St Anselm of Canterbury: “Thy face, O Lord, will I seek”

From the Editor’s Desk (Tuesday, 04-21-2015, Gaudium Press) St Anselm of Canterbury , born in Aosta, Kingdom of Burgundy in 1033 and died in Canterbury, England, in 1109, aged 75, was a Benedictine monk, philosopher, and prelate of the Church, who held the office of Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109.

Called the founder of scholasticism, he has been a major influence in Western theology and is famous as the originator of the ontological argument for the existence of God and the satisfaction theory of atonement. He is celebrated on April 21 If William the Conqueror in 1066[1] deprived the English nation of its liberty and of many of its possessions, he was responsible also for bringing into England from various parts of Europe eminent men who were to serve the country well as leaders in church and state.

Among the great churchmen were the two archbishops of Canterbury, Lanfranc[2] and his successor, St. Anselm. The latter was born about the year 1033 of noble parents at Aosta, in northern Italy. Under the influence of a pious mother, at fifteen Anselm asked to be admitted to a monastery, but the abbot, fearing the father’s displeasure, refused to accept him. Thus thwarted, the young man for a time lost his interest in religion and lived the usual carefree life of a young nobleman. There was never any sympathy between him and his stern father, whose harshness was mainly the cause of his leaving home after his mother’s death. He studied for a time in Burgundy, then went on to the school of Bec in Normandy, which was under the direction of the renowned Lanfranc.


On his father’s death Anselm consulted his superior as to whether he should return to Italy and manage the estates he had inherited, or remain in France and enter the Church. Lanfranc, fearing to influence unduly his young disciple and friend, referred him to Maurillus, archbishop of Rouen, and on his advice Anselm, then twenty-seven, became a monk. Three years later, when Lanfranc was appointed abbot of St. Stephen’s at nearby Caen, Anselm succeeded him as prior at Bec. There was some criticism of this rapid promotion, but he soon won the allegiance of the other monks, including that of his bitterest rival. This was an undisciplined young man named Osbern, whom Anselm gradually persuaded to lead a more serious life and whom he nursed tenderly in his last illness.

Always an independent thinker, Anselm also became the most learned theologian of his generation, and as a metaphysician and a mystic surpassed all Latin Christian writers since St. Augustine Not content with collecting and rewording the books of earlier Church Fathers, he pursued an independent line of reasoning. His predecessors for the most part had assumed without argument the fundamental principle that the God whom they loved and worshiped had real existence. Although Anselm never doubted, he nevertheless wished to satisfy his mind by rational proof that what he already believed was true. “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.” While prior at Bec, he wrote his , in which he restated all such logical arguments as he could find in earlier writings to prove that God is. Then, still unsatisfied, he devised an original proof of his own, and explained it in his . To some of his successors it was convincing, to others not, but these and other of his works gave a great stimulus to fresh, logical thinking and arguing in the theological schools of the period, the movement known as medieval scholasticism.

With regard to the education of the young, Anselm held very liberal views. To an abbot who was lamenting the poor success of his efforts, he said: “If you planted a tree in your garden, and bound it down on all sides, so that it could not spread years branches, what kind of a tree would it prove when in after years you gave it room to spread? Would it not be useless, with its boughs all twisted and tangled? . . . But that is how you treat your boys . . . cramping them with fears and blows and debarring them from the enjoyment of any freedom.”

In 1078, after serving as prior for fifteen years, Anselm was chosen abbot of Bec. The office entailed visits to England, where the abbey owned a great deal of property and where his old teacher Lanfranc, now archbishop of Canterbury, was upholding the rights of the Church against the successful and arrogant King William I. Anselm was received in England with honor, even by the King himself. The English monk Eadmers Anselm’s biographer, writes that he had a winning way of giving instruction, pointed with homely illustrations which even the simplest could understand.

