The Story of St Anselm

by Stephen de la Bedoyere

In Search of Saint Anselm of Canterbury A walk from the 'Bec' will bring you to the 'verdant grasslands' ( Peter Sellars ) of Tooting Common, where, in the Middle Ages, flourished a Benedictine Priory, whose monks both prayed and made candles for use in London churches ... it was an offshoot of the Abbey of Bec in Normandy. Tradition - supported by reliefs in Wandsworth Town Hall - tells us that, not long after the Norman Conquest, Bec's great abbot, St Anselm, made a visitation of the Priory ... a major reason why our parish was in 1909 put under his patronage, and why we should become familiar with his life and thought.

St Anselm was born in the Italian city of Aosta around 1033, in a world very different from our own: a rural population eking out a living from the earth, small fortified cities dotted about, perpetual petty wars alternating with rubber bands, subjecting ordinary folk to insecurity; churches and monasteries were guiding lamps of civilisation, reminding people of a coming eternity of peace and plenty with God.

Anselm wanted to become a monk. It took some time before he established his independence from his father (he was to be a great defender of freedom), and it was not till he was 27 that he entered the Abbey of Bec in Normandy - widely known as a centre of scholarship. In his early 40's he became Abbot. Normandy and England being a United Kingdom since 1066, and Bec being of undoubted influence, it is not surprising to see Anselm appointed Archbishop of Canterbury under William II and he died in 1109 at around 76.

Mediaeval politics revolved around the two authorities of Pope and King.. Where one began and the other left off was often the subject of bitter dispute. Our Norman kings had established a powerful authority and an efficient political administration. No-one disputed the Pope's authority to appoint bishops (as now), but in practice he often rubber stamped the king's choice, by himself giving the 'Pallium' (or scarf of office) from Rome.

Alas, Anselm refused King William the church money he wanted. There was also a dispute about how the Pallium should be brought and imposed ... further demands by the King, and Anselm felt that enough was enough and decided to go to Rome. "Don't come back," said William, and he didn't, until William's death brought Henry I to the throne (in 1100).

However, there was a rerun of the previous conflict, Henry insisting on the right to invest bishops in his domains, with Anselm appealing to Papal authority. The latter's perseverance succeeded and after another bout of exile for Anselm, Henry gave up his claim to investiture provided the Church allowed bishops to do homage to the king for their lands and possessions. Now aged, Anselm was allowed to exercise his Episcopal authority for the remaining two years of his life.

In exile, Anselm had the opportunity to develop his scholarship and produce the written works of theology and philosophy that establish him as the first of the great catholic thinkers of the Middle Ages.

Thought is always expressed in a cultural context and the mediaeval mindset was very different from ours. After all, nowadays feeling plays an enormous part in practice about what we think of anything, be it God, the congestion charge or whether a film is worth watching. The use of reason to establish truth reached the Middle Ages from ancient Greece principally via Benedictine monasticism. Anselm defined 'Truth' as being, saying or doing what corresponds to reality. 'Right action' is found similarly in the purpose of the action itself ... I would say that you cannot do evil that good may come of it (a point that Benedict XVI recently made when he condemned the use of condoms to prevent the spread of Aids).

Because Anselm was a man of great Faith and also a philosopher it is necessary to distinguish between Faith and Reason. For him, Faith is a gift of God enlightening the soul (as for any catholic). However he intended his philosophical speculation to help the understanding support the virtue of faith. Faith is an intention to believe revelation. Our understand brings us to the threshold: it is up to us (and God) to step across!.' It is worth recalling that the Church tells us formally that it is possible to prove God's existence by reason ("Without this capacity man would not be able to welcome Revelation." Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 36, which quotes VATICAN I, Dei Filius, 2) ... but that is not yet Faith!

Anselm's purpose in writing theology and philosophy was to help others to overcome their doubts and difficulties: 'Faith seeking understanding' or, in our beautiful commemorative tapestry, 'I believe that I might understand.' Leap 900 years and we have Maryvale and R.C.I.A. and 'Life in the Spirit' seminars to help us do the same.

Anselm's most important theological work is about the Atonement: "Cur Deus Homo "("Why God became man.") Sin is not to give God his due ... as St Anselm wrote 'Every willing of a rational creature (e.g. man) should be subject to God's will '. Making up for the original sin that separated humanity from God and set us on a course of personal sins must be achieved by man 'the sinner', but by a Man whose love is as infinite as the being to whom atonement is made (and therefore cannot sin): i.e. the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ, 'who willed his own death, which he preferred to suffer than that the human race be not saved.' Surely atonement plus!

