c. 1033 – 1109
Optional Memorial: Liturgical Color: White
Few bishops have been canonized as saints since the Catholic Counter-Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The earlier history of the Church is, however, replete with saintly bishops. In the patristic era from the fourth through the sixth centuries, in particular, a vast constellation of saintly bishop shined on the Church. Today’s saint was a scholar bishop in the mold of the educated churchmen of the patristic era. St. Anselm was a world class thinker, a politically aware defender of the Church’s rights, a contemplative monk, and a faithful son of the Bishop of Rome.
St. Anselm entered the monastery of Bec in Normandy, France as a young man and quickly impressed his superiors with his character and incisive mind. He was elected prior, then abbot, at a young age. The monastery had many dealings with England due to its close proximity to that country, so Anselm travelled there regularly. These visits eventually led to his appointment as the Archbishop of Canterbury. Anselm spent many years as archbishop in conflict with English civil power over who had the authority to “invest,”or empower, a bishop with the symbols of office at his installation Mass. The lay investiture controversy was a long simmering dispute throughout Europe. It was eventually resolved in favor of the Church’s right to invest its own bishops with crozier, miter, and ring.
Much more than his role as a pastor in church-state conflicts, St. Anselm’s most enduring legacy is as a philosopher and theologian. He was a working intellectual who produced erudite works on a range of complex subjects. He is the originator, in particular, of the ontological argument for the existence of God. The argument is ontological (or just “logical”) in that it is not empirical (scientifically verifiable). It does not argue from outward in, starting with external, observable, evidence and then moving towards internal conclusions. The argument is powered, instead, by the raw strength of reason itself. To give some examples, no one needs to search the world over for square circles to conclude that square circles don’t exist. Circles are round, by definition. And no one needs to interview every single bachelor to know that a bachelor is male. A bachelor is, by definition, male. The very definition of God, Anselm’s holds, is proof that God exists.
Anselm argued that God is a being than which none greater can be imagined. Supposing that the mind can imagine nothing greater than God, and further supposing that what exists in reality is greater than what exists only in the mind, then God must exist in reality. God’s non-existence is, then, logically impossible. This argument assumes that the maximum, or upper limit, to what the mind can attribute to God is contained in the definition of the word God. No such upper limit exists in defining pain, temperature, length, or numbers, for example. A longer line can always be drawn, a greater number imagined, a sharper pain experienced, or a hotter temperature described. But to imagine a being greater than God would just be to imagine God more fully. As long as the mind’s concept of God is rational, then the argument is convincing. Anselm’s nuanced argument has provoked centuries of sophisticated commentary.
Anselm’s life began among the alps of today’s northern Italy, a land of jagged, snow encrusted, mountains which stand over the green valleys below. One night the boy Anselm, asleep in his remote valley home, had a vision. He was called to the court of God on a high summit. Ascending to the very peak of a mountain, he entered the presence of the royal court and sat at the feet of the Master. God asked the boy who he was and where he came from. Anselm answered well and was rewarded with sweet bread from heaven. And then he woke up. Anselm never forgot this dream. He recounted it, in detail, many decades later, to a fellow monk who wrote his first biography. St. Anselm’s mind never really came down from that high court. He walked in the highest ranges, above the clouds, hiking from summit to summit, his pen piercing the blue sky to gaze directly into the realm above.
We ask your intercession, St. Anselm, to reflect with our God given reason on the highest mysteries of existence. You did not leave man’s sense of wonder unchallenged, but sought to organize human thought to meet the challenge of God. Help all thinkers to be open to finding as much as searching.
From Butler’s Lives of the Saints:
ANSELM was a native of Piedmont. When a boy of fifteen, being forbidden to enter religion, he for a while lost his fervor, left his home, and went to various schools in France. At length his vocation revived, and he became a monk at Bec in Normandy. The fame of his sanctity in this cloister led William Rufus, when dangerously ill, to take him for his confessor, and to name him to the vacant see of Canterbury. Now began the strife of Anselm’s life. With new health the king relapsed into his former sins, plundered the Church lands, scorned the archbishop’s rebukes, and forbade him to go to Rome for the pallium. Anselm went, and returned only to enter into a more bitter strife with William’s successor, Henry I. This sovereign claimed the right of investing prelates with the ring and crozier, symbols of the spiritual jurisdiction which belongs to the Church alone. The worldly prelates did not scruple to call St. Anselm a traitor for his defence of the Pope’s supremacy; on which the Saint rose, and with calm dignity exclaimed, “If any man pretends that I violate my faith to my king because I will not reject the authority of the Holy See of Rome, let him stand forth, and in the name of God I will answer him as I ought.” No one took up the challenge; and to the disappointment of the king, the barons sided with the Saint, for they respected his courage, and saw that his cause was their own. Sooner than yield, the archbishop went again into exile, till at last the king was obliged to submit to the feeble but inflexible old man. In the midst of his harassing cares, St. Anselm found time for writings which have made him celebrated as the father of scholastic theology; while in metaphysics and in science he had few equals. He is yet more famous for his devotion to our blessed Lady, whose Feast of the Immaculate Conception he was the first to establish in the West. He died in 1109.
Reflection.— Whoever, like St. Anselm, contends for the Church’s rights, is fighting on the side of God against the tyranny of Satan.
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.