“Evil here and evil there” “The burden of them is intolerable”

Image of an Archbishop from Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Auct. D. 2. 6 (12th c)

St Anselm, ‘Prayer to St John the Baptist’:

Flee, flee,
you who are of I know not what horrible substance;
flee from yourself; be terribly; afraid of yourself.
But, alas, you cannot flee from yourself,
nor can you look at yourself, because you cannot bear it.
For if you could bear it, without a horror of grief,
you would find your toleration intolerable.
Insofar as you can tolerate yourself
you are like the first sinner,
and thereby you are less tolerable to god,
for to tolerate yourself is not courage,
but the blunt edge of death;
it is not health, it is hardened sin;
it comes not from consolation but from damnation.
I cannot bear the interior horror of my face
without a huge groan in my heart.
So then, I cannot fly from myself,
nor can I look at myself, for I cannot bear myself.

*

But see, it is worse still if I do not look at myself;
for then I am deceived about myself.
O too heavy weight of anguish.
If I look within myself, I cannot bear myself;
if I do not look within myself, I do not know myself.
If I consider myself, what I see terrifies me;
if I do not consider myself, I fall to my damnation.
If I look at myself, it is an intolerable horror;
if I do not look at myself, death is unavoidable.
Evil here, worse there, ill on every side;
but there is too much evil here,
too much that is worse there,
too much ill on every side.
For his very wretched whom his conscience torments,
when he cannot flee from it;
and even more wretched is he
who looks into his own damnation,
when he is not able to avoid it;
very unhappy is he who is horrible in his own eyes;
and more unhappy still will he be
when he undergoes eternal death.
Very wretched is he who is continually afraid
of the filthy horror of himself;
but more wretched still will he be
whom anguish will torture eternally because of his sins.
Evil here, and evil there;
too much here, and too much there.

-Trans. Sister Benedicta Ward, The Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm, pp. 130-131

The Book of Common Prayer 1662:

ALMIGHTY God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, Forgive us all that is past; And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life, To the honour and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Anselm’s prayers as meditations

Image of an Archbishop from Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Auct. D. 2. 6 (12th c)

One thing that my contact with ancient, medieval, Byzantine, and Orthodox Christianity has not done away with is my mistrust of the cult of saints. I am not interested in asking the blessed departed to intercede with God on my behalf. This creates a potential problem for me and other Protestant types in reading St Anselm’s prayers, since the bulk of them are addressed to saints.

Now, the scholarly solution, and one I endorse, is to read these as specimens of Christianity from another age. Ask the texts what they show us about high mediaeval spirituality. Ask also how they interact with St Anselm’s other work, the theology and spirituality of his contemporaries such as his mentor Lanfranc or younger contemporary Hugh of St Victor. I commend that historical task to you always, whenever you read Christian authors from a different time, for it can help bridge the gap and enliven their spirituality (and therefore your own as a result!).

But if we can use the Prayer to Christ as a means to stir up our hearts to Jesus, how can we read the prayers to saints devotionally?

I can think of two ways we can use St Anselm’s prayers to the saints devotionally. One is to use his meditations on theology that are embedded within the prayers as spurs to our own prayers and meditations. The other is to consider the virtues of the saints whom he addresses.

I prefer the first.

When we do so, we realise how stark an awareness of one’s own sin the mediaeval Christian had:

If I look within myself, I cannot bear myself;
if I do not look within myself, I do not know myself.
If I do consider myself, what I see terrifies me;
if I do not consider myself, I fall to my damnation.
If I look at myself, it is an intolerable horror;
if I do not look at myself, death is unavoidable.
Evil here, worse there, ill on every side;
but there is too much evil here,
too much that is worse there,
too much ill on every side. (Prayer to St John the Baptist, trans. B. Ward, p. 130-31)

Such thoughts run through the prayers — one of St Anselm’s concerns is that God is both judge and plaintiff — how can he stand? Condemnation is his lot. This gloomy vision of human sin and wickedness would probably be considered pathological by modern psychology. Maybe it was. Then again, maybe Anselm had it right. Maybe Know Thyself (a theme I’ve discussed before) leads directly to this awareness. And this awareness leads you directly to Christ:

God, whose goodness is not exhausted,
whose mercy is not emptied out,
whose knowledge does not fail,
whose power can effect what you will;
whence shall I ever be able to get back life,
who have thus been driven desperate by my sins?
For if you are angry against sinners,
at least, kind Lord, you are accustomed to give counsel
to those who plead with you.
Teach me, O Lord, whence I ought to hope,
so that I can pray.
For I long to pray to you;
but I neither know how because of my ignorance,
nor am I able to because of my hardness.
And I am forbidden to do it by despair because of my sins. …

Jesus, good Lord,
why did you come down from heaven,
what did you do in the world,
to what end did you give yourself over to death,
unless it was that you might save sinners?
St Paul, what did you teach
when you were passing through the world?
God, and his apostles, and you most of all,
invite us sinners to faith;
you show us this as our only safe refuge.
How then should I not hope, if I believe this,
and ask in this faith?
How can this hope be frustrated in me,
if that faith does not fail me
from which it was born? (Prayer to St Paul, pp. 145-6)

I hope that if you are interested in reading the Prayers and Meditations these meditations of mine may help you use St Anselm to deepen your own devotional life.