Few archbishops of Canterbury have commanded a measure of regard and affection as broad and as varied as the monk who died 900 years ago this April past. Philosophers who remain underwhelmed by the so-called onto-logical argument for the existence of God respect Anselm for his skill in its formulation, in the Proslogion; theologians for his contribution to understanding the atonement, in the Cur Deus Homo (literally ‘Why God human).

Lovers of the Church can see in him one who firmly resisted royal pressure to cede authority. Lovers of unity respect him for his contribution to the ill-fated attempt to bring Eastern and Western Christianity together at the Council of Bari (1098). These are part of the witness of the ‘magnific doctor’, the teacher who tells how great is the Lord.

Time of change

St Anselm (b. 1033) saw huge changes to the intellectual climate of Europe and also to its emergence from being something of backwater. Gifted with a creative and original mind, he expressed his thoughts in Latin of great beauty, which can often conceal the passion of its author. Born of a noble family at Aosta, in the County of Savoy, he did not find his feet very quickly.

Leaving Italy aged 23, without anything going for him, he drifted until he landed up at the Benedictine abbey at Bee, possibly attracted by the reputation of Lanfranc, who would be his predecessor at Canterbury.

After dallying, he entered this newly reformed community and for ten years he was a happy and devout monk, teaching and learning, swimming in the element he never really left, even when he was weighed down by administration and by the politics which went with the see of St Augustine.

Anselm clashed with both the kings he served. William Rufus and Henry I had both inherited a view of the relation of king and church which derived from their father in Normandy, and which Lanfranc had implemented without demur in the years after the Norman conquest. The role of the king presupposed a church which was something of a client rather than an equal; this was not the view of the new style papacy, at least since Nicholas II.

Anselm, who is not at home with the new way, gets on well with Rufus – to a point – but goes into exile on three occasions, continuing to advise and to pray, but always distressed at the hurt which was being caused. For him, the life of the monastery according to the Rule of Benedict gives the model for the world outside, and to this he holds. Then as now Benedict has something important to say.

Broad influence

It is hard to say which of his ideas was most influential. It was his prayers and his meditations which lasted in the middle ages and it is easy to see why: prayers to the saints, with vehement protestations of sin, abound. What moves Anselm above all, however, is the transcendent beauty of God, of his order, justice and goodness. This lies behind the God than which nothing greater can be thought (Proslogion) and behind the God who does honour to his creature in becoming incarnate in the Cur Deus Homo.

The feudal imagery which provides the concepts for this great work can be seen as a weakness. What it does do, however, is to hold together our desperate need for a saviour, but also the great dignity of humanity, something which some treatments of the atonement fail to do.

Lanfranc chided him for failing to give references to the Scriptures in his writing; this is because he, good monk that he is, has chewed the cud of the Scriptures and digested them. Through meditation, these words lead us to the broader use of the mind and so to God. Thus the Monologion and the Proslogion contain arguments about God, but they are mediations to lead us to understanding, to a deeper faith; although his famous phrase fides quaerens intellectum (‘faith seeking understanding’) was used in the context of what we might call philosophic faiths, it is justly used of the search for understanding of the implications of Christian teaching.

For him, obedience is at the heart of the Christian way, which involves a renunciation of the things and attractions of this world, for the sake of that love which is God.

Traditionalist innovator

Anselm is at one level a supremely attractive figure. Yet this is one who was of his time; he doubted that many could be saved and was wont to cite ‘Many are called, few are chosen’.

In his book on the incarnation he reminds his dialogue partner notto underestimate the weight of sin, nondum considerasti quanti ponderis sit peccatum. His pessimism about the lot of humankind is not fashionable now, but is perhaps a good warning against the temptations posed by sub-Christian universalism.

Anselm was an innovator in matters of theology, if traditional in his devotion – he did not like the newfangled craze of going on crusade, for example – and exemplary in his pastoral care and obedience.

His obedience took him to something he did not want, namely the See of Canterbury and to bear a life in many ways burdensome, for the sake of Christ and his Church. He never ceased to promote a high – a dizzily high view – of friendship, written in highly romantic terms ( the most dated of his writings?), but one which rested on a friendship given by God to those who surrender in obedience and find freedom and life in so doing.

This is not dated, this is something of transcendent beauty, a beauty greater than that which can be conceived.