Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Careers Counselling in the Eleventh Century

One more Anselm anecdote to finish out the month? Why not. This is the story of how St Anselm became a monk.

The devout child who thought God lived in the Alps decided when he reached the age of fifteen that he wanted to be a monk, but the abbot whom he asked to admit him refused to do so, afraid of the anger of Anselm's father. After this disappointment, Anselm experienced some angsty teenage years:

With health of body, youth and worldly well-being smiling upon him, he began little by little to cool in the fervour of his desire for a religious life - so much so that he began to desire to go the way of the world rather than to leave the world for a monastic life. He gradually turned from study, which had formerly been his chief occupation, and began to give himself up to youthful amusements. His love and reverence for his mother held him back to some extent from these paths, but she died and then the ship of his heart had as it were lost its anchor and drifted almost entirely among the waves of the world.

His life with his difficult father then began to resemble the plot of a Charlotte Yonge novel:

[His father had] so keen a hatred against him that he persecuted him as much, or even more, for the things he did well as for those which he did ill. Nor could he soften his father by any degree of humility, but the more humble he showed himself towards his father, the sharper did he feel his father's anger towards him. When he saw that this was becoming more than he could bear, he feared that worse might come of it, and he chose rather to renounce both his patrimony and his country than to bring some disgrace upon either himself or his father by continuing to live with him.

At the age of 23 Anselm left home, crossed the Alps, and travelled around Burgundy and France for a while, before he came at last to Normandy, drawn there by the scholarly fame of Lanfranc, at that time prior of Bec. He became Lanfranc's pupil and 'gave himself up day and night to literary studies' (don't we all), but began to wonder about his former wish to be a monk.

And what then? He turned over in his mind where he could best bring to pass what he desired, and he argued thus with himself: "Well, then, I shall become a monk. But where? If at Cluny or at Bec, all the time I have spent in study will be lost. For at Cluny the severity of the order, and at Bec the outstanding ability of Lanfranc, who is a monk there, will condemn me either to fruitlessness or insignificance. Let me therefore carry out my plan somewhere where I can both display my knowledge and be of service to others."

He often used to playfully to recount these thoughts of his [i.e. to Eadmer, later in life], and he would add, "I was not yet tamed, and there was not yet in me any strong contempt of the world. Hence when I said this, as I thought, out of love for others, I did not see how damnable it was."

His chief desire was to be a monk, but he knew he had other career options, so he hesitated and was unwilling to commit himself. So he turned to Lanfranc:

He came to him and told him that he was undecided between three courses of action, but that he would hold to the one which Lanfranc judged best and reject the other two. He expounded to him the three aims, as follows: "I want," he said, "either to be a monk, or to dwell in a hermitage, or to live on my family estate, ministering so far as I can to the poor, in God's name, if you advise it" - for his father had died by this time and all the inheritance had come to him. "Know then, my lord Lanfranc, that these are the three things between which my will fluctuates; but I beg that you will stablish me in the one which you think best." Lanfranc hesitated to give an opinion and advised rather that the matter should be taken to be heard by the venerable Maurilius, archbishop of Rouen. Anselm acquiesced in this plan, and together with Lanfranc he went to the archbishop... They came to the bishop, explained the reason for their coming, and asked him what he thought about it. Without hesitation the monastic life was extolled beyond the others, and the monastic profession recommended beyond all others. Anselm heard and approved. Then, setting aside all else, he left the world and became a monk at Bec, being then in his twenty-seventh year.

Careers decisions have always been tricky - I wish I had Lanfranc to advise me in mine!

Quotations from Eadmer, Vita Sancti Anselmi (The Life of St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury), ed. and trans. R. W. Southern (London, 1962), pp.6-11.

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