St Anselm: a monastic theologian

St Anselm was definitely ‘my’ kind of theologian, despite the bleakness of some of his views. He was hesitant, questing, where others are more assertive; his prayers and meditations have the note of genuine piety rather than being mere rhetorical set-pieces; his tenure of the see of Canterbury, his political ineptitude, all speak of the monk rather than the career churchman. Almost everyone knows his phrase fides quaerens intellectum, faith seeking understanding, and I think it is as good a way as any of expressing both the intellectual endeavour of monastic life and something of what is meant by that overworked word ‘mysticism’.

For Anselm, as for many before and since, the whole venture of faith implies a connectedness, a rootedness in Christian tradition. Professor Denys Turner, one of the most perceptive of contemporary writers, argued very persuasively in the last chapter of his The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism that what so many now think of as ‘an experience of God’ had a wider meaning in former times. I think Anselm would have agreed that it is a phenomenon rooted in prayer, both public and private, in liturgy, in the sacramental worship of the Church and in theological reflection and exploration — moments of perception, of affirmation and negation, intended for the whole Church, not some specially privileged part of it. That is why the concept of sentire cum ecclesia, of thinking with the Church, is so essential.

Learning to think with the Church requires effort and self-discipline, finding out rather than simply opining. It is an activity rooted in prayer but calling for hard work, too. St Anselm was a great theologian because he was a man of prayer but also because he read — widely, attentively, thoughtfully — and because he put what he read and prayed into practice. We are not all called to be monastics, but shouldn’t every Christian be, to some degree, a theologian?


19 thoughts on “St Anselm: a monastic theologian”

  1. The more I read and pray, and grow spiritually, the longer and deeper the journey appears, ever expanding, never ending depth of knowing, and feel I’ll never catch up. But is all part of the mystery and joy of being in God’s presence and ever seeking to be in His presence. It seems to matter not so much ‘where’ we are on our journey, on our way to God, but that we seek Him where we are, in our never ending
    smallness and imperfection.

  2. “L We are not all called to be monastics, but shouldn’t every Christian be, to some degree, a theologian?”

    Thinking with the Church seems a little strange? How if we all have individual experiences of God, through thought, reflection, prayer and reading, can we share, unless we are all in a straight jacket, bound up in doctrine and others theological thought. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding what you write, but its the freedom of thought and expression and interpretation that leads us to original, personal conclusions about God, which may or may not agree with what the Church is thinking? From this comes conformity and stagnation.

    I believe that talking about God is theology. So, if Christians engage with others in discussion, seeking to discern how and why things about God are the way we experience them, that is theology?

    • The phrase sentire cum ecclesia comes from St Ignatius Loyala. The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus defined it thus: ‘To think with the Church, but also to feel with the Church. In short, to love the Church…. And, for all the inadequacies and sins of the Church and her leadership in our time, it means always doing one’s best to support, and never to undermine, the effectiveness of her teaching ministry. If we love the Church, as a lover loves the beloved, then we will her to be, we will her to flourish, we will her to succeed in the mission she has been given by Christ.’ I have to say, it is a very ‘Catholic’ understanding of the Church to believe that we have a duty to know and uphold the Church’s teaching rather than our own take on things. That isn’t an intellectual cop-out, but it is theology done on the knees, so to say. Does that make sense, even though it is not your view?

      • Sister,

        Thank you for your gentle response. I can see the sense in what you say. I don’t seek to undermine the teaching of my church, rather to understand it in a way, that doesn’t leave me paying lip service to a faith that I have no intellectual grasp of in heart and mind. This will inevitably cause difficulties and doubts to arise about certain parts of that teaching. To question isn’t to undermine, rather it’s seeking to learn and to grow in faith and knowledge, individually and as a church.

        The foundation of most learning is questioning why, how, when, where – if we continue to do this in our life, we learn. The day we stop questioning, we stagnate.

  3. UKViewer, one of the hallmarks of our faith is unity, stemming from Jesus’ prayer that we “might all be one”. We accept teachings and interpretations concerning theology and scripture, believing Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to guide His Church, through the Magesterium, as He promised He would, not relying only on our own personal understanding and opinions. We commence from the starting point of the gift of faith, and while we may each experience personal revelations, move forward together as one body to promote the Gospel message. Though we have our own individual gifts to contribute, we place the good of all and the furthering of evangelization foremost, trusting the Church is being guided by the Spirit. Thinking with the Church is allying oneself with this goal in mind.

    • Jean, thank you for your response.

      I’m not a Catholic. I am an Anglican. I respect what you say and I love and support my church in many ways, but I’m prepared to identify its faults and failings and to speak out against those that divert it from it’s essential mission to be Christ’s body here and now.

      I don’t have a degree in theology . But I do know that Jesus Christ was an original thinker, guided by the Holy Spirit and I can’t accept that I must blindly follow all of the teachings of the church. I need to know of them, I need to understand them, to accept them intellectually and in my heart with faith to believe. If those teachings, hurt or discriminate against anyone, than, surely, that wasn’t Jesus’ intention. He came to save the weak, the vulnerable, the marginalised, those who were sinners, not just the righteous.

