Thursday, October 15, 2009

Mariology of St Anselm (ii) - Canon Robin Ward

It is Anselm in his most celebrated work the Cur Deus Homo who through precisely the sort of proto-scholastic analysis which most irritated Father Benson unlocks the potential for this affective revolution. Put tersely, Anselm overturns the then prevalent understanding of the atonement as the defeat of the devil by God’s action in the incarnation, a putting right of the feudal offence of diffidatio on the part of the whole race by One who effectively deceives the deceiver, and ascribes instead the virtue of the act of redemption to the authentic humanity and in particular the authentic human sufferings of the Son of God. [Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages, pp. 224-5.] This intellectual revolution accompanies a devotional one. Until the eleventh century, the visible cultus of the saints in the Latin church was primarily one concerned with the veneration of relics, a perception of heavenly patronage which reflected both the Carolingian scepticism about sacred images and the intensely local character of saintly influence: tutelary deities made tangible watched over their votaries from dim crypts and kept them safe from harm. A visit to the crypt of S. Sernin in Toulouse is the perfect evocation of this sensibility, in which neither the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament nor the relic-less veneration of the Virgin have a significant part to play. But just as Anselm places a novel emphasis on the condescension of the Word in accepting freely human nature for our redemption, so in contemporary art two new images appear, images which will remain seminal ensigns of medieval piety: the crucifix and the Virgin with Child. The warrior redeemer of The Dream of the Rood and the distant Byzantine imperial Theotokos give way to the suffering Man of Sorrows who is like us in all things except sin, and the mother who is suckling all the redeemed in the person of her divine Son, truly Fons Amoris.

The emergence of the shrine and cult at Walsingham reflects precisely this Anselmian change of sensibility in all its principal characteristics. Whatever credence we may give to the details set out in the Pynson ballad, we know at least that the origins of the shrine here date from about the period in which Anselm was active as a theologian, an abbot and an archbishop. Moreover, the impetus for the shrine’s foundation seems to emerge from the personal devotional life of a woman of leisure, Richeldis de Faverches. Here is a woman living in the world who has the time and the resources to develop a genuine interior life, one which then expresses itself through a visionary experience to construct a sophisticated and resonant monument to the new piety in tangible form, the Holy House. The old problem for Marian piety was no relics. Richeldis subverts this with the direct visionary impetus of the Virgin in person, who calls her client to look beyond Stiffkey’s fair vale to the newly-rediscovered geography of the Holy Land itself. It is hard to think that many of those tough, relic-touting, mace-wielding bishops whom we meet in the pages of the Chanson de Roland or in the cartoon-strip loutishness of the Bayeux tapestry would have been remotely interested in the Virgin’s house at Nazareth even if they had known of it: the appeal is too domestic, too devotional, perhaps even too sentimental. But Walsingham is on the cusp of something new, a humane tenderness of devotion in which the believer inculcates the mysteries of the redemption through a devout meditation on the condescension of the Word made Flesh.

Anselm himself had some difficulty in articulating the appropriate register for this new Marian devotion in his own piety. His celebrated Prayers and Meditations, most of which are the work of the 1070s, are a landmark in Latin Christian asceticism [Anselm of Canterbury, The Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm with the Proslogion, translated and introduced by Benedicta Ward, used throughout this paper]: although some tentative para-liturgical catenae of psalm verses and patristic extracts had circulated for private use for some two centuries before his time, Anselm achieves a striking originality in these compositions which is reminiscent of Augustine in The Confessions. Written by a Benedictine, they are intended for a wider audience than his confrères and indeed were particularly valued by noble women like Mathilda of Tuscany whose patronage was essential to the propagation of this new spirituality. Divorced from dependence on set liturgical forms, they demonstrate the process of faith seeking understanding in an affective register: Anselm turns over and over in a vivid rhythmic prose the mysteries of sin and redemption, and in so doing evokes sorrow for sin, compunction at the divine suffering in the Incarnation and Redemption, and a definitive turning of the mind and heart to heaven. Three authentic Marian prayers survive from this collection, which Anselm tells us were written at the behest of a fellow monk at Bec [Anselm of Canterbury, Ep 28, 1.20]. Sent to his friend Gundolf a monk and future Bishop of Rochester at Caen in 1072, Anselm confesses that only the third really satisfied him, and that in view of the difficulties involved, Gundolf must forgive him for the unusual length of each composition.