Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Heaven among the Alps

I'm still reading Eadmer's Life of Anselm, and I'm afraid I'm going to end up posting about every other chapter of it here. It's irresistible! Since my interest is more in Eadmer than in Anselm, and more literary than philosophical, I'm afraid I have nothing intelligent to say about Anselm as a theologian (a subject about which, indeed, Eadmer himself had very little to say); as usual, my eye is caught mostly by trivia. But this is also an exercise in thinking myself back into the daily life of the eleventh century.

Here's a little story which Anselm told Eadmer about his childhood. Anselm was born in Aosta, in the Italian Alps, and this had an influence on the first stirrings of his religious imagination:

Anselm when he was a small boy lent a ready ear to his mother's conversation, so far as his age allowed. And hearing that there is one God in heaven who rules all things and comprehends all things, he - being a boy bred among mountains - imagined that heaven rested on the mountains, that the court of God was there, and that the approach to it was through the mountains.

When he had turned this over often in his mind, it happened one night that he saw a vision, in which he was bidden to climb to the top of the mountain and hasten to the court of the great king, God... He climbed the mountain and came to the royal court, where he found God alone with his steward. For, as he imagined, since it was autumn he had sent his household to collect the harvest. The boy entered and was summoned by the Lord. He approached and sat at his feet. The Lord asked him in a pleasant and friendly way who he was, where he came from and what he wanted. He replied to the question as best he could. Then, at God's command, the whitest of bread was brought to him by the steward, and he refreshed himself with it in God's presence.

The next day therefore, when he recalled to his mind's eye all that he had seen, like a simple and innocent boy he believed that he had been in heaven and that he had been fed with the bread of God, and he asserted as much to others in public. So the boy grew and was loved by all. His ways were upright and made him greatly to be loved. He went to school, he learnt his letters and in a short time made great progress.
Eadmer, Vita Sancti Anselmi (The Life of St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury), ed. and trans. R. W. Southern (London, 1962), pp.4-5.

Anselm was born around the year 1033, so we could date this vision to the early 1040s. A child's first imaginings of God are always interesting, and there's something wonderful in the fact that little Anselm associated God with the mountains which surrounded his childhood home (look at them and you can see why). I also like that he felt God was friendly to him ("jocunda affabilitate" are Eadmer's words) - and so began a lifelong quest to understand the nature of God...

ETA: this might sound ridiculous, but if you like St Anselm and you're on facebook I strongly recommend you 'like' this page: www.facebook.com/S.Anselmus. Some person with excellent taste posts a beautiful quotation from Anselm every day, and if your facebook newsfeed is anywhere near as silly as mine, it will be the better for it ;)

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