St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) was a Benedictine monk who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was born in Aosta (a city in Italy), in the kingdom of Arles to a wealthy family with an aristocratic lineage. At the age of fifteen, he expressed a desire to enter a monastery, but his father, Gundulf, refused to give him permission, so the abbot denied him entry.
Disappointed, he became ill, which some believe was a psychosomatic illness. After his recovery, he lived a carefree life, eventually leaving home at the age of twenty-three. He wandered around Burgundy and France, eventually making his way to Normandy in 1059. After he had spent a year there, he entered the local Benedictine monastery at the age of twenty-seven. In doing so, he submitted himself to the Rule of St. Benedict and this reshaped his thought over the next decade.
Rising, so to speak, through the ranks, he became the prior of the Bec Abbey (Normandy), a post he held for fifteen years, eventually becoming abbot in 1079. Under Anselm’s leadership, Bec became a centre of learning, attracting students from France, Italy and beyond. It was during this time that he wrote his first works of philosophy, which included many influential works.
Anselm eventually was consecrated as the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093. In this post he worked hard to keep the church from outside influences. He held this post until his death on April 21, 1109.
Anselm’s life philosophy can be summed up in these words: “fides quaerens intellectum” — “faith seeking understanding”; which for him meant an active love for God seeking a deeper understanding of God. He wrote: “Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that, unless I believe I shall not understand.” Anselm also wrote, reflecting on John 7:14-18, “Therefore do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that you may understand.”
Anselm believed that faith precedes reason, but reason can expand upon faith.
“Unless I believe I shall not understand.” Do you get the significance of these words? What Anselm is telling us is that our faith is at the core of what we believe. But unless we are seeking daily to grow in our faith, our faith will be stagnant.
Anselm wrote: “Therefore do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that you may understand.”
This, I believe, is telling us something crucial. Seeking to put understanding before belief is like putting the cart before the horse. Before I became a believer, I knew nothing about the things of God. But it was when the Lord came into my life, it was through faith, that I came to believe in Christ. It was not because I understood. It was only after I believed that I began to grow in my understanding of Who Christ is. So faith came before understanding, and that has made all the difference in my life.
Finally, there is a song that means a lot to me and I would like to share the first stanza of it. It’s been rumbling around in my head for some time now. Some of you probably know it.
“In Christ alone, my hope is found,/ He is my light, my strength, my song;/The cornerstone, the solid ground,/Firm through the fiercest drought and storm./ What heights of love, what depths of peace,/ When fears are stilled, when strivings cease/ my comforter, my all in all —– / Here in the love of Christ I stand.”
May the Lord bless you, that you may believe, understand and grow in your faith in Christ.