The passage from St. Anselm that we posted last week was not only a beautiful way to start our reflection on early church texts, it also contains many of the most characteristic elements of patristic writing. The first element deals with the role of experience. We moderns often think of ourselves as the generation that takes experience seriously; our generation’s insight is making human experience a key part of our sources, methods, and verifications of our thoughts and reflections. Hopefully it will become evident as time goes on that the patristic authors did this too, in their own way. In this case, Anselm’s prayer begins with himself and his own experience of life. Anselm notes his own smallness, the busyness of his life and the “tumult,” “weight,” and “wearisome”–ness that goes along with it. It may not be a deep or lengthy analysis of the human condition, but all of us have probably used these words to describe our own situations at some point. The early church writers were as human, as aware of their surroundings, and as alive as we are. They worked from, with, and back into the world they lived in. This world is similar and different from ours and leads them to similar and different conclusions, but experience is nonetheless an important part of their thought process.
Second, Anselm’s prayer/reflection is soaked in the Scripture. The early church authors were – to put a modern parlance on it – scripture junkies. Shaming modern Catholics, patristic authors knew their Bible very well. Verses from the scripture flow in and out of their writings effortlessly and meaningfully. Not only do the passages they use enforce the meaning of what they are trying to say, but what they say also puts a new meaning on the passage they use – intertextuality.
Take Anselm’s use of Psalm 27. If we take Anselm’s prayer at face value we have a prayer that seems, in the end, a little hopeless. We don’t see God, don’t know God, don’t know how to find God, and thus fail in our fundamental purpose as humans. But, if we look at Psalm 27 and consider that Anselm precedes all of this unknowing with it, then we get a very different image. Psalm 27 is a psalm of trust: “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear? The LORD is my life’s refuge; of whom should I be afraid?” (27:1). So great is the psalmist’s trust in God that they can say, “Even if my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me in” (27:10). Finally, Anselm implies the words of the psalmist to restore the hope he seems to have lost at the end of the prayer and to continue his pursuit of finding God, “I believe I shall see the LORD’s goodness in the land of the living” (27:13).
The use of experience and the use of scripture in the early church texts will be important to pay attention to as we go forward. It will be especially important as we consider our next author, St. Augustine. Anselm lived between 1033 and 1109, was born in Italy, was a Benedictine monk, and one of the first voices in the scholastic movement but is popularly known for being an Archbishop of Canterbury. Augustine lived between 354 and 430, was born near Carthage in North Africa, and after a youth of debauchery, heresy, and spiritual unrest, became a bishop and one of the most important theologians of his time – actually of all of the history of western civilization after him. Augustine’s influence is seen even in Anselm’s prayer we cited last week which is a close reiteration of the prayer Augustine uses to start his Confessions.
Besides the Confessions, Augustine’s book, the City of God, is one of his most popular and most important. It is a long collection covering all kinds of topics. It was a later work of Augustine’s and he does not hold back proving how smart he is by showing how much he can talk about. One topic he discusses briefly (relatively briefly) and yet might still be odd for the modern reader to find discussed at all is “The Resurrection of Women’s Bodies.” To set the context a little, Augustine is here addressing and correcting a belief among some theologians that the bodies of women will not be resurrected at the eschaton as female bodies but that all bodies will rise as male bodies. The full discussion can be found in Book 22, Chapter 17. I will here quote only some of the more thought provoking passages and look forward to your comments and further discussion of this passage next week.
“The more sensible view, it seems to me, is the one held by those who do not doubt that both sexes will rise again… And female sex is not a fault but rather a matter of nature, and it will then be exempt from intercourse and childbirth. The female organs will still be present. Now, however, they will be accommodated not to their former use but to a new beauty… Instead, they will evoke praise for the wisdom and compassion of God, who both created what was not and freed what he created… The woman, therefore, is just as much God’s creation as is the man. But, by her being made from the man, human unity was commended to us; and by her being made in this way, as I said, Christ and the Church were prefigured. Thus the one who established the two sexes will restore them both.”