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Saint Anselm - Sant'Anselmo d'Aosta

Monk, philosopher & theologian - Father of the Church
Born c 1033 in Aosta, Kingdom of Burgundy (now Italy)
Died on 21 April 1109 in Canterbury, England
Benedictine Abbot of Bec
Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 - 1109
Canonized in 1163 by Pope Alexander III
Proclaimed Doctor of Church in 1720 by Pope Clement XI
Feast Day - 21st April
Buried in Canterbury Cathedral

Pope St Pius X wrote his encyclical Communium Rerum on St Anselm. As well as giving a catechesis on him, Benedict XVI wrote two letters in 2009 to mark the ninth centenary of his death.

3 2us by Father Anthony Meredith SJ      

"This is something very important for St Anselm: faith in search of understanding. So it's not simply enough to affirm your creedal beliefs but you must try to understand them also. He is very strong and insistent upon the importance of seeking understanding of what you believe. So in the work, the Proslogion, how and why God is both seen and not seen by those who seek him. So you have to raise up your mind and heart to God, which in some ways is a very good definition of prayer. In chapter 14 of the Proslogion he says, 'O my soul, have you found what you were looking for? I was seeking God and I've found that He is above all things and that than which nothing greater can be thought, I have found Him to be life and light, wisdom and goodness, eternal blessedness and the bliss of eternity, existing everywhere and at all times."

Catechesis by Pope Benedict XVI
General Audience, Wednesday 23 September 2009 - also in Croatian, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"Dear brothers and sisters,
The Benedictine Abbey of Sant'Anselmo is located on the Aventine Hill in Rome. As the headquarters of an academic institute of higher studies and of the Abbot Primate of the Confederated Benedictines it is a place that unites within it prayer, study and governance, the same three activities that were a feature of the life of the Saint to whom it is dedicated: Anselm of Aosta, the IX centenary of whose death occurs this year. The many initiatives promoted for this happy event, especially by the diocese of Aosta, have highlighted the interest that this medieval thinker continues to rouse. He is also known as Anselm of Bec and Anselm of Canterbury because of the cities with which he was associated. Who is this figure to whom three places, distant from one another and located in three different nations - Italy, France, England - feel particularly bound? A monk with an intense spiritual life, an excellent teacher of the young, a theologian with an extraordinary capacity for speculation, a wise man of governance and an intransigent defender of libertas Ecclesiae, of the Church's freedom, Anselm is one of the eminent figures of the Middle Ages who was able to harmonize all these qualities, thanks to the profound mystical experience that always guided his thought and his action.

St Anselm was born in 1033 (or at the beginning of 1034) in Aosta, the first child of a noble family. His father was a coarse man dedicated to the pleasures of life who squandered his possessions. On the other hand, Anselm's mother was a profoundly religious woman of high moral standing. It was she, his mother, who saw to the first human and religious formation of her son whom she subsequently entrusted to the Benedictines at a priory in Aosta. Anselm, who since childhood, as his biographer recounts, imagined that the good Lord dwelled among the towering, snow-capped peaks of the Alps, dreamed one night that he had been invited to this splendid kingdom by God himself, who had a long and affable conversation with him and then gave him to eat "a very white bread roll". This dream left him with the conviction that he was called to carry out a lofty mission. At the age of 15, he asked to be admitted to the Benedictine Order but his father brought the full force of his authority to bear against him and did not even give way when his son, seriously ill and feeling close to death, begged for the religious habit as a supreme comfort. After his recovery and the premature death of his mother, Anselm went through a period of moral dissipation. He neglected his studies and, consumed by earthly passions, grew deaf to God's call. He left home and began to wander through France in search of new experiences. Three years later, having arrived in Normandy, he went to the Benedictine Abbey of Bec, attracted by the fame of Lanfranc of Pavia, the Prior. For him this was a providential meeting, crucial to the rest of his life. Under Lanfranc's guidance Anselm energetically resumed his studies and it was not long before he became not only the favourite pupil but also the teacher's confidante. His monastic vocation was rekindled and, after an attentive evaluation, at the age of 27 he entered the monastic order and was ordained a priest. Ascesis and study unfolded new horizons before him, enabling him to rediscover at a far higher level the same familiarity with God which he had had as a child.

