On St. Anselm: Theologian, Teacher, Pastor

A Life Marked By "Love of Truth and the Constant Thirst for God"

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VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 23, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of Benedict XVI's address today at the general audience in Paul VI Hall.

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Dear brothers and sisters,

In Rome, on the Aventine Hill, is found the Benedictine abbey of St. Anselm. As the seat of an Institute of Higher Studies and of the abbot primate of the Confederated Benedictines, it is a place that unites prayer, study and government, precisely the three activities that characterized the life of the saint to which it is dedicated: Anselm of Aosta, the 900th anniversary of whose death we celebrate this year.

The many initiatives, promoted especially by the Diocese of Aosta for this happy anniversary, have reflected the interest that this Medieval thinker continues to awaken. He is also known as Anselm of Bec and Anselm of Canterbury because of the cities with which he was connected. Who is this personage to which three localities, distant from one another and situated in three different nations -- Italy, France and England -- feel particularly bound? Monk of intense spiritual life, excellent educator of youth, theologian with an extraordinary speculative capacity, wise man of government and intransigent defender of the "libertas Ecclesiae," of the liberty of the Church, Anselm is one of the eminent personalities of the Medieval Age, who was able to harmonize all these qualities thanks to a profound mystical experience that always guided his thought and action.


St. Anselm was born in 1033 (or the beginning of 1034) in Aosta, the firstborn of a noble family. His father was a crude man, dedicated to the pleasures of life and a spendthrift of his goods; his mother, on the other hand, was a woman of superior customs and profound religiosity (cf. Eadmero, Vita s. Anselmi, PL 159, col 49). It was his mother who took care of the first human and religious formation of her son, whom she later entrusted to the Benedictines of a priory of Aosta. Anselm, who from his childhood -- as his biographer recounts -- imagined the dwelling of the good God to be among the high and snow clad summits of the Alps, dreamed one night that he was invited to this splendid palace by God himself, who entertained him affably for a good while and at the end offered him to eat "a very white bread" (ibid., col 51).

This dream left him the conviction of being called to fulfill a high mission. At the age of 15, he asked to be admitted to the Benedictine Order, but his father opposed him with all his authority and did not even give in when his son, gravely ill, and sensing he was close to death, implored the religious habit as his last consolation. After his cure and the premature passing of his mother, Anselm went through a period of moral dissipation: He neglected his studies, overwhelmed by earthly passions; he was deaf to God's call. He returned home and began to travel in France, seeking new experiences.

After three years, arriving in Normandy, he went to the Benedictine abbey of Bec, attracted by the fame of Lanfranc of Pavia, prior of the monastery. It was, for him, a providential and decisive encounter for the rest of his life. Under the guidance of Lanfranc, Anselm took up his studies vigorously and in a short time became not only the favorite student, but also his teacher's confidant. His monastic vocation rekindled and, after careful evaluation, he entered the monastic order at the age of 27 and was ordained a priest. Ascesis and study opened new horizons for him, making him find again, at a higher level, that familiarity with God that he had had as a child.

When Lanfranc became abbot of Caen in 1063, Anselm, with just three years of monastic life, was appointed prior of the monastery of Bec and master of the cloister school, revealing gifts of a refine educator. He did not like authoritarian methods; he compared young men to small plants that develop better if they are enclosed in a greenhouse, and he gave them a "healthy" freedom. He was very exacting with himself and with others in the monastic observance, but instead of imposing discipline he was determined to have it followed with persuasion. On the death of Abbot Erluino, founder of the abbey of Bec, Anselm was unanimously elected to succeed him; it was February of 1079. Meanwhile, many monks had been called to Canterbury to take to their brothers on the other side of the English Channel the renewal that was underway on the continent. His work was well received, to the point that Lanfranc of Pavia, abbot of Caen, became the new archbishop of Canterbury and asked Anselm to spend some time with him to instruct the monks and help him in the difficult situation in which his ecclesial community found itself after the Norman invasion. Anselm's stay was very fruitful. He won sympathy and esteem to such a point that at Lanfranc's death he was elected to replace him in the archbishopric of Canterbury. He received his solemn episcopal consecration in December of 1093.

