Saturday, April 25th, 2020

Of Restless Charity: Saint Anselm, Saint Mary Magdalen, and the Christian Life, Part I

(This essay will appear in a series of three posts.)


Saint Mary Magdalene comes frequently into our midst during the liturgy of Easter. She appears in the Mass Gospels of the Easter Vigil, Easter Sunday, and on Thursday and Saturday during the Easter Octave.—That is, half of the eight Gospels of Easter. Now, all the saints shed light on their Prototype and Head, Christ the Lord. But in the present context, our aim becomes more specific. Seeing Saint Mary Magdalene, we see something of the Easter mystery. Without her, our eyes become dim to the lightening of the Resurrection.[1]

But in the very same moment, the Resurrection shows us the Christian life in its full scope. It cannot be otherwise: ‘if Christ be not risen again, then is our preaching vain: and your faith is also vain.’[2] The Easter mystery is not simply part of the historical testimony of the Gospels; it tells us who we are.

Saint Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) also comes into our midst. This year, his feast day—April 21st—falls during the first week of Easter. (Only rarely does his feast come before Easter; last year, it was on Easter itself.) The arrangement of the liturgical calendar is providential, not arbitrary; for this reason, therefore, we can and ought to see Saint Anselm as an Easter saint: that is, another saint who has the special task of bringing out some aspect of the Easter mystery for us. And so he does.

In 1081, while still abbot of Bec, Saint Anselm sent six prayers of his own composition to the Princess Adelaide, young daughter of William the Conqueror. Among these prayers, is one addressed to Saint Mary Magdalene.


The language of tears is a mysterious one; it may be the most profound language that man possesses. This is where Saint Anselm’s prayer begins: for Saint Mary Magdalene is the first saint of tears. Beginning with her, an entire tradition in the spiritual life is initiated. Twenty centuries worth of spiritual writers will elaborate the truth that compunction—serene, repentant heart-brokenness—is a most powerful force in the life of the Christian. To this day, there exists a set of prayers in the Roman Missal asking for this very grace:

Almighty and most mild God, who for your thirsting people brought forth a spring of living water from the rock: draw forth out of the hardness of our heart the tears of compunction; that we may be equal to the task of mourning our sins, and thereby, in your mercy, merit to receive their forgiveness.[3]

At the outset, Saint Anselm, the doctor magnificus, comes with a profound lesson: tears are sanctifiable because of the One to whom they are offered.

St Mary Magdalene, you came with springing tears to the spring of mercy, Christ; from him your burning thirst was abundantly refreshed; through him your sins were forgiven; by him your bitter sorrow was consoled.

In this short space, Saint Anselm summarizes the three movements of Saint Mary Magdalene’s entire life: refreshment, forgiveness, consolation. One could string together a sequence of New Testament passages which depict each moment. But that is the great arch of the saint’s life; there is much to account for in between. Saint Anselm goes on to do this, recalling her life of sin, the reproach she endured on account of it, the heavy burden it was to herself, and the darkness in which it left her.

But Saint Anselm is courteous and self-knowing:

Most blessed lady, I who am the most evil and sinful of men do not recall your sins as a reproach, but call upon the boundless mercy by which they were blotted out.

The principal truth is mercy, not sin: it is the final destination of Saint Anselm’s prayer. And of course he is addressing Saint Mary not as she was, but as she currently is—namely, ‘in bliss.’

Therefore, since you are now with the chosen because you are beloved and beloved because you are chosen of God, I, in my misery, pray to you, in bliss.

It is an obvious but important point. Anytime we pray to the saints—or think of them or study them—we regard them not as inert things, but living persons; they are not fixed within the unmoving past, but alive and real. This is why Saint Anselm’s courtesy and affection are not misplaced or contrived: he is addressing a real woman. And moreover, he is addressing her about the most important matter, namely, the drama of sin and mercy—in her life, and in his.

Saint Anselm does not leave off with the mystery of tears. The grace he identifies in Saint Mary, he in turn asks for himself. After all, this is a prayer, not a mere encomium. And what matters, of course, is what the tears signify—what they manifest before God, wordlessly. For Saint Anselm, this means,

Love that pierces the heart; tears that are humble; desire for the homeland of heaven; impatience with this earthly exile; searing repentance; and a dread of torments in eternity.

Tears that are given by grace are a kind of summary of all that. Our two saints prove it; it is as if we are able to eavesdrop on a conversation among the two of them. Saint Anselm and Saint Mary Magdalene speak of the language of charity and desire; compunctious tears are part of the grammar. Thus, we are left with the opening image of the prayer: Saint Mary, weeping for love and mercy, in the presence of Christ, the fount of mercy—‘springing tears before the spring of mercy.’

And yet for all this talk of love-inspired tears, we do well to remember that the scene is not the foot of the Cross, but the empty tomb of Easter.    


[1] Benedicta Ward makes reference to ‘this Paschal understanding of St Mary Magdalene,’ rightly stating that it is drawn from the Gospels themselves as well as the liturgy’s own reference to it: Saint Mary figures prominently in the Easter sequence Victimæ Paschali Laudes, for instance. Cf The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion, trans Benedicta Ward (Penguin Books, 1973), p 34. I rely on this same text for all my quotations of Saint Anselm’s prayers.

[2] 1 Corinthians 15, 14.

[3] Translation my own; from the Missale Romanum of 1962, the collect of the Mass Pro Compunctione Cordis, formerly titled, Pro Petitione Lacrimarum. In the current English edition of the Roman Missal, Mass for the Forgiveness of Sins (B).