The Saints Know that We Need to Grow: Learning from St. Anselm

· Bishop,English Saint,Doctor of the Church
The Saints Know that We Need to Grow: Learning from Saint Anselm from Letters from the Saints Blog with an image of Saint Anselm

A Growth Mindset

In the Christian life, we are called to grow. Therefore, we should not be the same today as we were a year ago. And, we should not be the same today as we were last week. Even though it might be imperceptible, we should not be the same today as we were yesterday.

Jesus uses the imagery of gardening and plants to help us understand this idea. For example in John 15, He says that He is the vine and we are the branches. The Father is the vine dresser who prunes the branches in order that they might produce more fruit. If the vine is bad, it is taken off and cast into the fire. Of course, it is assumed that the healthy branches which are connected to the vine are growing, sprouting new leaves, and producing fruit.

On another occasion, in Matthew 7, Jesus says that a bad tree will produce bad fruit and a good tree will produce good fruit. Again, the assumption is that the good tree is growing in order to produce good fruit.

God's creation of nature has this idea of growth built in to its core. Nature tends to grow and to keep growing. It tends toward massive growth if you consider, for example, how many seeds a single tree produces in order to grow more of its kind.

The Saints Know that We Need to Grow

The saints understand that it is essential for us to continue to grow in our spiritual lives. We simply cannot remain where we are. No matter where we have been or what we have experienced, we can live differently than we did in the past. 

We are in a relationship with God, and we want to grow in that relationship. The saints want to know God better. They want to change the way they act in order to live in conformity with God's expectations for them. In other words, they want to become saints.

That does not mean that growth is always easy. It can be very difficult. We live in our particular time with our particular circumstances. Our surrounding culture can often be opposed to actual growth. It might encourage us to do nothing, stay the same, or even head in the opposite direction of growth.

One lesson we can learn from the saints that can provide some help with our spiritual growth is to realize that we are not in charge of our spiritual life. Instead, God is in charge of it. He wants us to grow and to become more conformed to Him. So, He is constantly arranging the circumstances and events of our lives to give us opportunities to grow. We do not need to be so concerned about our spiritual growth as we need to be concerned that we are allowing ourselves to grow by responding to what God gives us. He is presenting the lessons in His School of Love, and we need to respond by accepting what He gives us and acting in a loving manner.

Let's look at a saint who had to learn a lesson that undid what he had learned as a child.

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Education with a Switch

St. Anselm (1033 - 1109) was born almost a thousand years ago to Gondulf and Ermenberg in the Piedmont region of modern day Italy. As his parents were of the nobility, they saw fit to provide him with a quality education through a tutor. Even at an early age, Anselm would have received instruction in the classic subjects of grammar (that is Latin grammar), rhetoric, and logic. Later, he would learn arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The goal of his education was to become a priest in particular a canon or a priest attached to a cathedral.

At that time, it was considered that an essential part of providing an education involved quite a bit of use of the switch. It was not so much physical punishment for misbehavior as it was a way to "punish" the student for getting his lessons wrong. Failure to conjugate the verb correctly or forgetting a word in repeating a memorized quote, for instance, might result in receiving numerous blows from the switch.

Although we might struggle to understand this way of teaching, it was the "done thing", and the students naturally suffered from it. It is a bit like the idea that existed for a long time that letting someone bleed would improve their health. Today, we know that is a dangerous way to treat a patient. Yet, for many centuries it was part of the practice of medicine.

Thus, young Anselm was familiar with the part that the switch played in education. His mother was not so fond of the idea. As Anselm's education took place in his home, his mother was aware of how his son would be beat for not doing well enough with his lessons.

A Mother's Plea

On one particular day, Anselm's mother Ermenberg asked him about his lessons. And she pointedly questioned whether he had received any whippings that day. Because he did not like to tell tales outside of school so to speak, Anselm answered in the negative although it was not true. His mother's instincts were typical of most mothers and she decided to find out for herself because she did not think Anselm's answer told the actual story. When she looked at his back, it was clear that he had received the switch many times that day.

It was too much for Ermenberg who could tell it had been a particularly rough beating, and she also knew that Anselm was not the strongest child. Her eyes teared up and she trembled, as she said, "Never, never, shall you become a clergy. Scholar, or no scholar, no longer shall you pay like for this scholarship."

Anselm, although he loved his mother, did not agree with her stance. Instead, he faced up to his mother and replied, "If I have to die for it, I intend to go learning, and I shall be a clergyman." His mother than tried to dissuade him from becoming a priest by suggesting that he become a knight instead. Ermenberg promised Anselm a fine suit of armor if he would simply change his mind. He, however, was not to be bribed.

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A Balanced Life of Prayer, Sharing, and Serving

Anselm would go on to be ordained, and he would also continue to pursue his hunger for learning. Anselm would later become a monk, an abbot, and finally the Archbishop of Canterbury. Through these offices, Anselm allowed God to work in growing his interior life. As a monk, he developed the discipline of prayer and became an effective preacher. As an abbot, Anselm learned how to help others grow in their spiritual lives. And finally, as archbishop, he let God work through him to defend the Church against the encroachments by the kings of England.

Anselm was also an accomplished theologian. He takes his place between St. Augustine who lived 600 years before him and St. Thomas Aquinas who lived 100 years after him. Much of his work employed the gift of human reason to provide defenses for the tenets of the faith instead of solely relying on Scripture. His well-known phrase was, "Faith seeking understanding."

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The Ability to Grow

However, he also showed his capacity for growth by breaking away from the norms of his day regarding how to educate young men. Anselm was able to move out of the cycle of doing something because it has always been done that way. Or the other mindset that believes if it was good enough for my generation, it is good enough for the next generation. 

Yes, he had been treated in a very rough way as a young student, but he did not believe that it needed to be that way. And, in fact, Anselm was convinced it was not a good way to provide instruction.

Rather, he was known for sharply criticizing those who thought that physical mistreatment of boys was necessary to shape them into men. For example, one of Anselm's biographers recounts how he told another abbot that he should refrain from the brutal use of the threats and blows to train the young men.

Anselm compared the corporal punishment to planting a tree and enclosing it on all sides. The tree will not grow properly and spread out its branches. Instead, it will end up twisted and gnarled and incapable of healthy growth and producing good or even much fruit. In the same way, with threats and beatings, the young men will not understand love and good will but rather will be filled with anger, hatred, and resentment.

Perhaps, Anselm knew about the ill effects from his own personal experience. When he was 15 years of age, he had attempted to enter a monastery only to be turned away. He took the rejection personally and apparently became depressed. His recovery from his depression seems to have been accomplished by a release of the pent up resentment he had from his youth and living a carefree life that swung far in the opposite direction.

Then, in the midst of his wild living, Anselm's mother died. It seems that the loss of his loving mother was a turning point for Anselm. Soon after her death, he began his return to faith. By God's grace, he once again resumed the more fervent practice of his faith and continued on the spiritual path that led him to eventually become a saint and a doctor of the Church.

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