Anselm - E. M. Wilmot-Buxton

Anselm the Monk

When the young Anselm left the sunny Val d'Aosta for the unknown country across the Alps, his mind was set upon one end and one alone. His conviction that he was called to the monastic life had weakened to some extent by the passage of time, but his desire for learning was keener than ever. In modern days he would have directed his steps toward some noted university; in those times he sought instead a learned teacher at whose feet he might sit, and from whose lips he might gather the wisdom of the ages.

The most illustrious man of learning of those days was undoubtedly Lanfranc, who was, as we have seen, of Lombard blood like himself. The name of this man must have been familiar to Anselm for years past as prior of the recently founded abbey of Le Bec, but of that monastery itself he probably knew but little, save that it was ruled by a former knight named Herlwin, that it lay somewhere in Normandy, and that he had chosen an ill time to seek a teacher within its walls. For there, as we saw, years before Anselm left home, Lanfranc had fallen under the displeasure of the stark Duke William of Normandy, the future conqueror of England, and his pupils, fleeing in terror of the Duke's wrath, had left his classrooms empty. It was therefore more in the hope than in the expectation of hearing that the lectures of Lanfranc had been resumed, that Anselm made his way first to Lyons, famous for her schools of philosophy.

There, however, the learned doctors had little attraction for one who yearned most after spiritual and theological wisdom, and Anselm next betook himself to Cluny, a far more likely spot from which to obtain reliable information as to the doings of Prior Lanfranc. Here he may have stayed for a while as a student, or to test his vocation as a postulant within the walls. But his delicate frame could not support the rigid rule of Cluny, the most severe in Europe, and with heart heavy with sense of failure he made his way out of Burgundy somewhere about the year 1058, and turned his face toward Normandy.

Scarcely, however, had the long and toilsome journey brought him to the borders of that country, when he heard the news that had fallen like a thunderbolt on France. Pope Nicholas II, stirred by the fiery zeal of Hildebrand, had threatened the great Duke William with ex-communication for his marriage, five years previously, with his kinswoman Matilda, and Lanfranc had hurried to Rome to intervene and to prevent the passing of an interdict upon the Norman land.

So again to Anselm came a period of waiting, trying enough no doubt to that ardent young soul, but fruitful as affording him an opportunity of deciding what he really wanted to do with his future life. Then at length, in the next year, 1059, hearing that Lanfranc was returning with his olive-branch from Rome, he followed closely in his steps, until at the commencement of the Michaelmas term he stood asking admission before the lowly door of the monastery that was to be his home for more than thirty years.

In many respects he was far better fitted now to try his vocation as a monk than had been the eager unpractical boy of ten years ago. There was now no dread of parental opposition, for Anselm had lately heard that his father had passed away beneath a monastic roof, himself wearing the habit of a monk. Those three years of drifting from place to place, of mixing with the world on one hand, and yet with opportunities of seeing something of the different aspects of religious life, had evidently strengthened his wish to fulfill his early call to the cloister. But he was still, above all other considerations, devoted to learning and study, and, conscious as he must have been of unusual powers of mind, he hesitated at first to enter a monastery already dominated by such a giant of intellect as Lanfranc. It was not exactly jealousy, nor the wish to be first that hindered him, but rather perhaps the realization that in an unlearned world he might do better to carry his mental gifts to a foundation where they would be more necessary, more valuable.

But reflection showed him that this thought was unworthy of the true monastic spirit. Nearly fifty years later, looking back as an old man on these youthful days, the white-haired archbishop told his little company of monks the story of the struggle between pride of intellect and the love of God.

"I said to myself: 'Now I am going to be a monk; but where? If at Cluny or at Le Bec, the time I have spent in study will have been lost. The life at Cluny is so severe that I shall soon make a sorry figure of myself, for I have not the strength to endure it; and as to Le Bec, Lanfranc is too towering a genius for me to be of use to any one there. I shall therefore best carry out my purpose in a place where I may display my knowledge and be of service to many others.

"'But I was not yet broken in; my contempt for the world was only in the bud, and that accounts for my not seeing the danger. I thought all this came from charity to others. But what am I saying? A monk! To be a monk! What, is it to wish to be set before others, honoured more than others, made much of at their expense? No, no! Down then with your pride and thought of self, and turn monk in a place where, as it is just, you will he set last of all for the sake of God, and accounted least and unworthiest of all, and in comparison with all the rest not cared a straw for!

"'And where can this be done? Why, at Le Bec if anywhere. At Le Bec I shall be of no importance; for at Le Bec is a man who shines with the light of a surpassing wisdom which is enough for all of them. He will satisfy them all, they will all honour and make much of him. At Le Bec, then, shall my rest be. At Le Bec shall God and God alone be the beacon of my life; at Le Bec the love of God and that alone shall be my study; at Le Bec the thought of God, the blissful and undying thought, shall be my comfort and my satisfaction.'"

