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St. Anselm and Prayerful Theology

By Clint Wilson

It’s common to hear of the disjunction between theology and prayer at the parish level. This notion is anchored in an assumption that the disciplines of theology and prayer are embodied along quite different trajectories — one within the confines of a worshiping community, another within the oak-plastered, book covered walls of a tweed-wearing academic (insert seminary-as-cemetery-joke here). Such a misunderstanding arises out of an impoverished form of theology, and it is beholden to a model of academics that is exceedingly modern. It runs against the grain of of someone like the fourth-century author Evagrius, who understood theologians as “those who pray.”

Anglicans are often described as holding to the Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi principle, which means prayer and theology are inextricably linked for us. Theology can be a kind of prayer and prayer a kind of theology. Few embody this better in the English tradition than Anselm of Canterbury. As Giles Gasper said: “There is, in Anselm, no fracture between academic theology and the demands of prayerful, obedient, Christian duty” (Anselm of Canterbury and his Theological Inheritance [Ashgate, 2004], p. 34).

For instance, we might ask a reader of Anselm’s Proslogion: Where exactly would one differentiate prayer from theology when more than 80 percent of the chapters are prayerful meditations on God? Anselm’s theology can only be understood in the context of his monastic life, with its aim of reaching the joy-filled experience of the beatific vision.

Anselm’s thought is underwritten by the consistent conviction that the fount of all true theological knowledge is the Word encountered in the words of prayer and sacred Scripture, i.e., God the Word. All of creation is shot through with divine order, and faith unfolding through reason is able to move beyond the immediate to the eternal, from words to the Word. This is particularly evident in Anselm’s discussion of language in De Grammatico.

Anselm’s theory of knowledge is built upon a semi-Aristotelian model of reality in which all that exists is made up of accidents and substance. With respect to God being known, Anselm knew his corporeal senses could only discover the accidents of God’s character present within the order of his creation and the stuff of everyday life. But a passionate pursuit to discover God would naturally begin with a pursuit of how to engage in using language in the first place.

Anselm’s conviction regarding the importance of using spiritual discernment to discover God would lead to certain requirements of the theologian: “a pure heart, eyes that have been opened, child-like obedience, a life in the Spirit, rich nourishment from Holy Scripture to make him capable of finding these answers” (Karl Barth, Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum [John Knox Press, 1960], p. 34). This theory of knowledge unites belief and understanding with experience, and what Anselm has in mind is the ecstatic and mystical experience of the joy-filled believer.

This may surprise some people. Isn’t Anselm the “Father of Scholasticism,” whose project was funded by an appeal to reason alone? The answer is a resounding Yes, but with important qualifications.

Anselm’s motive for writing out his theology in philosophical proofs was to drive his readers to prayer. All too often Anselm has been used merely for apologetic purposes; his theological or philosophical proofs are pulled out of their context of prayer, leading to, for example, an abstracted ontological argument, which distorts his intentions. Reason is limited and the servant of faith. In this sense, Anselm’s proofs must be understood as things funded, not by human initiative alone, but primarily by God’s gifts of donation and illumination (a point made also by Karl Barth).

For that reason, one must start from an a priori acceptance of certain doctrinal standards, such as creeds or other elements of tradition. Human reason is too limited to work otherwise.

For human wisdom trusting in itself can more quickly tear out its own horns by brandishing them than it can roll this stone by pushing. For as soon as some people have begun to produce, as it were, horns of self-confident knowledge — not realizing that if someone thinks he knows something, he has not yet understood in what way he ought to know — they often presume to rise to the very loftiest questions of the faith before they have developed spiritual wings through the firmness of their faith. (Anselm, On the Incarnation of the Word)

Anselm is not afraid of probing the intricacies of Christian doctrine, but he operated on the basis of an inherited tradition, not an understanding of faith built rationally from nothing. To question the inherited tradition, and especially to deny it, is not faith. “It is as if bats and owls, which see the sky only at night, should dispute about the midday sun with eagles, who behold the sun itself with unflinching eyes” (On the Incarnation of the Word).

Anselm would never discourage theological advancement, and he believed the Church must develop the core teachings of Scripture and the Fathers, but he was not keen on unhealthy speculation. For instance, Anselm was certainly aware of theological debates in northern France about the doctrine of the Eucharist during his time, and remarkably he never commented in depth about them, except in his more devotional prayers.

(It is telling that in the Middle Ages his prayers were more celebrated than his longer and more difficult theological work.) 

For Anselm, human belief expressed in prayer is “not simply a striving of the human will towards God but a striving of the human will into God and so a participation in God’s mode of being” (Barth, Anselm, p. 17). This is especially clear in Anselm’s opening statement to the reader of his Proslogion:

Come now, insignificant man, fly for a moment from your affairs, escape for a little while from the tumult of your thoughts. Put aside now your weighty cares and leave your wearisome toils. Abandon yourself for a little to God and rest for a little in Him. Enter into the inner chamber of your soul, shut out everything save God and what can be of help in your quest for Him and having locked the door seek Him out (Matt. 6:6).

Speak now, my whole heart, speak now to God: “I seek your countenance, O Lord, Your countenance I seek” (Ps. 26:8).

Here is no invitation down the walkways of academic minutiae, but a beckoning into the very life of God. Anselm understood that God is not merely an object to be engaged and observed but rather a personal being in whom the believing Christian is relationally incorporated and known. Anselm reflects the Pauline emphasis in Galatians 4:9: “you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God.”

Anselm saw the monastic offices as the most effective means of creating the space for such participation in God — a “schola Christi”(Benedicta Ward, Anselm of Canterbury: A Monastic Scholar [SLG Press, 1973], p. 22). But he was also insistent in beckoning all men and women to pursue a joyous participation in God.

For Anselm the mark of such divine participation is joy, a point that will undoubtedly convict many Christians. It certainly convicts me. Again, from the Proslogion:

My God and my Lord, my hope and the joy of my heart, tell my soul if this is the joy of which you speak through your Son: “Ask and you will receive, that your joy may be complete” (John 16:24). For I have discovered a joy that is complete and more than complete. Indeed, when the heart is filled with that joy, the mind is filled with it, the soul is filled with it, the whole man is filled with it, yet joy beyond measure will remain. The whole of that joy, then, will not enter into those who rejoice, but those who rejoice will enter wholly into that joy.

Speak, Lord, tell your servant within his heart if this is the joy into which your servants will enter who enter “into the joy of the Lord” (Matt. 25:21). But surely that joy in which your chosen ones will rejoice is that which “neither eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man” (1 Cor. 2:9).

How beautiful is this theme of joy! Barth noted that Anselm’s famous Cur Deus Homo is first and foremost concerned with drawing the believer into delight (Anselm, p. 15), and Gasper’s work on Anselm highlighted how the theme of theological joy was not only present throughout his corpus but was embodied in the response of his listeners whenever he spoke in public (Anselm of Canterbury, p. 36). Here is a theologian whose experience was so thoroughly shot through with God’s joy that he was able to draw others into the same.

Theologians today would do well to reflect on the legacy of Anselm, grounding their work in an organic rule of life that arises out of the wellspring of the historic patterns and practices of the Church. How may theology best give rise to prayer, and prayer give rise to theology?

Meanwhile, clergy, theologians, and laypeople alike should apply to themselves Anselm’s challenging criterion of joy. How joyous are we, and do our people, family, and friends experience us as joyful?

In these ways we may find ourselves following in the footsteps of Anselm: man of the Church, monastic theologian, and joyful master of prayer.



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