Anselm - E. M. Wilmot-Buxton

Prior Anselm of Le Bec

Anselm was twenty-seven years old when he was professed as a monk at the monastery at Bec. In his earlier days, as we have seen, his eager intellect and original mind had led him to put knowledge before him as the highest aim of life; and still, in the quiet cloister of Bec, the whole realm of abstract thought and philosophical speculation had for him an overwhelming attraction. The difference now lay in the fact that he no longer cared for earthly reputation as a great scholar and thinker; but, having dedicated his life to God, was free to devote himself to the work both of learning and teaching, while steadfastly upholding before a lax and undisciplined world the ideal set forth in the strict Benedictine rule.

For the first three years he sat at the feet of Lanfranc the prior, a man of far inferior intellect and originality, but one whose great practical ability had, as we have seen, already brought about a vast improvement, not only in the convent but throughout Normandy, in the morals and manners of the castle, the court, and the secular clergy.

But Lanfranc, a man dear to Duke William's heart, was not long to remain as prior at Bec. The Duke had lately founded a new monastery at Caen, to which Lanfranc was imperiously summoned to take the post of abbot. He could relinquish his work at Bec the more readily now that the crowd of eager young scholars whom his learning and eloquence had drawn there could be handed over to a worthy successor.

So, when Lanfranc left the monastery, his strong influence and commanding personality easily brought it about that Anselm should take his place, and the latter was duly elected prior.

This office was second in importance only to that of the abbot. The prior was responsible for the internal discipline of the house; he had to note the behaviour of monks and students in the choir and cloister, to visit at certain times of the day and night every part of the monastery, the crypt, the cloister, the infirmary, the dormitory, to see there was no idle gossip or waste of time. In this he was assisted by certain other monks of discretion "who would act without favour or malice."

"While they go their rounds they are not to make a sign to anyone, or to speak on any occasion; but watchfully to notice all negligences and offences, and silently passing by, afterward to make their complaint in chapter. If they find any of the brethren talking outside the cloister, one of the speakers is at once to rise up to them, and say if it be the case that they have leave to be talking."

If such a schoolboy system of supervision seems beneath the dignity of such a one as Anselm, it must be remembered that some similar plan was absolutely necessary in preserving discipline and order in an age in which the virtues of trustworthiness and honour had yet to be cultivated. There was in those times a good deal of the schoolboy about the monk, and, as judged by the standards of to-day, of the boy as found in the lower forms rather than among the prefects of the sixth. The very strictness of the rule caused many breaches of its observance; and yet that strictness was an absolute necessity as a protest against the laxity of an age that was fast losing all ideal of order and discipline.

The office of prior was no easy one to Anselm for other reasons. He had been elected, owing to Lanfranc's insistence, over the heads of many older monks, when he had been professed only for three years. An outbreak of jealous spite, smothered at first but none the less very bitter, came to a head in the conduct of a monk named Osbern, who, though much younger than Anselm, had been longer 'in religion.'

This youth, incited by older monks who lacked his daring, set himself to become a veritable thorn in the flesh to the new prior. He was probably, owing to the very early age at which he must have been professed, the spoilt child of the monastery; and he, doubtless mistaking the unusual gentleness of his superior for weakness and inefficiency, began a series of wild pranks and petty insubordinations that bade fair to keep the cloister in an uproar.

We know no details, but it is not difficult to imagine the countless ways in which an insolent, unmannered boy, a boy, too, of unusual cleverness and adroitness, could make hard the path of one who knew that the feeling of the place was, on the whole, against himself. A weaker man would have complained to Abbot Herlwin, would have tried to bring about the offender's expulsion, or at any rate have secured that he should be visited severely for each offence. It was not thus that Anselm, secure in his quiet and patient strength, would act. A born educator in the truest sense, he possessed that highest qualification, a sympathy with and love for the young ones placed under his charge which led him to understand, to forgive, and withal to determine to reform and amend what was wrong.

Instead of being treated with the severity he no doubt knew he deserved, Osbern found himself the object of the new prior's affectionate interest and concern. Every indulgence that the rule allowed was granted to him, his pranks were ignored, punishment remitted, well-deserved reproofs withheld.

