"Everyone who belongs to the Truth hears my voice…" (John 18:37)

St. Anselm of Canterbury – Doctor of the Church

Born: 1033 in Aosto, Italy (Holy Roman Empire)

Died: April 21, 1109 in Canterbury, England

Canonized: 1163, by Pope Alexander III

Proclaimed a Doctor of the Church: 1720, by Pope Clement XI

Feast Day: April 21

Attributes: His mitre, pallium, and crozier; his books; a ship, representing the spiritual independence of the Church

“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 [Mt 6: 61]. Speak now, my whole heart, speak now to God: ‘I seek your countenance, O Lord, Your countenance I seek’ [Ps 26:8].”1

A 12th century illumination from the Meditations of St. Anselm*

The first time I read these opening lines of the Proslogion by St. Anselm of Canterbury, I felt a profound sense of relief. It was as though a weight had been lifted from my chest and an abundance of healing balm had washed over my souI. The invitation to let go of my cares and concerns – to turn away from the craziness of the world – was so gentle, yet so irresistible. I was reminded that none of my earthly concerns were all that important – that everything is passing and temporal. I felt safe abandoning myself to God and resting in His arms. It was a moment of great grace and profound peace, and even today these words have tremendous power over me. I can never read them without pausing for a moment to breathe deep of the fragrance of my Lord, to turn my eyes towards Him and remember that He is the reason for my being. It is His face that I seek; He is the One thing in life that is truly necessary (Lk 10:41-42).

St. Anselm of Canterbury

St. Anselm, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 until the time of his death in 1109, was a Benedictine monk, abbot, philosopher, and theologian. His accomplishments were many.

St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

As Archbishop of Canterbury, he defended the rights and liberties of the Church, claiming the right to invest bishops with the symbols of the Church’s spiritual jurisdiction: the pallium, ring, and crozier (the pastoral staff that symbolizes the bishop’s role as Good Shepherd).As a scholar, he is credited with the founding of Scholasticism, a system of theology and philosophy taught in Medieval universities. This method of learning is based on Aristotelian logic and the writings of the early Church fathers. It emphasizes dialectical reasoning – that is, a ‘conversation’ between two or more people who have different points of view, whose purpose is to find the truth by means of reasoned arguments.3 St. Anselm is also famous for developing the ontological argument for the existence of God and the satisfaction theory of atonement.4 He had a great devotion to our Blessed Mother Mary “and was the first to establish the feast of the Immaculate Conception in the West.”5

Early Years

Anselm was born in Aosta, Italy (then part of the kingdom of Burgundy) in the year 1033. His father, Gundulf, and his mother, Ermenberga, were both of noble birth, and the family lived an affluent life. Ermenberga was a faith filled woman, and it was she who turned Anselm’s heart and mind to the things of God. By the age of 15, he had resolved to live his life according to God’s will, and he decided that the best way to do that was to become a monk. Anselm was acquainted with an abbot, and he went to the monastery to ask permission to be admitted. But Anselm’s father was not a religious man, and the abbot was afraid of offending Gundulf. Although Anselm was persistent, the abbot refused to admit the boy without his father’s permission.

As Anselm grew older, he gradually lost interest in religious life. Once a dedicated student, he now began to neglect his studies and was much more interested in youthful amusements and worldly pursuits. At first, his love for his mother and her influence over him tempered his activities, but after she died (in 1056) there was nothing to hold him back. To make the situation even more difficult, Anselm had a falling out with his father. Gundulf hated him and treated him so harshly that it became too much for Anselm to bear. Afraid that something terrible would happen between them if he stayed, Anselm broke with his father and left home.6

Bec Abbey, France: West side of the Tour Saint-Nicolas.**
The ancient pottery is to its left, and the monks’ residential building is on the right.