When in 1063 Lanfranc became Abbot of Caen, Anselm, after barely three years of monastic life, was named Prior of the Monastery of Bec and teacher of the cloister school, showing his gifts as a refined educator. He was not keen on authoritarian methods; he compared young people to small plants that develop better if they are not enclosed in greenhouses and granted them a "healthy" freedom. He was very demanding with himself and with others in monastic observance, but rather than imposing his discipline he strove to have it followed by persuasion. Upon the death of Abbot Herluin, the founder of the Abbey of Bec, Anselm was unanimously elected to succeed him; it was February 1079. In the meantime numerous monks had been summoned to Canterbury to bring to their brethren on the other side of the Channel the renewal that was being brought about on the continent. Their work was so well received that Lanfranc of Pavia, Abbot of Caen, became the new Archbishop of Canterbury. He asked Anselm to spend a certain period with him in order to instruct the monks and to help him in the difficult plight in which his ecclesiastical community had been left after the Norman conquest. Anselm's stay turned out to be very fruitful; he won such popularity and esteem that when Lanfranc died he was chosen to succeed him in the archiepiscopal See of Canterbury. He received his solemn episcopal consecration in December 1093.

Anselm immediately became involved in a strenuous struggle for the Church's freedom, valiantly supporting the independence of the spiritual power from the temporal. Anselm defended the Church from undue interference by political authorities, especially King William Rufus and Henry I, finding encouragement and support in the Roman Pontiff to whom he always showed courageous and cordial adherence. In 1103, this fidelity even cost him the bitterness of exile from his See of Canterbury. Moreover, it was only in 1106, when King Henry I renounced his right to the conferral of ecclesiastical offices, as well as to the collection of taxes and the confiscation of Church properties, that Anselm could return to England, where he was festively welcomed by the clergy and the people. Thus the long battle he had fought with the weapons of perseverance, boldness and goodness ended happily. This holy Archbishop, who roused such deep admiration around him wherever he went, dedicated the last years of his life to the moral formation of the clergy and to intellectual research into theological topics. He died on 21 April 1109, accompanied by the words of the Gospel proclaimed in Holy Mass on that day: "You are those who have continued with me in my trials; as my Father appointed a kingdom for me, so do I appoint for you that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom..." (Lk 22, 28-30). So it was that the dream of the mysterious banquet he had had as a small boy, at the very beginning of his spiritual journey, found fulfilment. Jesus, who had invited him to sit at his table, welcomed Anselm upon his death into the eternal Kingdom of the Father.

"I pray, O God, to know you, to love you, that I may rejoice in you. And if I cannot attain to full joy in this life may I at least advance from day to day, until that joy shall come to the full." This prayer enables us to understand the mystical soul of this great Saint of the Middle Ages, the founder of scholastic theology, to whom Christian tradition has given the title: "Magnificent Doctor", because he fostered an intense desire to deepen his knowledge of the divine Mysteries but in the full awareness that the quest for God is never ending, at least on this earth. The clarity and logical rigour of his thought always aimed at "raising the mind to contemplation of God." He states clearly that whoever intends to study theology cannot rely on his intelligence alone but must cultivate at the same time a profound experience of faith. The theologian's activity, according to St Anselm, thus develops in three stages: faith, a gift God freely offers, to be received with humility; experience, which consists in incarnating God's word in one's own daily life; and therefore true knowledge, which is never the fruit of ascetic reasoning but rather of contemplative intuition. In this regard his famous words remain more useful than ever, even today, for healthy theological research and for anyone who wishes to deepen his knowledge of the truths of faith: "I do not endeavour, O Lord, to penetrate your sublimity, for in no wise do I compare my understanding with that; but I long to understand in some degree your truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, that unless I believed, I should not understand" (Ivi, 1).

Dear brothers and sisters, may the love of the truth and the constant thirst for God that marked St Anselm's entire existence be an incentive to every Christian to seek tirelessly an ever more intimate union with Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life. In addition, may the zeal full of courage that distinguished his pastoral action and occasionally brought him misunderstanding, sorrow and even exile be an encouragement for pastors, for consecrated people and for all the faithful to love Christ's Church, to pray, to work and to suffer for her, without ever abandoning or betraying her. May the Virgin Mother of God, for whom St Anselm had a tender, filial devotion, obtain this grace for us. St Anselm wrote: "Mary, it is you whom my heart yearns to love, it is you whom my tongue ardently desires to praise."

