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A letter from Anselm of Bec (of Canterbury) (1079-92)

Translated letter: 

To Ermengard, his beloved lady in God: brother Anselm, abbot of Bec, sends greetings and faithful prayers.
Although I do not know you by sight, yet I belong to an order which ought to wish well and give salutary advice to all men, and nobody should be surprised if I put you in mind of the things which I hear your reverence is in need of.
I have heard, dearest lady, what is taking place between your husband and you, since your nobility does not suffer this to remain secret but carries news of it far and wide. In this case I first of all give thanks to God, from whom all good comes and who gave your husband such constancy to despise temporal glory for the eternal and allowed you to bear so bravely numerous tribulations for the sake of preserving chastity; therefore he, by despising the world, does not love himself more than you, nor is anything in this world dearer to you than your husband. Surely in this both of you make yourselves loved by God and by men of good will, and both of you are worthy of praise. Thus in such a great and true mutual affection as yours, it can well be believed that you love not so much each other's bodies as each other's souls. By no care or mutual love can you snatch your bodies from temporal death; whereas, if you know how to rule your love, you can acquire eternal life for your souls.
What is it, then, reverend lady, lady of proven chastity, what is it that forces you to hinder your husband from seeking perfectly the salvation of his soul which you love no less than your own? Far be it from anyone to imagine that you might be doing this for the sake of the vile pleasures of the flesh, which you have so despised since he left you that you have suffered many tribulations and refused many persuasions rather than accept another husband when you could not have your own. If you hold his soul back from progress towards his salvation for the sake of the glory and temporal privileges which you love and hope to be able to keep through him, then how do you love his soul to whose certain and eternal privileges you prefer your doubtful, vile and transitory ones? And for what reason can you demand of him that he consider the eternal goods of his soul of secondary importance to the temporal goods of your body, if you prefer the goods of your body to the goods of his soul? Mark this, therefore, dearest lady, mark this, strong, wise woman, mark this: if you do this you will not be governing your love well, nor will you be loving properly the husband who loves you. If you force him to give up the counsel of his soul for the sake of your will, and if death then overtakes either you or him, or any other disaster afflicts you, as often happens, will he be any use to you and will you not have harmed him? In any case, if you harm his soul, you harm your own.
0, how much better, reverend lady, how much more praiseworthily would you show you love your husband if you do not merely allow, but also advise and help him to try, with God's help, to perfect what with God's inspiration he began; if, loving his good, you make it your own, if you believe most firmly that the more bravely you renounce human help for the love of God and neighbor, the more closely and securely you commit yourself to divine protection. May your prudent braveness and brave prudence therefore trust in God. If your husband were dead, you would have to bear his absence unwillingly, without any benefit to him or to yourself; so, too, now, as long as he lives, tolerate [his absence] freely for the sake of great recompense to him and to you. Permit him to do freely what he desires, that you may share the reward with him. For if God takes care of widows who are not widows for his sake, how much more richly will he cherish her whom he knows to be freely a widow for the sake of his love. If it should come about — which perhaps will not happen — that you lose your worldly dignity, do not grieve, because you will receive an even better one in heaven. Surely, what is greatly despised by better and wiser people is not greatly to be lamented if it be lost.
I should like to advise you further but I dare not; I am not, however, afraid to pray. May almighty and merciful God so grant to you contempt for the world, as he granted it to your husband, that you may be equal to your husband in the heavenly kingdom, 0 sister and lady, beloved in God.(1)

Original letter: 

