Anselm Agonistes: the Dilemma of a Benedictine Made Bishop
At Gloucester on 6 March 1093,1 William II (1056-1100), king of England, thinking himself near death, turned his mind to the vacant archbishopric of Canterbury. When his years had seemed unnumbered, William Rufus (as the king was known) resisted the appointment of a new archbishop. Canterbury's vacancy had proven lucrative, allowing diversion of the weight of its episcopal revenues to the crown. So profitable was the arrangement that by the time of this Gloucester court, the Canterbury interregnum had been allowed to perdure almost four years, since May of 1089.
The seeming approach of death and the imminence of divine judgement, however, had changed matters; they induced the king to remedy his course and rectify neglect. Urged by his prelates and nobles, Rufus determined upon Anselm (1033-1109)2 the Benedictine philosopher and abbot of Bec in Normandy, as successor to England's primatial see. It was a popular, albeit untoward, selection. Anselm was regarded with great affection, but a politician as savvy as William II should have anticipated the Norman abbot's disconsonance with the English court.
Anselm seemingly perceived what the king did not. He promptly declined the bishopric, occasioning a prefigurative conflict of wills between churchman and monarch that would be repeated and exacerbated throughout William's reign and, after a brief respite, continue under Henry I. Rufus misread the monk's reluctance as a modest pose; whereas, for Anselm, demurring on Canterbury was but a prudent response to an agonizing moral dilemma. From Anselm's perspective, the threat Canterbury posed, with its pressing obligations at court and its vast administrative responsibilities, was diversion from the focus upon God, distraction from the manifest propinquity to the Divine Being that was the monastery's unique and highly prized provision. By its disharmony with his monastic vocation, a course already vouchsafed and vowed, episcopacy offered not the summit of his career but its dissolution. And that, Anselm maintained, discredited the proposed promotion to Canterbury.
Anselm The Benedictine
This reasoning was bred in the Benedictine monastery, where Anselm had found a practical, congenial, economical, and efficacious venue for the divine purposes he had embraced. In the monastery, Anselm had been able to fashion his life as a corrective to the ordinary human condition. The logic seemed self-evident: Man was made to see God but had been banished to this world of blindness3 thus rather than born to beatitude, Anselm, like the rest of mankind, was left to quest for God. And that effort demanded that all of a person's thought and all his praxis be vigilantly attuned to the one worthy vision.4 The monastery allowed Anselm efficient means for such a focus upon God, placing his whole existence in divine context. Thus arose the incongruity of the summons at Gloucester, that discordant interjection wherein divine purposes seemed altered, where God seemingly asked Anselm to abandon his straight path for a tortuous one, to sacrifice the clarity of Benedictine vision for the complicated purview of episcopacy. It was an afflictive and inescapable agony that he suffered: seemingly distracted from God by God.5
Typically, Anselm's analysis considers Canterbury not as a professional question6 but as a moral one. Since it pertained to the conduct of his life, the issue could only be addressed in those terms as a moral discernment, viz. a matter of how he might conform most perfectly to God and His purposes. Not surprisingly, the answer to Anselm's dilemma was to be found in the eloquent rectitude of Saint Benedict, a man whose life Anselm described as a continual turning to God.7 And Anselm's monastic affinity no less than rational analysis would not allow him to abandon the cloister readily, nor to indulge its compromise if pressured toward accommodation.
The Imposition Of Canterbury
It is a considerable understatement to say that Anselm did not readily accede to investiture with Canterbury.8 At best he was antipathetic to the appointment and responded with aversion. Clamorous pleas and orders from both nobles and prelates urged his acquiescence, but Anselm remained obdurate.
