St Anselm of Canterbury: Fides Quaerens Intellectum

Gregory DiPippo

Last September, we wrote about the 7th century archbishop of Canterbury named Theodore, a Greek-speaker who originally came from Tarsus in Asia Minor, the native place of St Paul. His life and career show the endurance of the transnational culture created by the Roman Empire, and the role that culture played in spreading the Gospel, which St John XXIII spoke of in his Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia. Something very similar is true for the Saint whose feast is kept today, Anselm, who became archbishop of Canterbury just over four centuries after Theodore’s death.

He was born in 1033, in the town of Aosta in what is now northern Italy, but was then part of the kingdom of Burgundy, which had just been absorbed into the Holy Roman Empire. His parents were of the Lombard nobility, as evidenced by their names (Gundulf and Ermemberga) and his own. As a teenager, he had wanted to enter monastic life, but was frustrated in this by his father. It was not until he was 27, after some years of travel in France, that he was able to join the monastery of Bec in Normandy. The prior of Bec was a fellow countryman named Lanfranc, who founded a school within it that would become one of the primary centers of Europe’s intellectual life. This abbey is over 460 miles almost directly north-west from Aosta; it hardly needs saying that Anselm was able to live and thrive in this foreign place because Latin was shared as the means of communication between all the monks, whatever their cultural background.

In 1063, William, the duke of Normandy, made Lanfranc the abbot of a new monastery that he had founded; Anselm was elected prior of Bec in his place, and fifteen years later, abbot, when the first abbot and founder died. It was in this period that Anselm composed several of the major philosophical and theological works for the sake of which he is now honored as a Doctor of the Church. The school at Bec continued to thrive under his leadership.

William of Normandy is better known to history as William the Conqueror, and once he had established himself as the ruler of England, and the duchy of Normandy and the kingdom of England were ruled by a single crown, social and cultural interactions between the two states increased considerably. Bec Abbey received many gifts of land in England from the new Norman nobility, and Anselm, as prior, was in charge of visiting them and collecting the revenues from them. He therefore also frequently visited both King William, with whom he had excellent relations, and his old friend Lanfranc, who had become archbishop of Canterbury in 1070. He was considered a likely successor to Lanfranc, but the Conqueror died first, in 1087, and his son and successor, William II, wished to keep the see vacant so that he could take its revenues, a common abuse of the period. Anselm was known as a man of the reforming party within the Church, very much opposed to such abuses, and tensions ran high between them.

William eventually relented, and Anselm was consecrated as archbishop in December of 1093, but there were still many causes of conflict. After some years, Anselm deemed it prudent to withdraw from England and go into exile, first at Lyon, and then at Rome. At the Pope’s request, he participated in a council held at Bari in southern Italy, in October 1098, which attempted to resolve some of the theological controversies between Catholics and Orthodox. (The south of Italy also had been conquered by the Normans, and although he traveled a total of over 1200 miles to get to Bari from Canterbury, the new cultural milieu in which he found himself was in many ways very much like the one he had left behind.)

In 1100, the king died and was succeeded by his brother, Henry I, who permitted Anselm to return, but conflicts with the new king led to a second exile, which lasted for three years. They were reconciled, but Anselm was only able to fully enjoy the peaceful possession of his see for the last two years of his life. During his time as archbishop, he composed six major theological treatises, including one of most famous, on the Incarnation, known as “Cur Deus homo? – Why did God become man?” He died on Holy Wednesday of 1109, which was one of the very rare years on which Easter has occurred on its last possible date, April 25th.

Well was it said that history does not repeat, but it often rhymes. St Anselm went into exile twice in conflict with the English monarchs, defending the Church’s liberty against royal importunities. Four hundred years to the day after his death, King Henry VII died and was succeeded by his son Henry VIII, under whom royal importunity would finally gain the upper hand, quod ad mundum istum pertinet.

(St. Bonaventure shows the Saints to Dante, from Canto 12 of the Paradise of the Divine Comedy. The majority of figures pointed out to Dante in this passage are famous theologians: St. Augustine, Hugh of St. Victor, Peter Comestor, Chrysostom, Anselm, and Rabanus Maurus. Manuscript illumination by Giovanni di Paolo, 1450)

In 1720, Pope Clement XI declared Anselm to be a Doctor of the Church, the first to receive the title over 130 years. The Catholic Encyclopedia points out that Anselm’s contribution to Scholastic theology is like the foundation of a building: hidden but necessary, and present to every part. For this he is often called the Father of Scholasticism. It is always hazardous to try to sum up the works of such a prolific author as he, but perhaps we may do so with a well-known phrase that was supposed to be the title of his work on the attributes of God, the Proslogion: “Fides quaerens intellectum – Faith seeking understanding.”

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