In the face of such sublime patience and tenderness insubordination lost its zest, and hidden chords in the boy's character began to respond, unwillingly enough, to the consideration and affectionate regard of the older monk. Soon he began to follow the prior about, not in order to annoy, but to win some mark of notice or esteem, favours granted readily by Anselm. Before long, to the surprise and annoyance of the chief culprits, the jealous monks who had used the lad as their cat's-paw, Osbern conceived an intense devotion for his superior, sought his counsels, and began to amend his life in every possible way. Then the wise elder withdrew the silken glove and began to mold the boy with glove of steel.

Difficult tasks tested his endurance and obedience; severe penalties followed any breach of discipline. "He punished him not only with words but with stripes." The really fine nature hidden beneath the tricksome, flippant exterior answered to the spur and developed into noble manliness. His devotion appealed to the fatherly heart of the young prior, even more than his ripening intelligence to his intellect. He had become his most cherished son and pupil, and a source of infinite strength and satisfaction within the monastery walls, when suddenly he was stricken with mortal illness. Then the womanliness that is part of the finest and most virile natures showed itself in Anselm, who nursed him by night and day, and helped him to that spirit of peace and inward joy that enabled him to rise above all his sufferings.

"Day and night," says Eadmer, his friend and biographer, "he was at his bedside, gave him his food and drink, ministered to all his wants, did everything himself that might ease his body and comfort his soul."

When the end was very near, and, as the custom was, they had laid the dying monk on a piece of sackcloth, sprinkled with ashes, and spread on the floor of his cell, the prior bent over the boy and whispered a last charge, that if it were possible, he would let him know, when he hail departed, if all was well with him. "He promised and passed away."

While the monks were watching round the bier of the dead monk, which had been laid before the altar of the church, Prior Anselm, worn out with fatigue and grief, withdrew to a distant corner of the choir, to weep and pray for the soul of his friend. And then he fell into heavy slumber and dreamed this dream:

"He saw certain beings of reverend aspect, clothed in white garments, enter the room where Osbern had died and seat themselves in judgment round the spot where, stretched on the sackcloth, he expired. But their sentence was hidden from the dreamer, who tried in vain to learn it. Then Osbern himself appeared, like to one coming to himself after excessive loss of blood.

"'How fares it with you, my child? ' asked Anselm; and the young man answered: 'Thrice the old serpent rose up against me, and thrice he fell back again, and the Bearward of the Lord hath delivered me.'

"Then Anselm knew that the Angel of God had delivered him from his foes 'as the bearward keeps off the bears.'" And Eadmer adds tenderly: "See how the dead showed the same obedience to the living, which, living, he had been wont to show."

Never did Anselm forget the boy who had thus wound himself so closely round his heart. Writing to his friend Gundulf in after years he says: "Wherever Osbern is, his soul is my soul. Let me then, while I live, receive on his behalf whatever I might hope to receive from friendship when I am dead (i.e. Masses and prayers), so that then you need do nothing for me. Farewell, my beloved, and that I may repay thee according to thy own desires, I pray and I pray and I pray thee to remember me and forget not the soul of my beloved Osborn. And if I seem to burden thee overmuch, then forget me and remember him."

The insight and sympathy which Anselm showed in the case of this lad not only stamps him as a great teacher but as a notable leader of men. This, however, was left for future years to reveal; as prior of Bec he was content to be at the disposal of all who claimed his time and counsel, though his chief love and interest were concerned with the boy students and the younger monks.

"Whole days he would spend in giving advice to those who claimed it; and the night he would spend in correcting the ill-written copies of hooks for the library."

Remembering, as we do, the long hours of prayer, the frequent offices, the arduous toil of teaching, and the fact that his distinctive bent lay in the direction of profound speculative thought, we are not surprised to find his health, never very strong, giving way under the constant strain. He was ever ready to shorten his hours of sleep that he might give more time to those in need of him; but a life of constant distractions owing to the affairs of others bade fair to threaten at one time the loss of his own inner peace and calm.

In despair the prior at length sought out the archbishop and besought him to relieve him of his office, protesting with tears that he could no longer endure the strain. But the archbishop would not hear of it.

"My dearest son, do not ask this of me," he said. "Do not wish to lay down your burden and care only for self. I bid you keep your present office, and on no account refuse a higher one should you ever be called to it. For I am sure that you will not remain very long where you are; you will soon be promoted to a higher charge."

To which Anselm replied with tears: "Alas, I am not strong enough for what I carry now, and if a heavier load is laid upon me, I dare not shake it off." And so in deep despondency he returned to Bec.