So, entering Le Bec at first as a secular scholar, it was but a short time before Anselm applied to be admitted into the novitiate. The ceremony was a simple and touching one. To the monks assembled in the chapter-house, with the abbot sitting in their midst, entered the young man, and proceeded to prostrate himself before the latter.

"Wherefore do you come, my son?" asked Herlwin.

To which he answered: "I seek the mercy of God, your fellowship, and the brotherhood of this place: I long to become a monk and to serve God in this monastery."

Then the abbot replied: "God grant you fellowship and a place among His elect," and all the monks said "Amen."

Anselm was then required to promise that he would obey the rule and bear all the trials of his new position, upon which the abbot said: "Our Lord Jesus Christ so fulfill in you what for love of Him you promise that you may obtain His grace and life everlasting. And we, for love to Him, grant what you so humbly and earnestly desire."

Then the new-made novice, after kissing the abbot's feet, was taken to the church and clothed with the habit of the order. Very soon after, in Anselm's case, came the final ceremony that made him a monk outright.

Entering the church after the Gospel of the Mass had been sung, Anselm lay prostrate before the altar while the brethren chanted the Miserere. Then the novice, rising, read from a slip of parchment:

"I, Anselm, do before God and His Saints promise the faithfulness of a monk, newness of life, and obedience according to the rule of St Benedict, in this monastery which has been built to the glory of blessed Mary ever virgin, and in the presence of Herlwin its abbot."

He then laid the slip upon the altar, and from the steps that led to it solemnly chanted thrice: "Uphold me, O Lord, according to Thy word and I shall live, and let me not be confounded in my hope"—to which the other monks made solemn echo, in the same words.

Over the now prostrate form the abbot then intoned the De Profundis, after which the Veni Creator was sung, and his cowl, sprinkled with holy water, was put upon the new-made monk with the words: "The Lord put on thee the new man who, according to God, is created in justice and holiness of truth." After this Anselm was given the kiss of peace by all his brethren and began in that place a life that was to last for the next thirty-three years.

Let us try for a moment to realize the kind of existence he led during this period. It has been said that the daily life of a monk was passed in three principal places—the church, the cloister, and the chapter-house. The highest work of every monk was the Glory of God, and so the church claimed necessarily the first and most important place. Thither they repaired in the dark night hours for Matins, and after retiring to their beds for a brief period, rose once more at daybreak to sing their office of Prime.

All through the day their work or recreation was regulated by these office hours, or by the Masses which were said after Lauds and Sext; and after the last Mass the monks sat in the choir, reading or meditating till the office of the ninth hour.

Next in order of importance to the Glory of God came work for his fellow men; and the scene of this was laid in the cloister. There was a strong social element in the life of the monk, for, as Dean Church remarks: "He lived night and day in public. The cloister was the place of business, instruction, rending, and conversation, the common study, workshop, and parlour of all the inmates of the house, of the professed brethren, of the young men whom they were teaching or preparing for life either as monks or in the world, of the children who formed the school attached to the house. .

"In the cloister, open apparently to the weather but under shelter, all sat, when they were not at service in church or assembled in the chapter, or at their meals in the refectory, or resting in the dormitory for their midday sleep; all teaching, reading, writing, copying, or any handicraft in which a monk might employ himself, went on here. Here the children learnt their letters or read aloud, or practiced their singing under their masters; and here, when the regular and fixed arrangements of the day permitted it, conversation was carried on."

Here then, in some wind-swept corner, perhaps, we may imagine Lanfranc sitting in the midst of his scholars, with the eager eyes of young Anselm, the new-made monk, fixed upon him; and later on, when Lanfranc had passed beyond those grey walls, we see his place taken by his former pupil, grown more grave and thoughtful, but no less full of enthusiasm for the problems which were beginning to stir the thoughtful minds of that day.

In this same cloister, patient hands were busy copying the few and priceless documents that had been handed down from the early ages of Christianity; and here too were kept the records and chronicles of everyday life which were to be the basis of the future history of Europe. Nothing but the intense cold of winter hindered such labours as these; but when the bitter wind blew through those open and unarmed cloisters the monk had reluctantly to lay aside his pen for a while.

"Now stiffened with the winter cold," writes one who was busy recounting the story of the quarrels of Duke William with his sons, "I shall employ myself in other occupations and, very weary, I propose to finish this present book. But when the fine weather of the calm spring returns, I will take up again what I have imperfectly related or what yet remains unsaid, and, by God's help, I will fully unfold with a truthful pen the chances of war and peace among our countrymen."

The cloister was also the scene of that touching little ceremony known as the Maundy (mandatum: the command), which brought the monk into intimate touch with the poor man at his gate.



