St. Anselm of Canterbury: Scholarship Rooted in Prayer

When we study the history of the Church, we encounter what many have called the res Catholica, the “Catholic thing.” We use the non-descript Latin res quite deliberately in order to evoke within the reader a sense of enigma, of irreducible mystery. The saints of the Church are the strongest representatives of this res Catholica, integrating within their lives multiple strains of this mystery.  In the life of Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109) we see this integration in the fusion of scholarship and sanctity.

Anselm was born to a noble family in Aosta, Italy.  As a young man he traveled to France, where he entered the renowned abbey of Bec in 1060.  In the early Middle Ages, before the emergence of the urban universities, monasteries and cathedral schools were centers of scholarship and learning. The monastery fostered its own type of intellectual life in conjunction with the primary monastic vocation of prayer. At the center of monastic intellectual life was Lectio Divina, the prayerful, meditative reading of Sacred Scripture and the Church Fathers. The goal of such reading was sapientia, “wisdom,” as distinct from scientia, “knowledge.” In keeping with this goal, each monastery had a school, the primary purpose of which was instill within monastic oblates the literacy necessary for fruitful lectio.  Under the leadership of Abbot Lanfranc, the monastic school at Bec developed into a center intellectual renown.  When he entered Bec, Anselm’s thoughtfulness was immediately recognized by his superiors, who put him to work as a teacher and a writer.

AnselmstatuecanterburycathedraloutsideAnselm’s writings are a near-perfect blend of scholarship and sanctity. Both his philosophical as well as his theological speculation followed from his life of prayer.  In his Proslogion Anselm sets forth what has come to be called by contemporary philosophers the “ontological argument” for God’s existence. While there is an undeniable logical consistency to the treatise, it is not an “argument” in the sense of an attempt to convince an opponent of the truth of his position.  As anyone who has read it can testify, Anselm’s ontological argument is more of a meditation.  Anselm begins by referring the reader to his own interiority:

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Come now, insignificant mortal. Leave behind your concerns for a little while, and retreat for a short time from your restless thoughts…For just a little while make room for God and rest a while in him. “Enter into the chamber” of your mind, shut out everything but God and whatever helps you to seek him.

From this interior recollection, Anselm leads the reader to a meditation on the nature of God, and finally to the realization that the thought of this God not existing is pure nonsense.  Later, in the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas, with his university training, would reject Anselm’s argument. If God’s existence were self-evident, Thomas reasoned, then all people would believe in him. But all do not believe in God, therefore God’s existence is not self-evident. While Thomas’s refutation is sound in respect to the argumentative dimension of Anselm’s position, it does, I believe, miss a vital aspect of Anselm’s thought.  For Anselm, the existence of God is, indeed, self-evident, and implied in the very definition of God.  This self-evidence, however, is manifest only in the midst of prayerful recollection.  God’s existence is self-evident to the mind of one with a prayerful, scripturally formed interior life. For Anselm, the certainty of God’s existence emerged from intellectual activity rooted in the quest for personal holiness.

In his Cur Deus Homo, “Why the God-Man,” Anselm sets forth a rational explanation of the necessity of the Incarnation. Rejecting the then-popular notion that the death of Christ was a ransom paid to the devil, Anselm articulates his “satisfaction” theory of the atonement as the reason for God becoming man. The treatise is written in the form of a dialogue between Anselm and Boso, a young monk. Thus, Anselm’s argument is not presented as an academic dissertation or a scholastic dispuatio, but as the fruit of an interpersonal relationship between two sojourners. Out of their shared faith, rooted in a common life of prayer and recollection, emerges the recognition of why God assumed a human nature in order to save mankind. They discover together that even a single, momentary sin offends God.  Since God is an infinite being, offending Him is an offense of infinite weight. Nothing in all of finite creation can make satisfaction for the offense. Since the offense is infinite, satisfaction must be infinite. Therefore, only God can make satisfaction for sin. But since man is the offending party, justice requires that man make satisfaction. Therefore, only a God-man can make satisfaction for sin.  Many today are critical of Anselm’s understanding of the atonement, feeling that postulates a mechanistic, even ‘mercantile’ conception of salvation: so-much sin requires so-much satisfaction, and unless the account is paid in full, we face eternal damnation for our unpaid sin debt. Again, such a criticism fails to take account of the meditative context that gave rise to Anselm’s theory. Anselm’s understanding of the atonement is born from a profound understanding of the gravity of sin, which in turn calls forth—for the meditative soul—a contemplation of the gravity of God’s mercy.

In Anselm’s Prayer to the Holy Cross we see this meditative root of his theology of the atonement.  Addressing the cross of Christ in the second person, Anselm writes:

[Godless and foolish men] chose you that they might carry out their evil deeds; [Christ] chose you that he might fulfill the work of his goodness. They that by you they might hand over the righteous to death; he that through you he might save sinners from death. They that they might kill life; he that he might destroy death.They that they might condemn the Savior, he that he might save the condemned.They that they might bring death to the living; he to bring life to the dead.

What Anselm expresses in logical discourse stems from this meditative root, from his personal apprehension of the mystery of the Cross.  Thus we see in the writings of Anselm the emergence of scholarship from a committed life of prayer.

The example of Anselm’s intellectual life presents a powerful challenge to every Catholic. There has always been the temptation to separate the life of the mind from the life of the soul. Those periods in the history of the Church where this temptation was not successfully resisted were, characterized, not coincidentally, by crisis. The nominalist school of scholasticism, which came to prominence in the 14th century, produced a schism between faith and reason, between what could be known on the basis of divine revelation and what was rationally demonstrable. As a result, theology no longer sought to demonstrate the reasonableness of Christian doctrine, while natural philosophy (the grandparent of modern science) was pursued in such a way as to increasingly alienate the fruits of its discoveries from   an integral Christian worldview grounded in divine revelation. This schism became characteristic of university life in modern Western culture, and asserted itself within Catholic academe in 1960’s, when university administrators, trustees, faculty, and even some prelates in the Church subscribed to the “Land O’ Lakes Statement” which asserted that the Catholic university “must be university in the full modern sense of the word” and therefore “must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical.”  This assertion in effect severed scholarly pursuits from their foundation in the faith and life of the Church and the spiritual, prayerful pursuit of holiness which make this faith and life possible.  This severance was, tragically, most severely evidenced in departments of theology. Those who conduct their intellectual pursuits in Catholic colleges and universities today still struggle in the midst of this intellectual schism. For all of us today, St. Anselm stands as a model of holiness in the pursuit of Truth.

Author’s note: The quotation from Anselm is derived from The Prayers and Meditations of Anselm, translated by Benedicta Ward (London: Penguin Books, 1973).

Editor’s note: The statue of St. Anselm pictured above is on the exterior wall of Canterbury Cathedral.


  • John P. Bequette

    John P. Bequette is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana. His interests include medieval Christian thought, the lives of the saints, and Christian humanism.

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