Friday, October 16, 2009

Mariology of St Anselm (iii) - Canon Robin Ward

The first Prayer gives us some indication of the character of these difficulties. His technique in composing a prayer to one of the saints was to make common ground between the experience of the sinner and some incident in the life of the saint: this is particularly apparent in his prayer to S. Peter, in which Anselm does not hesitate to say of himself He may have strayed but at least it is not he who has denied his Lord and Shepherd [Anselm, Prayers, p.137, ll. 75-6]. Now in the case of Our Lady this was hardly possible: although as we shall see Anselm is not an advocate of the nascent doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, nevertheless he adheres with fidelity to the common practice of the Latin church, since Augustine wrote in his De Natura et Gratia, We must except the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom I wish to raise no question when it touches the subject of sins, out of honour to the Lord. [Augustine of Hippo, De Natura et Gratia, 36]. Instead we have a stark contrast between the abject petitions for healing and salvation on the part of Anselm in his character as repentant sinner, and an exaltation of the Virgin’s advocacy which anticipates in its intensity the theme of Marian servitude which plays so significant a role in the piety of the Counter-Reformation French School. Anselm’s monastic precursor the Cluniac abbot Odilo had already introduced this theme in his personal submission to the Virgin as most merciful Advocatrix, wearing a cord around his neck at her altar as a sign of his slavery [Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages, p. 221]. It is a theme which Anselm develops from the start of his first Prayer, when he apostrophizes Mary as Life-bearer and mother of salvation [Anselm, Prayers, p. 107, l. 10].

Anselm entitles the prayer as one appropriate to be used when the mind is weighed down with heaviness, and it begins with an emphatic statement of all that separates Mary, among the holy ones the most holy after God, and the supplicant Anselm, who is sick with the sickness of vice … putrid with the ulcers of sin. [Anselm, Prayers, p. 107, ll. 2, 13-15]. He fears his state will repel rather than attract the attention of the Virgin, hoping for conversion but held back by despair [Anselm, Prayers, p. 107, l. 26]. Two paragraphs follow in which Anselm again contrasts his own state with that of Mary’s purity: what confusion there is for an impure conscience/ in the presence of shining purity; and yet Mary can herself by a glance from your mercy … cure the sickness and ulcers of my sins [Anselm, Prayers, p. 108, l. 46]. To Mary is given the role of judging: Anselm continues, Because of these sins of mine, Lady/ I desire to come to you and be cured,/ but I flee from you for fear of being cursed [Anselm, Prayers, p. 108, ll. 57-8]. The prayer concludes with an extended counterpoint of sin and purity, mercy and misery, which juxtaposes Mary who is powerful in goodness and good in power with the wretchedness of the penitent sinner: Most dear Lady, do not let what grieves you be,/ and there will be nothing to defile your holiness [Anselm, Prayers, p. 109, ll. 67, 85]. Only at the very end of the prayer does the Christological context of the redemption emerge: all this may be asked of Mary by virtue of the blessed fruit of your womb,/ who sits at the right hand of his almighty Father/ and is praised and glorified above all for ever [Anselm, Prayers, p. 109, ll. 89-91]. There is a certain monotony of development in this prayer which Anselm tacitly acknowledges when he tells Gundolf that it is divided into paragraphs lest he be bored; despite this, it is still an expression of Marian advocacy and mediation which is quite novel in the Latin devotional tradition.