I suspect most of us who claim to be spiritual don’t think about ourselves as spiritual leaders. We leave that to priests, pastors and other functionaries. Even if we are leaders in other areas of life, we tend not to think about ourselves in that way within the spiritual realm. I began thinking about that when I realized today is the feast day for St. Ambrose. I don’t know whether Roman Catholics know about Ambrose. I am fairly confident in thinking most non-Catholics have little clue who Ambrose was.
I have the advantage here because of my studies. When I did a Ph.D, I did much work in the early Christian period. I had never heard of Ambrose, but I learned. He became most famous in his time when he became the Christian bishop of the major Italian city, Milan. The story of Ambrose is an interesting one and I will share some of it.
Ambrose was born into a very well to do family in what is now southern Germany. His father was fairly high up in the government service. Ambrose received the best education of his day. He was schooled in Rome, the imperial city of the world. After school he quickly made his way up the ladder in various government appointments. He was becoming “somebody!” In 372 he was made prefect of the government territory in northern Italy, which means he was the head honcho there. The capital city of the area was Milan.
Ambrose was a Christian, but he was not in any leadership role. Apparently, he was quite happy with his own vocational trajectory. But in a couple years things changed rather dramatically for him. In 374 the bishop was gone and the position of leader of a very important church was vacant. The people turned to Ambrose and asked him and, then, began demanding that he become their bishop. Ambrose felt safe. For example, he had not even been baptized yet. It had become customary for Christians during that time to delay baptism. He would have been Christian, but had not yet taken the step formally to join the Church.
The people were relentless. They wanted Ambrose. They finally had their way. Ambrose consented and within a week he was baptized, ordained priest and installed as bishop of Milan. Talk about fast track! From our vantage point, that may seem highly unusual---and it was. But it makes sense. The church at Milan was a mess. It needed help and the people were smart enough to know Ambrose could bring the help.
Ambrose was financially well off when he became bishop. He gave away his money. He gave his lands to the Church. And he began to study theology. He was already highly educated, but he needed to know theology in order to combat the problems of the Church. He became a beloved leader of the flock. His care and compassion became legendary. He resolved problems and led the people to higher levels of life together. He wrote hymns, some of which we still sing today. He died in 397.
It is obvious he made such a big impact that he was later canonized to become St. Ambrose. To become a saint means that you become a model of faith. It means your life becomes a holy sign of others to emulate. To emulate does not mean we, too, become bishops or give away all our money. But it does mean we need to be open and alert to new possibilities in our calling. Ambrose did not go looking at how to become a bishop. But he was open.
His leadership was prominent and quite visible. Being a bishop is a big deal. Not all of us will be called to be as prominent and visible as leaders. But we need to be ready for whatever comes our way. This is what Ambrose did. Ambrose prepared to be a spiritual leader---even though he had no clue that he was doing it.
What Ambrose did do was prepare to be a leader. He was educated, although it did not entail doing theology. He prepared to live a life that made a difference. At first, it was as a government official. He learned skills that were translatable. He learned how to serve people and serve effectively. We should be doing the same thing. We cannot take ourselves off the hook by simply claiming we have no interest in being a priest, pastor or any other kind of ecclesiastical leader.
The real question is whether I can help others on their spiritual path? Can I offer leadership to a person or to a group that will take them deeper into the power and truth of their spiritual pilgrimage? I don’t have to be in a leadership position to be a leader. In the best sense of the word, to be spiritual is to be a spiritual performer---not in the sense of on stage, but in sense of living out a calling. I perform as a spiritual pilgrim. That is what Ambrose did.
We all know that good performers are disciplined performers. Good performers, i.e. holy people, are people who have prepared well for the journey. And during the journey, they keep preparing to be the very best they can be. This was Ambrose’s lesson to me and I pass it along. Prepare, practice and perform and then do it again and again.