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Catholic Culture Solidarity

Be on Fire with Love for your Saviour

by Giovanni Velocci


This article by Giovanni Velocci was written for the occasion of the feast of St. Anselm, Doctor of the Church (April 21). The author provides a brief overview of the saint's teachings on God's mercy and justice for mankind.

Larger Work

L'Osservatore Romano



Publisher & Date

Vatican, April 9, 2008

The liturgical Memorial of St Anselm (1039-1109) is celebrated on 21 April. This Bishop and Doctor of the Church is known in the history of theology as the defender of the rights of God and of justice for humankind.

Indeed, in his book Cur Deus Homo (Why God became man) he described the Redemption brought about by Christ with arguments which give great prominence to the juridical aspect; on the basis of the satisfaction doctrine he deduced the absolute necessity of the Incarnation, reasoning that sin infinitely offends God's honour, and God, who is just, must demand full atonement for that. Man himself, who is not equal to God, cannot do this adequately; atonement can only be made by the man-God representing all humanity.

Historians of theology have generally reproached Anselm for his excessively juridical method that requires a strictly "super-rogational" act at the risk of separating Christ's death from his life as a whole, and refer the application of the Saviour's merits to an artificial convention between the Father and the Son at the expense of the Pauline notion of solidarity.

Redemption is presented under a sort of contract between the offended Father and the victim Son; the Son suffers and dies to atone for the injury suffered by the Father. Christ's passion and death are thus moved to the top place in the plan of the redemptive economy, to the detriment of his inner state of obedience and love.

Anselm's recourse to this juridical perspective was based on the credit, out of place here, granted to the traditional logic and on the claim to demonstrate the dogma rationally.

Some people add that the minimal limitation of St Anselm's theology is not to be found in what he said but rather in what he left unsaid; in fact, he spoke too little of God's love as the root of the work of Redemption and of sanctifying grace as its ultimate result.

A basic reservation, however, can be opposed to the criticism of historical theologians: they consider St Anselm's thought from an isolated visual perspective limited to his book, Cur Deus Homo, in which prominence is given to the juridical aspect.

But it is a fundamental rule of any correct methodology to look at an author's thought in his writings as a whole compared to subsequent times.

The reading of all Anselm's works therefore brings us to a different, richer and more varied vision, which contains other aspects of Redemption such as love, grace and kindness, in which justice is combined with mercy; some of these works include the Monologion (Soliloquy), the Proslogion (Dialogue), the Letters (400), the Meditations and the Prayers.

In thinking about the time when these works were composed, one notes that the theme of justice was prevalent when Cur Deus Homo was written, whereas the topic of mercy is more continuous in all that embraces a longer span of life.

In the Monologion, one of his first books, Anselm had already resolved to demonstrate God's existence with the attribute of goodness which suggests numerous levels. It is God who expresses its highest level because he is supreme, subsisting goodness.

The theme of mercy is very present in the Meditations and in the Prayers, which were recited often, and moreover, imply deep sincerity for they are addressed to God and embody the profound experience of the soul.

Letters of Spiritual Direction

The Letters, written over many years, refer frequently to the topics of mercy and love but rarely to justice and punishment. They were addressed to various figures: Bishops, monks, priests, a few lay people and rulers.

They demonstrate what can be called St Anselm's spiritual direction, inspired by understanding and kindliness, because the general rule in approaching people was and is love.

Another recurrent aspect is Christian joy, the fruit of faith and hope.

Anselm's writings are filled with autobiographical references on a par with the Confessions of St Augustine, of whom he declared himself a disciple.

And like Augustine, Anselm confessed his sins and exalted God's mercy which he experienced throughout his life: his own poverty bows to divine wealth.

Drawing inspiration from the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Shepherd who goes in search of his lost sheep, St Anselm says that God's goodness far exceeds his wretchedness.

Elaborating on St Paul's idea, Anselm views the Lord as "mother" and is certain of his tenderness and forgiveness.

In a long Meditation, he gives a moving description of his sinful state, interspersed by heartfelt invocations directed to God's mercy, his only hope. Here transpires the sentiment of the mystic, who sees even the smallest sin as a great offence to God.

Before the vision of divine judgement, Anselm exclaims: "I trust in his abundant charity and hope in the salvation of the Judge's infinite mercy". He is insistent, using intense and heartfelt words, such as: "Most bountiful God, who has never hated anything that you made, here is one whom you yourself created and redeemed. Why, O Lord, do you desire to condemn those who accuse themselves and call upon you, if you have never hated anything you created? O good Jesus, do not judge me severely, for you alone are the Saviour".

St Anselm speaks truly ex abuntantia cordis: "Lord, since you have created me, I must make a total gift of myself to you; since you have redeemed me through love, I must consecrate myself to you with deeper dedication . . .

"Lord, with what love shall I be able to reciprocate your wonderful love? What will I give in return for your immense gift? The sweetness of your kindness exceeds every human sentiment. The greatest of your love transcends any thanksgiving."

Anselm became peaceful when he entrusted himself to God's mercy: "Most clement Lord, good and wise Creator, judge me according to your own invaluable mercy".

Anselm does not limit himself to his own personal case but extends his reflection to the whole Church, to all men and women redeemed by Christ who wants them all to be saved.

In tune with St Paul, Anselm writes that the greater the human wretchedness, the greater the Divine pardon: "Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more" (Rom 5:20).

In his vision of the Redemption Anselm surpasses the level of justice to affirm mercy: "Truly, God is supremely good and eternally merciful . . . his goodness shines out in the Cross on which Jesus, as a holy Host offered to the Father, desires to suffer death".

The entire Trinity contributes to the salvation of the world, as can be seen in the following prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, who, through the disposition of the Father and with the cooperation of the Holy Spirit, has mercifully redeemed the world from sin and eternal death by your death accepted with spontaneous willingness, may you bring everyone to eternal salvation".

In letters he addressed to Benedictine monks, Anselm the Benedictine always gave prime place to God's clemency and goodness and his motherly gentleness. He wrote to them: "May your hope not be in man but in God, from whom all good things come; confide your every preoccupation to him".

He warmly recommended that the monks always remember St Benedict's great maxim: "Never despair of God's mercy". To one monk he wrote: "Relish the goodness of the Redeemer, be on fire with love for your Saviour, meditating and delighting in it . . . Jesus, our good Lord, a gentle man, comes to seek and to save the lost sinner".

© L'Osservatore Romano

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