Anselm was born in 1033 in the northern Italian town of Aosta, but spent the early part of his mature life in the great Benedictine monastery of Bec in France. He was to become one of the outstanding churchmen of his time, a theologian, abbot, then archbishop of Canterbury until his death in 1109, a man who did not shy away from political confrontation with the secular powers of the day, and yet one who immersed himself in the writing of prayers and meditations. In many ways, Anselm’s writing signals the beginnings of the flowering of scholasticism, of faith seeking understanding, the marrying of rigorous and rational intellectual scrutiny with deeply consuming faith in God. And many a young scholar thrills, still, when they read for the first time Anselm’s definition of God: that than which no greater can be conceived!
Perhaps, then, that is the best way to examine him and come to know him – leaving behind the rather cold terms of scholastic philosophy we listen to the warmer tones of his prayer, by savouring a little of what he has left as his written spiritual testimony.
Expressing the deepest desire which draws all of us who are serious seekers after God and, above all, want to live in a life-giving communion with him, Anselm writes in his pivotal Proslogion:
Teach me to seek you, and as I seek you, show yourself to me,
For I cannot seek you unless you show me how,
And I will never find you unless you show yourself to me.
Let me seek you by desiring you,
And desire you by seeking you;
Let me find you by loving you,
And love you in finding you.
And to his beloved Christ, his Redeemer, Mercy and Salvation:
My merciful Lord,
Turn my lukewarmness into a fervent love of you.
Most gentle Lord,
My prayer tends toward this –
That by remembering and meditating
On the good things you have done
I may be enkindled with your love.
Your goodness, Lord, created me;
Your mercy cleansed what you had created
From original sin;
Your patience has hitherto borne with me,
Fed me, waited for me,
When after I had lost the grace of my baptism
I wallowed in many sordid sins.
You wait, good Lord, for my amendment;
My soul waits for the inbreathing of your grace
In order to be sufficiently penitent
To lead a better life.
To Our Lady he prays, filled with the love which a son must have for his Mother, and intimate, as Christ was close to his Mother:
Mary, great Mary, most blessed of all Marys,
Greatest among all women, great Lady, great beyond measure,
I long to love you with all my heart,
I want to praise you with my lips,
I desire to venerate you in my understanding,
I love to pray to you from my deepest being,
I commit myself wholly to your protection.
Addressing himself to God on behalf of his friends, he prays:
Love them, you source of love, by whose command and gift I love them;
And if my prayer does not deserve to avail for them
Because it is offered you by a sinner,
Let it avail for them because it is made at your command.
Love them, Author and Giver of love,
For your own sake, not for mine,
And make them love you with all their heart,
All their soul, and all their mind,
So that they will and speak and do,
Only what pleases you and is expedient for them.
Finally, looking to the one who, for him as a monk is teacher, law-giver and inspiration, Anselm prays to St Benedict:
And you, my good leader, my gentle master,
My dear father, blessed Benedict –
I pray and beseech you,
By the mercy you have shown to others
And by the mercy that God has shown to you,
Have compassion on me in my misery,
For I rejoice with you in your bliss.
Help me! I beg you to be my protector.
Dig me out from the mass of sin that buries me,
Free me from the ropes of sin that bind me,
Loose me from the wickedness that entangles me.
Lift up him who is cast down, strengthen the wavering, prepare the helpless with spiritual weapons of virtue, lead and protect him who is fighting in the battle.
Bring me to the victory and lead me to the crown.
And when we have done reading Anselm’s words, and chewing over them, and allowing them to pray within us, we can remember – God waits above all to hear from us in our own words when we speak to him, because he speaks to us in words that he means only for us.
-Part of our ‘Celebration of the Saints’ series-