Faith Seeking Understanding
St. Anselm: Theologian and Defender of Church Freedom
BY The Editors
October 11-17, 2009 Issue | Posted 10/2/09 at 3:46 PM
Weekly General Audience September 23, 2009
During his general audience on Sept. 23, Pope Benedict XVI offered his reflections on St. Anselm, an outstanding figure of the Middle Ages.
St. Anselm was born in Aosta, Italy, but became a Benedictine at the Abbey of Bec in France. Over the years, he distinguished himself as an educator, theologian and abbot. Later he was appointed archbishop of Canterbury in England, where he led an energetic struggle for the freedom of the Church from government interference.
St. Anselm emphasized that anyone who studies theology must not rely merely upon his own intelligence but must also cultivate a profound experience of the faith. As a result of his extensive work in the area of theology, Christian tradition has bestowed on him the title of “Doctor Magnificus.”
Dear brothers and sisters,
The Benedictine Abbey of St. Anselm is located on the Aventine Hill in Rome. As seat of both an institute of graduate studies and of the Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Confederation, it is a place that unites prayer, study and governance — three activities that were characteristic of Anselm of Aosta, the saint to whom it is dedicated and whose death 900 years ago we observe this year.
The multiple activities that the Diocese of Aosta has organized for this happy occasion have demonstrated in a special way the interest that this medieval thinker continues to arouse even today.
Anselm of Aosta is also known as Anselm of Bec and Anselm of Canterbury since he was closely associated with these two cities.
Who is this man to whom three cities — all distant from each other and in three countries (Italy, France and England) — feel particularly bound?
He was a monk who had a deep spiritual life, an outstanding educator of young people, a theologian with an extraordinary speculative mind, a wise leader, as well as an intransigent defender of libertas Ecclesiae (the freedom of the Church).
Anselm, an eminent personality of the Middle Ages, was able to blend all these qualities together thanks to a profound mystical experience that guided his thought and action over the years.
St. Anselm was born in 1033 (or early in 1034) in Aosta, the eldest son of a noble family. His father was a crude man who was dedicated to the pleasures of life and who squandered all his money. His mother, on the other hand, was a very refined and deeply religious woman (see Eadmero, Vita s. Anselmi, PL 159, col 49).
She took a concern for her son’s early education and religious formation, later entrusting him to the Benedictines at their priory in Aosta.
As a boy, his biographer tells us, Anselm imagined that God dwelled in the high snow-covered peaks of the Alps and dreamt one night that God himself invited him to this splendid kingdom, where God had a long and friendly conversation with him, at the end of which he asked the boy to eat “a bread that was snow white” (ibid, col 51).
As a result of this dream, he was convinced that he was called to carry out an important mission in life. At the age of 15, he asked to be admitted to the Benedictine order, but his father, using his authority, opposed the idea and refused to give in even when his son, seriously ill and feeling as though he was near death, begged his father to allow him to take the religious habit as a consolation.
After Anselm recovered his health and following the premature death of his mother, he went through a period of moral dissipation. He neglected his studies, and overcome by earthly passions, he became deaf to God’s call.
He left home and started to wander throughout France in search of new experiences. After three years, he reached Normandy, where he withdrew to the Benedictine Abbey of Bec, attracted by the fame of its prior, Lanfranco of Pavia.
Benedictine Monk in France
This was a providential encounter that was decisive for the rest of his life. Under Lanfranco’s guidance, Anselm resumed his studies with renewed vigor and in a short time became not only his teacher’s favorite pupil, but also his confidant.
His vocation to the monastic life was rekindled, and after careful consideration, he entered the monastic order when he was 27 years old and was ordained a priest. Asceticism and study had opened new horizons for him, enabling him to rediscover the familiarity that he had with God as a child, but at a much deeper level.
When Lanfranco became the abbot of Caen in 1063, Anselm — after less than three years of monastic life — was named prior of the monastery at Bec and a teacher in the cloister’s school, where he demonstrated his gifts as an outstanding educator.
He did not care for authoritarian methods. Comparing young people to saplings that develop best if they are not enclosed in a greenhouse, he granted them a “healthy” measure of freedom.
