A monk, a Bishop, a Doctor of the Church—such was the Saint whose feast comes to gladden us on this 21st day of April. He was a martyr, also, at least in desire, and we may add, in merit too—for he did enough to earn the glorious palm. When we think of St. Anselm, we picture to ourselves a man in whom are combined the humility and meekness of the cloister with the zeal and courage of the episcopal dignity; a man who was both a sage and a saint; a man whom it was impossible not to love and respect.
He left his native country of Piedmont for the Monastery of Bec in France, where he became a Benedictine monk. Being elected Superior, he was the realization of the ideal of an Abbot, as drawn by St. Benedict in his Rule: "He that is made Abbot," says the holy Patriarch, "should study to give help rather than to give commands." We read that the love entertained for St. Anselm by his brethren was beyond description. His whole time was devoted to them, either in giving them spiritual direction, or in communicating to them his own sublime knowledge of the sacred sciences. After governing them for several years, he was taken from them, and compelled to accept the dignity of Archbishop of Canterbury. He was a worthy successor of St. Augustine, Dunstan, Elphege, and Lanfranc; and by his own noble example of courage, he prepared the way for the glorious Martyr St. Thomas, who succeeded him in less than a century.
The fame of his sanctity in the cloister led King William Rufus of England, when dangerously ill, to take him for his confessor and afterwards to name him to the vacant See of Canterbury to replace his own former master, Lanfranc, who had been appointed there before him. He was consecrated in December, 1093. Then began the strife which characterized Saint Anselm's episcopate. The king, when restored to health, lapsed into his former sins, continued to plunder the Church lands, scorned the Archbishop's rebukes, and forbade him to go to Rome for the pallium.
Finally the king sent envoys to Rome for the pallium; a legate returned with them to England, bearing it. The Archbishop received the pallium not from the king's hand, as William would have required, but from that of the papal legate. For Saint Anselm's defense of the Pope's supremacy in a Council at Rockingham, called in March of 1095, the worldly prelates did not scruple to call him a traitor. The Saint rose, and with calm dignity exclaimed, "If any man pretends that I violate my faith to my king because I will not reject the authority of the Holy See of Rome, let him stand, and in the name of God I will answer him as I ought." No one took up the challenge; and to the disappointment of the king, the barons sided with the Saint, for they respected his courage and saw that his cause was their own.
When William Rufus died, another strife began with William's successor, Henry I. This sovereign claimed the right of investing prelates with the ring and crosier, symbols of the spiritual jurisdiction which belongs to the Church alone. Rather than yield, the Archbishop went into exile, until at last the king was obliged to submit to the aging but inflexible prelate. During the time he spent in Rome and France, canons were passed in Rome against the practice of lay investiture, and a decree of excommunication was issued against offenders.
As Bishop, his whole life was spent in fighting for the liberty of the Church. Though gentle as a lamb by nature, he was all energy for this great cause. He used to say: "Christ would not have His Spouse be a slave; there is nothing in this world that God loves more than the liberty of His Church." There was a time when the Son of God allowed Himself to be fettered with bonds in order that He might loosen us from the chains of our sins; but now that He has risen in triumph from the dead, He wills that His Spouse should be, like Himself, free. She cannot otherwise exercise the ministry of salvation confided to Her by Her divine Lord; and yet there is scarcely a single hundred years of Her existence in which She has not had to fight for this holy liberty. The rulers of this earth, with too few exceptions, have ever been jealous of Her influence, and have sought to lessen it by every possible means. In more modern times there have been numbers of Her children who do not know that She has any rights or privileges; they would be at a loss to understand you, if you told them that She is the Spouse of Christ, and therefore a Queen; they think it quite enough for Her, if She enjoy the same amount of freedom and toleration as the sects She condemns; and they cannot see how, under such conditions as these, the Church is not the Queen and kingdom He wished Her to be, but a mere slave. St. Anselm would have abominated all such theories as these; so does every true Catholic. He is not driven into disloyalty to the Church by the high-sounding words, progress and modern society; he knows that there is nothing on earth equal to the Church; and when he sees the world convulsed by revolutions, he knows that it all comes from the Church having been deprived of Her rights. One of these is that She should not only be recognized, in the secret of our conscience, as the one and only True Church, but that, as such, She should be publicly confessed and outwardly defended against every opposition or error. Jesus, Her divine Founder, promised to give Her all nations as Her inheritance; He kept His promise, and She was once the Queen and Mother of them all. But nowadays, a new principle has been asserted, to the effect that the Church and all sects must be on an equal footing as far as the protection of the State is concerned. The principle has been received with acclamation, and hailed as a mighty progress achieved by modern enlightenment: even Catholics, whose previous services to religion had endeared them to pious hearts and gained their confidence, have become warm defenders of this impious theory.
