Saintly Advice

St. Anselm’s seven lessons for teachers

by Kate Daneluk

As a Doctor of the Church, Anselm left us with many writings to help guide all Catholics. As teachers, let’s take some time to look at Anselm’s guidance for a holy life, along with his example as a dedicated and effective educator.

St. Anselm of Canterbury is heralded as the first scholarly philosopher of Christian theology. He is second only to Thomas Aquinas in the importance and quantity of work in this field. Anselm was born to a wealthy family in medieval Italy in 1033. His love for the Church and his desire for the monastery led him to defy his controlling father and travel to France so he could follow his vocation.

Anselm was a gifted writer, philosopher, and theologian, but he also possessed gifts for leadership and teaching. He was soon made abbot of the monastery in Bec. Under his leadership, Bec grew to be a center of scholarship and education.

Ultimately Anselm was sent to England as Archbishop of Canterbury, where he led, preached, and ministered to people throughout his diocese. He was noted for a succinct, clear, plain style of writing and preaching that was stimulating and accessible both to the scholar and commoner. Concrete examples of everyday life that spoke to each person’s individual vocation enhanced this master teacher’s style.

Anselm went on to suffer great difficulty as archbishop due to his contentious relationship with King William II of England. The king continuously attempted to take Church lands. When Anselm wouldn’t acquiesce, the king bullied and fought. Anselm was exiled for a time, and it wasn’t until the pope threatened to excommunicate William that any resolution was had.

Fortunately Anselm had a peaceful few years before his death in 1109. While the details of his canonization are unclear, he was made a saint within 60 years of his death. We celebrate his feast day on April 21, the date of his death.

As a Doctor of the Church, Anselm left us with many writings to help guide all Catholics. As teachers, let’s take some time to look at Anselm’s guidance for a holy life, along with his example as a dedicated and effective educator.

Seven lessons from St. Anselm, a master teacher

Lectio Divina — This form of reading and meditating on the Scriptures was not only recommended by Anselm to his students, but to people of all walks of life and vocations. This centuries-old, Benedictine style of reading and meditating on Scripture can be practiced individually or as a group. Add Lectio Divina to your daily routine and discern if the Lord wants you to integrate this practice into your classroom day by guiding your students through this process with the day’s Gospel reading. To learn more about practicing Lectio Divina, see Sr. Antoine Lawlor’s article, “Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Art and Practice of Lectio Divina” on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website.

Lectio Divina can be broken down into four steps:

Lectio is the reading of a short passage from Scripture.
Meditatio is actively reflecting on the passage or a short section, line, or even a single word.
Oratio is offering a prayer inspired by your reading and meditation.
Contemplatio is taking time to sit quietly without active thought and listen for God’s voice.

Regular and habitual prayer and devotion — The prayer life of a Benedictine monk like St. Anselm revolves around the Liturgy of the Hours, which continually call the soul back to prayer. But Anselm recommended that men and women of all vocations include daily devotions in their schedule so that it becomes habit. Often we are taught this as children, but we lose the habit over time.

Find regular time in the day when prayer can be included, such as upon rising, commuting, and bedtime.
Ask yourself what you are doing in your classroom to teach the children to offer regular prayer through their day.
Consider what opportunities you have to lead the children in establishing patterns of habitual prayer.

Serving the community with humility and generosity — As Catholic school teachers, we have been given a beautiful and meaningful vocation. It is one of deep service. We serve our students, their families, our parish, our Church, and the world by helping to raise good and holy citizens. Doing our work with generosity and humility is a difficult task requiring great holiness.

Contemplate these questions:
Do I do my work with a sense of service?
Do I put those that I serve above myself?
Do I seek praise and gratitude for my work or generous giving?
When I am given praise and gratitude, do I accept it humbly and remember that all good comes from God and all praise and glory are due to God?