Rufus, infuriated at Anselm's resistance, ordered all who were present to kneel before the bishop-elect in acknowledgement of his election. But Anselm, not to be out-maneuvered, immediately knelt to them, begging pity. The prelates, in response, seized the abbot bodily; they forced his hand open while the king pressed the crozier between Anselm's thumb and forefinger; then, finally, amid the abbot's groans and protestations— as well as a case of emotionally induced nosebleed—the bishops held Anselm's hand tightly around the staff, pronouncing him properly invested. That accomplished, the bishop-elect was forcibly escorted to the church, Te Deum in progress, while he chastised his assailants and proclaimed the nullity of this coercive imposition of office.9
Beyond the legal issue, this promotion erected a moral dilemma that was distinct to Anselm, his concept of probity, and his Benedictine integrity. To Anselm, the state of a monk and that of a bishop seemed incompatible. His was not the theology that would be sponsored in later centuries by doctors like Thomas, an understanding whereby a bishop-elect is reckoned as summoned to a higher perfection.10 Instead, for Anselm, the Benedictine monk, promotion must be characterized according to the distraction it promised, the separation it augured from efficient means indigenous to the cloister. Anselm had approached those means by vowing himself to God triply, pledging stability at Bec, conversatio morum11 and obedience according to the Rule of Benedict.12 By that monastic profession, he had embraced a perpetual and unending13 obligation to glorify God in all things,14 to do his good works in the environment of the cloister and stability of his monastery,15 to truly—before all else—seek God.16 A Benedictine, Anselm believed, could not in good conscience abandon those vows, that path to God. Accordingly, if indeed God had (now) also called him to Canterbury, it was necessary that Canterbury and Benedict not conflict, and that Anselm ensure the preservation of monastic rectitude, the prospect of continued conformity to the divinity,
The Life Of Truth
The response whereby Anselm acceded to his promotion was a radical restatement of vocational theology, or more precisely, of Benedictine character. It reflected the unadorned evaluative protocol wherewith Anselm consistently addressed life, ensured his rectitude, and sought to promote his similitude with God. These were moral principles, a vocational vision that rested upon axial rubrics of divine accessibility,17 wise precepts whereby a person, by an absolute gift of self, 18 would effect that rectitude.19 Anselm derived his moral construct from the foundational logic of monasticism, a design intended to equip the monk for an incessant pursuit of God.
The monastic charism, as Anselm perceived it, was provocative and empowering. In Benedictine monasticism—perhaps noting his own experience as evidence—Anselm found a potent energy, a peculiarly transfigurative power. Vitally inculcated monasticism, Anselm's teachings suggest, imparts to the monk an explicitly Benedictine character, a monastic potency that continually seeks God. That Benedictinism,20 it would follow, once rendered inherent, integral, could be practiced ubique terrarum21 everywhere, always, even at Canterbury and in the court of William II. For in harnessing and integrating the power of his vocation, the Benedictine could correlate the fullness of his thought, his act, with divinity: perpetually, naturally, and as if by habit.22 There resulted, then, something more than consistency with divine purposes: There was conformity to divine being, what Anselm termed "similitude."23
Thus, by this understanding, Benedictine life enables the monk to acquire a character that need not be abandoned when outside the cloister.24 Because Benedictinism functions as a virtue (naturally and as if by habit), functionally it is proper to the monk, not merely to the monastery. The effect of that character, and that similitude or conformity to God, is truth.25 Truth is defined by Anselm as 'being as being is meant by God to be.'26 By that standard, while truth is an attribute of God,27 in man it is enrolled in character, manifested as rectitude (rectitudo)28 as being as one ought to be, in correspondence and confluence with God.29 There enters, then, a question of amplitude, of perfection. For, Anselm reasons, a being is truer the more he is likened unto absolute truth (God).30 The more one is as he is meant to be— which implies virtue, attentiveness to God, conformity to the Divine Being and His ways—the more he is rectitudinous or true. The gift of the self must be full, absolute,31 if there would be similitude.
It is also necessary that intention be unblemished: The gift of the self to God must indeed be for Him, for His sake,32 not for the sake of some other thing. For Anselm, that clarity of intention is an exacting but imperative standard, not to be minimized or compromised. It may be illustrated by the monk's disposition toward the Rule: Regardless of any seemingly good consequences, should the monk undertake his good works in order to satisfy the Rule or to please the abbot, his motivation would be reckoned misplaced, lacking proper orientation. For the monk would not then really be doing his good for the sake of God, but for the sake of those other things (e.g., for the Rule, for the abbot). A person must convert his perspective so thoroughly that he does not confuse such proximate goals (e.g., the prescriptions of the Rule) with ends. All must be for God: explicitly, willfully, intentionally for Him. Those proximate goals are not objectives in themselves; they are the means of the quest for God. So in any good that he undertakes, the monk is to make his effort for the sake of God, not for the sake of the Rule.
