16 February 2009

'The Rivers & Seas of the North Were Honoured to Bear Thee'--St Anskar of Hamburg

Today, 3 February on the old Orthodox calendar, we commemorate St Anskar (sometimes written Ansgarius, Ansgar, or Anschar) of Hamburg and Bremen (801-65), Apostle of the North and Patron of Germany. His Life was written by his disciple, St Rimbert, his successor to the see of Bremen-Hamburg, and unless otherwise noted, all quotations will be from the translation of that Life by Charles H. Robinson at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.

St Anskar came from a noble family of Amiens, Picardie, in modern France, who may have been close in some capacity to Charlemagne. While still a boy, he received the first of many ‘celestial visits which admonished him to turn away his thoughts from things on earth and to keep his whole heart open to heavenly influences’. According to St Rimbert, the Mother of God appeared to St Anskar, who had previously indulged in childish games with his fellows, saying, ‘If you desire to share our companionship, you must flee from every kind of vanity, and put away childish jests and have regard to the seriousness of life; for we hate everything that is vain and unprofitable, nor can anyone be with us who has delight in such things.’ Apparently, the boy took this to heart, and spent more time in ‘reading and meditation and other useful occupations’, eventually receiving tonsure in the Benedictine monastery of Old Corbie in his native region (Chapt. II).

But it was a second set of experiences that seem definitely to have fixed St Anskar on the path of sanctity. The first was the death of Charlemagne, at which, upon hearing the news, the Saint was ‘affected with fear and horror’. St Rimbert tells us:

Accordingly he put aside all levity and began to languish with a divinely inspired remorse; and, devoting himself wholly to the service of God, he gave attention to prayer, watching and fasting. By these virtuous exercises he became a true athlete, of God, and, as a result of his persistent severity, the world became dead to him and he to the world. (Cf. Gal. 6:14)

Then, immediately after this, St Rimbert relates another vision, or more properly, an entire ἀποκάλυψη–

When the Day of Pentecost came, the grace of the Holy Spirit, which was at this time poured forth upon the apostles, enlightened and refreshed his mind,­ so we believe; and the same night he saw in a vision that he was about to encounter sudden death when, in the very act of dying, he summoned to his aid the holy apostle Peter and the blessed John the Baptist.

These two great Saints appeared to him, and guided St Anskar through an experience of torment to a vision of the throne of God, surrounded by the ranks of Saints and angels. According to the Saint’s own words, which he related to St Rimbert on condition that he tell no one before the former’s death:

In the east, where the light rises, was a marvellous brightness, an unapproachable light of unlimited and excessive brilliance, in which was included every splendid colour and everything delightful to the eye. All the ranks of the saints, who stood round rejoicing, derived their happiness therefrom. The brightness was of so great extent that I could see neither beginning nor end thereof. . . . When, then I had been brought by the men whom I mentioned into the presence of this unending light, where the majesty of Almighty God was revealed to me without need for anyone to explain, and when they and I had offered our united adoration, a most sweet voice, the sound of which was more distinct than all other sounds, and which seemed to me to fill the whole world, came forth from the same divine majesty, and addressed me and said, ‘Go and return to Me crowned with martyrdom.’ (Chapt. III)

Apparently, St Anskar served for a time as ‘master of the school dedicated to St Peter’ (Chapt. IV), but in 822 he was sent to the foundation of New Corbie far to the north, in the Sollinger Wald in Westphalia in what is now Germany. It seems his services as a schoolmaster and homiletician were desired there, a fact which St Rimbert emphasises in his concern that St Anskar not be thought to have violated St Benedict’s clear command of stability in RB 58—‘But let him understand that according to the law of the Rule he is no longer free to leave the monastery . . .’ (The Rule of St Benedict in English and Latin, trans. Justin McCann [Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic, n.d.], p. 131). (Chapt. VI)

It was at New Corbie that St Anskar came to the attention of King Harald 'Klak' Halfdansson from Denmark, who had been converted to Christianity at the court of Charlemagne’s son and successor, Louis the Pious. Upon returning to Denmark, King Harald took the holy man and his companion, Autbert, with him to build a church and school and to teach his people the new Faith (Chapt. VII). But while St Rimbert tells us that ‘many were converted to the faith by their example and teaching, and the number of those who should be saved in the Lord increased daily’ (Chapt. VIII), St Anskar was soon summoned before Louis again. Having been told not even ‘to stop and shave’ (believed to be a reference to his tonsure, one should note), he arrived to receive the king’s request that he go with an embassy to Sweden to preach the Gospel there. Indeed, Christopher Dawson observes that ‘Christianity first penetrated into Scandinavia through the work of St Anskar’ (Religion and the Rise of Western Culture [Garden City, NY: Image, 1958], p. 85). (Chapt. IX)

According to St Rimbert, the missionaries ‘were kindly received by the king, who was called Björn [at Haugi]’, and made great progress in spreading the Gospel among the heathens of the North (Chapt. XI). They eventually returned to Louis bearing letters written in runic characters from the Swedish king, and it was at this point (in 831, according to Butler) that Louis had St Anskar enthroned as abbot of New Corbie and consecrated bishop of the newly formed diocese of Hamburg by his half-brother Drogo of Metz, with the aim of sending the new hierarch on further missions in the northern regions (Chapt. XII). He was then sent to be confirmed in his authority by Pope Gregory IV, who, before the tomb of St Peter—

appointed him as his legate for the time being amongst all the neighbouring races of the Swedes and Danes, also the Slavs and the other races that inhabited the regions of the north, so that he might share authority with Ebo the Archbishop of Rheims [a co-consecrator of the new bishop], to whom he had before entrusted the same office. (Chapt. XIII)

St Rimbert tells us that his elder faithfully administered his diocese, converting many of the heathen by the example of his life. He also redeemed young boys from slavery to educate them and train them to serve the Church—a good work which has been depicted in the illustration above (Chapt. XV). According to Butler, St Anskar continued to oversee missions in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden (the last being administered by an auxiliary bishop), built churches, and founded a library, giving himself over to this labour for thirteen years.

