Saint Anselm, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

April 21

Today is the feast day of Saint Anselm.  Ora pro nobis.

His father, Gundulf, was a Lombard who had become a citizen of Aosta, and his mother, Ermenberga, came of an old Burgundian family. Like many other saints, Anselm learnt the first lessons of piety from his mother, and at a very early age he was fired with the love of learning. In after life he still cherished the memories of childhood, and his biographer, Eadmer, has preserved some incidents which he had learnt from the saint’s own lips. The child had heard his mother speak of God, Who dwelt on high ruling all things. (7)

by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876


Anselm, the celebrated Archbishop of Canterbury, in England, was born in Piedmont in the year 1033. He was gifted by nature with brilliant talents and a large, comprehensive mind. When he was hardly fifteen years of age he was desirous of entering upon a religious life, but he was not, admitted, as it was feared that it would provoke the wrath of his father and his noble relatives. This refusal was so deeply regretted by Anselm, that he fell into a grievous illness, which renewed his determination to enter a monastery. On his recovery, however, he forgot his resolution, and not only did he lose all inclination to enter the religious state, but he began to lead a much more worldly life than he had done previously. It was fortunate for him that, to a certain extent, he had lost his father’s love and was treated by him rather harshly. Not being able to endure this, Anselm left home, hoping that his absence might restore to him his father’s affection. He therefore proceeded to France, where he remained three years. Suddenly his desire to study, which had lain dormant in his mind so long, was reawakened, and hearing that the celebrated Doctor Lanfranc, his compatriot, instructed young men in sacred science, in an abbey not far distant, he went to him and begged to be admitted among the number of his disciples. Lanfranc consented, and Anselm made such rapid progress in his studies that he soon left all others behind him.

During this time, he renewed his zeal in the practice of piety and virtue, and also his determination to give his life entirely to the Almighty. In pursuance of it, he received the habit, at the age of twenty-seven, in the Abbey of St. Benedict, where he had studied; and after having passed through his novitiate he took his vows. How eanestly he strove after spiritual perfection is evident from the fact, that three years after he had taken the vows, he succeeded Lanfranc, his teacher, as Prior of the same abbey, the latter being called as Abbot to another monastery. Several, who had been longer in the order than he, envied and persecuted him on account of his promotion, but the exquisite gentleness, patience and humility of Anselm soon won him all hearts; and changed envy and jealousy into love and respect. His holy life added much to their veneration. He fasted almost daily, and his body became fearfully emaciated. By his constant mortification he lost all relish for food. During the day, he instructed others in sacred science and in the mysteries of the faith. The greater part of the night he passed in prayer and meditation. He attended, before all his other affairs, to the sick, day and night, and wherever he was needed. He fed them, and lifted them in and out of their beds with his own hands. The most tender devotion he bore to our crucified Saviour, and often wept bitterly when he thought how our Redeemer, notwithstanding all His sufferings for us, is so frequently and so deeply offended. His aversion to sin was so intense, that he several times said that he would rather cast himself into hell, than commit a mortal sin. He shunned carefully the least thing that he thought was displeasing to God; because nothing is little which offends the Most High, and often from something which appears in itself of small importance, eternal happiness or damnation depends. He also was much devoted to the Blessed Virgin, and was one of the first who defended by the pen her Immaculate Conception. Besides this, he wrote many other works in praise of the Divine Mother, and endeavored to incite others to pay her due honors.

After the death of the Abbot, Anselm was unanimously elected as his successor, although he did what he could to prevent it. Invested with this new dignity, he changed not in the least his mode of life, unless he was more fervent than ever in all his devotional exercises. The fame of his sanctity and erudition spread abroad daily more and more, so that he was not only esteemed by the prelates of the Church, as well as by kings, but also by Pope Gregory VII, who, harassed on account of the sad condition of the Church at that period, recommended himself several times to the prayers of the Saint. Some business appertaining to his convent called Anselm to England, and as his name was already well known there, he was everywhere received with the greatest honor. While he was, in England, Lanfranc, who after being instructor to Anselm, had become Abbot and then Archbishop of Canterbury, died; and the king, without hesitation, chose St. Anselm to be his successor, and although the Saint most earnestly declined, he was at last obliged to yield to the influences of the clergy. He shed many bitter tears during his consecration, but once installed in his new functions, he went zealously to work to change the depraved manners of the people by preaching, writing instructive works and holding Councils.