Dominae in deo dilectae Ermengardae: frater Anselmus, abbas Becci, salutern et fideles orationes.
Quamvis vos non cognoscam visu, tamen, quia eius ordinis sum, qui omnibus hominibus debet bene velle et salubriter consulere, nulli mirum videri debet, si vestram reverentiam secundum quod audio expedire commoneo.
Audivi, carissima domina, qualiter sit inter virum vestrum et vos, quoniam, nobilitas vestra non hoc patitur occultari, sed longe lateque facit publicari. In qua re primum gratias ago deo, a quo est omne bonum, qui eidem viro vestro dedit tanta constantia temporalem gloriam pro aeterna contemnere, et vobis concessit tot tribulationes pro tuenda castitate tam viriliter sufferre; ita tamen ut ille in ipso, mundi contemptu non plus diligat se ipsum quam vos, nec vobis aliquid in hoc mundo sit carius illo. Certe in hoc ambo deo et bonis hominibus amabiles, ambo estis laudabiles. Utique in tanta et tam vera mutua vestra dilectione non tam corpora vestra diligere credendi estis quam animas. Corpora namque vestra nulla cura, nullo mutuo amore potestis a morte temporali eripere; animabus vero vestris, si ipsum vestrum amorem regere scitis, vitam aeternam potestis acquirere.
Quid ergo est, femina reverenda, femina probatae castitatis, quid est quod te cogit impedire virum tuum, ne perfecte quaerat salutem animae suae, quam non minus diligis quam tuam? Nullatenus enim vel cogitandum est, ut hoc facias propter vilem carnis delectationem, quam tantum, postquam ipse a te discessit, contempsisti, ut, ne virum alterurn susciperes, cum hunc habere non posses, multas passa sis tribulationes, multas respueris persuasiones. Quod si detines animam eius a salutis suae profectu propter gloriam et commoda temporalia, quae amas et quae te per illum speras posse retinere: quomodo diligis animam illam, cuius certo et aeterno commodo dubia, vilia et transitoria, tua praeponis commoda? Aut qua ratione potes ab eo exigere, ut ipse aeterna bona animae suae postponat temporalibus bonis corporis tui, si tu bona corporis tui praeponis bonis animae illius? Vide ergo, carissima domina, vide, fortis et prudens mulier, vide, si hoc facis, quam non bene regas amorem tuum, quam non recte diligas diligentern te virum tuum. Quid si illum cogis ut deserat consilium animae suae pro voluntate tua, et tunc morte tua vel illius occurrente, aut alio casu, sicut solet, irruente, ille non prosit tibi et tu noceas illi? Utique si noces animae illius, noces animae tuae.
0 quanto melius, reverenda domina, quanto laudabilius ostenditis vos diligere virum vestrum, si non solum permittitis, sed etiam consulitis et iuvatis, ut quod incepit deo inspirante, hoc conetur perficere ipso adiuvante; si bonum illius amando vestrum facitis; si certissime creditis quia, quanto fortius propter amorern dei et proximi humanurn auxilium dimittitis, tanto familiarius et securius vos divinae protectioni committitis. Confidat ergo in deo prudens vestra fortitudo et fortis prudentia; et sicut, si mortuus esset vir ille, absentiam eius sufferretis nolendo sine ullo eius et vestro proficuo, ita dum vivit, sponte illam tolerate pro magno eius et vestro praemio. Concedite ut libere faciat quod desiderat, quatenus cum illo participetis mercedem. Si enim deus curam gerit de viduis, quae non propter illum sunt viduae: multo carius illam fovebit, quam pro suo amore sponte videbit viduam. Quod si contigerit — quod forsitan non erit — ut terrenum perdatis honorem: nolite dolere, quia in caelo recipietis meliorem. Et certe quod a melioribus et sapientioribus multum contemnitur, non est multum dolendum, si perditur.
Plus aliquid vellem consulere, sed non audeo; orate tamen non timeo:
Omnipotens et misericors deus ita det tibi mundi contemptum, sicut dedit
viro tuo, ut in caelesti regno par sis viro tuo, soror et domina in deo dilecta.

Historical context: 

Anselm writes as abbot of Bec to ask Ermengard to release her husband to become a monk, assuring her that his desire will be good for both their souls, whereas her refusal will harm them both. At the end, Anselm reveals the strength of his conviction that the monastic Iife is practically the only way to salvation. For him there is no question of the love that Ermengard might have for her husband; his desire to become a monk is all important and she is obliged to grant it to him. For his arguments against loving God in the world, see Ep 121.

Scholarly notes: 

(1) ) The translation is reproduced with the permission of the translator and the publisher, Cistercian Publications Inc. Editorial Offices, Institute of Cistercian Studies, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI 49008. All rights are reserved; downloading and copying for any purpose other than private research is prohibited.

Printed source: 

Sancti Anselmi Cantuariensis Archiepiscopi, Opera Omnia, ed. F.S. Schmitt (Edinburgh: T. Nelson, 1946-63), ep.134, 3.276-78; translation and annotation from The Letters of Saint Anselm of Canterbury, trans. Walter Frohlich, Cistercian Studies 96, 3v (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1990-94), 1.310-12.