He was very demanding with himself and with others in monastic observance, but rather than imposing discipline, he sought to make people follow it by persuasion.
Upon the death of Abbot Erluino, the founder of the Abbey of Bec, Anselm was unanimously elected to succeed him in February of 1079.
Mission to England
In the meantime, a number of monks had been asked to go to Canterbury in order to take to their colleagues across the English Channel the renewal that was taking place on the Continent. Their work was well received, to the point that Lanfranco of Pavia, abbot of Caen, became the new archbishop of Canterbury and asked Anselm to spend a period of time with him, instructing the monks there and helping him with the difficult situation in which the Church community found itself after the Norman invasion.
Anselm’s stay in Canterbury was very fruitful. He earned a great deal of sympathy and respect, to the extent that, upon Lanfranco’s death, he was chosen to succeed him as archbishop of Canterbury. He was solemnly consecrated a bishop in December of 1093.
Anselm immediately waged an energetic struggle for the Church’s freedom, courageously defending the independence of spiritual power from temporal power.
He defended the Church against the unwarranted interference of the political authorities, especially Kings William Rufus and Henry I, finding encouragement and support from the Pope in Rome, to whom Anselm always demonstrated courageous and heartfelt loyalty.
This loyalty took a bitter toll when he was exiled from his see in Canterbury in 1103. In 1106, after Henry I renounced his claim of having authority to confer ecclesiastical investitures as well as imposing taxes upon the Church and confiscating her goods, Anselm was able to return to England to a festive welcome by the clergy and the people.
Thus, the long struggle that he fought armed with perseverance, fierceness and goodness came to a happy end. This saintly archbishop, who roused deep admiration wherever he went, dedicated the last years of his life, above all, to the moral formation of the clergy and to intellectual research on theological questions.
Anselm died on April 21, 1109, accompanied by the words of the Gospel at Mass that day: “It is you who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father has conferred one on me, that you may eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom ...” (Luke 22:28-30).
Thus, the dream of that mysterious banquet, which had been the beginning of his spiritual journey as a little child, became a reality. Upon his death, Jesus, who had invited him to sit at his table, welcomed St. Anselm into his Father’s eternal Kingdom.
“I pray, God, to know to love you, and to rejoice in you. If, in this life, I am not able to do so completely, then may I progress day by day until I reach that fullness” (Proslogion, cap.14).
This prayer helps us understand the mystical spirit of this great saint from the Middle Ages — the founder of scholastic theology, to whom our Christian tradition has given the title of “Doctor Magnificus” because be cultivated a deep desire to completely fathom the divine mysteries, fully aware, however, that the search for God is never ending, at least not on this earth.
The clarity and logical rigor of his thought always had the goal of “elevating the mind to the contemplation of God” (Ivi, Proemium).
He made it clear that anyone who intends to study theology must not rely merely on his own intelligence but should cultivate at the same time a profound experience of faith. The work of the theologian, according to St. Anselm, is divided into three stages: faith, God’s gratuitous gift which is to be welcomed with humility; experience, which consists in embodying God’s word in our daily life; and true knowledge, which is never the fruit of sterile reasoning but rather of contemplative intuition.
The following famous words from St. Anselm regarding healthy theological research that are directed to those who desire to study in depth the truths of the faith remain relevant to this day: “Lord, I do not seek to penetrate your depths because I cannot even remotely approach them with my own intellect. However, I wish to understand, at least to a certain point, your truth, which my heart believes and loves. Indeed, I do not seek to understand in order to believe, but I believe in order to understand” (Ivi, 1).
My dear brothers and sisters, may love for the truth and a constant thirst for God, which characterized St. Anselm’s entire life, be a stimulus for all Christians to tirelessly seek an ever more intimate union with Christ — the way, the truth and the life.
Moreover, may the courageous zeal that characterized his pastoral work and that at times was a source of misunderstanding, bitterness, and even exile, be an encouragement to pastors, consecrated religious and all the faithful to love Christ’s Church and to pray, work and suffer for her, without abandoning or betraying her.
May the Virgin Mother of God, for whom St. Anselm had a tender and filial devotion, obtain this grace for us! “Mary, it is you my heart wants to love,” St. Anselm wrote. “It is you that my tongue wants to ardently praise.”
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