January 23, 2018

Eulogy for Saint Ascholios of Thessaloniki (St. Ambrose of Milan)

Ascholios (or Acholios) was the Bishop of Thessaloniki who baptized Emperor Theodosius I, during an illness which seized him on a campaign against the Goths. He was present at the Second Ecumenical Synod in 381, and afterwards at a synod of Rome, since the see of Thessaloniki at that time was under the Pope of Rome. It was there that he met Saint Ambrose, who had gone to Rome to attend the synod, and had fallen ill. His death must have occurred in A.D. 383, for his successor Anysios was Bishop before the death of Damasus, Pope of Rome, who died in A.D. 384.

Saint Ambrose of Milan wrote a warm eulogy upon news of his death, whom he compares to Elijah, especially in leaving Anysios a successor, like Elisha, endowed with a double portion of his Spirit. He recounts the pleasure which he had felt in his meeting with Ascholios at Rome, when they had wept together over the evils of the times, and invokes the blessing of God upon his successor.

This letter is addressed to the Bishops of Macedonia, in reply to their announcement of the death of Ascholios.

Letter 15


1. While longing to keep ever imprinted on my mind the holy man, and while I survey all his acts like one set on a watch-tower, my restless anxiety caused me to drink only too swiftly these bitter tidings, and I learned what I had rather still he ignorant of, that the man whom we were seeking on earth was already at rest in heaven.

2. You will ask who announced this to me, seeing that the letter of your Holinesses had not then arrived. I know not who was the hearer of the tidings: it is, you know, men's wont not willingly to remember the bearer of tidings of sorrow: however, though the sea was then closed, and the land blocked by a barbarian invasion, there was no lack of a messenger, though it was impossible for any one to arrive from abroad; so that it appears to me the saint himself announced his own death to us, for now that he enjoyed the eternal recompense of his labors, and freed from the bands of the body, had been carried by the ministry of Angels to the intimate presence of Christ, he was desirous of removing the error of one who loved him, that we might not be asking for him length of mortal life, while he was already receiving eternal rewards.

3. This veteran then of Christ Jesus is not dead, but has departed and left us, he has changed for heaven this earth below, and clapping the pinions and wings of his spirit he exclaims, Lo, I have got me away far off! For in the spirit of the Apostle he desired long ago to leave the earth, but he was detained by the prayers of all, as we read of the Apostle, because it was needful for the Church that he should abide longer in the flesh. For he lived not for himself but for all, and was to the people the minister of eternal life, so that he gained the fruit thereof in others, before he experienced it in himself.

4. Now therefore he is a citizen of heaven, a possessor of that eternal city Jerusalem, which is in heaven. There he sees the boundless circuit of this city, its pure gold, its precious stones, its perpetual light though without the sun. And seeing all these things whereof he before had knowledge, but which are now manifested to him face to face, he says, Like as we have heard, so have we seen in the city of the Lord of hosts, in the city of our God. Standing there he appeals to the people of God saying, O Israel, how great is the house of God, and how large is the place of His possession! Great is He, and hath none end.

5. But what is this? While I consider his merits, and follow as it were in spirit his departure, and mingle with the choirs of saints that escort him, not indeed by my desert but by my affection, meanwhile I have almost forgotten myself. Is then this wall of faith and grace and sanctity taken from us, that wall which, though frequently assaulted by the Goths, their barbarian darts could never penetrate, nor the warlike fury of many nations overpower? They who in other places were spoilers there prayed for peace, and while they marveled what was this unarmed force which opposed them, the wiser hinted that one like Elisha dwelt within, one who was nearly his equal in age, in spirit quite his equal, and bade them beware lest after the manner of the Syrian army, blindness should fall on them also.

6. However the gifts of Christ to His disciples are various. Elisha led captive into Samaria the army of the Syrians, holy Acholios by his prayers caused the victors to retreat from Macedonia. Do we not see in this a proof of supernatural forces, that though no soldiers were at hand, the victors should thus fly without a foe; is not this too a proof of blindness that they should fly when no man pursued? Though in truth holy Acholios pursued and fought them, not with swords but prayers, not with weapons but good works.

