Chapter 1: Reflection 8 – A Satisfying Word

Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations would have a profound and lasting impact on the spirituality, devotion, and meditation practices of Western European Christianity in the Middle Ages. 1 And we can hear the distinct echoes of that legacy in the language of Julian’s first chapter, with its emphasis on the Passion of Christ. Although an evolution and development certainly took place between the time of Anselm’s writing in the latter decades of the 11th century and Julian’s two centuries later, the influence of the Benedictine monk’s many-pieced guide cannot be overstated. It was in this tradition, which modern historians identify as “affective piety,” that Julian was formed, practiced her religious faith, and authored her extraordinary texts.

Anselm was also a very accomplished philosopher and logician in a field that we now call “theology.” And it can be argued that this aspect of Anselm’s works would have an even greater and more lasting impact on Western Christianity. A modest reference in Julian’s first chapter provides evidence of this endurance. In her introduction to the 13th revelation, Julian states that God wishes us to have “great regard toward all the deeds God has done in the great nobility of making all things,” that is Creation; secondly, toward the “excellence” of Humanity’s Creation in particular, which is “above” all God’s works; and thirdly, toward the “precious Atonement [“asseeth”] that he had made for humanity’s sin.” 2 It is this word “asseeth” that represents a sort of marker of Anselm’s legacy. 3

In a ground-breaking work entitled, Why God Became Human, Anselm sought to explain, in a new way, in a philosophically systematic and rational way, the reasons for the Incarnation, God’s taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus, and for the Atonement, the redemption that Jesus accomplished in his suffering and death. It takes the form of a dialogue between Anselm and one of his students, Boso, and very early on the primary issue is clearly identified and laid out:

The question is this. By what logic or necessity did God become man, and by his death, as we believe and profess, restore life to the world, when he could have done this through the agency of some other person, angelic or human, or simply by willing it. 4

Anselm’s ultimate answer to this question is this, that in humanity’s first sin, committed in the actions of its parents Adam and Eve, God was robbed of the “honor” due to God. For Anselm, this notion of “honor” conveys a sense of a possession or property that is understood to have a value, a sort of monetary worth. Thus, in dishonoring God, humanity incurred a “debt” which it then owed to God. 5 Because of divine justice, God cannot simply cancel the debt. Nor has any human being the capacity to cancel that debt. It is only the actions of a God-Human [Deus-Homo], freely offered for the benefit of humanity, that can “satisfy” the debt: “Therefore, none but God can make this satisfaction … But none but a man ought to do this, other wise man does not make satisfaction … [I]t is necessary for the God-man to make it.” 6

The Middle English word “asseeth,” defined as “fulfillment, satisfaction, reparation,” finds its roots in the Latin words, ad satis facere, “to make satisfaction.” 7 In Julian’s day, the word clearly bears the resonance of Anselm’s theology, as is evidenced in a sermon of John Wycliffe, one of her contemporaries: “Siþ aseeþ muste be maad for Adams synne … sich a persone muste make þis aseeþ þat were boþe God and man.” 8