Once again in his life's story this episode was to be repeated; once again the humble and highly spiritual nature of the man was to rebel against the shackles of worldly cares and claims that prevented close and unbroken communion with the Divine; but now, as then, when once assured that it was the call of God that he should thus do violence to his own desires and instincts, he fulfilled what to him was the lower task in the most perfect way.

In addition to his former duties, he had now the work of a physician; for Abbot Lanfranc had summoned to his new foundation at Caen the doctor-priest Albert, who had hitherto had the charge of the sick at Bec.

In this hospital work Anselm was singularly successful. "He spent much of his time," says Eadmer, "in the infirmary and used to investigate most carefully the symptoms of each one of his patients. Whatever each one's case required he promptly, ungrudgingly, and cheerfully administered. He was a father to the well, but a mother to the sick, nay, father and mother in one both to the sick and the well. No one had a secret in his heart that he did not wish to confide to Anselm, as a child entrusts its confidence to the keeping of a tender mother."

And he paints a charming picture of the old monk Herewald, paralyzed and helpless, in whom life could only be preserved by feeding him with the juice of grapes, squeezed, berry by berry, into his mouth, which yet could only be swallowed when administered by the gentle hands of Prior Anselm.

Still, however, his most affectionate interest was centered in the young boys of the monastery school. In an age when the teacher's one rule of discipline was to flog, and flog soundly for all offences, he was the first to suggest that there was a danger of brutalizing the lads by such frequent use of the rod instead of taming their young hearts by other means. He was no milksop in the matter; he had not hesitated, as we have seen, to inflict stripes upon his beloved son Osbern when stripes were needed to teach a proud and stubborn nature humility. But his real views on punishment appear best in a conversation that took place with an abbot who came one day to Bec and seized the opportunity, as teachers ever will, to bemoan to one of the same profession his difficulties with his pupils. His complaint, though not his method of education, has a curiously modern ring about it. "What is the use of all this education?" he asks. "We do our best for them, and they turn out perverse and ungrateful. We do not cease to beat them day and night and they only get worse."

"So you don't cease beating them?" asked the prior gently. "What do they turn into when they grow, up?

"They turn only dull and brutal."

"Well, you have bad luck in the pains you take in their training since you only turn them into beasts," was the unexpected rejoinder.

"But what else can we do?" cried the astonished abbot. "We constrain them to improve in every way, and it is all no use."

Then the prior spoke out his mind: "Ah, you constrain them, and that is where the whole fault lies. Is there no other method, my brother? If you were to take a young tree full of sap and lop a branch there and tie down another there, what would you expect when you untie the lashings? Surely a gnarled and twisted thing, fit for nothing in the world. And if you do nothing but beat your boys and forever cheek them for their faults, can you wonder if they grow up twisted and shapeless?

"Think, brother, would you like, if you were what they are, to be treated as you treat them? You try by blows and stripes alone to fashion them; but did you ever see a craftsman fashion a fair image out of gold and silver by blows alone? Does he not now gently press and strike it, now with wise art still more gently raise and shape it? So, if you would mold your boys to good you must, along with the stripes that are to bow them down, lift them up and assist them by fatherly kindness and gentleness."

By these wise and tender words the heart of the abbot was so moved that "falling at Anselm's feet he confessed his fault, and asked pardon for the past, promising amendment for the future."

It was small wonder that Anselm soon became the revered and beloved counselor and confidant, not only of his own pupils and monks, but of a far wider circle beyond the walls of Bec. Living the strictest of lives, a monk of the monks, his broad sympathies were yet in close touch with those living in the world; austere to himself, he was both considerate and indulgent to others; stern and even severe in judgment where any question of truth or doctrine was concerned, he ever "leaned to the side of compassion and liberty," where a mere formalist would have drawn tight the reins.

He possessed the true teacher's gift of using homely practical illustrations to drive home his point, "teaching," says Eadmer, "not as is the wont among others, but in a widely different fashion, setting forth each point under common and familiar examples, and supporting it by solid reasons without any veils or disguises of speech."

We are not surprised to find that his correspondence was by no means his lightest task. Abbot Herlwin, as we know, was no hand with the pen, and all the formal business of the abbey would perforce pass through the hands of the prior, in addition to the answering of many letters, even in that unliterary age, front old scholars, penitents, and students seeking his counsel on knotty points of theology.

And so, busied with manifold cares, forgetting himself, but keenly mindful of that inner world of prayer and union with the Divine which was the most vital part of the life of the true religious, Anselm spent fifteen happy years.