Reading Anselm: Context and Criticism

A conference to be held at Boston College, 27-30 July 2015.

For more details go to conference website.
This Blogsite is dedicated to the work and legacy of Anselm of Aosta, Bec and Canterbury, who died in Canterbury on 21 April 1109.

© 2008-2015 Ian Logan. All rights reserved.
To notify me of recent publications, forthcoming events or anything of interest to Anselm scholars, please contact me using the form provided:

Sunday, 20 April 2008

What was Anselm like?

In this post, I try to give some idea of what St Anselm was like. The anecdotes I mention are chosen at random, there are many more which are equally interesting and provide insights into different aspects of his character and holiness.

We are very fortunate to have perhaps one of the earliest biographies of a saint written by someone who knew them well and was interested in presenting a factual account of their lives. The Canterbury monk, Eadmer, acted as Anselm’s secretary for much of the period of his archiepiscopacy. He wrote the Vita Anselmi and the Historia Novorum; the first an account of Anselm’s person, the second an account of his role in the political and religious life of England. In the Vita Anselmi, which was translated by Richard Southern as The Life of Saint Anselm in the Oxford Medieval Texts series, Eadmer recounts some fascinating anecdotes about Anselm, which reveal his personality and the nature of his sanctity:

1. How as a young boy Anselm dreamt that he was in God’s presence and that God gave him a piece of the whitest bread, and how when he awoke “like a simple and innocent young boy he believed that he had been in heaven and that he had been fed with the bread of God” (The Life of Saint Anselm, p. 5), and went round telling everyone that he had seen God and eaten the bread of God.
2. How after his mother died he father became more and more aggressive and hostile to him, so that in the end he had to leave home, and crossed the Alps to France. After travelling around he came to Bec in order to attend the school that Lanfranc had founded. In the end he decided to become a monk at Bec rather than at Cluny, because he would be more insignificant, given the dominating person of Lanfranc at Bec.
3. How he became prior at Bec just three years after his monastic profession.
4. How he disciplined himself with fasting, so that “neither hunger nor pleasure in eating were induced by any amount of abstinence” (Life, p. 14).
5. How after spending a full day in prayer, teaching and giving spiritual advice, he would work into the night correcting the manuscripts in the library.
6. How he won over the difficult young monk, Osbern, by his gentleness and discretion as opposed to discipline and blows (the usual fare for miscreants at this time), gradually withdrawing the concessions he made to his youth as Osbern grew in the religious life. [On another occasion he showed another abbot how to treat the boys in his care properly, “So, if you want your boys to be adorned with good habits, you too, besides the pressure of blows, must apply the encouragement and help of fatherly sympathy and gentleness” (Life, p. 38)]
7. How he came to write the Proslogion having become so captivated with the idea of developing a single argument to prove God’s existence that it interfered with his daily life and worse disturbed his attention during the liturgy and the divine office. Convinced that this was a temptation from the devil he tried to banish the thought from his mind, but it pursued him even more, until “one night during matins the grace of God illuminated his heart, the whole matter became clear in his mind, and a great joy and exultation filled his inmost being” (Life, p. 30).
8. How when involved in law suits he would not participate in the intrigue and dishonesty of others. Whilst others planned intrigue Anselm would discourse to anyone who would listen about the Scriptures, and if there was no-one to listen to him, he would sleep. Once the case got under way he would quickly see through the false arguments as if he had never been asleep.
9. How Anselm taught Lanfranc, when the latter was Archbishop of Canterbury, to show greater respect to the traditions of the English Church and to re-institute the feast of St Elphege, which Lanfranc had abolished.
10. How, in Eadmer’s words, “he employed his tongue as an instrument of spiritual meolody during meals”, addressing a question arising from scripture or from a guest. And because he would be so engrossed in the talk Eadmer and other monks would have to ply him with bread to ensure he ate. If he saw anyone enjoying their food, “he would given them a friendly and cheerful look, and, full of pleasure, would raise his right hand a little, blessing them and saying ‘May it do you good [Bene vobis faciat]”. (Life, p. 78).
11. How secular business distressed him so much, that the monks of Christ Church developed a strategy to ask him a question about Scripture when he was overcome by his horror of secular affairs, so that he would quickly return to his normal state.
12. How at Rockingham in 1095 he resisted King William Rufus, the nobility, and all but one of the bishops in recognising Pope Urban II as the rightful pope in spite of threats and blackmail, and was eventually forced into exile, even though the King came to accept Urban as pope. And how he was forced into exile again by Rufus’s successor, King Henry 1, over the ‘lay investiture’ dispute. In spite of his gentle character, Anselm was a fortress in defence of the rights of the Church, and a forerunner of Saint Thomas a Becket. [Becket in fact had a great devotion to Anselm, and was a King's man until he became Archbishop of Canterbury, when he followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, Anselm, in protecting the rights of the Church. Before his death Becket tried to set in motion the process for Anselm's canonisation.]
13. How in the last months of his life, although very weak, he had himself carried to the Church to be present at the consecration of the Lord’s Body, “which he venerated with a special devotion and love” (Life, p. 141).
14. How on the Palm Sunday before he died, he wondered whether God would allow him to live a little longer so that he could solve the problem of the origin of the soul, since he did not know whether anyone would solve it after his death.
15. And, finally, how as the Gospel reading for the day (the Wednesday of Holy Week) was being read out to him at the words “that you may eat and drink at my table in the kingdom” (Luke 22:30) his breath began to slow and he was placed on sackcloth and ashes on the floor and died with the community of Christ Church priory around him.

No comments: