“Faith seeking understanding” was the motto of St. Anselm, remembered today as a kindly reformer, philosopher, and gadfly, an 11th Century Archbishop of Canterbury who was exiled by two English kings. But long before such career advances and recessions, Anselm was a climber of mountains. What Anselm meant by “faith seeking understanding,” and how this Medieval relic of an idea can transform the world today, was foreshadowed in his experiences growing up in the Alps of what is now northern Italy.
The city of Aosta, Anselm’s hometown, rests in a narrow valley surrounded by ten thousand foot peaks on three sides. Anselm believed (it seems more literally than most young hikers) that heaven was to be found above the tree line. One night in a dream, he was told to climb a mountain to the court of God. On the way up, he passed women who were reaping the king’s grain in a slip-shod and lazy manner. Received by God and his steward at court (everyone else was out working the harvest), the steward presented him with the “whitest of bread” to eat.
Sometime after this dream, Anselm’s mother died, and his religious zeal waned. He fell out with his father, renounced his patrimony, and set off across the Alps westward with a servant. On a fine day, climbing to the pass below Mount Cenis (now, fittingly, part of Gran Paradiso National Park) must indeed have seemed like entering the courts of heaven: serrated peaks rise on all sides, ibex graze the slopes, grass and wildflowers wave in the breeze, and a large alpine lake reflects valleys and clouds beyond.
But the main pass (which Constantine and Charlemagne had also ascended) was almost 7000 feet above sea level, and Anselm tired. The travelers ran out of food: Anselm gnawed snow to assuage his hunger. His servant gave the donkey’s saddlebag a final, desperate search, and was surprised to uncover bread “of exceptional whiteness,” like the bread in Anselm’s dream. Refreshed, the travelers resumed their journey.
Anselm later wrote of God as “the highest of all beings.” His famous ontological argument, still debated by philosophers, can be read as a kind of prayer in dialogue with and in search of God, “he than whom there is no greater,” as if he were still looking for firm footing, ascending some alpine valley. Nor did he forget the lazy farmers in his dream. He worked in the fields of God with diligence and compassion. People who were afraid to approach the pope, “hurried” to meet Anselm, including Muslim vassals of Count Roger of Sicily. He gently admonished kindness to children in the monasteries he supervised, was offended by abuse of animals, and played an early role in the anti-slavery movement. Doubtless it is due to Anselm’s kindness that his story comes down to us: the historian Eadmer, who tells it, was one of many devoted students.
Christians believe not just in abstract dogmas, but in truth “made flesh, and dwelt among us.” From Anselm’s life we similarly begin to see what “Faith Seeking Understanding” might mean, not just as a sticker a Medieval schoolman might have pasted to the rear bumper of his ox cart, but as a lived solution to the urgent intellectual challenges of our own time.
Two great errors confuse the modern world about faith. Many see faith as a leap off an intellectual precipice. Faith, Richard Dawkins famously informed us (he was not the first), means believing “not only in the absence of evidence, but in the teeth of evidence.” Others seem to see faith as the ultimate karmic bailout: live as seedy and frivolous a life as you please, then Jesus comes with a big red checkbook and buys you out of prison.
But faith for a mountain climber is neither blind nor lazy. Calf muscles and eyes engage in the climb, as you step over stones and roots, and skirt puddles. Or perhaps you trip, lose your way, even wind up like Otzi the Ice Man, found after 5300 years, encased in an Alpine glacier near another Italian border. For Anselm, faith meant applying a mind rich in curiosity, imagination, and insight, along with alert senses and reasonable trust in other people, to explore the rugged landscape of an often demanding and complex Medieval world.