  1. TM’s writings indicate that in 1963 and 1964 he was quite engaged with the works of Anselm. Indeed, over the course of 1963, TM taught five conferences on the medieval Benedictine monk to the novices at Gethsemani. (Thomas Merton, Cistercian Fathers and Forefathers: Essays and Conferences. Edited by Patrick O’Connell. Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2018, page 15.) In a journal entry of January 19, 1964, TM writes this tender and revealing reflection: “Last night I dreamt I was speaking to a kind and friendly Benedictine and saying to him with confident happiness and abandon that I deserved punishment for my sins (deserved and accepted it gladly) and he was apparently deprecating this, as if it was a ‘too extreme’ spirituality – yet as though he half knew I was right. Then this morning in Anselm’s Meditation and Orations – I find his ‘Digne, certe, digne!’ [‘Worthily, certainly, worthily!’] … Anselm’s meditations and prayers are musical compositions. He can use his themes without inhibition. Themes on which we are condemned to be inarticulate, for if we tried to say what he says we could not be authentic … I love Anselm. I love these prayers, though I could never attempt to use such language myself.” (Thomas Merton, Dancing in the Water of Life: Seeking Peace in the Hermitage. The Journals of Thomas Merton: Volume Five 1963-1965. Edited by Robert E. Daggy. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997, page 64 and 65). The meditation to which TM seems to be referring is entitled, “Deploratio virginitatis male amissae,” which Sr. Benedicta Ward translates as, “A lament for virginity unhappily lost.” Sr. Benedicta’s translation of the section of the meditation from which TM’s quoted words are taken is: “O virginity, now not my delight but my loss, not my joy but my despair, whither have you gone? In what a stink, in what bitter filth have you abandoned me? O fornication, by which my mind is defiled, and my soul betrayed, whence have you crept up on me in my misery? From what brightness and joy in which I stood have you cast me down? It is anguish and bitter sorrow, and fear of heavier yet, to have committed fornication. The one is an inconsolable loss; the other is intolerable torment. There is deep sorrow either way. Thus do good and bad equally and justly punish miserable sinners while they are still alive. Deserved, yes, indeed it is. [Digne, certe, digne]. (Anselm of Canterbury, The Prayers and Meditations of St. Anselm. Translated by Sister Benedicta Ward. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973, pages 225-226.) Internet Archive: Another, and much earlier, English translation of Anselm’s three words is: “Deservedly, deservedly indeed.” (St. Anselm’s Book of Meditations and Prayers. Translated by M. R. London: Robson and Sons, Printers, 1872. Retrieved online: For the Latin, see Anselm of Canterbury, S. Anselmi Cantuariensis Archiepiscopi Opera Omnia. Volume 3. Ed. F. S. Schmitt. 6 vols. Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1946, pages 80-81. Internet Archive:
  2. “The thirteenth is that our lord God will that we have great regarde to all the deedes which he hath done in the great noblete of all thing making; of the excellence of manes making, the which is above all his workes; and of the precious asseeth that he hath made for mans sinne …” (Julian of Norwich, The Writings of Julian of Norwich, Eds, Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins. University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press, Chapter 1, Lines 31-34, page 123.)
  3. What the Russian philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), affirms of all language, all words, captures something of the manner in which the Middle English word “asseeth” bears a living, organic history: “[T]here are no ‘neutral’ words and forms – words and forms that can belong to ‘no one’; language has been completely taken over, shot through with intentions and accents. For any individual consciousness living in it, language is not an abstract system of normative forms but rather a concrete heteroglot conception of the world. All words have the ‘taste’ of a profession, a generation, an age group, the day and hour. Each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life; all words and forms are populated by intentions. Contextual overtones (generic, tendentious, individualistic) are inevitable in the word.” (Mikhail Bakhtin. “Discourse in the Novel.” The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin. Edited by Michael Holquist. Translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992, page 293. Internet Archive:  
