Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mariology of St Anselm (vii) - Canon Robin Ward

This is the final part of Canon Ward's 2009 Assumptiontide Lecture at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham:

Eadmer in his first treatise On the Excellence of the Virgin Mary remains close to the doctrine of his mentor: not yet able to account for an immaculist position in terms which did justice to the strict necessity for the Incarnation, he is satisfied with the Anselmian precept that the Virgin should shine with a purity which was only exceeded by God’s own. However, by the time he comes to write specifically about the conception of the Virgin in the 1120s, he is determined to press the argument from congruity beyond Anselm’s argument for a purification of Mary by divine action in the womb to a full exemption from original sin. In doing so he employs the striking and somewhat esoteric analogy of the chestnut: just as the chestnut is conceived and grown amid spines which do it no harm, so God is able in preparing a temple for his dwelling to ensure that though this body be conceived among the spines of sin, it would be completely unharmed by their sharp points. Eadmer concludes by stating of God: Potuit plane et voluit; si igitur voluit, fecit [Eadmer of Canterbury, Tractatus de conceptione Sanctae Mariae, PL 159, cc. 305-6], a remarkable anticipation by two centuries of the Scotist formula Potuit, decuit, ergo fecit. It was this treatise which when ascribed by mistake to Anselm enjoyed a wide and authoritative circulation during the immaculist debates of the high middle ages, and was prescribed in portions under Anselm’s name for liturgical recitation by the Council of Basle when it made observance of the feast of the Virgin’s conception mandatory in 1438 [Southern, Anselm, p. 436]. Eadmer with great intellectual acumen chose to defend the inchoate Marian instinct of his nation with the subtle dialectic of the new theology, and was amply rewarded for his ingenuity.

Anselm is no Bernard as a Marian theologian: in his character as a monk he was content to work within the customary strictures and restraints of the Benedictine life he had weighed gravely as his vocation as a young man and then accepted under the measured tutelage of Herluin the founder of Bec, and Lanfranc his intellectual mentor. Because he instigated no reform of the religious life as a counterpoint to the novel sensibility of his affective devotion, Anselm neither sought nor achieved the dissemination of his own religious ethos which Bernard inspired with the Cistercian movement. His influence was confined to a small circle of admiring disciples: his fellow monks at Bec and Canterbury; the noble women such as the Conqueror’s daughter Adelaide and Mathilda of Tuscany who possessed the leisure, the literacy and the consciousness of their own interior life to cultivate the spirituality of compunction which the Prayers and Meditations seek to evoke. Of his corpus of writings, the most original and incisive of any since Augustine, only three prayers address the Virgin, and of them only the last by his own admission satisfies the quest of his faith for a true understanding. Why then is this body of work so significant?

We must not suppose that Anselm anticipates a sort of Anglican reserve about Marian doctrine and devotion: we know from the records of his conversation that he and his brethren had an entirely contemporary taste for the newly popular collections of miracles of the Virgin, and he invoked her himself in time of peril with freedom and confidence. Even if his own doctrine of the atonement and original sin led him to reject the celebration of the Virgin’s conception, he is entirely faithful to the Augustinian inheritance of the Latin West in refusing to countenance any mention of actual sin in relation to Mary, and those most close to him, Anselm of Bury and Eadmer of Canterbury, build confidently on his foundations to endorse not only the old English liturgical tradition but the most controversial tenet of the new Marianism itself, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. What makes Anselm’s prayers to the Virgin so remarkable and so innovative in the development of Latin ascetic theology is their intimate confidence in Marian advocacy and mediation: antithesis and paradox call him back time and again to the Christological context of salvation history, but for the pilgrim sinner in via, the Lady whose undisputed pureness is the shame of the penitent, is the same Lady whose suckling of the eternal Word gives her a paramountcy of intercessory power which applies without fail to the sinner the work of her divine Son. We see in this confident, affective, individualist piety a spirit at work which culminates in the theme of Marian servitude and the cultus of the hearts of Jesus and Mary which is so remarkable feature of the revival of Catholic spirituality in Europe in the aftermath of the Council of Trent. And may we not also see, even as Anselm writes and prays in his cell at Bec and at Canterbury, a similar spirit moving Richeldis to build a house for the Mother of God here, in the land appointed to be her dowry?