The Academy for the Study of Saint Ambrose of Milan
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“Ambrose and the Widow”


by Jenny Hartman


Widows in Ambrose's time did not get to make their own choices like widows of the 21st century. If one was a Christian in Roman times what would be the thought of proper Christian behavior once a spouse has been lost? Ambrose, after writing three letters on virginity to his sister Marcellina, wrote one more letter for widows. This letter gave women alternate choices than to marry, to live their lives as widows. Ambrose had strong feelings toward the actions of virgins and widows. In response to these feelings Ambrose wrote letters to his sister detailing the actions a Christian woman must take in these particular situations. 

Ambrose's letter on widows in De uiduis pertained to women. This letter is for newly converted Christians from the Roman pagan religion. It is thought that the interested audience would be people who wanted to be full-fledged members of the Roman Christian church. "This audience was likely to contain a diverse mix of lay people with no specific vocation except the call to become full-fledged members of the church" (Marcia Colish, Ambrose Patriarchs: Ethics for the Common Man, p 2).

Ambrose used stories from the bible to convey behaviors of widows. All of the stories used in De uiduis are of women from the Old and the New Testaments, biblical widows. The behaviors of the widows would resemble the behaviors of a woman of Christian faith. These behaviors are detailed in virtues. The four cardinal virtues are wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice (Robert Grant, Theology 141, 10/7/10). Ambrose uses the virtues to detail Christian widow behavior. Commonly the virtues can be deflected when passions are in play, so a widow must not succumb to those passions. Colish states that "In the works directed to widows and virgins, Ambrose, as we might expect, accents sexual abstinence as what sets them apart, the primary way in which these women manifest the virtues of temperance and fortitude, with chastity defended by modesty and sobriety" (Ambrose's Patriarch. p 156). Efforts should be made by the widow to become stronger (courage) as a person after the loss of a spouse, not to ponder on their husband's death. The emotions of widows pulled toward a gain of faith, to becoming deeper members within the church. Colish states "widows should engage themselves in activities works of mercy within the Christian community" (Ambrose's Patriarch. p 156) and "widows should not be recipients of charity but rather active and engaged in a wide range of public services" (Marcia Colish, The Fathers and Beyond: Church Fathers between Ancient and Medieval Thought, p 12).

Detailed Ambrose's treatise, widows could stay single and independent for the rest of their lives or they were allowed to remarry. Remarriage did not come without a set of guidelines. Although, the guidelines stated that remarriage is allowed, it is understood that remarriage refers only to women that are independent and women that have no children and are still able to bear them (De uiduis. I.15.86). A widowed women should be independent and should not remarry to replace the uses of a spouse i.e. farm work, home maintenance. "Ambrose sees the faintheartedness of widows in this connection as the single biggest temptation leading them to remarry, far more important than the desire for an active sex life or additional children" (The Fathers and Beyond, p 12). 

The letters on widows expressed Ambrose's views on women in the Roman society. "He offered these women a full and unusually independent way of life, appreciated by the Church and having dignity within society" (Pasini, Ambrigio de Milano). He also shared the view that the body is a "human soul made in an image and likeliness of God. A temple of the Holy Spirit" (The Fathers and Beyond, p 2). Thus, if the body is a temple from God, then this temple can be destroyed if not maintained. The newly converted Roman Christians needed advisement how to be a Christian in certain life situations. Ambrose did this by the interpretation of from the stories of the Bible. For example he used the story of Deborah. Ambrose used Deborah's story because she was a strong independent women. Deborah used the virtues of wisdom, courage and temperance to gain a victory for her people. "For she taught not only that widows do not need the help of men, but also that they are even a help to men. For she, not held back by the weakness of her sex, took on the duties of men and, having taken them on, brought them to completion.......It is not sex but virtue that makes people strong" (The Fathers and Beyond, p 13). He took on the role of revealing a detailed message to Christian widows by connecting to them on a level they could understand. Ambrose was thought to write the treatise for guidance for women and for aid of a women friend. His friend was widowed, had many children and was a Christian. It is said that she went to Ambrose for guidance on whether to remarry and thus the treatise was written (H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin and H.T.F. Duckworth, Church Fathers).

