Saturday, May 2nd, 2020

Of Restless Charity: Saint Anselm, Saint Mary Magdalene, and the Christian Life, Part II

(The second part of a three-part essay.) 


After Saint Anselm elaborates the reason for these tears of compunction—both for himself and for Saint Mary—he hits upon something rather essential and consoling. Over the course of about ten lines, he gives an overview of how Christ was faithful to Saint Mary:

[W]ith what kind familiarity and familiar kindness he himself replied on your behalf to the calumnies of those who were against you? How he defended you, when the proud Pharisee was indignant, how he excused you when your sister complained, how highly he praised your deed, when Judas begrudged it.

The whole context of Saint Mary’s life is given in terms of Christ’s faithfulness. Saint Paul’s words to the young bishop Timothy come to mind:

A faithful saying: if we be dead with him, we shall live also with him. If we suffer, we shall also reign with him. If we deny him, he will also deny us. If we believe not, he continueth faithful, he cannot deny himself.[4]

Therefore, what is true of Saint Mary Magdalene, is true of us as well. Were it otherwise, Saint Anselm would have little reason to make it a part of his prayer to her. No, Christ continueth faithful: the difference is one of manner, not principle. No two Christian lives are exactly alike—but it is the same Christ who produces and sustains each and all.

In the same section, Saint Anselm returns to the empty sepulcher, in order to demonstrate the final proof of Christ’s faithfulness. Here, he sees the most dramatic example both of Christ’s fidelity and of Saint Mary Magdalene’s tearful charity. They meet before Easter’s empty tomb.—

And, more than all this, what can I say, how can I find words to tell, about the burning love with which you sought him, weeping at the suplchre, and wept for him in your seeking? How he came, who can say how or with what kindness, to comfort you, and made you burn with love still more; . . . how he sought you when, seeking him, you wept.

Once again, we behold Saint Mary’s tomb-side weeping; only, Saint Anselm assures us that these tears are of love’s suffering, not despair or sadness. Jesus’ very absence causes Saint Mary to seek and to weep—and this increases her love; it does not stifle it.



At this point the discourse shifts. Saint Anselm no longer prays to Saint Mary, but turns his attention to Christ, the object of Saint Mary’s seeking. He begins by putting a question to the Master:

But you, most holy Lord, why do you ask her why she weeps? Surely you can see; her heart, the dear life of her soul, is cruelly slain. O love to be wondered at; O evil to be shuddered at; you hung on the wood, pierced by iron nails, stretched out like a thief for the mockery of wicked men; and yet, ‘Woman,’ you say, ‘why are you weeping?’

It is the prototype of the Scholastic quæstio. He then proceeds to adduce reasons for Saint Mary’s tears, speaking up for her in defense; indeed, imitating Christ’s own defense of her which Saint Anselm had mentioned earlier in the prayer.

It has been popular to criticize the mediævals because (so the narrative goes) they lacked a sensitivity to what is personal and subjective about the human experience. The entire modern intellectual and political project is predicated on this criticism. Surely that is to paint in broad strokes, yet it remains true. However, this portion of Saint Anselm’s prayer gives the lie to the criticism. Here, with psychological insight he sympathizes with Saint Mary, giving an account of her thoughts and emotions as they must have been while she lingered and wept around the empty tomb.

She could not prevent Christ’s death, but at least she could care for his body. She could not longer speak with Christ living, but could at least mourn for him in death. But even this experience becomes bitter to her, under her assumption that Christ’s body has been taken away. The violence of Christ’s Passion would have been only too fresh in her memory; and yet even the body which was so mistreated is now gone. As is clear to Saint Anselm, she undergoes a kind of momentary second trauma.

Four times during this portion of the prayer Saint Anselm asks Christ why he puts his question to Saint Mary as he did. To Saint Anselm, the nature of Saint Mary’s grief is obvious. But of course, he also knows it is obvious to Christ:

But you know it all well, and thus you wish it to be, for only by such broken words and sighs can she convey a cause of grief as great as hers. The love you have inspired you do not ignore.

Here, Saint Anselm reveals two important truths. The first is not new to us but still bears repeating: Saint Mary’s love is expressed, not in neatly articulated words, but as it were haphazardly and through tears. Again we return to the doctrine of compunction. There is nothing necessarily awry in the spiritual life of Catholics if longing for God cannot be clearly articulated. If such tears are pure—that is, not somehow self-serving—they are inspired by love of God.

Even beside the vacant tomb of Easter, power was still going out of Christ.[5] That is the second truth to which Saint Anselm alludes. The Master understands well enough the grace he sets to work in souls. Of course it was no different for Saint Mary Magdalene. ‘The love you have inspired you do not ignore.’ There is no trial in the spiritual life about which Christ is ignorant; he does not lead anyone along a meandering path simply to abandon him at a dead-end. Saint Anselm reminds us that the Master seeks to elicit love from us, and this must be so.—In the rational creature, for love to exist at all, it must be freely given. And beneath Saint Mary’s tearful searching, charity is being freely offered to God. ‘[F]or man seeth those things that appear, but the Lord beholdeth the heart.’[6]


[4] 2 Timothy 2, 11-13. Or, as Msgr Knox translates: ‘It is well said, We are to share his life, because we have shared his death; if we endure, we shall reign with him, if we disown him, he in his turn will disown us. If we play him false, he remains true to his word; he cannot disown himself.’

[5] Luke 8, 46.

[6] 1 Kings (1 Samuel) 16, 7.