Anselm accepted an invitation to go to England in 1092 to advise Hugh, Earl of Chester, about a monastery he proposed building. He had hesitated to go, for there was a rumor that he himself was to succeed Lanfranc, who had died three years before. The business affairs of Bec and of the proposed new monastery detained him in England for five months. Meanwhile the see of Canterbury was being kept vacant by King William Rufus. It was his custom to refuse to nominate or to give permission to elect new bishops, in order to retain the episcopal revenues for himself. In reply to requests for a nomination to Canterbury, he swore that neither Anselm nor anyone else should be archbishop there so long as he lived. A violent illness which brought him to death’s door frightened Rufus into changing his mind. When he recovered, he nominated Anselm archbishop of Canterbury, issued a proclamation against various abuses, and promised that in future he would govern according to law.

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Anselm was reluctant to accept the honor, pleading ill-health, age, and unfitness for the management of affairs. The bishops declared that if he declined, all that was wrong in Church and State might not unfairly be laid to his account. In William’s presence they forced the pastoral staff into his unwilling hands, and then bore him away to the church, where they sang a solemn< Te Deum>. Even then he refused to undertake the charge, unless in a dispute then current over the papacy William would acknowledge Urban II as legitimate Pope and would promise to return to the see of Canterbury all the lands which had been taken from it since the days of Lanfranc. Matters were at length adjusted, and Anselm was consecrated at Canterbury on December 4, 1093.

But the heart of William Rufus had not really changed. Soon after the new archbishop had been installed, the king, plotting to wrest the duchy of Normandy from his brother Robert, began making demands on his subjects for money and supplies. Not con. tent with Anselm’s offer of five hundred marks, a large sum in those days, William, at the instigation of some of his courtiers, called for a thousand, as the price of the nomination to the see. Naturally Anselm refused absolutely to yield to such an extortionate demand. Instead, he urged the King to fill vacant offices in the abbeys and to sanction the convening of church synods to correct flagrant abuses among the clergy and laity. The king replied angrily that his abbeys were no more to be wrenched away from him than his crown, and from then on he worked to deprive Anselm of his see.

He succeeded in detaching from obedience to Canterbury a number of time-serving bishops, but when he bade his lay barons condemn their archbishop’s behavior, he was met with a flat refusal. The unscrupulous king even tried to inveigle Pope Urban II into deposing Anselm by a promise of annual tribute. The legate from Rome who came charged to tell William that his request could not be granted brought the pallium for Anselm, which made his position unassailable. Convinced, however, that the king was resolved to oppress the Church unless the clergy would surrender its treasures, Anselm asked permission to leave the country to consult the Holy See. Twice refused, he was finally told that he might go if he liked, but that if he did his revenues would be confiscated and he would never be allowed to return.

Nevertheless, Anselm, now about sixty-three years old, set out from Canterbury on the long, hard trip to Rome in October, 1097. He was dressed as a pilgrim, and was accompanied by Eadmer and another monk. At Rome the Pope not only assured him of his protection but wrote to King William to demand that he reinstate Anselm in all his rights and possessions. Meanwhile Anselm had found a quiet retreat in a sunny Calabrian monastery, and there he remained to complete his book, , or , in which he explains the wisdom, justice, and necessity of the Incarnation. Despairing of doing any good at Canterbury and convinced that he could serve God better in a private capacity, he now asked the Pope to relieve him of his office. The Pope refused, but as it was obviously impossible at the moment for him to return to England, he allowed Anselm to remain in southern Italy.

A council had been summoned to meet at Bari in 1098, for the purpose of bringing about a reconciliation between the Greek and Roman Churches. Urban invited Anselm to attend this gathering. The Greeks, as expected, raised the question of the Procession of the Holy Ghost,[3] and there followed a protracted discussion that was bitter on both sides. Suddenly the Pope cried out, “Anselm, our father and master, where are you?” Anselm went to the Pope’s side at once, and the next day he delivered a convincing discourse which put an end to the dispute. The council then proceeded to denounce the king for simony, for the persecution of Anselm, oppression of the Church, and personal depravity. An anathema was prevented only by the entreaties of Anselm, who persuaded the Pope to confine himself to a threat of excommunication to be made against William at an impending synod at Rome, unless he first made satisfaction. The execution of the sentence of excommunication was postponed.