Life as a Benedictine Monk

Anselm spent the next three years wandering throughout Burgundy and France before arriving at the Abbey of Our Lady of Bec (in Normandy). There, he sought out a monk named Lanfranc, a truly good and religious man whose wisdom and fame had attracted the best clerks7 from all over the world. Anselm placed himself under Lanfranc’s guidance, soon becoming one of his most devoted disciples; he dedicated himself to study and helped teach others at the abbey. Over time, Anselm came to realize that what he most wanted in life was to please God and, turning his back on the things of the world, he rediscovered his vocation to religious life.8

At the age of 26, Anselm took his religious vows at the Benedictine monastery. He performed his duties so well and with such devotion and piety that when Lanfranc was sent to govern the monastery at Caen three years later (in 1063), Anselm succeeded him as prior.9 In The Life of St. Anselm, Eadmer writes, “He began to devote his whole self and his whole time to serving God, and he put the world and all its affairs entirely behind him. And so it came about that, being continually given up to God and to spiritual exercises, he attained such a height of divine speculation, that he was able by God’s help to see into and unravel many most obscure and previously insoluble questions about the divinity of God and about our faith, and to prove by plain arguments that what he said was firm and catholic truth.”10

The Teachings of St. Anselm

St. Anselm has been described as “the most luminous and penetrating intellect between St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.”11 He became particularly well known, both in the monastic community and in the wider community, not only for the range and depth of his insight into human nature, the virtues and vices, and the practice of moral and religious life, but also for the intensity of his devotions and asceticism.”12

In 1070, St. Anselm began to write prayers and meditations; he also wrote many letters to monastic friends and noblewomen. But ultimately, his teaching and thinking found its voice in a set of treatises and dialogues. The Monologion (1077) is so named because in it, Anselm speaks and argues with himself, seeking to discover by reason alone what God is and proving that God’s nature is what the true faith holds it to be.13 In the Proslogion (written in 1078 – the title stems from the fact that in it, St. Anselm is speaking either to himself or to God), he set out the first ontological argument for the existence of God (see footnote 4). The ‘dialogues’, which take the form of a lesson between an inquisitive student and a knowledgeable teacher, include Why God Was a Man (Cur Deus Homo), On the Grammarian (De Grammatico), On Truth (De Veritate), On The Freedom of Choice (De Libertate Arbitrii), and On The Devil’s Fall (De Casu Diaboli).

Under the direction of St. Anselm, Bec became the foremost seat of learning in Europe, attracting students not only from other parts of France, but also Italy and other parts of the world.

Medieval Manuscript of the Hare

The Story of Anselm and the Hare

We might be tempted to think that St. Anselm was so brilliant that he had nothing to share with those of us who are not philosophers. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was a practical man whose teachings were often inspired by everyday occurrences, as illustrated by the famous story of Anselm and the hare:

 “Anselm left the court and, while he was hastening to his manor at Hayes, the boys of his household with their dogs chased a hare which they came upon in the road. As they were pursuing it, it fled between the feet of the horse on which Anselm sat. The horse stood still; and Anselm – knowing that the wretched animal looked to find a place of refuge beneath him, and not wishing to deny it the help it needed – drew his horse by the reins and kept it still. The dogs came round, snuffling about on all sides and restrained against their will, but they could neither make it move from under the horse, nor harm it in any way. We were astonished at the sight. But Anselm, when he saw some of the horsemen laugh and make merry at the expense of the cornered animal, burst into tears and said: ‘You laugh, do you? But there is no laughing, no merry-making, for this unhappy beast. His enemies stand round about him, and in fear of his life he flees to us asking for help. So it is with the soul of man: when it leaves the body, its enemies – the evil spirits which have haunted it along all the crooked ways of vice while it was in the body – stand round without mercy, ready to seize it and hurry it off to everlasting death. Then indeed it looks round everywhere in great alarm, and with inexpressible desire longs for some helping and protecting hand to be held out to it, which might defend it. But the demons on the other hand laugh and rejoice exceedingly if they find that the soul is bereft of every support.’ When he had said this, he slackened his rein and set off again along the road, raising his voice and forbidding the dogs to chase the animal any more. Then the hare leapt up unhurt, and swiftly returned to its fields and woods; while we, no longer laughing and not a little uplifted by so affecting a deliverance for the frightened animal, followed the Father along our appointed way.”14

Archbishop of Canterbury

Lanfranc had served as Archbishop of Canterbury from 1070 until 1089. After his death, King William Rufus (also known as William II or William the Red) had delayed in appointing a successor because he wanted to keep the revenues due to the Episcopal seat for himself. At the urging of Hugh, Earl of Chester, Anselm travelled to England in 1092. He was proposed as the new bishop, but this was something that neither Anselm nor King Rufus wanted. But when the king fell ill and was afraid he might die, he relented and nominated Anselm as archbishop. Anselm was by nature a contemplative man, and he had no illusions about what was in store for him. He tried to argue that he was unfit for the post, but despite his protests, “he was dragged by force to the King’s bedside, and a pastoral staff was thrust into his closed hand; he was borne thence to the altar where the “Te Deum” was sung.”15 In the end he was persuaded to accept the appointment.

