St. Anselm – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

Br. Geoffrey TristramMatthew 11:25-30

Nestling in a verdant Norman valley, surrounded by meadows and apple orchards, between Rouen and Lisieux, stands the famous Benedictine abbey of Le Bec Hellouin.  In my early twenties I would often go to Le Bec for my retreats.  I remember the first thing you would see in the distance – the tall, beautiful, creamy stone church tower of St. Nicholas, welcoming you into the valley.  I loved the singing of the monks, I loved my conversations with the abbot about monasticism, and about my vocation.

Le Bec Hellouin also has very close historical ties with the Church of England, and in particular with Canterbury Cathedral.  The reason for this is primarily because not one, but two of its abbots went on to be Archbishop of Canterbury.  First, Lanfranc, and then in the year 1093, Anselm, whom we remember today.

Anselm was a Benedictine monk, but was also one of the greatest theological thinkers of all time.  He was a pioneer of scholasticism, and he articulated one of the classic philosophical arguments for the existence of God, usually described as the ‘ontological argument.’  And then he went on, in his famous work, ‘Cur Deus homo’ or ‘why God became man,’ to propose one of the classic models of the atonement, generally known as the ‘satisfaction theory.’

But Anselm was, first and foremost, a monk.  He was a man of prayer and deep spirituality.  At the heart of the monastic life, at Le Bec Hellouin, and here at the monastery, is the daily time of solitary prayer when each brother engages Scripture through that powerful reading and reflecting known as Lectio Divina.  We brothers do this every morning from 6:30-7:30.

Coming to Scripture prayerfully and approaching it with the eyes and heart of faith, break open Scripture in a rather wonderful way, and God can speak words of truth which can be life changing.  Our Rule describes this experience in these words from chapter 20.  “It is the Spirit dwelling within us who brings the revelation of Scripture into a vital encounter with our inmost selves, and brings to birth new meanings and life.”

It was this method of approaching Scripture and doing theology which underpinned Anselm’s extraordinary erudition.  He described it in three words, which are probably the most famous words he ever wrote.  He called it, ‘Fides quaerens intellectum’ or ‘faith seeking understanding.’  He goes on to explain, “I don’t seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order that I may understand.”  He goes even further to say, “Unless I first believe, I shall not understand.”

It is this mystery that God can speak words of deep truth and wisdom to the simplest and uneducated of souls who believe and trust in him, that the Gospel chosen for today expresses.  In Matthew Chapter 11:25 we read, “I thank you Father, Lord of Heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent, and have revealed them to infants.”  This text was taken rather too literally at the time of the Reformation, and reformed clergy and theologians would wander the English countryside in an excess of anti-intellectualism, and seek out uneducated country folk in the field, read them a piece of Scripture and ask their advice as to its interpretation!

That, of course, is not what Anselm meant, by faith seeking understanding!

In my own experience it’s more to do with bringing a problem or a decision to be made, before God in prayer.  I can go over a problem again and again in my mind, like a dog with a bone, looking at it from all sides – looking at both sides of the argument – and still feel no nearer to the solution.  Or, I can let it rest, and spend time with God in prayer – focus on God and not the problem.  Rest in God, allow yourself to, as it were, bathe in the spirit

And what can happen – and it has happened may times for me, is that suddenly, rather obliquely, I just kind of know, I understand, I see the way forward.  As our Rule puts it, “the Spirit dwelling within us, brings to birth new meaning.”  That is “faith seeking understanding.”

What I’ve just described very inadequately was described very beautifully by the poet George Herbert in his sonnet “Prayer (1).”  It’s rather a startling poem, in which image is piled upon image, as he tries to convey what prayer is about.  Prayer can be dramatic, peaceful, angry, drab, beautiful.  But right at the end of the sonnet, after his time with God in prayer, he ends with these haunting words – “something understood.”  For me, that’s absolutely spot on.  Just a profound inner knowing.  I don’t know how it happened – it wasn’t because of my powers of intellect to analyze a problem.  I didn’t understand, but now I do.  “Something understood” – “faith seeking understanding.”

I wonder if you have experienced that in your own spiritual life – with St. Anselm and George Herbert?  It is just, simply, but wonderfully, miraculously, the fruit of faithful prayer.  The gift of a loving father to us who wait in faith.  The gift of understanding.  “Something understood.”

Praise be to God.”  Amen.

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  1. Sharon Stanfll on March 3, 2021 at 12:58

    I envy and admire you all. I find it impossible to dig into scripture in a continuing fashion. But perhaps if I just follow in your wake, I will make a little progess.

  2. Carol Carlson on March 3, 2021 at 10:42

    You have joined two wonderful and problematic figures in our tradition today, Br. Geoffrey. In my humble opinion, as we now say, Anselm’s ‘understanding’ of the work of Jesus owes far more to feudal conceptions of ‘honor’ and retribution than to anything related to the gospel; and it has probably done at least as much damage as good to the preaching of that gospel in succeeding ages. (Our modern angry fundamentalism is its direct descendant.) And Herbert’s glorious poems come from a sensibility with a good deal of upper-class English arrogance about his ‘humble’ calling and its duties. But reflection on these two men, who spent their lives, like us, seeking both faith and understanding, and doing the best they could within the strictures of their age and situation, does us good, and puts us in touch (one hopes) with the limitations of our own ‘understanding’ in our time. Thank you.

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