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What St. Anselm of Canterbury Teaches Modern Man

How often the saints pass by each year on the Church’s calendar, and we think: “Hmm, that saint — I wish I knew more about him,” and that’s it. In a better year than this one, we might be fortunate to assist at Mass that day and hear a set of orations asking for the saint’s intercession, but if on our way out we were stopped by an inquisitive journalist from the local newspaper eager to know why we were invoking this holy man in our official public prayer as Catholics, we might shrug our shoulders in embarrassment and admit that we simply don’t know.

April 21st is the day the Catholic Church remembers St. Anselm of Canterbury, who died about nine centuries ago. He is a saint well worth knowing about.

Anselm was born at Aosta in the Italian Alps in 1033. As a young man, he traveled from place to place for his education, a life of “wandering scholarship” not uncommon in the Middle Ages. In 1060, Anselm became a Benedictine monk at the Norman monastery of Bec, where he was made prior in 1063 and abbot in 1078. From 1063 to 1093, he led the quiet life of a monk and scholar, writing several treatises destined to have a huge impact on the intellectual life of Europe, among them two works on the existence of God (Monologium and Proslogium), a work on truth (De veritate), and another on free will (De libertate arbitrii). In the main, Anselm followed Augustine as his master, but he incorporated much from the logic of Boethius and Aristotle as well as from the theology of his monastic predecessors.

In 1093, Anselm was consecrated archbishop of Canterbury, in spite of his repeated protests against entering the active life, and in his new role, he fought a long battle against the liberties taken by English kings in appointing bishops apart from papal authority. Ever afterward, he has been revered in Church history as a bishop who knew when and how to tell the civil authority: Just Don’t Do It. I find myself wondering these days when our equivalent to Anselm (if he exists) will tell the civil authorities: “Enough is enough — we’re opening up the churches again for divine worship,” rather than saying: “Yes, Governor, we know you’re permitting religious services, but we’ve decided against resuming them. Non-essential goods and services, you know.”

In the midst of the duties and controversies of his episcopacy, Anselm managed to complete his masterful treatise on the Incarnation, Cur Deus homo (Why God became man), along with a number of smaller works. He died in 1109 and was canonized in 1494. In 1720, Pope Clement XI declared him a Doctor of the Church.

Anselm’s most important works — the Monologium, the Proslogion, and the Cur Deus homo — all deserve close study.

Anselm’s Monologium, a profound exploration of the divine nature and the mystery of the Trinity, is useful for understanding, presenting, and defending the existence of one God in three divine Persons. The style of argument is clear and concise. Reading this work enables one to see just how much the later scholastics, especially St. Thomas, derived from Anselm.

The effectiveness of the Proslogium’s famous ontological argument for the existence of God — namely, that all men are capable of forming the concept “that than which no greater can be thought,” to which existence must belong if it is truly that than which no greater can be thought — is limited for three reasons. First, later Western theologians, among them Saint Thomas Aquinas, found the proof defective, since it concludes only that our concept of a God must include existence, not that such a concept corresponds to reality. Second, a careful reading of the treatise as a whole shows that Anselm is seeking to deepen his grasp of a truth he already accepts in faith, making the argument a meditative response of reason to God’s self-revelation rather than a proof directed toward unbelievers, which is how many later readers mistook the treatise (Descartes among them). Finally, most modern people are not patient or schooled enough to follow Anselm’s abstract reasoning or would be tempted to dismiss it as playing with words. Yet the spirit of the treatise has an abiding relevance, and the prayers it contains help the reader to dwell within the luminous truth of God.

Anselm’s dialogue on the fittingness of the Incarnation, Cur Deus homo, is a distinguished contribution to an apologetic tradition that stretches back to the earliest Fathers of the Church. The infinite holiness of God deserves perfect honor, but man, by sinning against God, has failed to render this honor, therefore God’s infinite majesty is offended, and man stands condemned. Now, if man is to be rescued from his plight, then this perfect honor must be given by him, canceling out his guilt and restoring his friendship with God. Yet God alone can restore what man has lost, and God alone can forgive the guilt of an infinite offense. Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, true God and true man, undertakes the work of redemption by offering Himself to the Father in an oblation of love on the Cross for the sake of mankind — an oblation fully acceptable to God because it is made by God. Man is redeemed by man, the Father’s wrath is appeased and His mercy poured out, and the path to Heaven is opened through Christ.

This argument remains as sound and true as it was when the ink was still glistening beneath Anselm’s 11th-century quill.

Anselm’s generous and positive attitude toward the integration of faith and reason is much needed now, as both Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris and John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio emphasized, and his humble way of “questioning God” is a model for the Christian thinker seeking to penetrate the mysteries of faith. After all, Scripture itself equates “intelligent” with “seeking God”: Deus de caelo prospexit super filios hominum, ut videat si est intelligens, aut requirens Deum, “God looked down from heaven on the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand or did seek God” (Ps. 13:2 and 52:3)

Consider these words from chapter 2 of Cur Deus homo:

As the right order requires us to believe the deep things of Christian faith before we undertake to discuss them by reason, so to my mind it appears a neglect if, after we are established in the faith, we do not seek to understand what we believe.

Although much scholarly discussion has centered on this brilliant theologian’s writings, the central characteristic of his life is too often forgotten: Anselm was, above all, a monk who lived a life of intense prayer, placing his intellectual projects in the hands of God like a child trusting in his father for guidance. He sought rational or logical arguments not because his mind was clouded with doubts, but as a way of using his God-given mind to probe the faith he had already accepted and to clarify what our language and concepts mean when adapted to mysteries above the domain of natural reason. The first lesson a modern Catholic stands to learn from Anselm’s life is the necessity of wedding prayer and study, words and silence, wisdom and charity.

The major works by Saint Anselm fit snugly in a single volume. Two affordable paperback editions on the market contain almost exactly the same items in different translations: the Thomas Williams edition published by Hackett and the Brian Davies/Gillian Evans edition published by Oxford.

While both translations are reliable and readable, my preference goes to the Davies-Evans, for the simple reason that Williams insists on using inclusive language throughout in a way that uglifies the prose and needlessly complicates the theological points Anselm is making. In keeping with centuries of English usage and just plain good sense, Anselm’s pivotal question Cur Deus homo deserves to be rendered “Why God became man,” not “Why God became a human being.” Is anyone so witless as to think “man” in this expression means only males of the species? More to the point, if anyone does think it, does he not need a lesson in grammar more than a clunky politically correct translation?

Do yourself a favor and make time to read Anselm’s Why God Became Man. It’s not always easy going, but it is extremely thought-provoking, and the sheer brilliance of many passages in it is enough to make one put the book down and smile or even laugh.

A noble goal, faith seeking understanding. St. Anselm, dubbed “The Father of Scholasticism,” shows us the way. May the gracious Lord — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — grant each of us a consoling foretaste of His sovereign Reason as we walk through this vale of tears toward the light of glory.

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