St. Anselm at Prayer

St. Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109) is most famous for his delineation of the ‘penal’ or ‘Latin’ view of atonement in Cur Deus Homo as well as his ‘ontological argument’ for the existence of God. He was also a man of great faith and love of God, standing towards the beginning of a long tradition of English devotional poetry that includes Lancelot Andrewes, John Donne, George Herbert, and others.

Sr. Benedicta Ward, SLG, made this devotional material available to the English-reading public in a 1973 Penguin, The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm. Here we get a more intimate, personal view of St. Anselm. Here we see the simple world of faith and longing, of wishing to love God and Christ as one ought.

For example:

Most merciful Lord,
turn my lukewarmness into a fervent love of you.
Most gentle Lord,
my prayer tends towards this —
that by remembering and meditating
on the good things you have done
I may be enkindled with your love.
Your goodness, Lord, created me;
Your mercy cleansed what you had created
from original sin;
your patience has hitherto borne with me,
fed me, waited for me,
when after I had lost the grace of my baptism
I wallowed in many sordid sins.
You wait, good Lord, for my amendment;
My soul waits for the inbreathing of your grace
in order to be sufficiently penitent
to lead a better life. (‘Prayer to Christ’, p. 94)

And:

What shall I say? What shall I do? Whither shall I go?
Where shall I seek him? Where and when shall I find him?
Whom shall I ask? Who will tell me of my beloved?
‘for I am sick from love’.
‘The joy of my heart fails me’;
‘my heart and my flesh fail me’;
‘but God is the strength of my heart, my portion for ever.’
‘My soul refuses comfort,’ unless from you, my dear.
‘Whom have I in heaven but you,
and what do I desire upon earth beside you?’
I want you, I hope for you, I seek you;
‘to you my heart has said, seek my face’;
‘your face, Lord, have I sought;
turn not your face from me.’ (‘Prayer to Christ’, pp. 97-98)

St. Anselm is not a man who looks for a distant, angry God that seeks naught but judgement. While this is not quite the ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ kind of poetry we find in St. John of the Cross (d. 1591), this is still the prayer of a man who quite truly loves his God and is quite aware of the sorrow sin brings.

St. Anselm is searching for God, seeking to find his beloved. Without God, he has no strength. Without grace, he cannot lead a holy life.

Are we searching for God today? If not, why not? This Advent, let us keep these thoughts of St. Anselms near the front of our minds — as we prepare for the celebration of Christ’s first coming, may we find Him here and now in our current lives and situations.

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