About the Commemoration
Anselm was born in 1033 of noble parents near Aosta in the region of Piedmont in what is now northwestern Italy and what was then the frontier of Lombardy and Burgundy. After the death of his mother and quarreling with his father, Anselm left home at the age of twenty-three for travel in Burgundy and France, furthering his education. He was attracted to the Benedictine monastery of Bee in Normandy, which had been founded in 1040. His father died and left him all his property, and Anselm debated whether he should return to Italy or become a monk. He entered Bee as a novice in 1060, attracted by the intellectual brilliance of the prior Lanfranc, a fellow Italian. (There were a number of Italian scholars who came to Normandy in the late tenth and eleventh centuries.) After three years, when Lanfranc left to become prior of a new monastery, Anselm was elected his successor as prior of Bec. In 1078 when the founding abbot of Bec, Herluin, died, Anselm was unanimously elected abbot of the monastery. His skill as a teacher and his scholarly work made Bee an even more influential school of philosophical and theological studies than it had been under Lanfranc, and it became the foremost intellectual center of Europe.
Lanfranc had become Archbishop of Canterbury, and in 1078 Anselm visited him, making a favorable impression in England. Lanfranc died in 1089 and after a delay while King William Rufus kept the see vacant to secure as much of the revenues of Canterbury as possible, Anselm was chosen as Lanfranc’s successor. After extended pressure from all sides to accept the appointment, Anselm was enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury September 25,1093, and was consecrated archbishop December 4.
The gentle and scholarly monk now began a protracted and intense struggle with the king over ultimate authority. William Rufus refused to recognize Pope Urban IV, and the bishops, fearing the king, sided with him against Anselm at the Council of Rockingham in March 1095. The intervention of the secular princes prevented his immediate removal, but the struggle continued, and Anselm, realizing that the situation was hopeless, on October 15, 1097, left England for Rome without the king’s permission, and the king took possession of the see of Canterbury.
The pope received Anselm graciously, refused to accept his resignation, and gave him a place of honor at the Council of Bari in 1098, which sought reunion with the Greek Church. Anselm there defended the teaching that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son and also had the council’s excommunication of the English king postponed.
Anselm stayed for a time with the archbishop of Lyons and there learned of the death of William Rufus, August 2, 1100. The king’s successor, Henry I, immediately recalled .Anselm to England, but the struggle over authority was renewed when Anselm in obedience to a decree of the Council of Bari refused the king’s insistence on an oath of allegiance to the crown. When no solution seemed possible, the king asked Anselm to go to Rome. At length, in 1106, a compromise was effected, and Anselm returned to his see. The difficulties were not yet over, for York claimed the primacy in England that had always belonged to Canterbury.
Anselm was by this time in poor health. His biographer, Eadmer, tells of his approaching death:
Palm Sunday dawned, and we were sitting beside him as usual. One of us therefore said to him: “My lord, and father, we cannot help knowing that you are going to leave the world to be at the Easter court of your Lord.” He replied: “And indeed if his will is set on this, I shall gladly obey his will. However, if he would prefer me to remain among you, at least until I can settle a question about the origin of the soul, which I am turning over in my mind, I should welcome this with gratitude, for I do not know whether anyone will solve it when I am dead.”
Anselm died on Wednesday in Holy Week, April 21, 1109.
Before Anselm, the study of theology consisted of collecting authoritative texts, lining up authorities to settle disputed questions. Anselm strove to demonstrate the truth of faith by going beyond faith to an insight into it. The aim of his teaching was to make his hearers and readers think, to stretch their minds. He devised an ingenious and durable argument for the existence of God “than whom nothing greater can be conceived,” a provocative explanation of the atonement (the “satisfaction theory,” as Gustav Aulén calls it), and emphasized the role of the maternal in Christianity by encouraging devotion to Mary, although he was opposed to the doctrine of her immaculate conception (the teaching that Mary was conceived without sin), and in a prayer addressed Jesus, “Are you not a mother too?… Indeed you are, and the mother of all mothers, who tasted death in your longing to bring forth children to life.” Above all he understood the pursuit of theology as prayer.
Anselm is on the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Methodist calendars.
Excerpts from New Book of Festivals & Commemorations: A Proposed Common Calendar of Saints by Philip H. Pfatteicher, copyright, 2008 by Fortress Press, an imprint of Augsburg Fortress.
See also: Anselm of Canterbury
From Proslogion by Anselm
…I have written the little work that follows…in the role of one who strives to raise his mind to the contemplation of God and who seeks to understand what he believes.
I acknowledge, Lord, and I give thanks that you have created your image in me, so that I may remember you, think of you, love you. But this image is so obliterated and worn away by wickedness, it is so obscured by the smoke of 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 I cannot begin to match my understanding with it, but I desire in some measure to understand your truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand in order to believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this too I believe, that “unless I believe, I shall not understand” (Isa. 7:9).
St. Anselm’s Proslogion (Oxford: Clarendon, 1965), Preface, I, trans. PHP.
Almighty God, you raised up your servant Anselm to study and teach the sublime truths you have revealed: Let your gift of faith come to the aid of our understanding, and open our hearts to your truth; through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
RS, trans. PHP
Readings: Psalm 139:1-9 or 37:3-6, 32-33; Romans 5:1-11; Matthew 11:25-30.
Hymn of the Day: “O Love, how deep, how broad, how high” (H82 448, 449; LBW 88, LSB 544, ELW 322)
Prayers: For a sense of the majesty of God; For forgiveness for those who wrong us; For a spirit of prayer and devotion; For those who inquire into the mysteries of God and God’s relation to the world; For those who seek to be certain of the existence of God.