“Anselm Assuming the Pallium in Canterbury Cathedral”
from E.M. Wilmot-Buxton’s 1915 Anselm***

Anselm’s tenure as archbishop – as he had foreseen – was marked by constant conflict. King Rufus tried to appropriate church lands, offices, and incomes, and he even tried to have St. Anselm deposed. Forced into exile in 1097, Anselm went to Rome to plead the case of the English Church. He even asked to be relieved of his office, but Pope Urban II refused.

After King Rufus died in a hunting accident in 1100, the new king, Henry I, promised to submit to the counsel of the archbishop and invited Anselm to return to England. But once he was back, it didn’t take long before more conflict erupted between Anselm and the king. Henry supported reforms undertaken by Anselm and acknowledged his authority over the English church, but he continued to assert his authority over Anselm. He insisted on his right as king to appoint bishops and other church officials, and St. Anselm was forced to return to Rome once again. When Pope Paschal II ruled in Anselm’s favour, the king refused to allow him to return.

Reconciliation finally came about when Henry gave up his claim to ‘lay investiture’ (the appointment of bishops by non-church authorities). In addition, he promised he would return the revenues of Canterbury to the archbishop and agreed that priests would no longer be allowed to marry. Henry was also forced to restore all the churches seized by King Rufus, and he promised that nothing more would be taken. In return, Pope Paschal gave permission for clerics to do homage for their lands.16

Canterbury Cathedral, England****

In 1107, Anselm returned to England where he spent the final two years of his life taking care of the duties of his archbishopric. During this time, he was successful in persuading Pope Paschal to send the pallium for the Archbishop of York (who had insisted on its independence) to Canterbury, so that future archbishops-elect would have to profess obedience before they received it.

Anselm’s Death

By this time, Anselm’s health had begun to fail, and he became so ill that he developed an aversion for all food. Although he did his best to eat to keep up his strength, he became so weak that for the last six months of his life, he had to be carried into the church every day for Mass. For five days before he died, he could no longer get out of bed, but he continued to urge all who came to see him to “live each in his own station for God.”17

St. Anselm died peacefully as dawn was breaking on Holy Wednesday, April 21, 1109. His only regret was that he had not had time to settle a question about the origin of the soul. Many miracles and healings have been attributed to him – both during his life and after his death, and St. Thomas Becket (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 to 1170) asked Pope Clement XI to canonize St. Anselm at the Council of Tours (in 1163). History makes frequent mention of pilgrimages to his new shrine in Canterbury Cathedral, but as no formal record exists of the canonization, Archbishop Morton (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1486 to 1500) later asked Pope Alexander VI to make a formal declaration.

St. Anselm was not just admired within the Catholic community; he had the rare distinction of being honoured by people in all walks of life. The renowned German philosopher, Georg Hegel (1770-1831), had a great appreciation for Anselm’s mental powers that was matched by the English historian, Edward Freeman (1823-1892). Freeman wrote, “Stranger as he was, he has won his place among the noblest worthies of our island. It was something to be the model of all ecclesiastical perfection; it was something to be the creator of the theology of Christendom – but it was something higher still to be the very embodiment of righteousness and mercy, to be handed down in the annals of humanity as the man who saved the hunted hare and stood up for the holiness of Ælfheah.”18

  • Sharon van der Sloot

Prayer of St Anselm19

Dear Lord,

Let me seek you by desiring you,
and let me desire you by seeking you;
let me find you by loving you,
and love you in finding you.

I confess, Lord, with thanksgiving,
that you have made me in your image,
so that I can remember you,
think of you, and love you.