Everything was going well, when the king himself caused great disturbances. He took forcible possession of a great deal of property belonging to the Church, and would not consent that, during the division which at that time existed in the Church, any one else but himself should be regarded as the head thereof. St. Anselm courageously protected the rights and liberties of the Church, and opposed, with manly independence, the wicked oppression and evil designs of the king. Hence the unscrupulous counsellors of the king persecuted him, banished his friends, deprived him of his revenues, and tormented him in manifold ways, thinking thus to intimidate him, and make him pliable to the king’s wishes. But they were mistaken. The Saint remained inflexible, and was willing rather to die than in the least to swerve from his duty. Believing that the wrath of the king would be sooner appeased if another occupied his See, he went to Rome and humbly requested the Pope to release him from his Archbishopric. The Pope, however, refusing his request, endeavored to reconcile him with the king, and meanwhile made use of the knowledge and talents of the holy man in his warfare against the heretics and schismatics. After sometime, Anselm went to Lyons, in France, to escape the honors which were tendered to him at Rome. While there, King William of England, who had so violently resented the Saint’s protection of the rights of the Church, died an unhappy death. He was hunting, and the excitement was just at its height, when the fatal arrow of a French officer piercing his heart, sent him, without a moment for repentance, into eternity. Indescribably grieved was St. Anselm on nearing this news, and he said more than once, that he would willingly give his life, if with his blood he could save the soul of the unhappy monarch. Before the intelligence of the king’s death had reached Lyons, Hugh, the holy Abbot of Cluny, said to St. Anselm : “King William stands accused before the judgment seat of the Most High, and is already judged and sentenced to the eternal fire.”

On the death of King William, the crown fell to his son Henry, who, warned by the example of his father, endeavored to ameliorate matters. He abolished the intolerable investitures, was gracious and kind to all, would neither have anything to do with the property of the Church, nor lay hands on the income of the clergy. As he knew how great the consideration was that St. Anselm enjoyed among all right-minded people, he recalled him to England and received him very graciously. But this behavior was of short duration, and before long the Archbishop had again to make a journey to Rome to seek protection for the rights of the Church, which Henry, like his father, commenced to violate. The Pope granted the Saint all he requested, all that justice demanded, but when the king heard of it, he forbade the Archbishop to return to his See. Anslem, therefore, repairing once more to Lyons, remained there sixteen months. While there he daily celebrated the Holy Mass, and offered many prayers and penances for the conversion of the king and the salvation of the whole land. Meanwhile all England wished for the return of her sheph§rd, and the king’s sister rested not in her endeavors until her brother was appeased and allowed him to come back. After the holy man had returned to his See, he strove with all his energy to employ his few remaining years for the benefit of his flock. Thus he passed three peaceful years.

When he was no longer able to say Mass, he caused himself to be carried into the Church, that he might at least be present at the holy sacrifice, for which he had always evinced the deepest veneration. After having received the holy sacraments on Wednesday in Holy week, he requested to be laid, clad in a penitential robe, on the ground upon ashes, and while they read to him the Passion of our Lord, he peacefully expired, in the seventy-sixth year of his age. The many miracles which were wrought at his tomb caused the fame of his sanctity to be spread abroad through the whole of the Christian world. (1)

Besides being one of the fathers of scholastic theology, Anselm fills an important place in the history of philosophic speculation. Coming in the first phase of the controversy on Universals, he had to meet the extreme Nominalism of Roscelin; partly from this fact, partly from his native Platonism his Realism took what may be considered a somewhat extreme form. It was too soon to find the golden mean of moderate Realism, accepted by later philosophers. His position was a stage in the process and it is significant that one of his biographers, John of Salisbury, was among the first to find the true solution.

