Anselm of Canterbury – A Writer to Discover
Three countries claim Anselm as their own. To the Italians, he is Anselmo d’Aosta (of Aosta, the Alpine city where he was born around 1033). To the French, he is Anselme du Bec (of Bec, where he first entered monastic life in 1060). To the English (and the English-speaking world), he is Anselm of Canterbury, the city where he became archbishop in 1093.
We know him best for his defense of a faith that seeks understanding, for his ontological argument for the existence of God (which was not meant as proof for unbelievers), and for his substitutionary view of the atonement which has become foundational to our Reformed catechisms and confessions.
Few know him as a man of his times, committed to his service to Christ even when it became uncomfortable and painful, exposed to dangers and accusations, and ever more yearning for the simple contemplation of the God he loved.
A Contemplative Man in Positions of Power
The Life of St Anselm, written by his friend Eadmer, gives a generous picture of this theologian’s thoughts, emotions, and aspirations, taking us from his early meditations about God to his final regret, at his death in 1109, at not being able to finish a book. We read of his harsh childhood teachers, of the tenderness of his mother who came to his rescue before his spirit was completely crushed, and of his teenage rebellion after her death. We follow him in his search for knowledge all around France, until he settled at the Abbey of Bec. There, he progressed rapidly from monk to abbot, until he finally moved to England.
By becoming a monk, Anselm imagined a life of quiet study, contemplation and enjoyment of God. Instead, he was quickly handled a position of responsibility, with all its mundane concerns. His superior Maurilius was not of great comfort. Ordinary, daily tasks were good, he said. They would keep Anselm from becoming self-absorbed. Far from easing his fears, Maurilius told Anselm to expect and accept greater obligations.
In obedience to Maurilius, Anselm performed his duties with great dedication. His acceptance, however, reached its limit when King William II of England asked him to become archbishop. Anselm turned pale. When the king handed him the staff, he kept his fist closed so tightly that the bishops had to forcibly open his fingers.
Most biographers consider Anselm an unskilled politician and a poor match for King William, and the theologian would have been the first to agree. In his view, he was like an old sheep yoked to an untamed bull. He also saw himself as an owl who was constantly attacked by scary crows (the English leaders) and was only happy at home with his beloved owlets (the monks).
Anselm’s struggle came at a time when the relations between church and state were especially unstable, and his views of a separation of roles came as a shocking provocation. To make matters worse, the church was divided under two different popes: Urban II, elected by church leaders, and Clement III, supported by the emperor. No wonder he decided to take a nap during the meeting at Rockingham Castle! In the end, his views were vindicated, prompting his opponents to say, “While we are busy all day long making our plans, he just goes to sleep, and then, with one breath of his lips, he shatters all our plans like cobwebs.”
Gentle Teacher, Warm Friend, and Crisp Writer
Eadmer paints a picture of Anselm as a gentle teacher, who compared children to trees needing room to grow, and as a fierce champion of the weak, including, on one occasion, a small and frightened hare. Anselm’s own writings were full of comparisons, mostly taken from his natural and social environment. To farmers, he talked about fish, mills, oxen, and butterflies. To the nobles, he talked about kings, castles, servants, and crowns. Even his similitude in his Cur Deus Homo is based on the feudal system of his day, depicting our sin as an affront to the honor of our Divine King.
As most medieval men, he was easily moved to tears, and expressed his friendship in passionate letters that are refreshingly free from today’s inhibitions. Friends were very important in his life. He needed them for emotional support, but also to bounce off ideas, which became clearer as he discussed them. The immediacy of the dialogue in Cur Deus Homo makes us think that the exchange between Anselm and Boso (the name of one of his students) was not just a literary device.
Anselm is worth reading. I suspect that many know of his teachings without having read his writings. This was true of me before I decided to write a book for children about his life. Once I started, I wanted to read more.
Anselms’s letters are warm and moving, and his prayers have an unpretentiousness and authenticity that remind of Augustine’s Confessions.
In fact, all his writings are profoundly Augustinian and original at the same time. According to Anselm’s biographer Richard W. Southern, the difference in their style is a reflection of their personality and historical environment. “Augustine is like an ocean, tempestuous, variegated, and with contradictory currents formed by the terrible stresses arising from the ruin of the ancient world. Anselm is a narrow channel, clear-cut, lucid, admitting no extraneous elements. He expressed his most anguished feelings with an artistry and a conciseness which he had not learnt from Augustine. Precision was his aim and his gift.”
In an age that values quantity of words and information, precision and conciseness are becoming increasingly precious. Ideally, we should swim both in Augustine's wide ocean and in Anselm's narrow stream. The Reformers did, with great benefit to their theological understanding and to their souls.
 Richard W. Southern, St. Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 86, 87.