On the Thursday in Holy Week a crowd of beggars was admitted to the cloister, and due arrangements were made that "warm water in fitting vessels, towels for the feet, napkins for the hands, cups and drink, and such-like be prepared. When these things are in order, the abbot shall rise, and passing forth from their refectory, the children shall go aside into their school with their masters, and stand with them before their poor men; and the rest of the brethren shall likewise come and stand before their poor men, each one before one of them, but the abbot shall have two. Then the prior shall strike the board with three blows, and bowing down on their bent knees to the earth, they shall worship Christ in the poor.

"Then the abbot is to wash and wipe the feet of the poor men before him, 'kissing them with his mouth and eyes,' and so the rest of the brethren." After this, each brother gave a cup of drink to the beggar who sat before him, and receiving luck the cup, put two-pence into his hand.

As the cloister was the place for general work, so was the chapter-house the place of business where the intimate affairs of the monastery were carried on.

"Every day, as soon as the sound of the little bell begins for the chapter, all the brethren who are sitting in the choir are at once to rise . . . no one is to hold a book or to look into a book: no one is to remain sitting: and when the bell stops, with the prior going before them, the rest are to follow in the order of their conversion, two and two, the elders first, the children after them."

The latter had their own chapter before their own masters, when faults were noted and inquired into and whippings then and there administered. Only in its privacy did it differ from that held by their elders, and by the fact that it was more entirely concerned with discipline.

The daily chapter of the monks began with a reading of the rule and an instruction in their religious duties. Then came the daily inquiry, beginning with the words: "Let us speak concerning our order."

If anyone was forthwith accused of a fault, or a failure in duty, he immediately prostrated himself and asked for pardon, saying "Mea culpa."

"If he is to receive judgment he is to be beaten with one larger rod on his shirt as he lies prostrate, or with several thinner rods as he sits with his shoulders bared, at the discretion of him who presides. While corporal discipline is inflicted, all the brethren are to hold their heads down and to have compassion on him with tender and brotherly affection."

Flogging was the ordinary punishment for slight faults and was accepted as a matter of course in days when the body had not become an object of tender care and respect. For graver faults a monk might be confined in his cell, forbidden to take part in Divine service, and was only seen by the rest, except in church, lying prostrate and with covered head. Only after a full confession of his fault in chapter, when he begged for mercy and submitted to severe corporal chastisement, was he readmitted.

Here too, in the chapter-house, novices were admitted and monks professed. Far from luring the would-be novice with soft sayings, he was warned here again and again of the hard things he should have to undergo. "Let there be declared to him the hard and stern things which in this order they endure who wish to live piously and according to the rule, and then again, the yet harder and sterner things which may befall him, if he behaves himself unruly." The rule of the order was to be read to him and he was warned in these words: "Here is the law under which you desire to serve; if you can keep it, enter in: but if you cannot, freely depart."

"He was fully subject to the discipline of the monastery, and received his judgment and stripes in chapter like the rest, but he was kept apart, only associating with his master or speaking with such of the brethren as might be inflamed with zeal for his improvement." If after certain days he undertook to bear "humbly and patiently" the hard and heavy things appointed by the holy fathers for this order of life "and yet harder and heavier things still," he was received into the community.

The value in which books were held in those days is shown by a picturesque note.

"On the first Monday in Lent every year, before the brethren come into chapter, the keeper of the books is to have the books collected in the chapter-house, and spread on a carpet, except those which have been given out for use during the past year. These last the brethren coming into chapter are to bring with them, each one having his book in his hand. Then . . . the keeper of the books is to read a note as to how the brethren have had books in the last year. As each one hears his name mentioned, he is to return the work given him to read the last year. And he who is aware that he has not read through the book which he received, is to prostrate himself and declare his fault and ask indulgence. Then again the keeper of the books is to give to each of the brethren another book to read, and to record in a note the names of the books and of those who have received them."

One brief glimpse at the daily life of the monk shall give us a final picture of Anselm's existence at this period.

Rising for the night office and again at dawn, the monks passed from the church to the cloister in their bed-gowns and began their ordinary work of teaching, writing, or illuminating, as the case might be. At the 'third hour' they repaired to the dormitory, washed and dressed and proceeded to church for Terce and Mass. Then came the daily 'chapter,' after which they returned to the cloister, where they might walk about and talk till the sixth hour, when Sext and Mass were said. 'Breakfast' had been taken after the first Mass, the second meal after the office of the ninth hour (Nones). In the interval between Sext and Nones the monks either sat in choir, reading, praying, or meditating, or in summer took a siesta in the dormitory. There they slept on hay which was changed once a year, when the dormitory was cleaned.

Such was the outline of the day: the intervals were filled in with the strenuous work of lecturing, teaching, and intellectual study, not to speak of various offices with which we shall deal more fully in another chapter.