    Anselm’s chief achievement in philosophy was the ontological argument for the existence of God put forth in his “Proslogium”. Starting from the notion that God is “that than which nothing greater can be thought”, he argues that what exists in reality is greater than that which is only in the mind; wherefore, since “God is that than which nothing greater can be thought”, He exists in reality. The validity of the argument was disputed at the outset by a monk named Gaunilo, who wrote a criticism on it to which Anselm replied. Eadmer tells a curious story about St. Anselm’s anxiety while he was trying to work out this argument. He could think of nothing else for days together. And when at last he saw it clearly, he was filled with joy, and made haste to commit it to writing. The waxen tablets were given in charge to one of the monks but when they were wanted they were missing. Anselm managed to recall the argument, it was written on fresh tablets and given into safer keeping. But when it was wanted it was found that the wax was broken to Pieces. Anselm with some difficulty put the fragments together and had the whole copied on parchment for greater security. The story sounds like an allegory of the fate which awaited this famous argument, which was lost and found again, pulled to pieces and restored in the course of controversy. Rejected by St. Thomas and his followers, it was revived in another form by Descartes. After being assailed by Kant, it was defended by Hegel, for whom it had a peculiar fascination — he recurs to it in many parts of his writings. In one place he says that it is generally used by later philosophers, “yet always along with the other proofs, although it alone is the true one” (German Works, XII, 547). Assailants of this argument should remember that all minds are not cast in one mould, and it is easy to understand how some can feel the force of arguments that are not felt by others. But if this proof were indeed, as some consider it, an absurd fallacy, how could it appeal to such minds as those of Anselm, Descartes, and Hegel? It may be well to add that the argument was not rejected by all the great Schoolmen. It was accepted by Alexander of Hales (Summa, Pt. I, Q. iii, memb. 1, 2), and supported by Scotus. (In I, Dist. ii, Q. ii.) In modern times it is accepted by Mohler, who quotes Hegel’s defence with approval.

    It is not often that a Catholic saint wins the admiration of German philosophers and English historians. But Anselm has this singular distinction Hegel’s appreciation of his mental powers may be matched by Freeman’s warm words of praise for the great Archbishop of Canterbury. “Stranger as he was, he has won his place among the noblest worthies of our island. It was something to be the model of all ecclesiastical perfection; it was something to be the creator of the theology of Christendom — but it was something higher still to be the very embodiment of righteousness and mercy, to be handed down in the annals of humanity as the man who saved the hunted hare and stood up for the holiness of Ælfheah” (History of the Norman Conquest, IV, 444).

    Collections of the works of St. Anselm were issued soon after the invention of printing. Ocsenyi mentions nine earlier than the sixteenth century. The first attempt at a critical edition was that of Th. Raynaud, S.J. (Lyons, 1630), which rejects many spurious works, e. g. the Commentaries on St. Paul. The best editions are those of Dom Gerberon, O.S.B. (Paris, 1675, 1721; Venice 1744, Migne, 1845). Most of the more important works have also been issued separately — thus the ” Monologium” is included in Hurter’s ” Opuscula SS. Patrum ” and published with the ” Proslogium ” by Haas (Tubingen). There are numerous separate editions of the “Cur Deus Homo” and of Anselm’s “Prayers and Meditations”; these last were done into English by Archbishop Laud (1638), and there are French and German versions of the “meditationes” and the “Monologium”. “Cur Deus Homo” has also been translated into English and German — see also the translations by Deane (Chicago, 1903). (4)

Image: Anselm was practically dragged out of his bed to become the Archbishop of Canterbury. (10)

Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff




Sign up for REGINA's weekly newsletter

  1. You will usually hear from us about once a week, usually on Sunday. 
  2. At other times, we may send a special email. 

To subscribe, go here!