St Anselm: Faith Seeking Understanding

Our university chapel is named for Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), a particularly apt choice for an academic setting since Anselm is usually remembered as the “Father of Scholasticism.”  Anselm was born in Aosta, Italy, the son of a Lombard nobleman.  At the age of 15, he felt called to join a monastery but after an initial examination was rejected by the abbot.  Ten years later, after living the “frivolous” life of a young nobleman, his sense of call sent him back to the monastery.  This time he was admitted.  In three years, his fellow monks elected him to the position of prior.  Fifteen years later, he became the abbot.

Anselm wrote many influential works in the areas of philosophy and theology, approaching these subjects with rational, intellectual argument tempered by a generous and sensitive spirit.  His writing is perhaps best known for this balance of reason and faith, which he characterized as “faith seeking understanding”:

I want to understand something of the truth which my heart believes and loves.  I do not seek thus to understand in order to believe, but I believe in order that I may understand.

His public life was marked by ongoing power struggles with the state (i.e. ruling King William and later Henry I) but it was at home in the monastery that he was at his best.  He was remembered for encouraging questioning rather than blind obedience from the monks under his charge, a philosophy that seems a timely reminder for today’s educational system:

If you plant a tree and bind it on all sides so that the branches will not spread out, what sort of tree will it be when in later years you give it room to spread?  Yet that is how children are often treated in their learning, debarring them from the enjoyment of freedom.

In Paradiso, Dante names Anselm as one of the spirits of light and power and it is this spirit of generosity and compassion that best characterizes Anselm.  A story is told that he once came upon a boy who had tied a string to a bird’s leg to keep it from flying away.  Anselm cut the string and said:

The bird flies away;

the boy cries;

God is glad.”

Forward Day by Day is a wonderful little quarterly devotional publication of Forward Movement, an official non-profit agency of the Episcopal church.  The current edition concludes with the following prayers from St Anselm:

MY PRAYER IS A COLD LITTLE THING, LORD, because it burns with so faint a flame. But you are rich in mercy. As your kindness is above all human love, so let your eagerness to hear be greater than what I feel when I pray.

LORD, I AM NOT TRYING TO REACH YOUR HEIGHT, for my poor mind could not even approach it. But I do want to understand the 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 further, I believe that unless I believe I shall never understand.

I HAVE FOUND A FULLNESS OF JOY that is more than full. This joy fills the whole heart, mind, and soul; it fills the entire person, yet there remains more joy that is beyond measuring. God of truth, I ask that I may receive so that my joy may be full. Meanwhile, may my mind meditate on it, my tongue speak of it, my heart love it, my mouth proclaim it, my soul hunger for it, my flesh thirst for it, and my whole being desire it, until I enter into the joy of my Lord, who is God, triune unity, blessed forever.

YOU ONLY ARE MIGHTY, LORD; you only are merciful. Whatever you cause me to desire for my enemies, give it to them and give the same to me, and if what I ask for them is ever outside the rule of love, whether through weakness, ignorance, or malice, give it neither to them, good Lord, nor to me.


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