But that image is so worn and blotted out by faults,
and darkened by the smoke of sin,
that it cannot do that for which it was made,
unless you renew and refashion it.

Lord, I am not trying to make my way to your height,
for my understanding is in no way equal to that,
but I do desire to understand a little of your truth
which my heart already believes and loves.

I do not seek to understand so that I can believe,
but I believe so that I may understand;
and what is more,
I believe that unless I do believe,
I shall not understand. Amen.

Practical wisdom on raising children from St. Anselm:

“On one occasion then, a certain abbot, who was considered to be a sufficiently religious man, was talking with him about matters of monastic discipline, and among other things he said something about the boys brought up in the cloister, adding: ‘What, I ask you, is to be done with them? They are incorrigible ruffians. We never give over beating them day and night, and they only get worse and worse.’ Anselm replied with astonishment: ‘You never give over beating them? And what are they like when they grow up?’ ‘Stupid brutes,’ he said. To which Anselm retorted, ‘You have spent your energies in rearing them to good purpose: from men you have reared beasts.’ ‘But what can we do about it?’ he said; ‘We use every means to force them to get better, but without success.’ ‘You force them? Now tell me, my lord abbot, if you plant a tree-shoot in your garden, and straightway shut it in on every side so that it has no space to put out its branches, what kind of tree will you have in after years when you let it out of its confinement?’ ‘A useless one, certainly, with its branches all twisted and knotted.’ ‘And whose fault would this be, except your own for shutting it in so unnaturally? Without doubt, this is what you do with your boys. At their oblation they are planted in the garden of the Church, to grow and bring forth fruit for God. But you so terrify them and hem them in on all sides with threats and blows that they are utterly deprived of their liberty. And being thus injudiciously oppressed, they harbour and welcome and nurse within themselves evil and crooked thoughts like thorns, and cherish these thoughts so passionately that they doggedly reject everything which could minister to their correction. Hence, feeling no love or pity, good-will or tenderness in your attitude towards them, they have in future no faith in your goodness but believe that all your actions proceed from hatred and malice against them. The deplorable result is that as they grow in body so their hatred increases, together with their apprehension of evil, and they are forward in all crookedness and vice. They have been brought up in no true charity towards anyone, so they regard everyone with suspicion and jealousy. But, in God’s name, I would have you tell me why you are so incensed against them. Are they not human? Are they not flesh and blood like you? Would you like to have been treated as you treat them, and to have become what they now are? Now consider this. You wish to form them in good habits by blows and chastisement alone. Have you ever seen a goldsmith form his leaves of gold or silver into a beautiful figure with blows alone? I think not. How then does he work? In order to mould his leaf into a suitable form he now presses it and strikes it gently with his tool, and now even more gently raises it with careful pressure and gives it shape. So, if you want your boys to be adorned with good habits, you too, besides the pressure of blows, must apply the encouragement and help of fatherly sympathy and gentleness.’ To which the abbot replied: ‘What encouragement? What help? We do all we can to force them into sober and manly habits.’ ‘Good,’ said Anselm, ‘just as all kinds of bread and solid food are good and wholesome for those who can digest them; but feed a suckling infant on such food, take away its milk, and you will see him strangled rather than strengthened by his diet. The reason for this is too obvious to need explanation, but this is the lesson to remember: just as weak and strong bodies have each their own food appropriate to their condition, so weak and strong souls need to be fed according to their capacity. The strong soul delights in and is refreshed by solid food, such as patience in tribulation, not coveting one’s neighbour’s goods, offering the other cheek, praying for one’s enemies, loving those who hate us, and many similar things. But the weak soul, which is still inexperienced in the service of God, needs milk – gentleness from others, kindness, compassion, cheerful encouragement, loving forbearance, and much else of the same kind. If you adapt yourself in this way according to the strength and weakness of those under you, you will by the grace of God win them all for God, so far at least as your efforts can.”20


1 St. Anselm, Proslogion; available from http://www.stanselminstitute.org/files/AnselmProslogion.pdf; Internet; accessed 21 February 2017.

2 Cf. “St. Anselm, Bishop and Doctor,” Catholic Culture.org; available from https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/calendar/day.cfm?date=2015-04-21; Internet; accessed 8 March 2017.