  4. “Why God Became Man.” Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works. Edited with an Introduction by Brian Davies and G. R Evans. Oxford: Oxford University Press, page 265. Internet Archive: Latin: “qua scilicet ratione vel necessitate deus homo factus sit, et morte sua, sicut nos credimus et confitemur, mundo vitam reddiderit, cum hoc aut per aliam personam, sive angelicam sive humanam, aut sola voluntate facere potuerit.” (Anselm of Canterbury, S. Anselmi Cantuariensis Archiepiscopi Opera Omnia. Volume 2. Book 1. Chapter 1. Rome. 1940, page 48. Internet Archive: While I will tend to use Sidney Norton Deane’s English translation of Anselm’s “Cur Deus Homo,” because of my familiarity with it, here I use that of Brian Davies and G. R. Evans, since it presents the primary “question” in a manner that should resonate with the contemporary reader. Mr. Deane’s translation is, “And this question … for what cause or necessity, in sooth, God became man, and by his own death, as we believe and affirm, restored life to the world; when he might have done this, by means of some other being, angelic or human, or merely by his will.” (Anselm of Canterbury, Why God Became Man. Trans. Sidney Norton Deane. LaSalle, Illinois: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1944, pages 178-179.) Internet Archive:
  5. Historian R. W. Southern explains the meaning of “honor” within the culture in which Anselm lived and wrote: “In the language of feudal tenure a man’s honour was his estate. The central feature of this estate was his landed property. But it also embraced his due place in the hierarchy of authority, his family background, and his personal honour. The fundamental crime against anyone was to attempt to diminish this complex of rights and status … [I]t was the maintenance of the king’s ‘honour’ which preserved his kingdom, of the baron’s ‘honour’ which preserved his barony, and so on down the scale. ‘Honour’ was essentially a social bond which held all ranks of society in their due place.” (R. W. Southern, Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990, 225-226.) Professor Southern also speaks of the “solidity” of Anselm’s concept of “honor” and “its minute gradations and equivalents.” (Ibid. 225.) Scholar Rachel Fulton, drawing upon the words of Professor Southern, provides a sense of the breadth, width, and scope of the cosmic drama conveyed in Anselm’s use of the terms “debt” and “honor”: “There is no way … for human beings to repay God what was owed: the debt was simply too great, for in sinning, they had stolen from God something beyond price, namely his honor (that is, ‘the complex of service and worship which the whole Creation, animate and inanimate, in Heaven and earth, owes to the Creator, which preserves everything in its due place.’” (Rachel Fulton, From Judgement to Passion: Devotion to Christ & the Virgin Mary, 800-1200. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002, page 177.) Anselm has received criticism from later historians and theologians for the way in which the language and the values of feudal society would seem to have been inscribed into his theology. Even a sympathetic reader such as R. W. Southern makes such an acknowledgment: “Anselm’s thoughts about God and the universe were colored by the social arrangements with which he was familiar … The Cur Deus Homo was the product of a feudal and monastic world … With all its originality, and personal intensity of vision, it bears the marks of this rigorous and – if the word can be used without blame – repressive regime.” (R. W. Southern, Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990, page 222.)
  6. Anselm of Canterbury, Why God Became Man. Trans. Sidney Norton Deane. LaSalle, Illinois: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1944, Book II, Chapter 6, page 245. Latin: “Non ergo potest hanc satisfactionem facere nisi deus … Sed nec facere illam debet nisi homo. Alioquin non satisfacit homo …. [N]ecesse est ut eam faciat deus-homo.”  Retrieved from: Anselm of Canterbury, S. Anselmi Cantuariensis Archiepiscopi Opera Omnia. Volume 2. Book Two, Chapter Six. Rome. 1940, page 48. Internet Archive:
  7. See Middle English Dictionary:
  8. Please note, the Middle English letter “þ” (“thorn”) would later be replaced by “th.” The quoted words are those of 14th century scholar and reformer, John Wycliffe (c. 1320s – 1384), from a Christmas Sermon on the passage from Isaiah, “Puer natus est nobis.” In Select English Works of John Wyclif. Edited from original MSS by Thomas Arnold. Volume II Sermons on the Ferial Gospels and Sunday Epistles. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1871, page 236. Given John Wycliff’s significant use of that word in this sermon on the Incarnation, the full sermon is presented here, and I have kept the clarifying comments of the editor. I am very grateful to have been able to access and retrieve this sermon through the website Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse:;view=fulltext