But in 845, Vikings destroyed Hamburg, and the bishop and his flock barely escaped with their lives (Chapt. XVI). Soon after, as the bishop of Bremen had fallen asleep in the Lord, that see was joined with Hamburg into a new archbishopric under the oversight of St Anskar (Chapt. XIII), who continued to foster missions in various parts of the North.

In Chapter XXXV of his Life, St Rimbert tells us that his elder would practice extreme asceticism, wearing a hairshirt in imitation of St Martin of Tours. While St Anskar also followed the great hierarch of Gaul in preaching the Gospel with zeal and serving the poor and the sick, ‘At the same time he loved to be alone in order that he might exercise himself in divine philosophy’, and thus he built himself a private cell in which to practice hesychia. He was tireless in his solicitude for the poor, for scholars, widows, and hermits, bringing them money and gifts, feeding them and washing their feet with his own hands. Once, when the large numbers of people he had healed through prayer were referred to in St Anskar’s presence, out of a desire to hide his virtue he replied, ‘Were I worthy of such a favour from my God, I would ask that he would grant to me this one miracle, that by His grace He would make of me a good man’ (Chapt. XXXIX).

It is interesting to reflect that St Anskar carried out many of his dangerous missions among the Northern heathens with the expectation that he would likely be martyred, in accordance with the commandment he had received from God as a young man (related in Chapt. III). But while the opportunity to shed his blood frequently eluded him, St Rimbert tells us, ‘The life that he lived involved toils which were accompanied by constant bodily suffering: in fact his whole life was like a martyrdom’ (Chapt. XL). At last, in his old age, St Anskar also began to suffer from a final martyrdom—a wasting illness which tormented him slowly over the course of some months. Having arranged for a glorious celebration of the Feast of the Meeting of Our Lord, this holy hierarch fell asleep in the Lord the very next day. Even though he did not meet a violent end, according to St Rimbert, his can still be held to have been a martyr’s death:

For day by day, by tears, watchings, fastings, tormenting of the flesh and mortification of his carnal desires, he offered up a sacrifice to God on the altar of his heart and attained to martyrdom as far as was possible in a time of peace. And inasmuch as the agent, though not the will, was lacking in order to bring about the visible martyrdom of the body, he obtained in will what he could not obtain in fact. We cannot, however altogether deny that he attained actual martyrdom if we compare his great labours with those of the apostle. In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils from his own race, in perils from the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in lonely places, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren ; in labour and distress, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings; often, in cold and nakedness ; besides those things which are without, that which came upon him daily, the care of all the Churches. Who was weak and he was not ? Who was offended and he did not burn? (Cf. II Cor 11:26-9)

Reader Isaac Lambertson has written a beautiful Service for St Anskar. The first verse of Ode VI of the Canon reads, ‘The rivers and seas of the North were honoured to bear thee on thine apostolic journeys, O Ansgar, disciple of Christ, for the ship of thy soul was propelled by the Holy Spirit.’ Here, in conclusion, is the dismissal hymn of the Saint:

Ever moved by love for God and man, O Ansgar, like the apostles thou didst journey afar to bring salvation to the benighted, offering up thine afflictions upon the altar of thy heart, in thy toils and distress bearing witness unto thy Saviour like a martyr, enduring perils on land and at sea for His sake, undaunted by temptations and tribulations. Wherefore, pray with boldness, that our souls be saved.


David Stone said...


A very interesting post as always.

I especially enjoyed the link to Reader Isaac's service. I noticed in his service that he maintains the tradition of including an acrostic in the Canon. Reader Isaac's service for St. Jonah of Manchuria also contains an acrostic. It's wonderful to have this ancient tradition continued in English translations of the services as well as the services which are newly-composed in English.

I also found the reference to St. Drogo of Metz of interest. I hope in the future you may have time to explore more of the lives of the (pre-schism) Saints of Metz, especially (and you probably know where I am going with this) St. Arnold [Arnulf] of Metz. :)

aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks for your comment, David. I don't hear from you nearly often enough! You are definitely right: St Arnold deserves a full post of his own. Maybe I would be more motivated if I had a couple of pints of St Arnold's brews in me!

aaronandbrighid said...

By the way, have you seen the 'German Orthodox Church' blog in my blog roll? I posted some additional St Anskar material there.

David Stone said...

Thanks Aaron! I had seen the 'German Orthodox Church' blog before and wondered if you were involved with it. I'll check out the additional St. Anskar material there. We have a Reader at St. Jonah's who is German who would probably find that blog interesting. I'll be sure to forward him the link.