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.

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The richness of St Anselm’s prayers

I am slowly reading The Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm (in Sr Benedicta Ward’s translation), as you may have surmised. I am trying to read them as St Anselm recommends, and not simply blitz through them (as I do so much of what I read). The prayers are a lot longer than what we are used to. This is because they are not meant to be prayed through from start to finish in a single go. And they are not meant for public worship, either.

They are meant to stir up our hearts and draw us to our own prayers, enrichening our own encounter with God and providing us with fuel. St Anselm says you can start anywhere you please and use them to good effect.

St Anselm’s prayers are rich and sometimes ornate. But they help show us an internal world we may miss if we’re not careful. I mentioned this once before here, but we have a tendency to view St Anselm only as a pre-Scholastic, or even a Scholastic, perhaps as a logic-chopper, as the primus inventor of the ontological argument for God and the theory of penal substitutionary atonement. Given how few people are convinced by the former and how many people are currently rejecting the latter, this view of the man and his achievements misses out so much.

Related to this is a mistaken view that ‘western’ Christianity is not mystical or poetic.

Another mistaken view is that systematic theology, the logically-defined articulation of doctrine, the application of reason to matters of the divine is inimical to the true life of the Spirit. This is something that annoys me, given that our ancient theologians who wrote theology in this way were very often ‘mystics’ or ‘contemplatives’ as well — St Augustine (as I’ve blogged), St Gregory of Nyssa, St Gregory of Nazianzus, and others! And many ‘mystics’ embraced the catholic Church’s articulations of doctrine, such as Richard Rolle, St Bernard, William of St-Thierry, St Hildegard, St Thomas of Kempen, St Catherine of Siena, St Francis of Assisi.

Anyway, these are the prayers of a soul that clearly had a rich love for and encounter with God. St Anselm seems to have to use his whole life for God — thus, the rational part of him writes the logic and theology, the affective part of his soul writes these prayers, and his moral self seeks to live rightly in the midst of the Investiture Controversy.

I encourage you to use these prayers yourself so that your own prayers can be kindled to a greater love for God.

Here’s some St Anselm to close us off:

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.

-The Prayer to Christ (trans. Ward, p. 94)

Liturgy and Scripture (reflections on a phrase of Sr Benedicta Ward)

In the thorough Introduction to her translation of St Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations, Sr Benedicta Ward discusses the relationship of the liturgy to St Anselm’s works. At one point, she writes:

here … it is impossible to distinguish between the influence of the Bible and that of the liturgy, which after all is composed almost exclusively of biblical material. (p. 34)

This is a noteworthy statement. It is certainly true of the Book of Common Prayer — as a meme I encountered a while back noted, ‘Ever notice that the Bible quotes the Prayer Book so much?’ Indeed, I have spent a lot of my life happily discovering bits of liturgy hiding away in my Bible readings.

Now, praying a liturgy assembled from bits of Scripture is not the same thing as sustained study of Scripture and meditation upon its application to our own lives. Nonetheless, it strikes me as good practice.

It also reminds of an oft-repeated falsehood. Someone (indeed, employed by an Anglican church) said that neither the BAS nor the BCP would do. I asked what would be better. Answer: the Bible.

Well, pull out BCP! Pull out your Missal! Pull out the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom! Pore through the Liturgy of the Hours. Not only do the services of church contain space for reading Scripture, they are also full of Scripture, as we make the words of God our own.

Anyway, I have little to take away. But if you find yourself praying a traditional liturgy, be aware that you are soaking yourself in Scripture in a particular way. Thank the Holy Spirit for the grace of the liturgists and let the Word dwell in you richly.

More St Anselm

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

This past week in Bible study, our minister arranged a sort of potpourri study. We studied two short Scripture passages and, unexpectedly, a prayer of St Anselm (another of which I blogged a couple of weeks ago)!

Lord, because you have made me,
I owe you the whole of my love;
because you have redeemed me,
I owe you the whole of myself;
because you have promised so much,
I owe you my whole being.

Moreover, I owe you as much more love than myself as you are greater than I,*
for whom you gave yourself
and to whom you promised yourself.
I pray you, Lord,
make me taste by love what I taste by knowledge;
let me know by love what I know by understanding.

I owe you more than my whole self,
but I have no more,
and by myself I cannot render the whole of it to you.
Draw me to you, Lord, in the fullness of your love.
I am wholly yours by creation;
make me all yours, too, in love.

