Saint Anselm of Canterbury

Earlier this week, on Monday, April 28 the monastery celebrated the feast of its patron, Saint Anselm of Canterbury at the rank of a solemnity.  (Because the usual date for the feast, April 21, fell during the Octave of Easter, it was moved for the abbey to the first free day after the octave.)  On that occasion, Abbot Mark was the celebrant at the solemn mass, and Father Cecil, O.S.B. was the homilist.  Father Cecil gave a masterful homily, incorporating in a few minutes all the key features of our patron’s life and teaching.  That homily follows:


Fr. Cecil Donahue, O.S.B.

It is said that no saint is born with a halo. Our patron, St. Anselm, like every other genuine saint, had to work for his. His father, the first obstacle, was a worldly noble who had plans for his son; Anselm had others. To escape his father, he left his northern Italy home and journeyed west across France to Normandy and at the age of 27 entered the Benedictine monastery of Bec. The year was 1060. He spent the next eight years like the wise man praised in the feast’s gospel passage [Matthew 7:21-29], laying a rock solid foundation for his intellectual and spiritual life under the direction of Abbot Stephen Lanfranc.

It was during this happy period that Duke William of Normandy invaded England and defeated the English king at the Battle of Hastings. Now, I grew up in Hastings, i.e. Hastings, PA, and for us as kids there was one fact and one date in history we all knew very well: 1066 was the year William the Conqueror won the battle of Hastings. We didn’t know any more than that, or care that two years later William the Conqueror, now King William I of England, called Lanfranc, the Abbot of Bec, to come to England and be installed as the Archbishop of Canterbury. Back at Bec, Anselm took over as Prior. Some of his brother monks began asking him to teach them various points of religion and especially how to meditate on the divine essence. They specifically requested that he not use the authority of Sacred Scripture, but instead, use human reason to convince them of the truth of their beliefs.

Outside the monasteries, there was developing a great deal of interest in Philosophy and Logic and their application to the truths of the Catholic faith. This was, of course, a radical departure from the traditional Benedictine way of approaching prayer and the articles of faith by citing and interpreting Scripture and the writings of earlier Church fathers.

Part of Anselm’s response to his monks’ request was a treatise called the Monologium in which he set out to prove the existence of God as the most perfect being. Although in 1078 he was elected Abbot of Bec, he did not leave off his search for ‘the perfect proof’ of God’s existence. The fruit of his efforts was a second work which he titled: Faith Seeking Understanding. In this writing, better known today as the Proslogium, he undertook to show that the very concept of God is itself proof of God’s existence. This discovery was considered by Anselm as the joy of his heart and his highest achievement in the field of philosophy. Although not everyone was convinced of its absolute validity, – including St. Thomas Aquinas; nevertheless, it has continued to intrigue philosophers down to the present day, both as a proof of God’s existence and as a meditation on God.

Besides being one of the fathers of Scholastic Theology and an important figure in the history of philosophical speculation, St. Anselm wrote various other works, chief among which was his well-received Cur Deus Homo, why it was necessary for God to become Incarnate among us as a man. During his years as a monk at Bec teaching other monks, Anselm loved to write prayers, beautiful prayers. Many of these give us an insight into his really real self, at one time the weak and hapless monk trying to raise his mind to the contemplation of God, and at another seeking to understand what he believes.

He once wrote, “Lord, I thank you for having created your image in me, so that I may remember you, think of you, love you. This image, however, is so obliterated and worn away by my wickedness, so obscured by the smoke of my sins, that it cannot do what it was created to do, unless you renew and reform it. I am not attempting, O Lord, to penetrate your loftiness, for my understanding is no match for you. But I do desire in some measure to understand your truth, which my heart believes and loves. For this too I believe, that “unless I believe, I shall not understand.”’

St. Anselm, like the wise man in today’s gospel, was fortunate to have built his spiritual house on a rock. For in the years ahead rains were to fall, floods and winds were about to buffet him. In 1093, he traveled to England on business for his Abbey. King William II was gravely ill and, thinking that he was about to die, asked Abbot Anselm to accept to become Archbishop of Canterbury. Although the King had allowed Canterbury to remain empty for four years, Anselm resisted his appointment. He was very much aware of the terrible struggle going on over whether the King, as legal owner of all churches and monasteries, or the Pope had the right to appoint and install bishops and abbots in England. The matter had been bitterly contested by King William I and Lanfranc as Bishop of Canterbury. And now, here was King William II promising peace, and Anselm found himself forced to accept the bishop’s staff. But once the King recovered from his illness, the long-standing struggle began all over again. One dispute followed closely on another, giving Anselm no rest. In 1097, Anselm left England and spent three years in exile until the death of King William II.

Summoned back to England, Anselm found that the new King Henry was insisting on reinvesting Anselm as Archbishop. He declined. The matter dragged on. Anselm stood stalwart as before, refusing to accept investiture from the king. After years of negotiations and referrals to Rome, a compromise solution was agreed upon in 1107, and Anselm finally enjoyed barely two years of relative quiet as Archbishop of Canterbury before he passed peacefully to his Lord on April 21, 1109.

Throughout the conflict between the Crown and the Cross over their respective rights, St. Anselm must have often wished to adhere to the advice he had once given in a letter to a friend: “Let the love that you have for one another cause you to live in peace and concord.” He had always been a mild and gentle person who much preferred the peace of the monastery and who had been repelled by the prospect of continual strife which he knew he could expect if he accepted the office of Archbishop of Canterbury. “Let me go steadily on,” he once prayed, “to the day when I come to that fullness…Let me receive that which you promised through your truth, that my joy may be full.”

This community of monks and this College have been mightily graced by God with so special an endowment and heavenly a patron as Saint Anselm. As Abbot of Bec he led his monks and taught them to pray. As Primate of England, he defended the Church and protected his people. As our patron, may he ever intercede for us who honor his name and seek to understand what we believe.

This entry was posted in Homilies, Monks and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s