In 2015, I’m reading and blogging through Ronald Knox’s collection of sermons on Christian exemplars, Captive Flames: On Selected Saints and Christian Heroes. Every Monday, I’ll be writing about the next portrait in the book, so you’re welcome to peruse them all and/or read along.
Reading Ronald Knox’s sermon on St Anselm, I was reminded of my own confirmation saint, Augustine. In Augustine’s time, priests sometimes detoured to avoid cities that had a bishop-vacancy, out of fear that they would be seized and forcibly ordained to the office. St. Anselm did not succeed in avoiding that fate.
I like the way that Knox frames the refusal here, and even more as the chapter goes on. Knox makes it clear that, when he talks about saints being staggered when drawn out of the light, he’s not framing them as more powerful than the average person (a la Superman in his World of Cardboard speech). They’re staggered because they feel very small in comparison to God, so when the world draws them out, they’re thrown by the change in scale.
When you try to make a Saint accept a bishopric, it is like trying to make a child take medicine: the result is a perfect fury of dissent. Calculation, argument, even personal dignity are thrown to the winds; the Saint like the child simply sticks to his point and says, “I won’t, I won’t, I WON’T.” … Anyhow, it was only by the use of physical force that they dragged the Saint to the King’s bedside; and there, pressing the crozier against the knuckles that would not open so as to hold it, they elected the Archbishop of Canterbury.
It is not that the Saint has become unpractical, like the philosopher: the philosopher blinks because he has come out of the darkness of his study into the light of common things; the Saint blinks because he has come out of the light of his oratory into the darkness of the world.
They are used to looking up, and thinking of themselves as small, so, to have others look at them, and to be treated as large makes them feel like Alice after tasting the “Eat Me” cake. The way Knox describes it, it’s almost a problem of moral proprioception. Knox is careful to say that the saints have the sense of scale right, but, since nearly everyone else has it wrong, it’s confusing for them and for others when they try take proportionate actions.
The challenge for us non-Anselms, I suppose, is making sure we take time to give ourselves the chance to notice if we’re living life at the wrong scale. If I pepper my life with push notifications and frequent commitments, I have trouble thinking about eternity. If I spend too much time thinking about the character of people in the news, I lose sight of the way I am called to be good (which won’t attract attention).
If we live like Anselm, we should find ourselves occasionally feeling foreign or confused by the pace, priorities, and other scales of everyday life. If we’re at home in the world too often, it’s time to set aside some time and practices for looking beyond it.
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