In the first of a series of five conferences on Anselm of Canterbury which he offered to the novices at Gethsemani Abbey between June and December of 1963, TM, in his very first words, challenges his students to fortify themselves for the task before them:
Now I want to get into this deal with St. Anselm. This is going to be a little hard, because his thinking is a bit tough. He thinks, so we’re going to have to struggle a little bit now with the thought of St. Anselm. It’s worth struggling with, though. 1
TM had engaged Anselm’s writings when he was teaching at the Saint Bonaventure’s, a Franciscan college in New York, before entering Gethsemani. It was here that, in addition to teaching English, TM was “studying medieval philosophy and theology.” 2 This practice of reading may well have cultivated and planted seeds in his heart and mind which manifested two decades later. A triggering event for this later generative manifestation was TM’s reading of R. W. Southern’s 1963 study, Saint Anselm and His Biographer. 3 And it should also be noted that TM’s reengagement with “one of the most original minds of the Middle Ages” in 1963 followed his deep reading of another “mighty theologian” of that era, Julian of Norwich, in 1961. 4
TM introduces the man who would one day become the Archbishop of Canterbury by conversationally citing the early decisions that marked the trajectory of his life:
St. Anselm – what is he? Of course, he was Italian … When he was a boy in Italy, he said, ‘I want an intellectual life’; or ‘I want to be a hermit’; or ‘I want to a cenobite’ – one of those three. His dad said, ‘You’re not going to have any one of them.’ He said, ‘Is that so?’ and he took off and went to northern France, which people were frequently doing in those days … 5
In his teaching, TM describes the intellectual culture in which Anselm was living, the very beginnings of what would be called “scholasticism.” Monastic practice had always looked to Scripture and “the Fathers” or “tradition” as the foundational authorities in the work of theology, but now, as TM explains, reason emerged as a new and vibrant tool for that discipline. Scholastic theologians kept the authority of both Scripture and the Fathers, but they also used “the critical exercise of reason, critical intelligence.” 6 And Anselm was a forerunner of this movement:
Why did Anselm use this? Because this was a time when everybody suddenly discovers such a thing as logic. Logic is an instrument. It’s like a knife in which you get in and dissect thought; you take it apart. The Fathers don’t things apart that way. 7
For TM, Anselm’s particular engagement with all these emerging energies and resources represents what he calls, “a perfect synthesis” which becomes an exceptional model for the life and work of a monk. 8 A “wonderful unity” exists in Anselm – “[h]is philosophy is right in the heart of his life of prayer.” 9 In this way, “intelligence can open up his mind to receive more light from God,” with the result that “[h]is philosophical writing is at all times a prayer” 10 Anselm’s work is “completely revolutionary;” he is not “simply tagging along after tradition … He’s right in the vanguard of it, so that he becomes tradition.” 11
- Thomas Merton, Cistercian Fathers and Forefathers: Essays and Conferences. Editor Patrick F. O’Connell. Hyde Park, New York: 2018, page 45. While any errors in this present reflection are exclusively my own, I gladly acknowledge with grateful appreciation the scholarship of Professor O’Connell for his introduction to, framing of, and references for TM’s monastic conferences on Anselm of Canterbury. His Zen-like attention to the task of editing TM’s writings and conference notes, and the deep respect for the reader that Professor O’Connell demonstrates in his generous footnotes, are to be admired and emulated.
- See the introduction to TM’s conference notes by Professor O’Connell in Thomas Merton, Cistercian Fathers and Forefathers: Essays and Conferences. Editor Patrick F. O’Connell. Hyde Park, New York: 2018, page 42. TM was at Saint Bonaventure’s in 1940 and 1941. See the webpage, “Thomas Merton’s Life and Work” at the website The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University: http://merton.org/chrono.aspx This webpage offers a helpful timeline tracking major moments in TM’s life. In a letter dated, January 28, 1941, TM writes to his Columbia English Professor, Mark van Doren from Saint Bonaventure’s: “I have been reading St. Anselm’s Proslogion, and St. Bonaventure’s Itinerarium with this Franciscan philosopher from Germany [Father Philotheus Boehner], and I am finding out all sorts of good things about scholastic philosophy …” (Thomas Merton, The Road to Joy: The Letters of Thomas Merton to New and Old Friends. Selected and edited by Robert E. Daggy. New York: Farrar-Straus-Giroux, 1989, page 9.) Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/roadtojoyletters0000mert/page/8/mode/2up?view=theater The website, The Thomas Merton Collection at Saint Bonaventure’s College, has a page dedicated to Father Philotheus (1901 – 1955), who was a scholar of both medieval philosophy and botany. This webpage includes the text of a letter that TM wrote upon of the Franciscan’s death. It is a warm and tender letter, in which TM credits Father Philotheus with helping him to “make a crucial decision” in his life. And the Trappist monk, pays tribute to his teacher’s “truly Franciscan ardor and insight into the creatures of God.” TM continues: “He was a true scientist, for whom natural beings were only a step on the ladder by which a soul rises to the contemplation of God. And he certainly had an eye for the smallest of God’s creatures. I will never forget once when we were driving in a car through one of those narrow wooded valleys near Allegany, and were going too fast for the trees to be more than a blur, when ‘Philo’ suddenly shouted: ‘Stop! Stop!’ and blurted out some unintelligible name of a rare moss. He hopped out of the car and was half way up the side of a small mountain before anyone knew what was happening. He came back with something I wouldn’t have seen if I had been standing dead-still right in front of it. Now that he has exchanged the ‘evening knowledge’ of God in creatures for the ‘morning knowledge’ of creatures in God, he no longer has to stop the car and climb a cliff to see his rare mosses.” See: http://archives.sbu.edu/Merton_Site/fr.-philotheus-boehner.html See also Professor O’Connell’s introduction to TM’s conference notes in Thomas Merton, Cistercian Fathers and Forefathers: Essays and Conferences, page 42.