The integrity of the gift of self must be safeguarded further by remaining unsullied, inviolate no less than straightforward and attuned to God. Anselm illustrates this by noting that one would not pick a pearl from the mire then preserve it uncleaned.33 So it is with the gift of self: If he would be received in the divine embrace, the person must first burnish his being with truth; otherwise, he would not be accounted readied to give himself fully to the Being who is absolute truth. Sin (separation from God) is inconsistent with the absolute gift of self.
The question must arise herein whether Anselm is either presenting an impossible ambition or perhaps setting a standard so absolute that it necessarily augurs defeat. For if either is the case, Anselm's principle would suggest separation from, rather than union with, God.
He averts that effect by basing his position upon necessity: God calls the person to this gift of self, and whatever God wills is necessarily possible. Moreover, it is never necessary that the touch upon God be withheld, since God does not will separation, Thus, it cannot be contended that separation from God is incumbent to the human condition. God wills that souls be united to Him; therefore, necessarily, cleaving to Him is practicable.
Still, this conformity to God must be understood in the context of two other crucial Anselmian principles. First, there is the 'continual turning to God' that characterizes Benedictine life. A single turn does not secure a lifetime of similitude. The Benedictine Rule envisions adherence to God as a matter requiring perseverance, even unto death. This is reflected in the monastic vows: conversatio morum, not mere conversio. God calls the soul to perfection, to perfect conformity with Him, to similitude, but that call is indicative of a perpetual rather than a climactic dynamic.
There is a second pivotal element, also Benedictine, that makes the absolute gift of self practicable; so integral is this principle to Anselm that it serves as underpinning to all of his moral thought: Whatever good one attempts, God must bring it to its conclusion.34 By this precept, the quest for God—an enterprise desired by both God and man—is rendered cooperative; divinity must be relied upon to bring the soul's good intentions to a proper end. What is impossible for man alone is imminently achievable in cooperation with the God who has called the person to that end.35
Thus the call to perfection, to the absolute gift of self and the similitude that follows upon it, is neither an impediment to the quest nor an obstacle to its attainment. For disunion from God (i.e. sin) never carries necessity. 36 It must be traced to the will, since no temptation is stronger than a rightly ordered will. Sin, which for Anselm is a look away from God, any separation from Him,37 requires an act of the will; it cannot be forced.38 Therefore, human perfection, the life of truth, cannot be stolen:39 to be lost it must be given away.40 It is possible, with a grace-fed, rightly ordered will, to stretch toward the divine Being.
For Anselm, this moral construct carried an immediate pertinence to episcopal election. By eliminating any necessity whereby Canterbury (if the vocation is indeed divine in origin) need distract him from God, Anselm preserved it from (necessarily) discrediting his monastic vows. Thus the burden of integrity (should he accept the primatial see) would depend upon Anselm's own probity, his strength of will, his employment of grace. Thereby, Anselm averts the erection of what had seemed a bifurcation in divine intentions. If his Benedictinism had indeed, through thirty-three years of monastic life (1060-1093), been vitally inculcated, Anselm should, with grace, possess the wherewithal of fidelity and of constancy to God. Saint Anselm draws this rubric from the Rule. It is the same principle as Benedict invokes in Chapter One: Once the monk has been perfected in community, he may legitimately set out in single combat.41
Thus Anselm's focus, as won in the monastery, effects his shift from the professional question of assuming the bishopric to the moral question of fidelity. If Canterbury cannot force a distraction from divinity and divine purposes, and if this course is indeed asked of him by Providence, then the issue for Anselm relates specifically (and more narrowly) to the probity—the truth—of his acceptance and execution of that vocation. It was a test he would face daily throughout the sixteen years (1093-1109) he would hold the English primacy.
These, then, are the precepts of Anselmian morality, the standards for assessing human conduct according to its conformity with divinity and divine purposes. Their design was integral to his eventual acceptance of Canterbury.