AFTIR þe joie þat Poul telliþ we may seie on Cristemasse day, *. [The Nativity of Christ.] þat a litil child is born to us. For Jesus bi oure bileve is born, and to þis entent spak God, boþe in figure and in lettre, þat a child is born to us in whom we shulde have þis joie. And so þre shorte wordis ben to speke of Ysaies speche, so þat men mai after joie in oþer service of þis child.

First we taken of bileve, þat siþ oure first eldris hadden synned, *. [The necessity for an atone∣ment,] þer muste aseeþ be maad þerfore bi þe riȝtwisnesse of God; for as God is merciful, so he is ful of riȝtwisnesse. But how shulde he juge al þe world, but ȝif he kepe here riȝtwisnesse? For þe Lord aȝens whom þis synne was done is God almyȝty and al-riȝtful, siþ no synne may be done, but ȝif it be done aȝens God. And evere þe more þe Lord is, aȝens whom þis synne is done, evere þe more is þe synne to take reward b. [i.e., to render satisfaction or compensation.] to þis Lord. As it were a gret synne to do aȝens þe kyngis bidding, but þe synne is more wiþouten mesure to do aȝens Goddis bidding. But God bad bi oure bileve Adam to ete not of þat appil, but he brak Goddis heste, and was not excusid þerinne, neiþer bi his owne foly, ne bi Eve, ne bi þe serpent. And þus bi riȝtwisnesse of God þis synne muste algatis be punishid. And it is a liȝt word to seie þat God myȝte of his power forȝyve þis synne, wiþouten aseeþ þat were maad for þis trespas; for God myȝte do þis ȝif he wolde, but his justice wolde not suffre þat ne ech trespas be punishid, ouþer in erþe or in helle. And God mai not accepte a persone to forȝyve synne wiþouten aseeþ, for ellis he muste ȝyve free leeve to man and angel for to synne, and þanne synne were no synne, and oure God were noo God. And þis is þe firste word þat we taken of bileve.

Þe secound word þat we taken is, þat a man þat shulde make *. [and consequent necessity of Incarnation;] aseeþ for synne of oure firste fadir, mut nedis be God and man. For as mannis kynde trespasside, so muste mannis kynde make aseeþ. And herfore it were to strange þat angel made aseeþ for man; for neiþer he myȝte, ne he was þat persone þat synnede here. But siþ al men ben oo persone, þat persone makiþ aseeþ ȝif ony membre of þis persone makiþ aseeþ for al þis persone. And bi þis may we sèe, þat ȝif God made a man of nouȝt, of newe to þe kynde of Adam,—ȝit he were holden to God as myche as he myȝte for himsilf; and so he myȝte not make aseeþ for him and Adams synne. And þus, siþ aseeþ muste be maad for Adams synne, as it is seid, sich a persone muste make þis aseeþ þat were boþe God and man; for worþi∣nesse of þis persones dede were evene wiþ unworþinesse of þe synne.

Þe þridde word, þat nedis mut sue of þes two wordis of lore, *. [the fact of which is cele∣brated on this day.] is þat a child is born to man, to make aseþ for mannis synne. And þis child mut nedis be God and man, ȝoven to man; and he mut nedis bere his empire upon his shuldren, and suffre for man. And þis child is Jesus Crist, þat we supposen was born to-day. And we supposen þat þis child is oonli born to þo men þat suen him in maner of lyvynge, for he was born aȝens oþer. Þes men þat ben unjust and proud, and rebel aȝens God, han þer jugement in Crist, þat þei moten nedis be dampned of him, and alȝatis ȝif þei ben unkynde to þer deþ aȝens his spirit. And þus, ȝif we coveiten wel þat þis child be born to us, have we joie of þis childe, and sue we him in þes þre vertues,—in riȝtwisnesse, and meeknesse, and pacience for oure God. For who ever contrarieþ Crist in þes unto his deþ, aȝens þe spirit, mut nedis be dampned of þis childe, as alle oþer shulen be saved. And þus þe joie of þis childe þat was þus meke and ful of vertues, shulde make man to be litil in malice,—and þan þei holden wel þis feeste. To hem þat wolen fiȝte or chide, Y seie þat þis child þat is born is prynce of pees, and loveþ pees, and dampned men contrarie to pees. Studie we how Crist cam in ful tyme whanne he shulde, and how he cam in mekenesse, as his birþe techiþ us; and how he cam in pacience, fro his birþe to his deþ. And sue we him in þes þre, for joie þat we have of him; for þis joie in þis pacience bringiþ to joie þat evere shal laste.

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