Material and physical discipline — It is not a surprise that a monk would recommend a simple lifestyle, including a detachment from the trappings of the world and material possessions. Along the same lines, he encourages regular physical challenges designed to strengthen the spirit, such as fasting and engaging in extended prayer. There is an obvious joke about the compensation for school teachers here, but even if we don’t make a great deal of money, it takes effort to not be conquered by the materialism of our culture.

Take some time to assess your growth in these areas by asking:
Do I spend more time maintaining things or maintaining relationships?
How many of the things I own are not actually essential for life?
Am I putting God above all things?
Do I fast and abstain from foods or the luxuries of this world in order to atone for sins and improve spiritually?

A quality life is about relationships — Anselm taught that a spiritual life is rooted in developing a relationship with God. Likewise as a teacher he sought to develop a personal relationship with each student. Anselm thought of education in terms of the individual and each student’s personal journey, rather than in terms of curriculum. Even in our present-day style of education, where so much is standardized and broken into categories for specific grade levels, we need to remember that we are teaching kids, not subjects. This is a good time to consider how we can better serve the individual person — body, mind, and soul — as we teach our subject.

Do you think about the exceptional or unusual student when creating assignments and projects?
Do you think about the particular student and his or her individual progress when grading assignments and tests?
Are your students able to interact with you in a meaningful way that helps you to connect to the individual learning process?

A receptive learner — Anselm was a firm believer in ensuring that a learner’s mind be prepared for concepts and information before they are introduced. He likened this concept to setting a seal in wax. In order to use sealing wax, the wax must be just right. If it’s too soft, the seal won’t set at all; if it’s too hard, the impression can’t be made and the wax will break. This analogy holds up for both intellectual and spiritual lessons. It is no surprise that Anselm would individually customize his work with each student so each could work at his own pace.

With what areas of your curriculum have students sometimes struggled because they weren’t ready to learn?
Do you need to reconsider the timing and sequence of any of the curriculum?
What are some ways to ensure that your students are receptive to learning? Are they hydrated, fed, rested, and exercised? Have they had spiritual food? Are they emotionally secure yet intellectually challenged?

A patient teacher — Anselm was noted to be an extremely patient teacher. He continuously encouraged and answered questions. Even questions that would have painfully obvious answers to him were seriously entertained. Anselm allowed each student to question and follow his own train of thought with guidance to come to the needed conclusion. Anselm truly believed that knowledge attained was superior to knowledge imparted.

What opportunities for student-led learning can you incorporate into your lessons?
How can you practice patience in your everyday life?
How can you improve in patience in your classroom?
Do your students have the opportunity to have all their questions heard?

Image credit: Shutterstock 1023804721

While we are teaching in very different environments than Anselm did, we can continue to reflect on the principles and lessons he left us. Try to get to know St. Anselm through his writings and in your prayers. You may find a heavenly friend who would willingly intercede for the teachers of our Church.

Major Works of St. Anselm

St. Anselm is one of the most accessible philosophers and theologians. To learn more about him, consider reading and reflecting on one of his important works:

De Veritate
Cur Deus Homo
De Grammatico
On Free Will
On the Fall of the Devil
On the Incarnation of the Word
On the Virgin Conception and Original Sin
On the Procession of the Holy Spirit
De Concordia

What are some things you wish more people would know about St. Anselm?

“St. Anselm was first and foremost a devoted monk and teacher at heart. He accepted other positions of responsibility (abbot of the Abbey of Bec; Archbishop of Canterbury) because he felt called by God and the Church to serve in those positions, but his heart always was in the cloister and the classroom. As he once wrote home to the monks of Bec when he was Archbishop of Canterbury: “Just as an owl is glad when she is in her hole with her chicks and in her own fashion all is well with her; and just as she is attacked and torn to pieces when she is among crows and rooks and other birds, and everything then is far from well with her, so it is with me. For when I am with you, all is well with me, and this is the joy and consolation of my life.”

— Fr. John Fortin, OSB, founding member of the Institute for St. Anselm Studies

Kate Daneluk is a former Catholic school teacher, early-childhood music teacher, creator of the Making Music, Praying Twice music curriculum, and a homeschooling mother of six.

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