1. Each person owes God (who is the soul's source and end) an absolute gift of self. 42
2. The self is given by perfect conformity to God,43 especially to His truth. Anselm clarifies this by defining truth in moral terms: Truth is being as being is meant by God to be.44
3. The soul is truer the more she is like or in conformity with God.45
4. Because all is to be for God and in conformity with Him,46 a good, to be good, must be done for His sake and not for the sake of some other thing.47
5. Constancy in this effort is possible because it is never necessary to turn from God.48 No force, no temptation whatsoever is more powerful than the will.49 God calls us to go to Him,50 to remain with Him, not to lie apart. And the will is powerful enough to choose Him over any temptation or alternative.51 Thus any separation from God (i.e. sin) must be willed by the person; it cannot be imposed.52
6. This consistent choice of the good for the sake of God conforms the soul to Him, increasing her truth.53
7. It allows for the life of truth, for conformity to God (similitude), consistency with Him. And by that conformity the soul acquires an integral and uncompromised rectitude, a vital truth54 in which being is as being is meant to be.
These, then, are the standards that mark rectitude and erect truth. They function not as a moral inventory, but as a narrative of integrity. If Anselm's reasoning is valid, realization of these canons, of this comprehensive focus upon divinity, allows him to accept the revision of his vocation without compromising rectitude. But it all hinges upon the monastery and its efficacious provisions: Anselm could only accept Canterbury because the monastery, because Benedict and his Rule, had prepared him to retain an enduring attentiveness and responsiveness to God. Benedictinism lent him the means, it cultivated his faculty, for the life of truth.
There remained for Anselm, however, the need for confirmation that his call to episcopacy was providential and that it harmonized with his sworn obligations as a Benedictine and abbot. Accordingly, he sought to legitimize his translation to Canterbury through the endorsement, or at least the acquiescence, of those to whom abbatial duty connected him most immediately. So from William, archbishop of Rouen (reigned 1079-1110), in whose province Bec lay, Anselm sought and received endorsement of the promotion.55 That assurance was given readily. Robert Curthose, duke of Normandy (reigned 1087-1106, died 1134), in whose duchy Bec was situated, also endorsed the appointment.56 He seems, however, to have been acceding to Rufus' will as much as God's. Finally, in the third approval, the monks of Bec reluctantly and belatedly accepted Anselm's promotion.57
Nonetheless, such was the strength of his tie to Bec that even with these permissions, Anselm did not accept that his paternity over Bec could be severed entirely. So he rectified his distance from the Bec monks by nominating and securing the election of his successor as abbot, sponsoring the elevation of William of Beaumont to the throne of Bec. In that way, he met his obligation to provide—despite his own removal—for the governance of the monks to whom he had pledged abbatial paternity.
Despite these three endorsements, however, Anselm's acceptance of this change in his vocation remained fraught with conditions and marked by hesitation. Even though Anselm had already admitted—indeed prior to requesting the three permissions—that the call to Canterbury was divine,58 he did not return the abbatial crozier to Bec (indicative of his acceptance of the promotion) until mid-August 1093. And throughout his struggle (March-August 1093) over accepting episcopacy, but especially in the beginning, Anselm consistently declined to paint his acquiescence as an embrace of the promotion, denoting it instead as a resignation to the divine will.59 His prayer was that this cup might pass to another.60
The Benedictine Test Of Vocation
In a sense, though, despite all the conditions, the real test of Canterbury61—if we allow Anselm to be tried by his own standards—lay not in the primatial throne itself, its content or implications, nor in the political responsibilities it carried, nor even in the distractions it would inflict. Instead, it was Benedict's effectiveness that Anselm tested in England. For episcopacy would assay the endurance and transfigurative power of his continual turning to God.62 His rectitude in the British primacy would be weighed by the integrity of his monastic character. And, it may be contended, the stormy years that followed (1093-1109)— fraught with conflict, exile, shattered hopes, exile again, and prelates and nobles aligned against him—showed repeatedly that Anselm would hold—that he really could hold—for rectitude, for truth, even at the cost of comfort, of peace, of prosperity, of quiet, but never at the price of his fidelity to the One whose Being is absolute truth.
