Anselm of Canterbury, Kind-hearted Theologian
Romans 5:1-11, Matthew 11:25-30
Do you ever wonder how you will be remembered after you are gone? Have you ever given any thought to how you want to be remembered? Someone has said that what people will remember about us is not so much what we said and did, but how they felt when they were in our presence.
Today we remember one of the Church’s great theologians, Anselm of Canterbury. Anselm was born in northern Italy in 1033. He was intellectually curious, but also devout. At the age of 17, he entered the Benedictine abbey of Bec in Normandy and gradually grew in reputation and status until he became its Abbot. After a long and memorable tenure as Abbot of Bec, Anselm was pressured to become the Archbishop of Canterbury when he was about 60 years old, a position he embraced reluctantly but in which he was very effective.
Anselm is best remembered as a brilliant theologian, and primarily for two important works:
He was an exponent of what was called the “ontological” argument for the existence of God and posited that God is “that than which nothing greater can be thought.” Since the greatest thing that can be thought must have existence as one of its properties, Anselm argued that God exists and is not dependent upon the material world for verification.
His other most significant work, Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Human), was an attempt to understand the mystery of salvation in terms borrowed from the social and political values of his time. His teaching became known as the “doctrine of atonement” and though his arguments are less persuasive today, they have had a tremendous impact over the centuries. In both of these works, Anselm demonstrated that reason could be applied to Christian faith.
What set Anselm apart as a theologian was his conviction that the task of theology is “Faith Seeking Understanding.” Theological understanding, for Anselm, was ultimately rooted in the gift of Faith, not in unassisted reason. “I do not seek to understand (in order) that I may believe,” he wrote, “but I believein order that I may understand.” “Unless I first believe,” he maintained, “I shall not understand.”
We know Anselm as a faithful monk, a wise and compassionate abbot, a defender of the Church and its faith, and as a brilliant theologian. But what might be best remembered by those who knew him was his personal character and charisma. As abbot, he led by loving exhortation and wise example rather than by punishment or harsh discipline. He was warm and generous towards his monks, always making time to hear and deal with their concerns. He possessed a graciousness that inspired them to live beyond the routines of monastic observance. His warmth and sincere devotion kindled their love for God and made them better persons. One of his monks, Eadmer, authored a biography that described Anselm in these words:
“And so, while he was a father to those who were well, he was a mother to the sick: or rather, he was both father and mother to the sick and the sound alike. Hence any of them with any private trouble hastened to unburden himself to him, as if to the gentlest of mothers, and this was particularly the case with earnest and zealous young men.”
(The Life of St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury by Eadmer, ed. R. W. Southern [London: Oxford University Press, 1962])
So how will you and I be remembered? Will we be remembered for our intellectual gifts or for our accomplishments? Will we be remembered for what we have achieved or for our “success” in a particular field? Will people, after we are gone, recall our words and deeds – or will they recall what kind of person we have been, and how they felt when they were in our presence?
We are inspired today by the example of Anselm of Canterbury, a brilliant thinker whose warmth and tenderness touched and changed the lives of those who knew him.
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