7. Do we not know that the saints fight even when they keep holiday? Was not Elisha at rest? Yes, at rest in body, but in spirit he was active, and by his prayers he fought when the noise of horses and the noise of a great host were heard in the camp of the Syrians, so that they thought that the forces of other princes were marching against them, to succor the people of Israel. So they were seized with great panic and fled, and four lepers, who had gone out to seek for death, spoiled their camp. And did not the Lord work like, or, I might almost say, greater wisdom in Macedonia, by the prayers of Acholios? For it was not by an idle panic nor a vague suspicion, but by a raging plague and burning pestilence that the Goths were troubled and alarmed. In short they then fled that they might escape; afterwards they returned and sued for peace to save their lives.

8. Wherefore in the great deeds of this eminent man we have seen former ages revived, and have witnessed those works of the prophet which we read of. Like Elisha he was all his life in the midst of arms and battles, and by his good works made wars to cease. And when tranquillity was restored to his countrymen, he breathed out his holy soul, a misfortune heavier than war itself. Like Elijah he was carried up to heaven, not in a chariot of fire, nor by horses of fire, (unless haply it was but that we saw them not) nor in any whirlwind in the sky, but by the will and in the calm of our God, and with the jubilation of the holy Angels who rejoiced that such a man had come among them.

9. Surely we cannot doubt this, when all other particulars agree so well. For at the very moment when he was being taken up, he let fall so to speak the vestment which he wore, and invested with it holy Anysios his disciple, and clothed him with the robes of his own priesthood. His merits and graces I do not now hear for the first time, nor have I first learnt them from your letters, but I recognized them in what you wrote. For as if foreknowing that he would be his successor, Acholios designated him as such by tokens, though in open speech he concealed it; saying that he had been aided by his care, labor, and ministry, thus seeming to declare him his coadjutor, one who would not come as a novice to the chief office of the priesthood, but as a tried performer of its duties. Well does that saying in the Gospel befit him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant, thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things.

10. So far both you and I participate in holy Acholios, but there is this special bond between him and me, that the man of blessed memory suffered me to become his friend. For on his arrival in Italy, when I was prevented by illness from going to meet him, he himself came and visited me. With what ardor, with what affection did we embrace each other! With what groans did we lament the evil of the times, and all that was happening here! Our garments were bedewed with a flood of tears, while in the enjoyment of our meeting long and mutually desired, we remained locked in each others embrace. Thus what I had long yearned for he bestowed, the opportunity of seeing him. For although it is in the spirit, the seat of love, that the greater portion and more perfect knowledge lies, yet we desire to behold our friends in bodily form also. Thus formerly the kings of the earth sought to behold the face of Solomon, and to hear his wisdom.31

11. He is gone then from us, and has left us tossed on this sea; what is a benefit to him is to the many a heavier calamity than even the rage of the barbarians; for this he repelled, and now who shall bring back his presence to us? Nay, the Lord brings it back, and he himself gives himself back in his disciple. Your judgements give him back, by which you say, Give to Levi his manifest one, and his truths to Thy holy one. You have given his manifest one inasmuch as he is established by his appointment; you have given a follower of that man, who said unto his father and to his mother I have not seen thee; neither did he acknowledge his brethren, nor knew his own children. He observed the word of the Lord, and kept His covenant. The people will tell of his wisdom.

12. Such was the man's life, such his heritage, such his conversation, such his succession. While yet a boy he entered a monastery, and though shut up in a narrow cell in Achaia, yet by grace he traversed the spaces of many countries. The people of Macedonia besought that he might be their Bishop, the priesthood elected him to that office, that where the faith had before been maimed by the Bishop, there afterwards the solid foundations of the faith might be established by the Bishop.

13. None other did his disciple imitate, who also himself said unto his father and to his mother I have not seen thee. He saw them not with affection, he saw them not with desire, and he knew not his brethren, because he desired to know the Lord. He observed also the word of the Lord and kept His covenant, and will ever offer sacrifice upon His altar. Bless, O Lord, his faith, his holiness, his assiduity. Let Thy blessing descend upon his head and upon his neck. Let him be honorable among his brethren, let him be as the leader of the herd. Let him sift the hearts of his enemies, let him soothe the minds of the saints, and let the judgement of Thy priests flourish in him as a lily. Brethren, farewell, and love me, as I love you.