3 St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was another main figure in Scholasticism whose masterwork, the Summa Theologica, “is considered to be the pinnacle of scholastic, medieval, and Christian philosophy.” (Gilson, Etienne (1991), The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy (Gifford Lectures 1933-35) (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press), 490.

4 “The satisfaction theory of atonement is a theory in Christian theology that Jesus Christ suffered the Crucifixion as a substitute for human sin, satisfying God due to Christ’s infinite merit” (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satisfaction_theory_of_atonement). Anselm’s Ontological Argument can be summarized as follows:

  1. It is a conceptual truth (or, so to speak, true by definition) that God is a being than which none greater can be imagined (that is, the greatest possible being that can be imagined).
  2. God exists as an idea in the mind.
  3. A being that exists as an idea in the mind and in reality is, other things being equal, greater than a being that exists only as an idea in the mind.
  4. Thus, if God exists only as an idea in the mind, then we can imagine something that is greater than God (that is, a greatest possible being that does exist).
  5. But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God (for it is a contradiction to suppose that we can imagine a being greater than the greatest possible being that can be imagined.)
  6. Therefore, God exists.

Quoted from “Anselm: Ontological Argument for God’s Existence,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; available from http://www.iep.utm.edu/ont-arg/; Internet; accessed 11 March 2017.

5 “St. Anselm, Bishop and Doctor,” Catholic Culture.org.

6 Cf. Eadmer, The Life of St. Anselm; editor and translator, R.W. Southern (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1962); available from http://www.strobertbellarmine.net/books/Eadmer–Life_of_St_Anselm.pdf; Internet; accessed 8 March 2017, 7-8.

7 Cf. Ibid., 8. Clerics regular (clerks) are Catholic priests who are members of religious orders. They profess solemn vows and live a community life. Although they are devoted to the ministry of preaching and the administration of the sacraments, they do not possess cathedral or collegiate churches.

8 Cf. Ibid., 8-9.

9 A prior is second in rank to the abbot of a monastery. He assists the abbot in the government of the abbey and performs duties at the will and under the direction of the abbot. St. Anselm became abbot of Bec Abbey in 1078, and he served in that capacity until he was named Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093.

10 Eadmer, The Life of St. Anselm, 12.

11 “St. Anselm,” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 73-75.

12 Greg Sadler, “Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109),” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; available from http://www.iep.utm.edu/anselm/; Internet; accessed 8 March 2017.

13 Cf. Eadmer, The Life of St. Anselm, 29.

14 Ibid., 89-90.

15 William Kent, “St. Anselm,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 1 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907); available from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01546a.htm; Internet; accessed 14 March 2017.

16 In the Middle Ages, ‘homage’ “was the ceremony in which a feudal tenant or vassal pledged reverence and submission to his feudal lord, receiving in exchange the symbolic title to his new position (investiture).” Quote from “Homage (feudal),” Wikipedia; available from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homage_(feudal); Internet; accessed 14 March 2017.

17 Eadmer, The Life of St. Anselm, 141.

18 Ibid. Quoted from Edward Freeman, History of the Norman ConquestIV, 444 by William Kent, “St. Anselm,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 1. Ælfheah was Archbishop of Canterbury from 953-1012 (prior to Lanfranc). He was captured by Viking raiders in 1011 and killed by them the following year after refusing to allow himself to be ransomed. Lanfranc didn’t believe that Ælfheah could claim the honour of martyrdom because he hadn’t died for the Faith. St. Anselm successfully defended his case, reasoning that because Ælfheah died for a lesser reason – he knew that if the ransom was paid, it would impoverish his people – he would have been that much readier to die for the Faith. St. Ælfheah was canonized in 1078.

19 Prayer of St. Anselm from the Oxford Book of Prayer, ed. George Appleton.

20 Eadmer, The Life of St. Anselm, 37-39.

Images and photos:

*Unknown Miniaturist, English (active 12 century) – Web Gallery of Art:   Image info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15498249.

**Roland Brierre – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5138845.

***Morris Meredith Williams – Anselm by Ethel Mary Wilmot-Buxton, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41444317.

**** Antony McCallum – WyrdLight.com (2006); https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACanterbury-cathedral-wyrdlight.jpg.

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