Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mariology of St Anselm (i) - Canon Robin Ward

The Principal, Canon Robin Ward, gave the 2009 Assumptiontide Lecture at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham on the subject of the Mariology of St Anselm of Canterbury. In a number of installments, the lecture will be reproduced here.

Nine hundred years ago on the Wednesday of Holy Week 1109 Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury died in the seventy-sixth year of his life and the sixteenth of his pontificate. Politically, his archiepiscopate had been a trying succession of exiles and conflicts with the new Norman monarchy in England over the independence and autonomy of the church as a spiritual power, efforts which his admirers have seen as a worthy anticipation of S. Thomas Becket and S. John Fisher, but which one of his eighteenth century successors dismissed as those of a rebel to his king, a slave to the popedom and an enemy of the married clergy [Benedicta Ward, Anselm of Canterbury, His Life and Legacy, p. 90]. Theologically, he is the outstanding Latin between Augustine and Thomas Aquinas: his famous articulation of theological endeavour as Fides querens intellectum is the dynamo of the scholastic mentality, in which the theologian as intellectual pilgrim perseveres in devout study from acquiescence to understanding, in which there (is) no resting place short of a final illumination [Richard Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages, p. 216]. Again, not everyone thought this a good thing: Richard Benson, the founder of the Cowley Fathers whose monastery S. Stephen’s House now inhabits, said that Anselm had done more harm than almost any other teacher by his endeavour to make plain ... divine truths to the necessities of human reasoning [Ward, Anselm, p. 3]. This is a little ungracious to the greatest monastic thinker ever to live in these islands, for it was as a monk and abbot of Bec, a son of S. Benedict from his youth, that Anselm was formed under the guidance of his teacher Lanfranc to be the exemplar and inspiration of a Copernican revolution in theological sensibility, one which has its first stirrings in the monasteries of old Francia and which comes to its culmination in Dante and S. Francis of Assisi.

In what did this revolution consist? The great historian of this period Sir Richard Southern entitled the concluding chapter of his magisterial study The Making of the Middle Ages ‘From Epic to Romance’. It is fashionable now to play down the darkness of the Dark Ages, rather as our forefathers liked to laud insular Saxon freedoms in stark contrast to the servitude of the Norman yoke. But who can doubt that the humane sensibility which in the twelfth century brought into being the cathedral at Durham and the equally sophisticated architecture of the French Arthurian romances represents a singular transformation of aspiration and technical skill in contrast to the jejeune efforts of the preceding five centuries. Fundamental to this renaissance was the security which came with the eclipse of the threat from militant Islam and the recovery of political order characteristic of the emergence of the national feudal kingdoms. Joseph Pieper reminds us that whenever western civilization flourished, leisure was the basis of culture, and there was precious little time for leisure in the embattled militarized world of Beowulf or the Song of Roland.

Theologically, this change of sensibility began in the monasteries and then expanded to embrace the transformation of intellectual horizons which followed from the experience of crusading and the international character of the new way of learning: faith sought understanding not only in greater depth than ever before, but over greater distances. Anselm himself is typical of this new expansiveness: born in Aosta, he moved to Burgundy and then to Normandy to find the teaching he needed, and settled at Bec because Lanfranc could give it to him. For those who preceded him, the English and Irish missionaries whose energies secured the conversion of Europe, such an experience although freely embraced would have been expressed in the poignant poetry of exile; for Anselm, what the epic sensibility perceived as a displacement, a loss for the sake of the kingdom, has become already that most romantic of activities, a quest for truth. Now this intellectual spaciousness, this shift from the local and insular to a more expansive outlook, is of fundamental importance for one of the most distinctive theological and devotional developments of the period: the rediscovery of Christ’s humanity as a locus of affective piety, and with it the emergence of a Marian cult which revolutionizes for good the Latin Christian perception of heavenly patronage for the pilgrim people of God.