Anselm got involved immediately in an energetic struggle for the liberty of the Church, upholding with courage the independence of the spiritual power in respect of the temporal. He defended the Church from undue interference by political authorities, especially Kings William the Red and Henry I, finding courage and support in the Roman Pontiff, to whom Anselm always demonstrated a courageous and cordial adherence. In 1103 this fidelity cost him the bitterness of exile from his Canterbury see. And only in 1106, when King Henry I gave up the pretension of conferring ecclesiastical investitures, as well as the accumulation of taxes and the confiscation of the Church's properties, was Anselm able to return to England, where he was festively welcomed by the clergy and the people. Thus ended happily the long struggle that he had conducted with the weapons of perseverance, pride and goodness.

This holy archbishop who inspired so much admiration from those around him, wherever he went, dedicated the last years of his life above all to the moral formation of the clergy and the spiritual pursuit of theological arguments. He died on April 21, 1109, supported by the words of the Gospel proclaimed in the Holy Mass that day: "You are those who have continued with me in my trials; as my Father appointed a kingdom for me, so do I appoint for you that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom ..." (Luke 22:28-30). The dream of that mysterious banquet, which he had as a child, precisely at the beginning of his spiritual journey, thus found its realization. Jesus, who had invited him to sit at his table, received St. Anselm, at his death, in the eternal kingdom of the Father.

"God, I implore you, I want to know you, to love you and to be able to enjoy you. And if in this life I am not capable of it fully, that at least I might progress each day until I attain its fullness" (Proslogion, chapter 14). This prayer enables us to understand the mystical soul of this great saint of the Medieval Age, founder of Scholastic Theology, to whom Christian tradition has given the title of "magnificent doctor," because he cultivated an intense desire to deepen his understanding of divine mysteries, fully aware, however, that the journey in search of God is never ended, at least on this earth. The clarity and logical rigor of his thought always had as their objective "to raise the mind to the contemplation of God" (Ivi, Proemium). He states clearly that whoever attempts to theologize cannot just count on his intelligence, but must cultivate at the same time a profound experience of faith. According to St. Anselm, the activity of a theologian, therefore, develops in three stages: faith, free gift of God that must be received with humility; experience, which consists in the incarnation of the word of God in one's daily life; and lastly true knowledge, which is never the fruit of aseptic thoughts, but of a contemplative intuition. Hence, his famous words continue to be very useful also today for a healthy theological research and for anyone who wishes to go deeper in the truths of the faith: "I do not presume, Lord, to penetrate in your profundity, because I cannot even from afar confront my intellect with it; but I wish to understand, at least to a certain point, your truth, which my heart believes and loves. I do not seek to understand to believe, but I believe in order to understand" (Ivi, 1).

Dear brothers and sisters, may the love of truth and the constant thirst for God, which marked the whole life of St. Anselm, be a stimulus for every Christian to seek without ever tiring an ever more profound union with Christ, Way, Truth and Life. In addition, may the courageous zeal that distinguished his pastoral action, and procured for him misunderstandings, bitterness and finally exile, be an encouragement for pastors, for consecrated persons and for all the faithful to love the Church of Christ, to pray, work and suffer for her, without every abandoning or betraying her. May the Virgin Mother of God, for whom Anselm nourished a tender filial devotion, obtain this grace for us. "Mary, my heart wants to love you," wrote St. Anselm, "my tongue wants to praise you ardently."

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the audience, the Holy Father greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Our catechesis today turns to an outstanding churchman of the eleventh century, Saint Anselm of Canterbury. Anselm received a monastic education in his native town of Aosta, in the north of Italy, and entered the Benedictine monastery of Bec in Normandy. Under the guidance of his prior, Lanfranc of Pavia, he devoted himself to study and prayer, and eventually was elected abbot of Bec. Some time later he succeeded Lanfranc as Archbishop of Canterbury. Anselm's years in England were marked by the reorganization of ecclesial life in the wake of the Norman invasion and the struggle for the Church's legitimate freedom from political inroads, which resulted in his being exiled for three years. This great spiritual leader was also a brilliant teacher, writer and speculative theologian. In the prayer which opens his most celebrated work, the Proslogion, he expresses his desire to understand the faith, the divine truth which his heart already believes and loves. May Saint Anselm's life and teaching inspire us to a more fruitful contemplation of the mysteries of the Christian faith, and a deeper love of the Lord and his Church.

I offer a warm welcome to the English-speaking visitors present at today's Audience, including the members of the Australian Girls Choir and the school groups from Norway and Scotland. I ask you to join me in praying that my imminent visit to the Czech Republic will bear many spiritual fruits, and upon all of you and your families, I invoke God's blessings of joy and peace!

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