Back in France, Anselm stayed for a time in Lyons, writing his treatise< On Original Sin>. At the death of William Rufus he returned to England, to be welcomed by the new king, Henry I, and the people. But difficulties arose when Henry desired that Anselm should receive a fresh investiture from him and perform the customary act of homage for his see. Since the recent synod had forbidden lay investiture to cathedral posts and abbeys, Anselm would not comply. This matter was therefore referred to the Pope.

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In the meanwhile England was stirred by rumors that Duke Robert of Normandy was about to invade the island, to contest his younger brother’s claim to the crown. Many of the barons, who had sworn allegiance to Henry, now joined Robert when he landed with an army at Portsmouth. Eager to obtain the support of the Church, Henry made lavish promises, while Anselm on his side did his utmost to prevent an English rebellion. Not content to supply his own required quota of armed men for Henry’s forces, he denounced the barons for their treachery, and finally launched an excommunication against Robert as an invader, thus compelling him to come to terms with the king and leave England. Henry owed this victory in no small part to Anselm, yet when the danger was past he renewed his claim to the right of nominating and investing English bishops. Anselm steadily refused to consecrate bishops nominated by the king unless they were canonically elected; the divergence between them grew ever wider. Anselm set out once more to lay these questions before the Pope, while the king sent a deputy to present his own case. Pope Paschal II confirmed his predecessor’s rulings; at this the king sent word to Anselm forbidding his return as long as he continued recalcitrant, and informing him of the confiscation of his revenues. After a rumor reached the king that he was about to be excommunicated, there was some kind of reconciliation in Normandy, at which Henry restored to Anselm the revenues of his see. Later, in England, at a royal council of clergy and barons in 1107, the king formally renounced the right of investiture to bishoprics and abbeys, while Anselm, with the Pope’s approval, agreed that no man should be debarred from consecration for having done homage to the king, and that English bishops should be free to do homage for their temporal possessions. Henry kept this pact, and now came to regard the archbishop so highly that in the following year he appointed Anselm regent during his own absence in France.

Anselm’s health had long been failing. He died the next year, 1109, on Wednesday of Holy Week, among his monks at Canterbury. His body, it is said, still lies in the Cathedral church there, in the chapel now known as St. Anselm’s, on the southwest side of the high altar. Throughout his life he displayed a sympathy and sincerity which won the affection of persons of all classes. He was among the first to take a public stand against the slave trade: in 1102, at a church council in St. Peter’s church, Westminster, he obtained the passage of a resolution against the practice of selling men like cattle. In< Dante’s Divine Comedy>, this noble churchman appears as one of the spirits of light and power in the lofty sphere of the Sun. For his scholarship and vision Anselm has been declared a Doctor of the Church.


I. yourself for a little space from the turmoil of your thoughts. Come, cast aside your burdensome cares, and put away your laborious pursuits. For a little while give your time to God, and rest in Him for a little. Enter the inner chamber of your mind, shut out all things save God and whatever may aid you in seeking God; and having barred the door of your chamber, seek Him. Speak now, O my heart, O my whole heart, speak now and say to your God: My face hath sought Thee: Thy face, O Lord, will I seek….

Be it mine to look up to Thy light, even from afar, even from the depths. Teach me to seek Thee and reveal Thyself to me when I seek Thee, for I cannot seek Thee except Thou teach me, nor find Thee, except Thou reveal Thyself. Let me seek Thee in longing, let me long for Thee in seeking; let me find Thee in love and love Thee in finding. Lord I acknowledge and thank Thee that Thou hast created me in this Thine image, in order that I may be mindful of Thee, conceive of Thee and love Thee. But that image has been so consumed and wasted away by vices, and obscured by the smoke of wrong doing that it cannot achieve that for which it was created except Thou renew it and create it anew.

