The Pure Soul and Mind of Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm's statue on the southwest porch of Canterbury Cathedral.

Saint Anselm (+1109) was bishop of the see of Canterbury, in the south of England, whose old buildings and cobbled roads still evoke her mediaeval era. Canterbury is famous for both her original founding bishop, Augustine, who governed from 597 until his death in 604 (yes, the ‘other’ Augustine, sometimes called ‘Austin’ in Britain), whom we celebrate on May 25th. As well, the see is even more renowned for her bishop, Thomas a Becket, appointed in 1162, and martyred by the command of his own King, Henry II, in 1170, after the the petulant cry, ‘Who will rid me of this meddlesome monk!’. It is to Thomas’ shrine that the pilgrims were a-pilgrimaging in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

So Canterbury was the premier diocese of Britain, back when the nascent England was still staunchly Catholic, accepting the Faith soon after the missionary endeavours of Augustine, and the Faith remained firmly entrenched until the predations of the Tudors, Henry VIII and his progeny, Edward and Elizabeth, along with their even-more rapacious courtiers, who gobbled up the land of the convents and monasteries, built up over centuries (yes, Downtown Abbey, and Mr. Darcy, and all that). The majestic cathedral of Canterbury is now in the hands of the Anglican ‘ecclesial community’, which means, in all effect, the government of England – you must pay an admission fee to enter (unless you go during a service, which I did, for evening Vespers sung by a choir from South Carolina, of all places). There is still a shrine there to Saint Thomas, as well as the Anselm and Augustine. I wonder what they are thinking up in heaven? (See my own reflections on my pilgrimage there in the summer of 2018)

Yet, the Faith has always had its struggles with the rulers of this age, and will so until the very edge of doomsday. Anselm, a Benedictine monk whose holiness and learning led him to be appoint Archbishop, was in near-perpetual conflict with the Kings William Rufus and Henry I, jealous of their imagined prerogatives, who wanted to control the Church, her influence and wealth; Anselm suffered persecution, and was twice exiled, but held steadfast to the rights and privileges that belong to the Mystical Body of Christ in her hierarchical dimension; for he realized full well that the Church cannot carry out her supernatural mission without a natural foundation, free from secular domination (as we are witnessing in our own crisis, here, across the world, in China…)

We may be rather certain that Anselm would much rather have devoted his time and energy to prayer and study. As he cries out in a letter quoted in today’s Office

O God, let me know you and love you so that I may find my joy in you; and if I cannot do so fully in this life, let me at least make some progress every day, until at last that knowledge, love and joy come to me in all their plenitude. While I am here on earth let me learn to know you better, so that in heaven I may know you fully; let my love for you grow deeper here, so that there I may love you fully. On earth then I shall have great joy in hope, and in heaven complete joy in the fulfilment of my hope.

Anselm is credited with helping to found what we now know as the ‘university’, beginning with his cathedral school, with young men gathered around scholarly clerics learning the ‘liberal arts’, those subjects that make a man ‘free’ from the slavery of ignorance, an ignorance in which we are now wallowing, in our own modern-dark ages.

Before his episcopacy, Anselm’s Benedictine abbey at Bec, in Normandy, which he joined as a young man, and soon afterward appointed Abbot, was considered the foremost seat of learning in Europe. Through his writings and teaching, Anselm is hailed as the founder of Scholasticism, that whole invaluable theological-philosophical method, which brings faith and reason together into a perfect harmony and synthesis, and which Saint Thomas Aquinas would bring to perfection in the century after Anselm’s death.

Like the future Dominican, Anselm was an implacable foe of the heresy of nominalism, the theory that nothing could really be known, and that all knowledge was really just ‘names’ we applied to things, ever-shifting, which, in its moral application, the future Pope Benedict XVI would term the ‘dictatorship of relativism’.

Not so: Pope John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio is one long exhortation on the bold and courageous capacity of the human mind to know, to grasp truth, the adequatio rei et intellectus, the ‘conformity of the mind to reality’, and to live by that truth, the only thing that will truly ‘set us free’.

In that same encyclical, John Paul described Anselm as ‘one of the most fruitful and important minds in human history’. His precise yet transcendent treatises on God, Christ, Our Lady, the Fall, Incarnation, the ontological proof, faith seeking understanding and a vast array of other subjects make his writings a solid part of the Church’s tradition, and he was declared one of the (now) 36 Doctors of the Church by Clement XI in 1670.

Anselm saw that the Revelation of God, the study of which we call ‘theology’, extends and perfects the range of human reason, which otherwise remains limited, barren, weak, pusillanimous, eventually turning bizarre and even evil without the guidance of the truth that only God’s revelation, through His Christ and His Church, can provide. Recall that the heresy of the Anti-Christ will be a ‘secular messianism’, a salvation limited to the horizons of this world alone, and we may be deceived – or, more properly, allow ourselves to be so – if we too limit our knowledge and hopes to this transient existence, which is but a pilgrimage to a far, far better place.

Popes John Paul and Benedict have warned us that as we lose faith (or adopt erroneous faiths), we also lose reason, our grip on reality, and a kind of global and even infectious insanity ensues, as any glance at daily newspaper headlines will clearly evince.

Unless we return to the fullness of truth, which means that harmony between faith and reason, theology and philosophy, immersed and formed in the Church’s whole tradition of the liberal arts, we are quite literally doomed, at least doomed to ignorance and all that entails.

If one need examples, ponder our loss of even basic truths, such as what human life means, its inherent dignity, the nature of married and sexual love, what it means to be man and woman, to say nothing of socioeconomic principles, the purpose of private property, human initiative, why marijuana is bad for you, and all that it means to be ‘educated’.

As the prophet Hosea warned, ‘my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge’.

And he meant that quite literally, as it turns out. But hope abounds, and we should pray to the holy Archbishop, theologian, philosopher, poet and prayer warrior Anselm, that we find our way through our own morass, with the light of truth and grace.

Saint Anselm, ora pro nobis! +