St. Anselm

St. Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape by R.W. Southern (Cambridge University Press, New York, 1990, ISBN 0 521 43818 7) 493 pp., $24.95.

One of the fun parts of doing this website has been reading and recommending a book each month. I've enjoyed getting feedback from people who were encouraged to read the book and who had their particular viewpoint on it. The only problem has been focusing on one book. This month I had from the library Peter Kreeft's Ecumenical Jihad and his introduction to C.S. Lewis, both fine books. (To me the best part of Jihad was his presentation of what other world religions have to teach us as Catholics.) Besides these two library books, I received three as gifts: Mary and the Fundamentalist Challenge by Fr. Peter Stravinskas, From Death to Life by Bishop Christoph Schonborn and Mass Confusion by James Akin. I have received so many questions about liturgical abuses that I will soon review Akin's helpful book.

However, the book I would like to recommend this month is one I literally begged from a parishioner. When he told me he was reading a study of St. Anselm, I asked him to hurry it up so he could lend it to me. He did, complete with post-it notes at the sections he thought most important. The work is about one of the great saints of the middle ages, but it is far from standard hagiography. It analyzes his contribution to the history of philosophy and theology. It evaluates his effectiveness as abbot of Bec, then of Canterbury where as archbishop he defended a claim to be primate of the British Isles. But more than that it attempts to give a portrait of the saint, his inner life.

The beauty of this book is that Southern does give a convincing portrayal of Anselm's deepest core. He uses that to explain not only how he acted as monk and archbishop, but as the key to understanding his theological works. Let me give a couple of examples.

Anselm is most famous for what is called the ontological argument for God's existence. He argues from a definition of God to his existence. God is the being "than which nothing greater can be thought." Once a person has accepted that definition, Anselm goes on to show that in this unique case the definition itself involves existence. This argument can at first seem odd, even cracked. It has in fact been the subject of ridicule. I remember once reading someone who said he could imagine a lot of things (like a pink dragon the size of the sun) but that does not prove they exist. Of course he missed the point of Anselm's argument that the conception of God is unique.

I have to admit I have been fascinated by Anselm's ontological argument tho I have never been particularly moved by it. Yet it has appealed to many different philosophers including Bertrand Russell who in a flash of insight exclaimed, "Great Scott, the ontological argument is sound."

Southern considers that Anselm's inner life is the key to understanding the argument. In fact it is developed as a meditation on the Psalm verse, "the fool says in his heart there is no God." (Ps. 14:1) To do justice to that meditation is beyond the scope here. But the author does bring to life its original context.

The same can be said for Anselm's great work: Cur Deus Homo? (Why did God become man?) Perhaps today we would ask the question this way: What does it mean to be saved? Anselm brings to it an exalted view of God's dignity. Then he asks how the Incarnation of Jesus would not be an affront to that dignity and in what sense he paid a debt for our sins. Anselm calls on the depth of his own spirituality to answer them. His illustrations might not be so convincing to a modern mind, but to read them is to experience a great thinker struggling with those great issues. (For someone seeking a modern explanation of the meaning of redemption or being saved, I recommend C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. The substance is the same as Anselm.)

Something puzzling, perhaps even shocking to the modern reader is Anselm's extravagant expressions of affection. Southern gives several samples from his letters. Here is one addressed to a former pupil, Gilbert Cripin, who later became abbot of Westminister:

"you know how great is the affection that we have
experienced--eye to eye, kiss for kiss, embrace
for embrace. I experience it all the more now when
you, in whom I have had so much pleasure, are
irretrievably separated from me...those who experience
friendship cannot feel the lassitude of the deserted
soul...let us recall our not-forgotten love"

John Boswell (Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality) finds in such passages ample evidence of homoeroticism. Few people today would be so "naive" as to doubt it. However, before jumping to that conclusion I encourage you to read chapter 7 of St. Anselm. With no particular axe to grind, Southern does a convincing job of refuting Boswell's interpretation.

Southern not only strives to give a portrait of Anselm, but, as the subtitle suggests, to put it in a landscape. The landscape is eleventh century Europe, more particularly England during those crucial decades after the Norman invasion. It is a fascinating period not only for the turmoil going on in the church and society, but because of the underlying unity. Anselm himself is a witness that Europe was much more than a geographical designation. He was born in Aosta (1033), what is now northern Italy, because a monk of Bec in France and finally was called to England where from 1093 till his death in 1109 was the most important ecclesiastical figure. A controversy with the king drove him twice into exile where he sought papal guidance.

Anselm had his deficiencies, particularly as an administator. It was not a position he sought and he did not do a particularly good job bringing discipline into a chaotic church. Nor was he successful in defending the primacy of Canterbury over the British islands. But he had something we are so much looking for in our leaders today: character. Southern gives us a portrait of a man of unquestioned depth and consistency. For us in the Church we would do well too have before our eyes not public opinion, but this portrait of St. Anselm.


Speaking of character, I had a chance to listen to the taped version of C.S. Lewis' Letters to an American Lady. If anyone saw Shadowlands and came to the conclusion that his wife's sickness and death caused him to throw overboard his previous theology (e.g. The Problem of Pain which explores the meaning of suffering) I recommend these letters. They are a remarkable window into C.S. Lewis' soul before, during and after the events depicted in the movie.

Other Recommended Books

Recommended companion book to this study: The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion by Sister Benedicta Ward S.L.G. (Penguin Classic)