      Unfortunately, no church is perfect, how can it be? Man is fallible. We can only pray, hope and work to make it the best it can be, within our human limitations. As churches, we discriminate, intentionally or unintentionally against elements in our society that we disapprove of, those who don’t measure up to our individual or corporate image of what a ‘good Christian’ should be.

      The Anglican Church asks for obedience to Bishops and retains many of the vestiges of its Catholic heritage, but with the difference of a freedom to think for ourselves and to interpret scripture in ways that might differ in detail, but essentially unite us broadly. Living with those differences, causes tensions, causes disagreements, but that is human nature. For me, it’s preferable to being in blind obedience expected to believe and to obey without question, to think in a straight jacket as I mentioned earlier.

  4. Oh, Digitalnun, you beat me to it, expressed it so much better than I did, as always! Yes, the Church is the body of Christ, not an institution. We are all one in the Body as well as in the Bread.

  5. It occurred to my husband and I that judging from the posting times, Sr. Catharine and I were blog commenting simultaneously. Here, a married layperson, sitting in plaid bathrobe and moose hide moccasins, sipping coffee in Western Canada, thousands of miles,a continent and ocean apart, Sr. Catharine, a habit wearing professed Religious, sitting at her computer in the U.K. countryside. Both of us (myself clumsily) describing what it means to think with the mind of and love the Church. A good example of Jesus the vine, we the branches.

  6. UKViewer, I think you may be misunderstanding the nature of Catholic theological investigation — perhaps because of the different ways we are using words here. Your suggestion that Catholics practise ‘blind obedience, expected to believe and to obey without question, to think in a straight jacket’ is wide of the mark. There is no lack of scholarship or original thinking in the Catholic Church (try Professor Turner’s book, if you haven’t already, and you’ll see what I mean.) Original thinking, however, has to be consistent with scripture and tradition. Anselm is a good example of that; so is Aquinas; so are hundreds of others down the ages. They stretch our understanding, but they don’t rupture it.

  7. Dear UK viewer, I hope D. Catherine has answered your comment. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that we Catholics have “blind obedience” to the church. We certainly do think and we certainly do have our own opinions! However, we also have the advantage of being able to tap into the wisdom of all our brothers and sisters who have gone before us, in making sense of our own experiences. This is “thinking with the church” and it does involve effort. I am acutely aware of how little I understand and that the more I pray and the deeper I am drawn into the “interior life” the more I want to study. I find myself more and more questioning of scripture, for example, and I don’t even have the knowledge to frame those questions meaningfully.

  8. Sister, Rachel,

    Thank you for your helpful responses. I can see that I used harsh words, struggling to express things that I had held in for a long time. I apologise, I hope that I haven’t caused offence.

    The fact that I’m now an Anglican, having once been a Catholic, might help you to understand my comments.

    I left the Catholic Church many years ago, as I could no longer believe many of the doctrinal positions of the Church.

    My upbringing and education in the Catholic faith in the 1950’s was one of learning by rote, without necessarily any explanation or understanding of what we were learning, There were penalties for failure to learn by heart.

    This was to time for faith to become embedded, in fact it had the opposite effect, eventually turning me away entirely from it.

    There were other reasons for leaving, not just failures in comprehension. These were hurtful, and for a long time I was agnostic about God and religion.

    Eventually, God came back into my life, in a Damascus Road moment. The Church of England was there to receive and to support me. I have found a Church, which despite it’s faults , is where I belong.

  9. Dear UKviewer, no offence has been taken, I’m only sorry you had such a negative experience. I’m also glad that you have found your faith again. Although a cradle Catholic I lost my faith in my teens and once I started to pray again I thought long and hard about where my spiritual home would be. For me being Catholic is both intellectually and spiritually satisfying – but then that’s me!
    Good to exchange comments with you as I believe I have read many of your posts on other blogs.

  10. One of the things I prize about this blog is the very honest way in which people express their views, and the exemplary courtesy and consideration for the feelings of others that commenters show. I know offence is sometimes given/taken, but always, I think, inadvertently. I hope we can keep it that way. With your help, dear readers, I’m sure we can!

  11. What a pity, Prof. Denys Turner’s writings are not translated into German… if I would like to read one of his books, would you recommend “The Darkness of God” or some other book to start with?
    By the way, it will be a pleasure to meet you at Heiligenkreuz for the meeting this week,
    kindest regards,

    • Stefan, I am so sorry I shall not be meeting you at Heiligenkreuz tomorrow. I am not able to fly at present, so I have had to make a video of my paper. I think ‘The Darkness of God’ is an excellent book to give you a ‘taste’ of Professor Turner’s work. When I was at Yale last year he kindly gave me a copy of his ‘Theology of Julian of Norwich’ which I enjoyed hugely, although it is perhaps of more interest to an Englishwoman than any other. I hope that you enjoy the conference very much. I am already envious!

  12. What a pity that you couldn’t join the conference!
    On the other hand – your video message has been such a wonderful demonstration of what today’s media can do! I can assure you, you could have heard a needle dropping to the floor when your message was shown to the audience, and your thoughts about serving in silence and at the same time being connected to the world, and about showing hospitality to the world, and some other points were well received and discussed.
    Hopefully next time everything will be fine for your trip to Heiligenkreuz! God bless you, digitalnun!

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