Benedict XVI's Letter on the 9th centenary of the death of St Anselm
- also in French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

To Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, Special Envoy to the celebrations for the Ninth Centenary
of the death of St Anselm

Venerable Brother, in view of the celebrations in which you will be taking part as my Legate, in the illustrious city of Aosta for the ninth centenary of the death of St Anselm in Canterbury, on 21 April 1109, I would like to entrust a special message to you in which I wish to recall the salient features of this great monk, theologian and pastor of souls whose work has profoundly marked the history of the Church. Indeed, the event affords an opportunity that must not be missed to renew the memory of one of the most luminous figures in the tradition of the Church and in the history of Western European thought itself. Anselm's exemplary monastic experience, his original method of rethinking the Christian mystery, his penetrating theological and philosophical doctrine, his teaching on the inviolable value of the conscience and on freedom as responsible adherence to truth and goodness, his enthusiastic work as a pastor of souls, totally dedicated to promoting the "freedom of the Church", have never ceased to inspire in the past the liveliest interest which the commemoration of his death is felicitously rekindling and favouring in different ways and in various places.

In this commemoration of the "Magnificent Doctor" as St Anselm is called the Church of Aosta cannot but play a prominent part because he was born in her and she is rightly glad to consider him her most illustrious son. Even though he was to leave Aosta in his youth, he would continue to remember and to carry in his heart a wealth of memories that would not fail to surface anew in his mind at the most important moments of life. The sweetest image of his mother and the picture of the majestic mountains of his valley with their towering, ever snow-capped peaks in which he saw the sublimity of God portrayed, as in an evocative and captivating symbol, must certainly have had a special place among these memories. To Anselm "a boy who grew up in the mountains" as his biographer Eadmer describes him (Eadmer, Vita Sancti Anselmi, I, 2) it seemed impossible to imagine anything greater than God: gazing since childhood at those inaccessible peaks may have had something to do with this intuition. Indeed, already as a child he considered that to meet God it was necessary "to climb to the top of the mountain" (ibid.). Indeed, he was to understand better and better that God is found at an inaccessible height, situated beyond the goals that man can reach since God is beyond the thinkable. For this reason the journey in quest of God, at least on this earth, will be never-ending but will always consist of thought and yearning, a rigorous process of the mind and the imploring plea of the heart.

His intense longing for knowledge and his innate propensity for clarity and logical rigour impelled Anselm towards the scholae of his time. He thus arrived at the Monastery of Le Bec, where his inclination for dialectics matured and where, above all, his vocation to the cloister was to be kindled. Reflecting on the years of Anselm's monastic life means meeting a faithful religious, "constantly concerned with God alone and the heavenly disciplines", as his biographer wrote so that he was able to reach such a pinnacle of divine speculation that, on the path opened by God, he was able to penetrate and, having penetrated, to explain the most obscure and previously unresolved questions concerning the divinity of God and our faith, and could prove with clear arguments that what he affirmed was part of the reliable Catholic teaching" (Vita Sancti Anselmi, I, 7). With these words his biographer outlined the theological method of St Anselm whose thought was sparked by and illuminated in prayer. It is he himself who confesses, in a famous work, that the intelligence of faith is an approach to the vision for which we all long and hope to enjoy at the end of our earthly pilgrimage: "Quoniam inter fidem et speciem intellectum quem in hac vita capimus esse medium intelligo: quanto aliquis ad illum proficit, tanto eum propinquare speciei, ad quam omnes anhelamus, existimo" (Cur Deus homo, Commendatio). The Saint aimed to achieve the vision of intrinsic logical connections in the mystery, to perceive the "clarity of the truth", and therefore to grasp the evidence of the "necessary reasons" underpinning the mystery. This was indeed an audacious intention, on whose results Anselm experts are still reflecting today. In fact, his search for the "mind (intellectus)" placed between "faith (fides)" and "vision (species)" springs from faith itself and is sustained by confidence in reason, through which faith, to a certain extent, is illumined. Anselm's intention is clear: "to raise the mind to contemplation of God" (Proslogion, Proemium). In any case his words remain programmatic for all theological research: "I do not try, Lord, to penetrate your depths because I cannot even from afar pit my mind against them; but I wish to understand, at least to a certain point, your truth which my heart believes and loves. Indeed, I do not seek to understand in order to believe, but I believe in order to understand" (Non quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam)" (Proslogion, 1).