Trying as were the times when St. Anselm governed the See of Canterbury, they were spared the humiliation of producing and ratifying such doctrine as this. The tyrannical interference of the Norman kings was an evil far less injurious than the modern system, which is subversive of the very idea of a Church. Open persecution would be a boon, compared to the fashionable error of which we are speaking. A winter torrent brings desolation in its track: but in the summer, when the flood is over, nature brings back her verdure and flowers. The errors which now prevail are like a great sea that gradually sweeps over the whole earth; and when the Church can find no spot whereon to rest, She will take Her flight to Heaven, and men must expect the speedy coming of the Judge.
St. Anselm was not only the zealous and heroic defender of the rights and privileges of the Church; he was also a light to men by his learning. The contemplation of revealed truths was his delight. He studied them in their bearings one upon the other, and his writings occupy a distinguished place in the treatises of Catholic Theology. God had blessed him with extraordinary talent. Amidst all the troubles and anxieties and occupations of his various duties, he found time for study. Even when passing from place to place, as an exile, he was intent on the meditation of the mysteries of religion, thus preparing those sublime reflections which he has left us on the articles of our Faith.
The Church gives us, in Her Liturgy, the following sketch of our Saint's life:
Anselm was born at Aosta, a town on the confines of Italy, of noble and Catholic parents named Gondolphe and Hermenberga. From his early childhood he gave great promise of future holiness and learning by his love of study and his longing after a life of perfection. The ardor of youth made him indulge for a while in worldly pleasures; but he speedily returned to his former virtuous life; and then, leaving his country and all that he possessed, he repaired to the Monastery of Bec, of the Order of St. Benedict. There he made his religious profession, under the Abbot Herluin, a most zealous lover of monastic discipline, and (Prior) Lanfranc, a man of great repute for learning. Such was the fervor of his piety, his application to study and his desire to advance in virtue, that everyone held him in the highest veneration as a model of holiness and learning.
So mortified was he in eating and drinking, and so frequent were his fasts, that he seemed to have lost the sense of taste. He spent the day in the performance of monastic duties, and in giving answers, both by word of mouth and by letters, to the several questions proposed to him concerning matters of religion. He passed a considerable portion of the time allotted to sleep in nourishing his soul with holy meditations, during which he shed abundant tears. When he was made Prior of the Monastery, certain of his brethren were jealous at his promotion; but he so far gained them over by charity, humility and prudence, that their jealousy was changed into love both of their Prior and their God, to the great advantage of regular discipline. At the death of the Abbot, Anselm was chosen to succeed him, and reluctantly accepted the office. It was then that his reputation for learning and virtue began to spread far and wide, and secured him the respect of kings and bishops. Not only so, but even Pope Gregory VII, who at that time was suffering much from persecution, honored him with his friendship, and wrote to him letters full of affection, begging of him to pray for him and the Church.
At the death of Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, who had been his former master, Anselm was compelled, much against his own will, to accept the government of that See. William, King of England, the clergy and the people, all urged him to it. He immediately set himself to reform the corrupt morals of the people. By word and example first, then by his writings, and by holding councils, he succeeded in restoring ancient piety and ecclesiastical discipline. But it was not long before King William attempted, both by violence and threats, to interfere with the rights of the Church. Then did Anselm resist him with priestly courage, for which his property was confiscated, and he himself banished from the country. He turned his steps towards Rome, where Pope Urban II received him with great marks of honor, and passed a high encomium upon him at the Council of Bari, where Anselm proved against the Greeks, by innumerable quotations form the Scriptures and the holy Fathers, that the Holy Ghost proceeds also from the Son. After William's death, he was recalled to England by King Henry, William's brother. Shortly after his return, he slept in the Lord. He was justly venerated not only on account of his miracles and virtues, among which latter may be mentioned his great devotion to the Passion, and to the Holy Mother of Jesus, but also for his learning, which he used in the defense of the Christian religion, and for the good of souls. He first set the example to those theologians who have followed the scholastic method in treating on the sacred sciences. The works he has written prove that his wisdom was a gift bestowed on him by Heaven.
St. Anselm meets the Countess Matilda—the defender of Pope St. Gregory VII—in the presence of Pope Urban II.
God had gifted thee, O St. Anselm, with that Christian philosophy which bows down to the teachings of Faith, and which, being thus purified by humility, is elevated to the intelligence of the most sublime truths. The Church, in acknowledgement of the benefits She derived from thy learning, has conferred upon thee the title of Doctor, which for a long time was confined to those great men who lived in the early Christian Ages, and whose writings are the reflection of the preaching of the Apostles. Thy teaching has been deemed worthy of being numbered with that of the ancient Fathers, for it came from the same Divine Spirit, and was the result of prayer rather than of study. Obtain for us, O holy Doctor, that “our faith,” like thine, “may seek understanding.” Nowadays there are many who blaspheme what they know not (Jude 10); but there are many also who know little or nothing of what they profess to believe. Hence arises a deplorable confusion of ideas, compromises are made between truth and error, and the only true doctrines are despised, or at least undefended. Pray to our Heavenly Father, O St. Anselm, that He would bless the world with holy and learned men, who may teach the path of truth, and dispel the mists of error; that thus the children of the Church may not be led astray.
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