I do not endeavor, Lord, to penetrate Thy heights, for in no wise do I compare my understanding with Thine; but I long to understand in some degree Thy truth which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe-that unless I believe I shall not understand.

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II. And so, Lord, do Thou, who dost give understanding to faith, give me, so far as Thou knowest it to be profitable, to understand that Thou art as we believe, and that Thou art what we believe. And we believe that Thou art a being than whom nothing greater can be conceived. Or is there no such being, since the fool hath said in his heart, there is no God? (Psalms xiii, I.) But at least this same fool, when he hears of this being of whom I speak-a being than whom nothing greater can be conceived-understands what he hears and what he understands is in his understanding, although he does not understand it to exist.

For it is one thing to conceive an object as in the understanding, and another to understand that the object exists. When a painter first conceives what he will afterwards paint he has it in his understanding but does not yet understand it to exist, because he has not yet painted it. But after he has finished the picture, he both has it in his understanding and understands that it exists, because he has painted it.

Hence even the fool knows that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For when he hears of it, he understands it, and whatever is understood exists in the understanding. But assuredly that than which nothing greater can be conceived cannot exist in the understanding alone. For suppose it exists in the understanding alone, then it can be conceived to exist in reality, which is greater….

III. And assuredly it exists so truly that it cannot be conceived not to exist. For it is possible to conceive of a being which cannot be conceived as non-existing; and it is greater than one which can be conceived as non-existing. Hence if that than which nothing greater can be conceived can be conceived as non-existing, it is not that than which nothing greater can be conceived. But this is an irreconcilable contradiction. There is then so truly a being than which nothing greater can be conceived to exist that it cannot even be conceived as non-existent. And this being Thou art, O Lord.
So truly, therefore, dost Thou exist, O Lord my God, that Thou canst not be conceived as non-existent, and rightly. For if a mind could conceive of a being better than Thou, the creature would rise above its Creator, which is utterly absurd.
XVI…. O supreme and unapproachable light, O holy and blessed Trinity, how far Thou art from me who am so near to Thee! How far art Thou removed from my vision, although I am so near to Thine! Everywhere Thou art wholly present and I see Thee not. In Thee I move and in Thee I have my being and cannot come to Thee. Thou art within me and about me and I feel Thee not….

XXIV. But now, my soul, arouse and lift up all Thy understanding and conceive so far as Thou canst what is the character and how great is that good. For if individual goods are delectable, conceive earnestly how delectable is that good which contains the pleasantness of all goods; not such as we have known in created objects but as different as the Creator from the creature. For if created life is good, how good is the creative life! If salvation given us is a joy, how joyful is the salvation which has given all salvation! If wisdom in knowledge of the created world is lovely, how lovely is the wisdom that created all things from nothing! Finally, if there are many great delights in delectable things, what and how great is the delight in Him who made these delectable things!…

XXVI…. I long, O God, to know Thee, to love Thee, that I may rejoice in Thee. And if I cannot attain to full joy in this life, may I at least advance from day to day until that joy shall come to me in full….


1 William the Conqueror had the sanction of Pope Alexander II for his invasion of England, as a crusade against schism and corruption.

2 Lanfranc, one of the greatest churchmen of the Middle Ages, was an Italian, like Anselm. After serving as abbot at Bec and Caen in Normandy, he became archbishop of Canterbury and rose to a position of great power in both political and ecclesiastical affairs.

3 In several creeds of the late fourth century, following the mention of the Third Person of the Trinity, there was inserted the explanatory clause, “who Proceedeth from the Father.” This addition was accepted by both Greek and Latin Churches, but later the Latin Church added to this clause the words and the Son,” which the Greeks denounced as an innovation and refused to accept. The doctrine in dispute was known as the Procession of the Holy Ghost.

Saint Anselm of Canterbury, Archbishop, Doctor of the Church. Celebration of Feast Day is April 21. Taken from “Lives of Saints”, Published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc. EWTN

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