Next we shall mention some traits of Anselm, Prior and Abbot of Le Bec, that further define his personal profile. One is struck in the first place by his charism as an expert teacher of spiritual life who knows and wisely describes the paths of monastic perfection. At the same time, one is fascinated by his educational talent, which is expressed in that method of discernment he describes it as via discretionis (Ep. 61) which in some ways reflects the style of his whole life, a style made up of mercy and firmness. Lastly, the ability he showed in initiating his disciples to the experience of authentic prayer is quite distinctive: in particular his Orationes sive Meditationes, insistently requested and widely used, helped to make a great many people of his time "prayerful souls", just as his other works have proved an invaluable coefficient for making the Middle Ages a "thinking" and, we might add, a "conscientious" period. It might be said that the most authentic side of Anselm may be found at Le Bec, where he stayed for 33 years, and where he was deeply loved. Thanks to the maturity he attained in that atmosphere of reflection and prayer, he was also able to declare even in the midst of his subsequent troubles as Bishop: "I shall not harbour any bitterness in my heart for anyone" (Ep. 321).

His nostalgia for the monastery was to stay with him for the rest of his life. He said so himself when, to his deep sorrow and that of his monks, he was obliged to leave the monastery to take on the episcopal ministry to which he did not feel suited: "It is well known to many", he wrote to Pope Urban II, "what violence has been done to me, and how reluctant and contrary I was to being detained as a Bishop in England, and how I explained the reasons of temperament, age, weakness and ignorance that are incompatible with this office and which shun and detest civil commitments that I can in no way carry out without endangering the salvation of my soul" (Ep. 206). To his monks, moreover, he spoke in these terms: "I have lived as a monk for 33 years three years without an office, 15 years as prior and the same number as abbot so that all the good people who knew me loved me, not of course for my own worth but through the grace of God, and those who knew me more intimately and with greater familiarity loved me even more" (Ep. 156). And he added: "Many of you came to Le Bec.... Many of you surrounded me with such a tender and sweet affection that each one might have had the impression that I never loved anyone else to the same extent" (ibid.).

With his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury his most troubled period began which fully brought to light his "love for the truth" (Ep. 327), his rectitude, his strict fidelity to his conscience, his "episcopal freedom" (Ep. 206), his "episcopal honesty" (Ep. 314), his tireless work to free the Church from temporal conditioning and the bane of calculation that are incompatible with her spiritual nature. In this regard his words to King Henry were exemplary: "I answer that neither in Baptism nor in any other of my Ordinations did I promise to observe the law or the customs of your father or of Archbishop Lanfranco, but the law of God and of all the Orders received" (Ep. 319). For Anselm, Primate of the Church of England, the principle: "I am Christian, I am a monk, I am a Bishop; I therefore want to be faithful to all, in accordance with the debt I have to each one" (Ep. 314), applied. In this perspective he does not hesitate to affirm: "I prefer to disagree with those who agree among themselves, than disagree with God" (Ep. 314). For this very reason he also feels prepared to make the supreme sacrifice: "I am not afraid to shed my blood; I fear no injury to my body nor the loss of possessions" (Ep. 311).

It is easily understood that Anselm, for all these reasons, still retains great timeliness and a strong fascination and that it could be really rewarding to revisit and to republish his writings, as well as to meditate anew on his life. I therefore learned with joy that on the occasion of the ninth centenary of the Saint's death Aosta is promoting a series of timely and intelligent initiatives especially with the scrupulous publication of his works with the intention of making known and loved the teachings and example of its famous son. I entrust to you, venerable Brother, the task of bringing to the faithful of the old and beloved city of Aosta, the exhortation to look with admiration and affection at this great fellow citizen of theirs whose light continues to shine throughout the Church, especially wherever love for the truths of faith and an interest in exploring them deeply through reason are cultivated. Indeed, faith and reason fides et ratio are found wonderfully united in Anselm. With these sentiments I warmly impart, through you, venerable Brother, to Bishop Giuseppe Anfossi, to the clergy, to the religious and to the faithful of Aosta and to all who are taking part in the celebrations in honour of the "Magnificent Doctor" a special Apostolic Blessing, as a pledge of an abundant outpouring of heavenly favours.

From the Vatican, 15 April 2009


Benedict XVI's Letter to Abbot Primate of the Confederated Benedictines
on the 9th Centenary of the Death of St Anselm
- also in German & Latin

To the Most Reverend Father Notker Wolf, Abbot Primate of Confederated Benedictines

The nine-hundredth year of the death of St Anselm has now come, which we wish to fittingly commemorate and honour. The Saint is truly to be considered European, who was born in northern Italy in the year 1033 and became a Benedictine monk in the Abbey of Bec in Normandy in the year 1060, finally he departed from this world as Archbishop of Canterbury in Anglia in 1109. Recalling his memory with a devoted spirit, we wish to elevate and to illumine the treasure of his wisdom, so that people now living, most especially Europeans may approach him to take up his solid and copious teaching.

