Saint Anselm of Canterbury - Ninth Centenary

P. Alfred Simon OSB

Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy of the Pontifical Athenaeum of Sant’Anselmo in Rome

This year the ninth centenary of the death of St Anselm in 1109 was celebrated in his archiepiscopal see of Canterbury. On this occasion Pope Benedict XVI sent a message to the Abbot Primate of the Benedictines, P. Notker Wolf, published in Ecclesia of last June (no. 3.472, p. 26). Another document published in the same issue was the homily of the Pope on the 24th May, the Sunday of the Ascension, in the Abbey of Monte Casino (ibid., pp. 30-31). The Pope’s reflection rejoins the many meetings called this year in various countries to commemorate the occasion.

Pope Benedict and the Benedictines

In the course of his life the Pope has regularly visited Benedictine monasteries, especially in Bavaria and Italy. He has made some noble comments about the place which they hold in the cultural and spiritual tradition of Christianity. For a clear example one need only refer to his book God and the World, written when he was a cardinal, or to his choice of papal title, motivated by his devotion to St Benedict. On the 24th May at Monte Casino hundreds of nuns and monks from all over the world had the good fortune to share with Benedict XVI a meal, Vespers and the veneration of the Tomb of the saintly abbot and his sister, St Scholastica. In his homily at Vespers the pope gratefully acknowledged to the monks the hospitality he had enjoyed at the Abbey on various occasions, in which he had spent ‘unforgettable moments of stillness and prayer’. His words aimed to highlight the renewal in the West which ‘the human and spiritual adventure of St Benedict’ was undergoing. Quoting from the Preface for the feast Pope Benedict called the saint ‘the teacher of spiritual wisdom’, naming him ‘master of civilisation’ on account of the balance he promoted between the ideal of sanctity and authentic and peaceful brotherhood among people and societies. In fact peace, or better, ‘the art of peace’, as the Pope called it, is the motto of Benedictines. Many pilgrims and guests can read the emblem ‘PAX’ at the entrance of monasteries.

However, a real question inevitably arises, do monks have a place in the modern world? The Pope articulated an enlightening answer by reference to three basic principles, prayer, study and work. In the high middle ages, said the Pope, with cross, book and plough, the monks built up the continent of Europe with a humanistic character which gave it a permanent openness to transcendence and to the common good. If words like ‘dialogue’ or ‘encounter’ have any meaning in today’s society monasteries still make sense because they have become, recalled the Pope, ‘living centres of dialogue’ and encounter of diverse peoples. At the same time the search for God in the Rule of St Benedict has, thanks to the historic work of monks, a solid spiritual content which our age sorely needs. It has made the monastic vocation ‘more relevant than ever before’. Aware of the decisive importance which origins have in defining identity, the Pope placed Europe at the feet of its patron so that it might return to the roots of its culture and its spiritual patrimony in order to achieve a new flowering of wisdom which would set free both individuals and communities.

This line of thought clearly echoed his speech to academics in Paris on the 12th September 2008, which centred precisely on the importance of this monastic quaerere Deumin shaping medieval Christendom, and on the importance which it could have in contemporary culture. Basing himself principally on the well-known book of Jean Leclercq L’amour des lettres et le désir de Dieu, the Pope commented systematically on the first unfolding of medieval Christian culture and its context of major demographic changes, in the midst of which the monasteries became established centres of hospitality and of a way of life inspired by that essential factor, the Word of God.

Centred on lectio divina and the communal celebration of the liturgy, the monks integrated literary knowledge and reflection, art and work, music and spiritual experience into a unity of life which created a culture which renewed the essence of humanity as an image of God. This manifested itself aesthetically in the refinement of a chant reflecting the divine harmony of the creative plan of the world, and of the redemption of the human race. In this way the monastery brought together the conditions required to be a creative universe and a reflection of the Mystery. In particular the theological significance of music aimed to express, as St Bernard explained, the resemblance of humanity to God, just as lack of harmony in a melody echoed the regio dissimilitudinis, sin and human imperfection. The monastic life of faith opened out the hermeneutical space of contemplation and beauty by means of Scripture, which created for monks the experience of encounter with the divine. Their desire was oriented not towards an emptiness but rather towards a Word made Logos and sacrament in Christ, permanently active in human history. Ultimately, searching for God is a way of finding him, a way of encounter, just as love has always been and still remains the way of living and experiencing him.

Saint Anselm, master of spirituality and of theology

One of the most fascinating monastic figures of medieval Benedictine tradition is represented by St Anselm. monk and abbot of the monastery of Bec, he became, reluctantly, archbishop of Canterbury. He is acknowledged today as a doctor of the Church. The Pope in his Letter to the Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Confederation, Chancellor of the Pontifical Athenaeum of St. Anselm in Rome, highlights the work of St. Anselm as a way of doing theology that unites theoretical reflection on the spiritual experience with the mysteries of faith. In fact, his most famous work, the Proslogion, begins with a prayer before moving to a discussion of the rigorously rational knowledge of God. But increasingly in St Anselm has been rediscovered not only the genius of conceiving a proof of the existence of God or a logic of redemption (cf. Cur Deus Homo), but a master of Christian spirituality through his prayers and letters. Accordingly, the Pope highlights once again the importance and urgency of studying the ancient Christian sources and history of the Church of the first millennium.

St Anselm recognised that no human being can understand what he is saying when he pronounces the name of God. For him, as for the Fathers of the Church, knowledge of God is a movement of the spirit and of the heart, in which what we today call theology and spirituality move forwards together in a dynamic fruitful for both intelligence and affection.

His works on truth and freedom, quite apart from his more familiar writings, show this cognitive mode, which is not purely theoretical but includes love, the joy of spiritual experience, wonder and contemplation. This shows St Anselm as tributary to the patristic and monastic tradition, where wisdom integrated the human person into a single whole, compounded of rationality and emotion. Wisdom was thus understood in the last analysis as a manifestation of the gift of God.

The contemplation of beauty and truth in the vision of God is the ultimate goal pursued by St Anselm in his life and his work. On this path, as his extensive correspondence shows, friendship is the preferred form of attaining the experience of joy and happiness that God intends for all people. Many of his letters appear as a eulogy of love and friendship between men and women, who live out their relationship as a gift and as a responsibility. For these reasons St Anselm, like other fine witnesses to ancient tradition, still has many lessons for the Church of today.