His greatest work of philosophy was the "Proslogion", written while still a monk at Bec, in which he advances a proof for the existence of God. Basically, his key argument is that 'greater than ... cannot be, unless it be God.' This means that what we can conceive (not: imagine) in our mind as best (e.g. God's goodness, His infinity) must necessarily be surpassed by reality: therefore God - infinite and infinite in goodness, justice, mercy and so on - exists. If 'God' were simply an explanation ('God of the gaps') a greater could be conceived; therefore He must - so to speak -exist, being objectively the greatest. As Anselm wrote: 'For God is that than which nothing greater can be thought.'

Anselm includes God's attributes to re-inforce the argument: life, goodness, truth, justice, unity, mercy, wisdom and so on. Each attribute leads in the same way to the existence of God, 'greater than whom cannot be', but God - being spirit - is a unity, which in turn really means that God's attributes are one (rather as a single pane of glass will reflect different shades of light in a sunbeam ). So goodness, truth and justice are qualities that we aspire to in the deepest part of our being. Didn't St Augustine say that our hearts are restless till they rest in God?

I think that I began to understand what Anselm is getting at when I realised that built into our nature is that very desire for the best. It is a spiritual imperative rather than a psychological one, because in our striving for it lies our essential happiness.

As part of his philosophical work, Anselm tackled the age-old problem of the supposed contradiction between justice and mercy in God. He resolved it by looking at the point of view both of the sinner and of God. Yes, the sinner who deserves it should be punished. Yes, the sin (and the sinner) should be forgiven, because God's own goodness requires it. Not so different from Ste Therese of Lisieux' point about God being both just and merciful, because He takes into account all our weaknesses.

Anselm also studied the concept of freedom in depth: he says "Freedom is the power to preserve rectitude of will for its own sake." When a ball rolls down a hill it is acting freely because it is doing what it was created to do. When I am willing the good (in the objective sense) I am free because my will was created for this purpose. However whenever I will evil, I do so because of a supposed good (e.g. the pleasure I obtain from taking drugs). In such a case, I have lost my freedom. If therefore we wish to live as free, we need to be really certain that what we do fits in with God's will... legislators, please note!

Anselm was the initiator of that approach to philosophy called scholastic, in which since his day catholic doctrine has been expressed. It is characterised by reasoned argument and therefore can be seen as objective. As one who advanced a specific proof of God's existence, his influence is great, even reaching the philosophy of Mathematics. St Anselm - the 'Scholastic' - was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1720.

His appearance in pictures and statues that I have seen - the fine statue looking on to Balham High Rd - show a man of physical stature, with a strong yet calm face, and those adjectives would seem to describe him well. However, in his 'Prayers and Meditations' he describes himself as a 'little man' more than once!

Kindness and openness were characteristics of a good pastor - he said in reference to educating, putting this into practice by helping others to find the truth, and we are assured that his educational views urged a treatment of the young that gave them measured freedom and spontaneity. He successfully promoted a law to prohibit buying and selling of serfs like cattle and thus became an early opponent of the slave trade. He appears to have had a love for animals. Was it in Tooting that he came upon a nasty boy who had tied a bird's claw to a thread that he was jerking to make it try to fly? With a flick of his fingers, Anselm broke the thread saying: 'the bird flies away, the boy howls and the father rejoices! '

The greatness of Anselm lay principally in his humility. There was his obedience to a higher authority, whether it was the Pope as Head of the Church or his rather unworthy sovereign William II, to whom he deferred respectfully whenever possible Holiness is the fulfilment of human life, that is to say, that our life increasingly conforms to what God expects of us. Anselm's sanctity was the key to all that he did for the Church and for his land of adoption. Do read his 'Prayers and Meditations' (Penguin), and you will find a deep and loving soul, with a concern for so many people whose needs he has taken to heart. Many saints have had to endure years of failure in their endeavours ... from time to time it may have seemed that way to Anselm, but the list of his qualities suggests that he never let discouragement get the better of him!

We are privileged to have St Anselm as the patron of our parish. I think that we need to get to know him better and take his kindly advice about faith seeking understanding and to study more and more what our Catholic Faith contains.

Stephen de la Bedoyere