Prayer and argument
Today’s reading in the Divine Office is an excerpt from the prayer with which St. Ansem of Canterbury (or, as Italians know him, Anselm of Aosta) began his Proslogion. This is the work in which he set out what came to be called the “ontological argument” for the existence of God which, disputed in his own day, continues still today to attract serious philosophical and theological attention. The combination of serious and difficult philosophical and theological argument and deep prayer, as reflected here, is a striking illustration of the relationship between theology and holiness as reflected still in the saint’s work. He embodies the transition from monastic theology to the scholastic, that is, academic theology of the later Middle Ages. Here is the whole of the opening prayer, along with the brief concluding prayer, and his statement of the ontological argument.
Come now, little man,
flee your jobs for a moment,
hide a bit from your busy thoughts.
Throw aside your heavy cares
and disregard your laborious commitments.
Give a little time to God,
and rest a while in him.
“Go into the room” of your mind,
leave everything outside except God
and what helps you to seek him,
and then, “shut the door” and seek him (see Mt 6:6)
Say, now, all “my heart,” say to God,
“I seek your face;
Your face, Lord, I seek” (Ps 27:8)
And come you, too, Lord, my God,
teach my heart
where and how to seek you
where and how to find you.
Lord, if you are not here,
where shall I seek your absent self?
But if you are everywhere,
why do I not see you present?
You dwell in “light inaccessible” (1 Tim 6:16)
And where is this inaccessible light?
And how can I reach this inaccessible light?
And who will lead me and bring me into it
so that I may see you in it?
And in what signs, in what image, shall I seek you?
I have never seen you, Lord my God,
I do not know your face.
What shall he do, Lord most high,
what shall he do, this your distant exile?
What shall he do, your servant eager for your love,
and cast far “from your face” (Ps 51:13).
He pants to see you, and your face is too far from him.
He wants to approach you,
and your dwelling is inaccessible.
He desires to find you, and does not know where you are.
He aspires to seek you, and does not know your face.
Lord, you are my God, and you are my Lord,
and never have I seen you.
You made me and remade me,
and all my goods you gave to me,
and never have I seen you.
I was made to see you,
and still I have not done what I was made to do.
Wretched lot of man,
to have lost that for which he was made!
Hard and awful fall!
Ah, what he has lost and what he has found!
what has gone and what remains!
He lost the happiness for which he was made,
and found a misery for which he was not made.
That is gone without which nothing is happy,
that remains which of itself is wretched.
Then “man ate the bread of angels” (Ps 78:25)
for which now he only hungers;
now he eats “the bread of anxious toil” (Ps 127:2)
of which he then knew nothing.
Ah, the common distress of men,
the universal lament of the children of Adam!
Once he belched in his fullness,
now we sigh in our hunger.
we have to beg.
He happily enjoyed and wretchedly abandoned;
we are unhappy in our need and wretched in our desire
and, alas, empty we remain.
Why, when he could easily have done so,
did God not protect what we so keenly lack?
Why did God take away our light
and surround us with darkness?
Why did he take our life away
and inflict death upon us?
Wretched beings: from what have we been expelled!
toward what are we impelled!
From what heights cast down!
in what depths sunk!
From our homeland into exile,
from the sight of God into blindness.
From the joy of immortality
into the bitterness and horror of death.
What a wretched change!
From so great a good to so great an evil!
Painful loss, painful grief, everything painful.
Ah wretched me,
one of the many wretched children of Eve
far from God:
what have I tried to do, what have I done?
What did I seek to be, and what have I become?
To what did I aspire, for what things did I long?
“I sought good things,” and “behold terror” (Jer 14:19)
I sought God and bumped into myself.
I sought rest within me
and “found distress and anguish” in my depths (Ps 116:3).
I wanted to laugh in the joy of my mind,
and I am forced to groan “because of the tumult of my heart” (Ps 38:9).
I hoped for delight,
and see how thickly come my sighs!
And “you, Lord, how long?” (Ps 6:4)
“How long, Lord, will you forget us,
how long will you turn your face from us?” (Ps 13:1)
When will you look and hear us?
When will you give light to our eyes
and show us “your face”? (Ps 80:4)
When will you give yourself back to us?
Look upon us, Lord, hear us, illumine us,
show us yourself.
