In this, Wills does his readers a great service, bringing to life much of the ritual and symbolism surrounding the practice of late antique Christian initiation.
James J. O'Donnell has noted—at the outset of his three-volume commentary on Augustine's Confessions—the lamentable tendency of most modern readers to anachronistically undervalue the "visceral reverence for cult that all late antique men and women felt." We undervalue cult, liturgy, and ritual, O'Donnell argues, both because of the prejudice of our time, which tends to purge these foreign elements from the beliefs of our spiritual forebears, and because of the paucity of remaining evidence for the specifics of these highly guarded practices. ...