The truth that emerged from Anselm's agony over the move from monastery to episcopal palace was the realization that a vibrant Benedictinism outfits the monk to follow God without respite, or at least without any enduring respite. It allows him to evince the bearing that reflects attunement to God;63 the integrity by which holiness pertains to his being, to his core;64 the transfiguration whereby, having been strengthened among his confreres for battle, he would now go forth in single combat.65 It had, in essence, taught him the art of glorifying God in all things66—or at least that is what he was prepared to test. In the end, Anselm could enter upon the episcopacy because he was a Benedictine, not despite it.
1 This account is drawn from Eadmer of Canterbury's Vita Anselmi (II:2) and Historia Novorum in Anglia (part 2). The former will be indicated as VA; the latter as HN. The best English translations are: Eadmer, The Life of Anselm, translated and edited by R.W. Southern (Oxford: Clarendon Press,  1979). And: Eadmer's History of Recent Events in England, translated by Geoffrey Bosanquet (London: Cresset Press, 1964).
2 Anselm was a native of Aosta, a city of the Italian Piedmont, then under the lordship of Burgundy. He was of a good family, and was outfitted with education and, under the influence of his mother, Ermenburga, a strong faith and piety. At age fifteen, he was thwarted in his first pursuit of a monastic vocation. There followed a period marked by other interests until at twenty-three he abandoned patrimony and crossed the Alps in search of God. After three years, he alighted at Bec where he studied for a year under the eminent scholar Lanfranc of Pavia. Anselm then entered the monastery.
3 Anselm, Proslogion, 1. Citations of the Proslogion (Pros) in this essay indicate the chapter number.
4 Anselm holds that the soul was created for the purpose of knowing and loving God. Anselm, Monologion, 68. Citations of the Monologion (Mono) in this essay indicate the chapter number.
5 I have discussed the conflict suffered by abbot-bishops at greater length in a biography of the American abbot-bishop Leo Haid, O.S.B. (1849-1924): Paschal Baumstein, My Lord of Belmont: A Biography of Leo Haid (Kings Mountain: Herald House, 1985).
6 Anselm was, nonetheless, concerned with public perceptions and potential for undeserved scandal. Cf. Anselm, Epistles 148, 156, 158, 159, 160, 164. References to Anselm's letters (Ep) in this essay are numbered according to the edition of Walter Frohlich: The Letters of Saint Anselm of Canterbury, in three volumes, translated by Walter Frohlich (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1990, 1993, 1994).
7 Anselm, 'Prayer to Benedict', line 21. For English translation, cf. The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm With the Proslogion, translated by Benedicta Ward (London: Penguin, 1973). This concept of Benedictine life as a continuous turning to God is an undercurrent to Anselm's whole perspective on divine accessibility.
8 This account of Anselm's investiture is taken from VA, HN, Vitae Willelmi et Bosoni, De Libertate Beccensis Monasterii (DLB). Translations of the first two are cited in n.l, supra. The last two are translated into English in the appendices to: Sally N. Vaughn, The Abbey of Bec and the Anglo-Norman State, 1034-1136 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1981). Anselm, fearing advancement to Canterbury, had resisted journeying to England. He crossed the Channel only after being assured by Hugh, Earl of Chester, that his rumored episcopal elevation was no longer expected. Anselm left Bec on 26 August 1092; he attended first to business in Boulogne, then crossed the Channel, debarking at Dover. From that port city he travelled directly to Canterbury, arriving on 7 September 1092. There, however, his immunity to promotion was promptly discredited as the monks clamored for his accession. Anselm was so shaken by that incident that he departed surreptitiously early the next morning without even saying the Mass of the Marian nativity. Still, even as his stay in England was prolonged, Anselm seems to have perceived no pending danger of episcopal elevation.
9 It should be noted that even today there are historians who would characterize this bishop-elect's protestations as no more than a topos (a conventional response to ecclesial promotion, a pious ritual intended to express purported unworthiness). Cf„ for example. Sally N. Vaughn, "St. Anselm: Reluctant Archbishop?", Albion, vi (1974), 240-250.
10 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q184, a.7
11 Conversatio morum is difficult to translate precisely into English. It may best be understood by contrasting it with conversio which would indicate a precise occasion of "conversion"; whereas, conversatio morum would suggest an ongoing "conversion" of the manner of life, in this case from secular to monastic living.
