The roots of heart religion – Anselm of Canterbury


Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is the third part of the tour of medieval heart religion from the affective devotion chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. It follows the first part here, which looks at Origen and Augustine, and the second part here, on Gregory the Great:

Anselm (1033-1109)

There is no better example of the holism of love and logic, theology and devotion, in the medieval period than Anselm of Canterbury. When not chasing dialectical rabbits in his attempt to understand, but not explain away, the mysteries of God’s existence and Incarnation, Anselm wrote a series of highly evocative, meditative, imaginative prayers focused on the lives and personalities of Christ, Mary, and the saints, designed for people to use in their private devotions. His stated purpose in publishing these was “to inspire the reader’s mind to the love and fear of God” and inflame the desire to pray.[1]

This was the beginning of a shift in “canons within the canon,” from the early medieval spiritual focus on the Old Testament (especially the Psalms) to the high and late medieval fascination with the Gospels.[2]

Medievalist R W Southern finds Anselm’s in prayers an “unusual combination of intensity of feeling and clarity of thought and expression.” He attributes to them “a new note of personal passion, of elaboration and emotional extravagance” that would change devotional practice henceforth, opening the way to the “masterpieces of late medieval piety.”[3]

In fact, these prayers open the door to a slow, thoughtful and heartfelt lectio divina mode of reading and meditating not only on the Bible, but on written prayers and other devotional works. Said Anselm in introducing them:

“[T]hey are not to be read in the midst of an uproar, but in quiet, not [132] quickly or rapidly, but gradually, attentively and painstakingly meditated.” He goes on to say that you can read bits and pieces, and you need not start at the beginning, but rather read whatever and “how much he feels will be effective in inflaming his desire to pray.”[4] Everything in the text and the reading style was aimed at arousing a certain personal experience of connection with God, and it did so out of the writer’s own experiences and emotions. Toward that end, “his language was powerful, and his mood, intense.”[5]

A good sample is his sixteenth prayer, addressed to Mary Magdalene, “the model of the weeping lover”: “‘Saint Mary Magdalene, who came with a spring of tears to the spring of Christ’s mercy, from which, thirsting greatly, you were refreshed abundantly, through which the sinner is justified, through which she grieving most bitterly is most sweetly [133] consoled . . .’”[6]

Anselm’s words then takes his readers to the empty tomb in their imaginations, and encourage them to weep along with Mary, then share her elation when she understands that Jesus has risen again (can Narnia fans remember the imaginative and emotional power of reading the death and resurrection of Aslan?). As we have seen in the “compassionate ministry chapter,” this sort of imaginative identification—this “com-passion”—was also critical in the 12th-century charitable revolution that swept through Europe, resulting in the founding of hundreds of hospitals. Again, affective devotion went beyond the purely private.


[1] Anselm, cited in Clarissa Atkinson, Mystic and Pilgrim: The Book and the World of Margery Kempe, 132.

[2] Clarissa Atkinson notes the new subjects that Anselm and his circle brought into people’s devotional lives: “episodes in Christian history, in the Gospels and the lives of the saints and the Virgin.” (Atkinson, 131)

[3] R. W. Southern, Saint Anselm and His Biographer, 47.

[4] Cited in Atkinson, 131-2.

[5] Atkinson, 132.

[6] Quoted in Atkinson, 132-33.

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One response to “The roots of heart religion – Anselm of Canterbury

  1. Pingback: That Was The Week That Was | The Pietist Schoolman

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