Ambrose does not only write in relevance to the Roman time. One can interpret Ambrose's writings of the past to today's current events. His letter on widows empowered women, by giving them the choices of how to live their lives. He was giving them guidelines to be women of God and to be stronger than they seemed to be in the eyes of Roman society. There were other options in being a widow than to remarry for farmhands or to bear children. Today, women can use these words as an inspiration or guidelines to a purer life. Maybe women who read his words would think before marrying twice, or realize they can be independent without a spouse. Women today feel the strength of past women inspired by Ambrose. Without these thoughts on actions women were allowed to do in Ambrose's time what would have become of current feminine rights? Maybe Ambrose and his sister started to help pave the way of gender equality.

Ambrose was a manipulator of words. He could take scripture and turn it into what he wanted as a "right" way to do things. If it was not for his skill in writing and in interpreting, society today could have been different. By reading the letters to Marcellina, one can see Ambrose's passion for change of his Roman society. As a woman I can appreciate Ambrose introducing the thoughts of female independence.

If Ambrose was alive today and had the same morals and values that he did in his Roman Catholic society, what would he say about current issues like women becoming ordained as priests? According to the Catholic dioceses "Only a baptized man receives sacred ordination. The Lord Jesus chose men to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ's return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord Himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible" Joanna Bogle, Women Priests - No Chance, p 18-21. This is an issue with strong opinions from the Catholic Church that dates back to times of Ambrose. Since, he is a Bishop and has knowledge on Roman Catholicism, but is an advocate for women, which side would he choose to be on? I would like to believe that if Ambrose was in 2010 and viewed the world as it is today, he would acknowledge that women could be ordained as priests.

In Ambrose's day, he stood up for women in times where women had no leverage or rights. He also was very close to his sister Marcellina and helped her become a highly regarded nun. This displays a respect for respect for women and his elder sister. Not many women held positions of respect from men or other women. Most women in the Roman period where assumed to be weak and uneducated because they let themselves be treated that way. Ambrose wrote his treatise on virgins and widows giving women an alternate way of living, a way of being independent, and a way to become closer to God. "These women had transcended their humanity and displayed super-human virtue through their reformation in Christ. They are no longer feminine but virile in spirit. Through such gender transformation, the title "Woman" can be reserved for unbelievers" (Kim E. Powers, Ambrose of Milan: Keeper of the Boundaries, p 23).

The Roman Catholics had a situation between the Arians and the Niceans. Ambrose chooses a side that he believed right and used the scripture to fight his battles for him. "Ambrose teaches, and so speaks of himself as well-turn our heart so that we might be able to comprehend the argument of the Scriptures and call to God that the Word might come over us and that we might gain understanding" (Ambrigio de Milano). If Ambrose was to choose a side on the issue of men versus women in the priesthood, he would have the wit to use the scripture to uphold his case.

As stated above Ambrose saw the body as a "human soul made in an image and likeliness of God" (The Fathers and Beyond, p 2). This statement applies equally to men and women; we are all the same the same in God's eyes. I believe that Ambrose would not deny a woman to become a priest in the Catholic Church if she was to be fully devoted herself, the same as a male priest would of. Rules and laws change with time, especially when they are seemingly outdated. This would be a topic that could use some change and Ambrose may be the right Bishop to do it.  


  • Bogle, Joanna. "Women Priests - No Chance." This Rock (October 1997): 18-21.
  • Colish, Marcia L. Ambrose's Patriarchs: Ethics for the Common Man. Notre Dame, MD: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005. Print.
  • Colish, Marcia L. The Fathers and Beyond: Church Fathers between Ancient and Medieval Thought. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Variorum, 2008. Print.
  • Grant, Robert. Theology 141 "Ambrose of Milan." Saint Ambrose University. 7 Oct. 2010. Lecture.
  • Pasini, Ceasar. Ambrigio de Milano; Azione e persiero di un vesavo. Trans.Grant, R. Milan: San Paolo, 1996. Print.
  • Power, K. (1998). Ambrose of Milan : Keeper of the Boundaries. Theology Today, 55(1),15-34. Retrieved from ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials database.
  • Romestin, H. De, H.T.F. Duckworth, and E. De Romenstin. "Chruch Fathers." New Advent. Kevin Knight,  2009. Web. 14 Nov. 2010.