This comes from Meditation 3, ‘On Human Redemption’. Thematically, it is linked to the previous Anselmian prayer — that we are called to love God with a most superexcellent love, but our love for him is paltry.

I like the close of the third section as printed here, ‘Let me taste by love what I taste by knowledge; let me know by love what I know by understanding.’ The Latin is elegant:

Fac precor, domine, me gustare per amorem quod gusto per me reddere totum. Sentiam per affectum quod sentio per intellectum. (ed. Schmitt, vol. 3, p. 91)

St Anselm is, of course, famous for the motto, ‘Fides quaerens intellectum’, faith seeking understanding, adapted from St Augustine (as I’ve blogged on before). Here we see it turned a bit on its head — he is seeking the union of the mind with the heart. For those of us who study theology, whether professionally or personally, these lines are of vital importance for our spiritual health, I’d think.

One of my favourite prayers (from St Anselm)

At the back of my Book of Common Prayer I have this Post-It note:

It says, for those with difficulty reading text of images:

Hope of my heart, strength of my soul, help of my weakness, by your powerful kindness complete what in my powerless weakness I attempt. My life, the end to which I strive, although I have not yet attained to love you as I ought, still let my desire for you be as great as my love ought to be. (trans. Benedicta Ward from The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm)

I cannot tell you where in St Anselm’s prayers and meditations this is to be found. I found it originally for Evensong one year when I was precenting and it was the feast of this Archbishop of Canterbury (although he wrote this when still a monk at Bec).

Nevertheless, it has been a go-to prayer of mine ever since, and I am glad that I stuck this Post-It in the back of my prayer book — the expectation was a single use, but grace decided otherwise. I hope it can similarly inspire you.

Do you have any favourite prayers? I’m thinking of sharing some others here over the coming weeks.

In honour of Anselm’s Feast, my review of The Major Works

The Major WorksThe Major Works by Anselm of Canterbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Contents of the volume are listed at the end of my review.

Most people probably read this book either for the Proslogion or Cur Deus Homo. I bought it for both, but with a bit more interest in the latter. I discovered, however, that I prefer the Monologion to the Proslogion. The ontological argument may be one of Anselm’s most original contributions to philosophy, but I find it less convincing than the cosmological argument, and he has many very interesting arguments to make and things to say elsewhere throughout this volume.

This book is well worth any reader’s time and attention. Translated by a team of scholars, it was edited by Brian Davies and G R Evans (credited as Gillian). You can read my review of Evans’ Law and Theology in the Middle Ages on Goodreads. Different translators take different tacks, so Anselm’s voice is not uniform throughout. One choice I found particularly repellent was the over-use of the adverbial just, especially in an author who so frequently uses the Latin adjective iustus. The introductory material is very helpful, but every text is introduced individually in the general introduction at the beginning, so you may forget the introduction to a text by the time you reach.

The treatises are arranged in chronological order, which I like, as an intellectual historian. You can thus see Anselm’s thought over time.

Any of these treatises is a valuable experience in learning how to think. I found ‘On Truth’ particularly challenging as I worked through with the Student what the Teacher had to say on the subject. If you want to learn how to think, this book is a good place to start if you actually take your time and work at it. Some may think, ‘Why read a treatise about truth? Don’t I know what truth is, anyway?’ Well, do you?

As far as the theology goes, even if you not a Christian or a theist, or if you are a Christian who rejects, say, satisfaction theory in the atonement, these works are worth your time, not just because they are an exercise in the rigour of thought and the training of the mind but because Anselm is a major theological figure with a powerful legacy. We cannot simply ignore him if we disagree with him.

Read this book. It not an easy read, but it is a worthwhile one.

Contents

Letter to Lanfranc
Monologion
Proslogion
Pro Insipiente by Gaunilo and the Reply to Gaunilo
De Grammatico
On Truth
On Free Will
On the Fall of the Devil
On the Incarnation of the Word
Why God Became Man
On the Virgin Conception and Original Sin
On the Procession of the Holy Spirit
De Concordia
Philosophical Fragments

View all my reviews

Some Benedictines

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

Now, if you’re excited about the Rule of St Benedict, besides applying the lessons about prayer, community, and humility to your own life, you may be wondering where to turn next. After all, RB is pretty short. Where else within that tradition might one go? Well, of course, the fountainhead of all Christian tradition is never to be neglected; that is — read your Bible! (Like a Benedictine?1) Another alternative that I heartily endorse is to read St Benedict’s reading list and contemporaries — so John Cassian, The Rule of the Master, St Basil of Caesarea, as well as the likes of St Columba, Boethius, Cassiodorus, Julianus Pomerius.

