Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Saint Anselm's Day

Today the Church honours St Anselm, a great Archbishop of Canterbury.

Born in Aosta in Northern Italy in 1033, St Anselm entered the Norman monastery at Bec in 1060. 

After being elected abbot, Anselm became the most celebrated theologian and spiritual guide of his age. His theological and philosophical treatises and letters of spiritual friendship all reflect the motto Fides Quaerens Intellectum - Faith Seeking Understanding.

His desire to show the complementarity of reason and faith bore fruit in his Proslogion, a treatise in which he formulated an ontological argument for the existence of God that continues to fascinate philosophers to this day. His letters, written in a graceful literary style that made them a model for generations of writers, reveal a warm and generous personality.

As Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm was an active pastor and reformer. He defended the Church of England against royal control and oppression, for which he was twice exiled by the king. In 1102 he presided over the first Church council to outlaw the slave trade. During his exiles, St Anselm continued to write, producing Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man), the most famous medieval interpretation of the Incarnation.

We thank God for his holiness of life, the depth of his divine and human learning, his political and social conscience in the service of God and man.

Here is the first chapter of his Proslogion. It is, in fact, a prayer that we might seek God and find him. It is a wonderful prayer, a prayer of great beauty and sensitivity. I have sometimes given it to people who are at the beginning of their faith journey to help them begin a conversation with God. This translation is by Benedicta Ward, from her Penguin book, The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm. (1973)

Come now, little man, turn aside for a while from your daily employment, escape for a moment from the tumult of your thoughts. Put aside your weighty cares, let your burdensome distractions wait, free yourself awhile for God and rest awhile in him.

Enter the inner chamber of your soul, shut out everything except God and that which can help you in seeking him, and when you have shut the door, seek him. Now, my whole heart, say to God, ‘I seek your face, Lord, it is your face I seek.’

0 Lord my God, teach my heart where and how to seek you, where and how to find you. Lord, if you are not here but absent,  where shall I seek you? But you are everywhere, so you must be here, why then do I not seek you? Surely you dwell in light inaccessible – where is it? and how can I have access to light which is inaccessible? Who will lead me and take me into it so that I may see you there? By what signs, under what forms, shall I seek you? I have never seen you, 0 Lord my God, I have never seen your face.

Most High Lord, what shall an exile do who is as far away from you as this? What shall your servant do, eager for your love, cast off far from your face? He longs to see you, but your countenance is too far away. He wants to have access to you, but your dwelling is inaccessible. He longs to find you, but he does not know where you are. He loves to seek you, but he does not know your face.

Lord, you are my Lord and my God, and I have never seen you. You have created and re-created me, all the good I have comes from you, and still I do not know you. I was created to see you, and I have not yet accomplished that for which I was made. How wretched is the fate of man when he has lost that for which he was created.

How hard and cruel was the Fall. What has man lost, and what has he found? What has he left, and what is left to him? He has lost blessedness for which he was made and he has found wretchedness for which he was not made. He had left that without which there is no happiness, and he has got that which is nothing but misery. Once man did eat angels’ food, and now he hungers for it; now he eats the bread of sorrow, which then he knew nothing of.

Ah, grief common to all men, lamentation of all the sons of Adam. Adam was so full he belched, we are so hungry we sigh; he had abundance, and we go begging. He held what he had in happiness and left it in misery; we are unhappy in our wants and miserable in our desires, and ah, how empty we remain. Why did he not keep for us that which he possessed so easily, and we lack despite such labour? Why did he shut out our light and surround us with darkness? Why did he take away our life and give us the hurt of death ?

From whence have we wretched men been pushed down, to what place are we being pushed on? From what position have we been cast down, where are we being buried? From our homeland into exile, from the vision of God into our own blindness, from the deathless state in which we rejoiced into the bitterness of a death to be shuddered at. Wretched exchange, so great a good for so much evil. A grievous loss, a grievous sorrow,  the whole thing is grievous.

Alas, I am indeed wretched, one of those wretched sons of Eve, separated from God! What have I begun, and what accomplished? Where was I going and where have I got to? To what did I reach out, for what do I long? I sought after goodness, and lo, here is turmoil; I was going towards God, and I was my own impediment. I sought for peace within myself, and in the depths of my heart I found trouble and sorrow. I wanted to laugh for the joy of my heart, and the pain of my heart made me groan. It was gladness I was hoping for, but sighs came thick and fast.

O Lord, how long? How long, Lord, will you turn your face from us? When will you look upon us and hear us? When will you enlighten our eyes and show us your face? When will you give yourself to us again? 

Look upon us, Lord, and hear us, enlighten us and show yourself to us. Give yourself to us again that it may be well with us, for without you it is ill with us. Have mercy on us, as we strive and labour to come to you,  for without you we can do nothing well. You have invited us to cry out, ‘Help us’: I pray you, Lord,  let me not sigh without hope, but hope and breathe again.

Let not my heart become bitter because of its desolation, but sweeten it with your consolation. When I was hungry I began to seek you, Lord; do not let me go hungry away. I came to you famished; do not let me go from you unfed. Poor, I have come to one who is rich, miserable, I have come to one who is merciful; do not let me return empty and despised. If before I eat I sigh,  after my sighs give me to eat.

Lord, I am so bent I can only look downwards, raise me, that I may look upwards. My iniquities have gone over my head, they cover me and weigh me down like a heavy burden. Take this weight, this covering, from me, lest the pit close its mouth over me. Let me discern your light, whether from afar or from the depths. Teach me to seek you, and as I seek you,  show yourself to me,  for I cannot seek you unless you show me how, and I will never find you unless you show yourself to me. Let me seek you by desiring you, and desire you by seeking you; let me find you by loving you, and love you in finding you.

I confess, Lord, with thanksgiving, that you have made me in your image, so that I can remember you, think of you, and love you. But that image is so worn and blotted out by faults, so darkened by the smoke of sin, that it cannot do that for which it was made, unless you renew and refashion it. Lord, I am not trying to make my way to your height, for my understanding is in no way equal to that, but I do desire to understand a little of your truth which my heart already believes and loves. I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand; and what is more, I believe that unless I do believe I shall not understand.

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The collect from today's Mass:

O God, who led the Bishop Saint Anselm
to seek out and teach the depths of your wisdom,
grant, we pray,
that our faith in you may so aid our understanding,
that what we believe by your command
may give delight to our hearts.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. 


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