Although he was Archbishop, he desired before all things to be a Benedictine monk, directly aware of the importance and weight of monastic life. Dedicating his Epistle on the Incarnation of the Word to the Blessed Pope Urban II, he is called Brother Anselm, by life a sinner, by habit a monk, whether commanding or intrusting to God, called Bishop of the metropolitan see of Canterbury (In S. Anselmi, Opera omnia, II, ed. F. S. Schmitt, Rome 1940, p. 3). To a certain young monk he wrote: I encourage and advise you, that your mind always be zealous to extend itself to better things. And if you seek counsel in what way you can do this: love the monastic way of life above all things (Ep. 232, ed. Schmitt, l. c., IV, Edinburgh 1949, p. 138). His Prologus Orationum sive Meditationum, which he wrote for stimulating the disposition of reading for the love or fear of God, or for the discussion of the same, discloses how much of the meaning of Lectio divina as practised Anselm understood that it is the hinge of Benedictine life concerning which he recalls: They [the meditations] must not be read in commotion, but in quiet, and not hastily and quickly, but little by little with attentive and slow meditation (Orationes sive Meditationes, Prol., ed. Schmitt, l. c., iii, Edinburgh 1946, p. 3). The words of St Benedict concerning the monastic life, which is turned toward seeking God (si revera Deum quaerit) and of the love itself of Christ, to whom nothing is to be preferred (nihil amori Christi praeponere), are the principle words, indeed, which lead him unto investigating theology (cf. the Regula of St Benedict, c. 58, 7; c. 4, 21).

The system of his theological work, therefore, is discerned from the Benedictine life, which he lived out both at Bec and Canterbury. Because he is eager to understand more profoundly the mysteries of the faith, in his writings no separation comes between learning and devotion, theology and mystery. St Anselm as a theologian prays and praying inquires into theology. His great work, which is entitled Proslogion, just as the Confessiones of St Augustine, is at one and the same time a prayer and the desire of contemplating the face of God. He confides much to human understanding as to the gift of God. Dedicating his work Cur Deus homo to Pope Urban II, he plainly upholds the duty of reason, nay more the office of reason for more profoundly investigating faith for contemplating the beauty of truth: Where (the sacred page) says: "unless you will have believed, you will not understand", it plainly tells us the intention for striving toward understanding, when it instructs in what way we ought to advance toward it. Finally, because I understand the intellect, which we grasp in this life, to be the medium between faith and sight: the more one advances toward it, the more I judge one to approach to the sight unto which we all strive (Cur Deus homo. Commendatio operis, ed. Schmitt, l. c., II, Rome 1940, p. 40).

The instruction of this outstanding Teacher held before the eyes, St Anselm's College, Rome, founded by Pope Leo XIII as an international academic Institute, destined for educating young Benedictines of the whole world, strives to preserve and to pass on those special principles, which, according to the mind of the same Holy Patron, belong to the monastic life and intellectual work. But in today's times the Pontifical Athenaeum of St Anselm, however much it preserves the Benedictine character, is open not only to monks, but also to nuns and sisters, to students of the secular clergy and to the laity. Even non-Catholic students are accustomed to go there to be instructed. This College, accordingly, has become truly an international academic Institute. There, philosophical, theological and liturgical education is handed on, which results in uniting faith and the intellectual understanding of the same faith, just as St Anselm did in his times. This holy teacher concludes his Proslogion with that famous chapter, which is on full joy: I pray, O God, may I know you, love you, that I may rejoice over you. And if I am not able in this life unto the full at least may I progress day by day until it comes to the full. May your knowledge advance here in me, and may it there become full; may your love grow and may it there become full: so that here my joy may be great in hope, and there it may be full in reality (Prosl. 16, ed. Schmitt, l. c., I, Seckau 1938, p. 121).

Desiring indeed that by that universal prayer, joy and hope made full, they may be instructed and more fully obtain the instruction of the teacher himself, we wholeheartedly impart the Apostolic Blessing as the seal of Our benevolence expressly to you most reverend Father, to the entire Benedictine confederation, to teachers, students and to all approaching thereto.

From the Vatican, on 7th March, in the year 2009, the fourth of my Pontificate.



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