The alternative I propose today, however, is to consider the tradition that flows forth from RB and those who live according to the Rule. This embraces more than those with O.S.B. (Ordo Sancti Benedicti) after their name, but also those who pre-date the organised congregations of Benedictine monachism as well as the other orders, such as Cistercians, who follow St Benedict’s Rule.

So, some Benedictines:

The Venerable St Bede (672-735). Bede was a monk here in the Northeast of England, at the monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow, spending the last five decades of his life at Jarrow. Most famously, he wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English People; well worth a read. In Penguin’s The Age of Bede, you can also read his Lives of the Abbots and his Lives of St Cuthbert (besides an unrelated text, The Voyage of Brendan!). If Benedictine biblical reading is your desire, he compiled/composed various commentaries, such as on Genesis,  Revelation; from Cistercian Publications, you can get the following in English: the catholic epistles, the Gospels, the letters of St Paul, and Acts. He wrote other biblical studies as well as a range of writings on computus and chronology. He is a Benedictine worth knowing.

Blessed Alcuin of York (735-804). The great Carolingian scholar from England wrote widely and helped revise the text of the Vulgate Bible. I’ve read a number of his prayers in Sister Benedicta’s anthology Christ Beside Me, as well as some of his verse. I’d like to read more, such as his letters.

St Anselm of Canterbury and Bec (1033-1109). St Anselm, from Aosta in Italy, spent his monastic career at Bec in Normandy before being elected Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093. He is a towering figure of medieval theology whose devotional work reveals the spiritual heart of all he does. My acquaintance with his writings is from The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm, which you can read in a translation by Sister Benedicta Ward, and Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, including his MonologionProslogionWhy God Became a Man (or, Why the God-Man? — Cur Deus Homo), and others of penetrating philosophical and theological insight.

St Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). St Hildegard is a famous mystic and female writer of the Latin Middle Ages. She was an abbess who had episcopal authorisation to preach and who corresponded with the famous churchmen of her age. She had visions from a young age which are recorded in her Scivias; she also wrote abundantly on a great many other topics and composed some beautiful music. The Scivias and the music are my main encounters with St Hildegard. Look her up on Spotify.

Cistercians! A great entryway into High Medieval spirituality is The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century, translated for Penguin by Pauline Matarasso. This includes selections from Stephen Harding, Bernard of Clairvaux, Aelred of Rievaulx, William of St Thierry, Guerric of Igny, and more. Worth your time.

St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). St Bernard is considered by Cistercians as the Last of the Fathers. Besides the anthology above, I’ve read from his Homilies on the Song of Songs. So much of St Bernard is so good, and so much exists, it is hard to know where else to point.

Jean Leclercq (1911-1993). Dom Jean Leclercq OSB was a scholar-monk, like de Vogué, of the highest calibre. I cannot recommend too highly The Love of Learning and the Desire for God.

Thomas Merton (1915-1968). Trappists are Cistercians of the Strict Observance, and Thomas Merton is probably the most famous of them. His posthumous The Inner Experience from early this millennium had a strong impact on me, and many speak highly of New Seeds of Contemplation. I also found some random selections from his memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain challenging and inspiring (I found a copy lying around my parents’ house while in undergrad and dipped in and out unsystematically).

Adalbert de Vogué (1924-2011). Dom Adalbert de Vogué OSB was an academic scholar-monk who wrote extensively on the monastic tradition. For our purposes, I recommend the English translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict: A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary.

Important Benedictines of one order or another whose works I’ve not read: Benedict of Aniane (the second Benedict; I skimmed his list of monastic rules once), Hrabanus Maurus  St Peter Damian, St Odo of Cluny, Blessed Peter the Venerable, Gilbert of Hoyland, John of Ford, Gertrud the Great of Helfta. Once I’ve read some of his theology, Lanfranc of Bec/Canterbury may also be recommended on this blog.

In closing, one reason why we should concern ourselves with St Benedict’s Rule is not, perhaps, that it is the greatest or the most original monastic text. It probably is not. However, a rich tradition of theology and spirituality flows from it to our own day. This is reason enough to get to know it.


1. Personally, I’ve not read any books devoted solely to Lectio divina, but Enzo Bianchi, Lectio Divina: From God’s Word to Our Lives has been recommended, and I like the look of Duncan Robertson, Lectio Divina: The Medieval Experience of Reading