- See again Professor O’Connell’s introduction in Thomas Merton, Cistercian Fathers and Forefathers: Essays and Conferences, page 42. Professor O’Connell also references a July 1963 letter to Etta Gullick, a Lecturer at St. Stephen’s House at Oxford: “I have been reading a very fine book of R. W. Southern on St. Anselm. I support you must know Southern. I think he did a very good job. I took this occasion to get into St. Anselm a little, too. I had always been put off him by the standard philosophical textbooks, but I find him fascinating … And Anselm was a mystic, certainly. I don’t believe in being professionally anti-intellectual, as though the mind as such were an obstacle to contemplation. I think this is big mistake, and the effects of it are unfortunate.” (Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns. Selected and edited by William H. Shannon. New York: Farrar-Straus-Giroux, 1985, page 361.) Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/hiddengroundoflo00mert/page/360/mode/2up?view=theater Professor Southern’s book is Saint Anselm and His Biographer: A Study of Monastic Life and Thought, 1059-c.1130. London: Cambridge University Press, 1963. Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/saintanselmhisbi0000sout
- TM’s affirming description here of Anselm is taken from his conference notes. (Thomas Merton, Cistercian Fathers and Forefathers: Essays and Conferences, page 49.) His description of Julian comes from a letter to Clare Boothe Luce, written in either December 1961 or January 1962: “Have you ever read the English mystic Julian (sometimes wrongly called Juliana) of Norwich? I will write to you about her sometime. She is a mighty theologian, in all her simplicity and love. Though ‘all manner of things shall be well,’ we cannot help but be aware, on the threshold of 1962, that we have enormous responsibilities and tasks …” (Thomas Merton, Witness to Freedom: The Letters of Thomas Merton in Times of Crisis. Selected and edited by William H. Shannon. New York: Farrar-Straus-Giroux, 1994, page 26.)
- Thomas Merton, Cistercian Fathers and Forefathers: Essays and Conferences, pages 45. TM continues: “It took him several weeks. He got up into France and was looking around, and he found out that the best school that was going was the school at the monastery of Bec.” (Cistercian Fathers and Forefathers, page 46.) Scholar R.W. Southern offers further texture to Anselm’s early exodus: “It was about 1056 that Anselm broke loose from the restraints of his native town. His mother, who had saved him from despair at a moment of break-down and to whom he was devoted, had died. With his father, he had nothing in common except mutual dislike and incompatibility …Anselm quarreled with his father and left home with very little preparation and with only the vaguest plan for his future. In his early years he had felt an urge to become a monk; later he thought he might become a scholar. But these ambitions had come to nothing, and in 1056 he may have had no larger purpose than escape. The footsteps of a young man in this situation can scarcely be expected to follow any very rational plan, but he probably had a good immediate reason for the direction he took. He crossed the Alps in great discomfort and some danger, but not by the shortest route northwards over the St Bernard Pass …” (R.W. Southern, Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990, page 11.).
- Thomas Merton, Cistercian Fathers and Forefathers: Essays and Conferences, page 47.
- Thomas Merton, Cistercian Fathers and Forefathers: Essays and Conferences, pages 47.
- Thomas Merton, Cistercian Fathers and Forefathers: Essays and Conferences, pages 51. A fuller quotation: “[Anselm’s] using his reason in this supersaturated state, so actually what you’ve got is a perfect synthesis or exactly the way a monk should think when he’s thinking originally … Here you’ve got a monk who actually made a creative use of not only biblical revelation and tradition, but also his reason.” (Ibid., page 51).
- Thomas Merton, Cistercian Fathers and Forefathers: Essays and Conferences, pages 49.
- Thomas Merton, Cistercian Fathers and Forefathers: Essays and Conferences, pages 50.
- Thomas Merton, Cistercian Fathers and Forefathers: Essays and Conferences, pages 51.
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