Finding the Feminine in the Divine: St. Anselm's Prayers and Meditations and Women

By L, Kristi | Magistra, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Finding the Feminine in the Divine: St. Anselm's Prayers and Meditations and Women


L, Kristi, Magistra


Eadmer, biographer of St. Anselm, once observed that the common people of Rome often approached Anselm more willingly than they would the pope, since they owed respect to the pope as "their general father and pastor," but Anselm was "loved by all as a mild and gentle man to whom, in his own eyes, nobody owed anything."(1)

Anselm (1033-1109), prior and abbot of the monastery of Bee in Normandy, and after 1093, Archbishop of Canterbury, has often been portrayed as a brilliant theologian, as an unwavering reform-minded archbishop, or as a saintly monk who was most suited for a solitary life at Bec. To a certain extent, Anselm was all of these things, but Eadmer's observations suggest that Anselm perceived himself, as did his followers, as a fellow Christian who appreciated the human need for acceptance, spiritual guidance and spiritual fellowship.

Anselm's collection of over four hundred letters, written over the course of thirty-eight years, preserves a similar image of him. In his letters, Anselm expresses the need to engage in spiritual fellowship and to entrust his problems to the prayers of his friends, always with the ultimate goal of coming closer to Christ.

As would be expected, one group of friends to whom Anselm wrote these letters were the monks from Bee, those men who had shared the life that he would wistfully remember after he became archbishop of Canterbury. The other group of correspondents Anselm considered spiritual friends were women, both lay and ecclesiastical, with whom he formed spiritual bonds similar to those he had with monks. Notably, Anselm's preserved correspondence reveals that he sent his inspiring devotional work, the Prayers and Meditations, to at least two women whom he considered to be his personal and spiritual friends.(2)

In these prayers, Anselm not only speaks to Christ and the saints as friends and fathers, but he equally speaks to them as mothers. Also significant are the three prayers dedicated to one of the greatest mothers, the Virgin Mary, as well as one prayer to a woman he considered to be a supplicant's greatest friend, St. Mary Magdalene. This article is an exploration of the relationship between the rhetoric of feminized spirituality in Anselm's prayers and his cultivation of personal and spiritual friendships with women.

The purpose of such an examination is twofold: First, examining Anselm's relationships with women and the devotional works he sent them provides a different outlook on women's spirituality during the age of eleventh-century reform, a time when women were sometimes seen as burdens on the spiritual resources of churchmen. Furthermore, such an exploration of Anselm's Prayers and Meditations and the women with whom he shared them can tell more about the theologian, the reformer and the saint himself.

Approximately forty letters survive to give a glimpse into the exchanges between Anselm and women, among whom were great noblewomen such as daughters of William the Conqueror Adela of Blois (d. 1137) and her sister Adelaide (dates unknown), Ida of Bolougne (d. 1113), Matilda of Scotland, queen of England (r. 1100-1118), and Matilda of Tuscany (c. 1046-1115). Anselm shared spiritual, personal and political relationships with all of these women, but it was to Adelaide and Countess Matilda in particular that he sent the Prayers and Meditations. Adelaide, who was living under a religious vow, received Anselm's Prayers in 1071, when he was beginning his career in the Church as a prior at the monastery of Bee.

In the letter that accompanied the prayers, Anselm advised Adelaide to give the prayers her "whole attention," to read them in solitude, to read them slowly and methodically, and most importantly, to read the prayers with sincerity. This instruction was not meant to discipline Adelaide in her religious studies but rather to encourage his "loving friend" to have her own unique spiritual experience. Moreover, Anselm concludes his letter to Adelaide by asking her to take his "little book" as a pledge of their "loyalty in God. …

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