12 Benedict of Nursia, Regula Benedicti, 58:17. Citations of the Rule of Benedict (RB) in this essay give the chapter and verse.
13 RB 58:15-16; cf. Prologue:50.
14 RB 57:9.
15 RB 4:78.
16 RB 58:7.
17 Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, I:21. References to Cur Deus Homo (CDH) indicate the book and chapter. 18 Mono 49, 68, 74; Pros 25; CDH I:5, I:20.
18 Mono 49, 68, 74; Pros 25; CDH I:5, I:20.
19 Cf. Anselm, De Veritate, 2, 4. Citations of De Veritate (DV) indicate the chapter. This reliance by Anselm upon God's presence is particularly noteworthy, since he commonly bemoans the Lord's seeming distance (e.g. Pros 1).
20 "Benedictinism" is a term to which many scholars object, as a general rule, but it is distinctly applicable to Anselm's pervasive integration of the Rule according to its elemental principles. Anselm was rather indiscriminate in urging vocations to the monastery, being unable to conceive of a life that furthered conformity with God more perfectly [for example, cf. Ep 121]. On the fact that there is no better occupation than attentiveness to God, cf. Mono 68.
21 On the monk's geographically unconfined Benedictinism see discussion in: David Knowles, The Benedictines (New York: Macmillan,  1930), 59-60.
22 Cf. RB 7:68.
23 Anselm holds that a good, to be good, must be good through the supreme Good (God). Mono 1.
24 This perspective may be linked to the teaching of RB 50 and 51.
25 DV 13.
26 DV 10.
27 Mono 16; DV 1.
28 DV 4, 10, 13.
29 DV 13.
30 Mono 31, 36.
31 Mono 68. Cf. Deut 6:4-9; Lk 10:27; RB 4:1; Mono 74; Pros 25.
32 Mono 70; CDH II:1.
33 CDH I:19.
34 RB Pro:4.
35 Cf. LK 18:27.
36 Anselm, De Libertate Arbitrii, 2, 6, 7, 9, 11. And Anselm, De Concordia Praescientiae et Praedestinationis et Gratiae Dei cum Libero Arbitrio, I:6. And CDH II-11. References in this essay to De Libertate Arbitrii (D.Lib) indicate chapter numbers. References to De
Concordia (D.Con) indicate the number of the question, then the section.
37 CDH I:21.
38 D.Lib 2, 3, 5, 6, 9, 11, 12.
39 This precept, if valid, would seem to beg a revision in the traditional theology of the soul's "dark night."
40 D.Con I:6. Cf. RB 4:43.
41 RB I:5.
42 Mono 68, 74; Pros 25; CDH I:5, I:20.
43 Mono 1, 31, 36, 49, 66; DV 2.
44 DV 10.
45 Mono 31, 36.
46 Mono 1; Pros 18; CDH I:5, I:18, I:20, I:21, II:1.
47 Mono 70, CDH II:1.
48 D.Lib 2, 5, 6, 7, 9, 11, 12; D.Con I:6. Cf. CDH I:21, II:11.
49 D.Lib 5, 7, 9; D.Con I:6.
50 Mono 68, 76; Pros 25, 26.
51 D.Lib 6,9.
52 Cf. CDH I:21.
53 Mono 31, 36.
54 DV 4, 7, 10, 13.
55 Ep 154.
56 Ep 153.
57 Ep 155.
58 Ep 148, 151.
59 Cf„ for example, Ep 148.
60 Ep 160.
61 It might be noted that Bec's approval was the most essential of the three since Anselm was pledged to Bec by vow; whereas, he had not pledged fealty to either Rouen or Normandy when acquiring his abbacy cf. DLB. For the story of Bec's exemptions cf. Sally N. Vaughn, The Abbey of Bec, op cit..
62 See n.7, supra.
63 RB 7:62.
64 Cf. RB 4:62.
65 RB 1:5.
66 RB 57:9.
Dom Paschal Baumstein is a Benedictine monk and priest at Belmont Abbey and Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina. He has published extensively in spiritual theology and philosophy, and in intellectual and monastic history. His specialty is Saint Anselm of Canterbury.
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