So that things may be well with us,
give yourself back to us,
yourself without whom all goes ill with us.
Have pity on our efforts and struggles toward you,
on us who can do nothing without you.
You invite us: well, then, help us.
I am pleading, Lord:
let me not despair in my sighing,
let me in hope breathe again.
I am pleading, Lord,
my heart is bitter in its desolation,
sweeten it with your consolation.
I am pleading, Lord,
hungry I began to seek you,
when I cease, let me not still hunger for you.
I drew near starving,
let me not go away unfed.
I have come as one poor to one rich,
one pitiful to one full of pity,
let me not go away empty and spurned.
And if I “must sigh before I eat” (Job 3:24),
at least, after my sighs, give me something to eat.
Bent over as I am, Lord,
I can only look down;
raise me so that I can look up.
“My iniquities have gone over my head”;
they surround me, “and like a heavy burden” weigh me down (Ps 38:5).
Free me, unburden me,
and do not let “the abyss” of them “close its mouth over me” (Ps 69:16).
Let me look upon your light,
from far away or from the depths.
Teach me to seek you,
and show yourself to one who seeks you,
for I can never seek you unless you teach me
nor find you unless you show yourself to me.
Let me seek you by desiring you,
desire you by seeking you.
Let me find you by loving you,
love you by finding you.
I confess, Lord, and give you thanks
that you created this your image in me
so that, remembering you,
I can think of you, love you.
But so effaced is this image by the wear of my vices,
so darkened by the smoke of my sins,
that it can no longer do what it was made to do,
unless you renew it and reshape it.
I am not trying, Lord, to penetrate your depths,
in no way do I compare my intellect to them;
but I desire in some way to understand your truth
which my heart believes and loves.
Nor am I seeking to understand in order to believe,
but I believe in order to understand.
For this also I believe:
that “unless I believe, I shall not understand” (Is 7:9).
I pray you, God,
that I may know you, love you,
so that I may rejoice in you.
And if I cannot do so fully in this life,
let me make progress every day
until it comes to fullness.
Here let the knowledge of you grow
and there may it be full;
here let love for you grow,
and there may it be full,
so that here my joy may be great in hope
and there may be full in fact.
Lord, through your Son you command us,
advise us to ask,
and you promise that we will receive
so that “our joy may be complete” (Jn 16:24).
I ask, Lord–as you advise
through that wonderful counsellor of ours–,
to receive what you promise through your truth,
so that my joy may be complete.
Trustworthy God, I pray that I may receive
so that my joy may be complete.
Meanwhile, may my mind meditate on this
and my tongue speak of it.
May my heart love it,
may my mouth talk about it.
May my soul hunger for it,
my flesh thirst for it,
all my being desire it,
until I enter into “the joy of my Lord” (Mt 25:21),
who is God one and three,
“blessed for ever. Amen” (Rm 1:25).
And here’s Anselm’s argument for the existence of God:
Therefore, Lord, who grant understanding to faith, grant me that, in so far as you know it beneficial, I understand that you are as we believe and you are that which we believe.
Now we believe that you are something than which nothing greater can be imagined. Is there, then, no such nature, since “the fool has said in his heart: ‘God is not’”? But surely this very fool, when he hears what I am saying–”that than which nothing greater can be imagined”–understands what he hears; and what he understands is in his mind, even if he does not know that it exists. It is, after all, one thing for something to be in the mind and another to know that it exists.
For when a painter imagines beforehand what he is going to make, he has in his mind what he has not yet made but he does not yet know that it exists. When he has finished painting it, however, he both has in his mind what he has painted and knows that it exists.
Even the fool, then, has to agree that at least in his mind there is something than which nothing greater can be imagined, because when he hears this he understands it, and whatever is understood is in a mind.
But surely that than which nothing greater can be imagined cannot be in the mind alone. For if it is at least in the mind alone, it can be imagined to be in reality, too, which is something greater. If, then, that than which a greater cannot be imagined is in the mind alone, then the very thing than which a greater cannot be imagined is something than which a greater can be imagined. But certainly this cannot be. Beyond doubt, then, that than which nothing greater can be imagined exists both in the mind and in reality.
When students would say that there is something wrong with the argument, I’d challenge them to tell me what it is.