Friday, 8 May 2009

St. Anselm - April 21st

Today (April 21st) is the day we remember St. Anselm of Canterbury. It’s fascinating reading up on the life of a saint (I gave a short talk at the Eucharist this morning) and St. Anselm is no exception. He was born in 1033 in Aosta, Northern Italy to a “harsh and violent father” and a “prudent and virtuous mother” (see Wikipedia). His mother was responsible for his early religious education and did such a good job that the young Anselm wanted to enter a monastery at age fifteen although his father forbade him. He later revolted but ended up entering the monastery of Bec in Normandy when he was 27 and later, when 44 was elected the Abbot.

While there he developed what has become known as the “ontological argument” for the existence of God, being inspired by the opening line of Psalm 14: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” The basic argument is that if we can conceive of God then He must exist. God is “That than which no greater can be conceived” in Anselm’s words.

Anselm sought to understand Christian doctrine through reason and develop intelligible truths interwoven with the Christian belief. He believed that the necessary preliminary for this was possession of the Christian faith.”Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that, unless I first believe, I shall not understand.” According to Anselm, after faith is found, the attempt must be made to demonstrate by reason the truth of what is believed.

Later he went on to write a book known as “Cur Deus Homo” meaning: “Why did God become man?” In this book he looks more closely at the cross and the whole question of how Jesus’ death reconciles us to God. Here he argues that the offence of rebellion against God (Adam’s sin and ours) is one that demands payment or satisfaction. Because we are fallen we cannot make adequate satisfaction, so God took human nature upon Him and provided the perfect satisfaction. This whole approach can be summed up in the verse from “There is a green hill far away”:

There was no other good enough
to pay the price of sin
He only could unlock the gate
Of heaven, and let us in.”

It has remained such a popular theory of atonement that to this day, for many, it is the only one. I personally have serious reservations about the theory (not the place to go into it now but its too legalistic) but appreciate Anselm’s attempt to render the death of Jesus intelligible to the people of his age and time. However what stands out for me regarding Anselm is not his intellectual prowess or the power of his arguments but his life. Several things in particular stand out:
1. He opposed the crusades which have ever been a black mark on the face of Christianity. As a true man of God he saw through the politics and refused to get involved, openly opposing them.
2. Unlike his contemporaries (and his predecessor Lanfranc) he refused to downgrade the Anglo-Saxon saints as representatives of a conquered race. For example when Lanfranc proposed that Alphege (or Alfege) should not be remembered because he did not die as a martyr, Anselm replied: “If he was not a martyr to faith, he was a martyr to justice and charity.”
3. He was a humble man. In his Preface to one of his works, the Proslogion, he writes:
“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 one who seeks to understand what he believes.” He continues: “I acknowledge, Lord, and I give you 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 that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.”
4. He was a man who knew God in a very intimate and personal way as is evidenced in this song written by him in the same Preface quoted above:

Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you:
You are gentle with us as a mother with her children;
Often you weep over our sins and our pride:
tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgement.
You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds:
in sickness you nurse us,
and with pure milk you feed us.
Jesus, by your dying we are born to new life:
by your anguish and labour we come forth in joy.
Despair turns to hope through your sweet goodness:
through your gentleness we find comfort in fear.
Your warmth gives life to the dead:
your touch makes sinners righteous.
Lord Jesus, in your mercy heal us:
in your love and tenderness remake us.
in your compassion bring grace and forgiveness:
for the beauty of heaven may your love prepare us.

Wow. That is from the heart of a man who knows and loves God.

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