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St Anselm (Optional Memorial)

Forum of Major Superiors

I. Introduction

When I was in the seminary, I regarded St. Anselm as the driest of all saints as I grappled with his writings, especially his ontological argument for God’s existence. Immersed in his thought, I missed the rich tapestry of his life. But this morning, happily, I can stand before you to say that St. Anselm is a saint who has something to say to almost everyone. If you don’t mind, I’d like to illustrate what this saint, born in 1033 or 34 in what is now the Piedmont Region of Northern Italy has to say to us and to so many.

II. Conflicted Families

For anyone growing up in a conflicted family situation, St. Anselm is saint who understands what that is like. Though descended from noble lineage, Anselm’s family had its share of misfortunes, financial and political. His father, Gundulf is thought by some historians to have had a violent temper; he was almost certainly profligate as regards the family’s resources. Anselm’s mother, on the other hand, was prudent and faithful but she died young. Upon her death his father began to take his faith seriously, so seriously that life at home became oppressive, even for so a pious a young man as Anselm.

III. Vocational Searching

For anyone who has found it challenging to discern his or her vocation, St. Anselm very well might be the saint to whom one ought to turn. His father opposed his entry into a local monastery; in time Anselm would journey over the Alps wandering through France and Burgundy for three years in search of his vocation. Eventually, he came upon a man named Lanfranc, a countryman, abbot and future archbishop, -- a man who became his mentor. It was Lanfranc who encouraged Anselm to become a monk and to pursue the intellectual life.

IV. Monastic Life

If you are a religious, you can find in Anselm a model of consecration to the Lord; and if you are a religious superior, you can also find inspiration in Anselm. Life within the monastery is not always peaceful, or so they tell me, and Anselm certainly experienced conflict within the monastery walls. Nonetheless, at a very early age he was elected prior of St. Stephen’s in Caen and later abbot of the prestigious Benedictine Monastery at Bec in Normandy. He was by this time a leading intellectual light in the Church but his monks revered his good example, his kindliness, and his care for the younger members of the community.

V. Mystical Prayer

If you are intent on progressing in prayer, Anselm is a model. When, in dialogue with his own soul in the Proslogion, he writes, “You have discovered that this Supreme Being is life itself, light, wisdom, goodness, eternal blessedness…” the One who gives life and restores it when it is lost – we can sense how Anselm has digested the whole of salvation history, recounted for us today in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. How we should make our own his prayer: “O God, let me know you and love you so I may find my joy in you; and if I cannot do so fully in this life, let me at least make some progress every day, until at last that knowledge, love, and joy come to me in their plenitude…” This sums up the spirituality of those who live in this passing world with their hearts set on the world that is to come.

VI. Intellectual Life

If you are pursuing the intellectual life, you will find in Anselm the model of a theologian whose faith sought understanding and who combined a lively spirituality with original thinking as he developed a new line of argumentation for the existence of God and a new understanding of atonement. His fidelity coupled with originality as well as his intellectual humility make him a model for those who seek to study and advance theology in our times. Indeed, his greatness as a thinker was not fully appreciated in his own day; he was canonized and proclaimed a doctor of the church only in 1720.

VII. Bishop

If you are a bishop (and in addition to Bishop Madden, there’s only me!), Anselm also has something to say – inasmuch as he was wise enough to try to get out of it! But once he was appointed to the See of Canterbury, he gave his new mission his all. When offered this most important See, through King William, Anselm made it clear that he would carry forward the reforms of Gregory VII just as bishops today must be good coworkers with Pope Francis. While serving as Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm continued to live simply and maintained monastic ideals of prayer and scholarship, coupled with true apostolic zeal.

VIII. Betrayal

If you have ever known betrayal or suffering for your service to the Church or if you simply take to heart the betrayal Jesus underwent, as referred to in the Gospel for today, then Anselm is the saint for you. Because of conflicts with the kings, first William Rufus and then Henry, Anselm suffered exile not once but twice, most especially because he was resolute in pursuing his reform agenda. Anselm was determined that the church would have its rightful independence and that the spiritual realm would not be the captive of the temporal.

IX. Conclusion

Saints are varied and interesting people but rarely does a single saint speak so eloquently to so many. As we gather this morning in our diversity let us ask St. Anselm to intercede for us that we may attain to that unity which Christ willed for his Church, a unity-in-diversity so necessary in these days for both Church and society. May this great saint and doctor of the Church inspire us now and always!