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Saint Anselm of Canterbury

“O supreme and unapproachable light! O whole and blessed truth, how far art thou from me, who am so near to thee! How far removed art thou from my vision, though 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 I cannot come to thee. Thou art within me, and about me, and I feel thee not.”

-- Anselm of Canterbury

Saint Anselm is a Saint in the Catholic Church. Both a Bishop and Confessor, Saint Anselm is now honored with the title Doctor of the Church (Doctor Magnificus). Future articles will focus on the writings of Saint Anselm while this article will center more on the life and biography of this great Saint.

Saint Anselm was born in Aosta, Upper Burgandy (now part of Italy but then part of the Carolingian Kingdom of Arles) in April of 1033. His father was a Lombard noble by the name of Gundulph and his mother was the granddaughter of Conrad the Peaceful. His father is often described with having a violent temper while his mother was extremely religious and very patient with the growing Saint Anselm. At the age of fifteen, Saint Anselm hoped to enter a local monastery but was turned away when his father refused to grant his permission. This had a massive impact on young Saint Anselm and for a time he completely quit studying to live a carefree life.

His mother died during the birth of his sister causing Saint Anselm's father to begin a deep examination of his life that culminated in Gundulph repenting of his lifestyle and entering into a convent. Saint Anselm, at 23, was now alone at home. He travelled through Burgundy and France for the next three years until he reached Normandy around 1059 AD. With his father dead, Saint Anselm began to be called to the monastic life again and entered the abbey at Bec as a novice at the age of 27. In his first year at the abbey, Saint Anselm wrote his writing on Latin paradoxes called the Grammarian - this was his first work on philosophy, the first of very many to come.

After only three years at the abbey, Duke William II summoned Lanfranc, the prior, to serve as abbot of the new abbey built at Caen. Saint Anselm was elected prior at Bec, though not all of the monks were agreed initially because of Saint Anselm's youth. Saint Anselm was well known during this time for his peaceful settlement with other monks who disagreed with him - always overcoming these challenges with patience and love. When a young monk Osborne became hostile with him, Saint Anselm gave constantly praised the monk and gave him all sorts of rewards. Once trust had been re-established between the two, Saint Anselm began to remove these indulgences until Osborne had returned to a strict monastic life.

Fifteen years after being elected prior, Saint Anselm was unanimously elected as the abbot of Bec. The abbey began to attract students from France and Italy and was soon considered the foremost seat of learning throughout Europe. Saint Anselm too was recognized throughout Europe for his meticulous and patient leadership style, especially with the younger monks. For the next several years, Saint Anselm visited England both to oversee monastery property and to visit his friend Lanfranc who had become the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1070. William I, king of the Normans, wished Saint Anselm to become the successor of Canterbury should Lanfranc die and began to prepare him. However, when Lanfranc died in 1089, William II refused this appointment and swore before the Holy Face of Lucca that neither Saint Anselm or any other Priest would occupy the Archbishopric of Canterbury while he still lived.

Fates changed quickly though when King William II suddenly fell seriously ill. While bedridden, he became convinced that the illness was due to this sinful swearing he had made (he had wished to keep revenues from Canterbury to himself) and summoned Saint Anselm to his bedside. He confessed and was administered last rites before issuing a proclamation swearing to govern the land according to the law. On March 6, he nominated Saint Anselm to fill the vacancy. Saint Anselm was was enthroned at Canterbury Cathedral on September 25th, 1093.

Conflict with King William II arose again almost immediately. King William asked for funds to prepare an invasion of Normandy and was offered 500 pounds from Saint Anselm. The King refused and instead insisted on 1,000 as he had placed Saint Anselm in the Archbishop seat. In return, Saint Anselm immediately refused and sent correspondence to King William asking for other vacant clergy positions to be filled, begin allowing bishops to meet in councils freely and the resumed enforcement of canon law. A rival group of Bishops pressured the King to instead accept the initial amount, but when the King tried Saint Anselm refused stating that he had already given the money to the poor of Canterbury and that "he disdained to purchase his master's favor as he would a horse". The King wrote that day

"I hated him before, I hate him now, and shall hate him still more hereafter"

For the next to years, King William II interfered with all efforts of reform by Saint Anselm including refusing to grant his right to convene a council. When King William II met failure in his attempts to invade the Welsh, blame was placed on Saint Anselm for refusing to provide enough knights. When Saint Anselm decided to travel to Rome and seek council from Pope Urban, King William denied the permission to travel and gave him the choice of either total submission or exile. Saint Anselm chose exile and departed in October of 1097, travelling to Lyon where he wrote to Saint Urban requesting permission to resign. This request was refused by Pope Urban who instead asked him to prepare a defense of the procession of the Holy Spirit against Greek Church representatives. With great joy he accepted and arrived in Rome by April.

At the Council of Bari in October the following year Saint Anselm delivered his defense of both the Filioque and the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist. The council also condemned William II though Saint Anselm interceded to stop a full excommunication from being declared. Saint Anselm was given a seat of honor at the Easter Council in Saint Peter's in Rome the following year before departing for Schiavi where he wrote Cur Deus Homo. Saint Anselm returned to England when Henry assumed the throne after King William II died in August of 1100. Henry demanded Saint Anselm to do homage for his Canterbury estates and to receive his investiture anew. He refused to violate canon law.

For the next several years Saint Anselm found himself caught between King Henry and the now Pope Paschal. Pope Paschal excommunicated any bishops that accepted investment from Henry and for a time Saint Anselm was exiled again when caught by surprise on a trip to Rome. In 1107, the Concordat of London formalized agreements between the King and Archbishop - King Henry formally renounced the right of English Kings to invest the Bishops of the Church.

While Archbishop of Canterbury Saint Anselm consistently advocated for reform and for the interests of Canterbury. He oversaw the expansion of Canterbury Cathedral with an expanded choir placed over a large crypt which effectively doubled the length of the Cathedral. By September 3 1101, Saint Anselm styled himself the Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of Great Britain and Ireland and vicar of the High Pontiff paschal.

Saint Anselm died on April 21st, 1109, Holy Wednesday. He was laid in rest at the head of lanfranc south of the Altar of the Holy Trinity (now known as Saint Thomas's chapel) but his remains were lost during a terrible fire in 1170.

Some of his most famous writings are:

  • De Grammatico

  • Monologion

  • Proslogion

  • De Veritate

  • De Libertate Arbitrii

  • De Casu Diaboli

  • De Fide Trinitatis

  • Cur Deus Homo

  • De Conceptu Virginali

  • De Processione Spiritus Sancti

  • De Sacrificio Azymi et Fermentati

  • De Sacramentis Ecclesiae

  • De Concordia

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