Essay / Theology

Why We Should Read Lesser-Known Books, or, the Anselm I Never Knew

Anselm was born in 1033 in Aosta, Italy and while young was put under the tutelage of a relative who was a professional teacher. This man kept Anselm confined to the house so that he would study more diligently so that when Anselm returned home he was frightened by both his family and neighbors to whom he had become unaccustomed, avoiding most company. Thereafter, he studied with the Benedictines at Aosta and decided to become a monk though his entry into the Benedictine monastery at Bec, France did not happen until the age of twenty-seven. After serving as prior and abbot at Bec, and though he resisted, Anselm was “carried rather than led” into a church on March 6, 1093 and invested by the king of England as Archbishop of Canterbury.

Life as an archbishop was not easy. From 1095 to 1097, there was public dispute between Anselm and the king so that in 1097 when the archbishop asked for permission to visit Rome, the king refused, yet Anselm set sail for Europe in November 1097 (i.e., his first exile). In 1100, King William Rufus died and Henry I (William’s brother) was crowned. Anselm was then invited back to England where Henry expected the archbishop to be re-invested and pay homage for his see. Anselm refused because this was simony so, in the spring of 1103, Anselm traveled to Rome (i.e., the second exile). Finally, after spending time in Lyons, Anselm was invited to return to England and did so in September 1106. During Lent of 1109, Anselm took sick and died the Wednesday before Easter — April 21, 1109.

These events in the life of Anselm are not particularly exceptional and mostly shed light on the relationship of English kings to archbishops of Canterbury. Anselm is known more for what he wrote than for what he did. His three main works are the Monologion (ca. 1076), a monologue or soliloquy, that attempts to convince readers of the truth of Anselm’s conclusions about God’s essence and attributes by rational arguments and not by adducing the authority of the Scriptures; the Proslogion (ca. 1078), a work that presents an argument for the existence of God and discusses the attributes and powers of God; the Cur Deus Homo (1098), a treatise presented in the form of a dialogue addressing the question, why, and with what necessity, did God become man, and redeem human beings by His death, although He could have accomplished this by other means? Besides these main writings there are also a number of lesser-known writings such as the De Grammatico (an introduction to dialectic), the Dialogue on Truth, the Dialogue on Free Choice, a Dialogue on the Fall of the Devil and books on the incarnation of Christ, the virginal conception of Mary, the procession of the Holy Spirit and a harmony of foreknowledge, predestination and the grace of God with free will. Basically, Anselm was a theologian and this is why he is most often read today. However, there is a lesser-known work of Anselm that is quite different from the rest of his literary corpus and worthy of being read even today.

The Prayers and Meditations are some of Anselm’s earliest writings and were written at the request of his fellow monks. Only nineteen prayers and three meditations from over a hundred in late medieval collections are authentically Anselmian and most of the prayers were composed by Anselm before he became abbot of Bec in 1078. They are wonderful examples of Anselm as his best, both as a Benedictine monk, as wordsmith and as a pastor. After recently reading the prayers, I was mindful of the following:

  • Anselm’s prayers seem more patristic than medieval; that is, they are more firmly rooted in the words of the Scriptures, the liturgy and the creeds than the more speculative spirituality that would arise over the next centuries
  • Anselm understands his prayers to be aids to prayer; they are not the end in themselves but a means to an end
    • Compunction of heart is certainly a necessary element of the spiritual life as understood by Anselm
  • Some form of praise and thanksgiving are characteristic of all of Anselm’s prayers
  • Anselm prays both through and with the saints
  • Anselm is a master of language and, at times, the content of his prayers is overshadowed by the beauty of his poetry/prose
  • Anselm’s devotion to Mary is very strong and quite unique for his time; he appears to be anticipating the Marian devotion that would characterize much of Cistercian spirituality and even later medieval and early modern devotional practices
  • The prayers are highly Christological
  • Theologically Anselm is well known for his satisfaction theory of the atonement (that Jesus paid the debt that man owed to God) —this same concept is strongly at play in his second “Prayer to St John the Evangelist”
  • While undoubtedly intellectual, the prayers and meditations are also highly affective, challenging a common assumption that to be one is not to be the other

In short, these prayers are beautiful to read, even if one does not agree with all of the theology. But what reading the Prayers and Meditations really teaches us is that sometimes it pays to read the lesser-known works of well-known authors. Oftentimes, there is a real gem waiting to be discovered. Before reading these prayers, I had assumed that Anselm was a philosophical theologian who stuck primarily to writing about the Trinity. Now I know that he was also a monk who was concerned deeply about prayer and the inner life of the soul. Now, Anselm seems more human, more down to earth, if you will. The full picture of an author’s thought and personality should not be determined by a narrow reading of his/her corpus but should come only after a thorough reading of all their extant texts. For some authors this will be quite a challenge (think Thomas Aquinas) but surely it is worth the time and effort. So, put down your well-worn and oft-read copy of The Brothers Karamazov and go pick up The Gambler, lay aside Aquinas’ Summa theologiae and purchase a copy of On Being and Essence, forego The Chronicles of Narnia for The Abolition of Man. Most authors have a lot to teach us, if we are just willing to read something other than their masterpiece(s).

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