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Thinking Out Loud

A Quiet from which to Live

by Michael Jinkins | Jun 01, 2015

QuietRequired reading lists have proven the death of many a classic.

I've lost count of people who have told me that they don't like Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, or Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, or the short stories of Flannery O'Connor because they were "forced" to read these classics in high school or college.

The same might be said for reading lists in seminary. Maybe especially in seminary, because the reason we require a particular classic can unintentionally distort the reader's sense of the book.

I'm not really sure if there's a solution. If you can think of one, please let me know.

When I was in seminary we were required to read Anselm of Canterbury's Proslogion. It was on the required reading list primarily so we could understand Anselm’s so-called "ontological proof for God's existence."

In time I came to realize that Anselm's "proof" was neither really a "proof" nor even an "argument" for God's existence. Rather, it is a profound theological and spiritual reflection on the God in whom Anselm placed his trust.

Anselm's words in the Proslogion represent the exuberant cry of a grateful heart. As Anselm himself writes:

"Have you found what you sought, my soul? You sought God, and you found God to be the highest of all things, than which nothing better could be conceived; you found God to be Life itself and Light, Wisdom and Good, eternal Blessedness and blessed Eternity; you found God to be everywhere and always."

The fact that we were required to read Anselm's Proslogion in a philosophy of religion class caused us to bracket it as "philosophy of religion" and to file it away in a particular cabinet - the cabinet of "proofs for God's existence." And there it stayed, unread and largely unappreciated.

Unappreciated, for me at least, until recently I was re-reading passages from Anselm's Proslogion selected by the editors of a Benedictine Breviary in honor of the Feast of St. Anselm on April 21.*

Reading the second selection prescribed for this feast day, I was struck by a fact that should have occurred to me long, long ago: Anselm was not only a doctor of the church, he was a busy bishop. Indeed, he was the Archbishop of Canterbury, the ranking official in the Roman Catholic Church in England during one of the church's most turbulent periods (Anselm lived from c.1033-1109). He clashed with kings and was exiled twice. His theology was forged in the crucible of conflict.

All theology is contextual. There's no such thing as faith in abstraction. So, when Anselm reflects theologically on God, "which nothing better could be conceived," he speaks not as the idle resident of an ivory tower driven by mere speculation, but as an active person who has found refuge, comfort and strength in God amid the dangers, toils and snares of existence.

Anselm says to himself in one especially moving passage:

"Come now, you poor creature, turn your back on your busy-ness for a little while. For a few moments leave the tumult of your thoughts; throw off the burden of your cares and put aside your wearisome occupations. Make some time for God; rest in God for a while. Enter into the chamber of your mind; exclude everything but God, and what will help you find God; shut the door and search for God. Now say how you long to see God's face. Say to God: 'Lord, it is your face that I seek.' Say it with your whole heart. Come then, Lord my God, come and instruct my heart where and how to search for you, where and how to find you."*

In prayer and meditation, Anselm did not seek quietism - an abandonment of the world to its own devices, unconcerned for matters of justice and right. Instead, Anselm sought a holy quiet in the midst of life's strivings and strife. He understood what we sometimes do not, that one acts in vain whose actions do not rest in the God who is able to do abundantly more than we can achieve or conceive.

I wonder what else awaits in those lists of required texts I've filed away.

*Benedictine Daily Prayer: A Short Breviary, compiled and edited by Maxwell E. Johnson, Oblate of Saint John's Abbey and the Monks of Saint John's Abbey (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2005), pp. 1856-1859.

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