“Speak now, my whole heart!”
—Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion Ch. 1
In my household, when we find ourselves really angry with each other, we begin to compose elaborate prefaces for our sentences. We don’t just say: “How could you?!?” We say: “Honey, I love you, and you’re really important to me … but how could you?!?” Or we say, “I’m not trying to take away what you’re saying, and I absolutely hear that you’ve had a day. But how could you?!?”
Part of me wonders whether this tic actually helps. When I feel cynical, I’d note that it certainly makes our fights take longer.
But part of me knows better. The order of our words matters more than we might think. What we say first, what rings in the ear and sits in the heart, flavors what comes later. This is true in little statements, of course, and even more true over time. I have an easier time hearing about my failings—even entertaining the idea that I could improve them—if they are held in a heart that’s been shaped by care and praise.
Anselm of Canterbury has helped teach me this truth. Anselm, a bishop of the Middle Ages, remains most famous for his writing and scholarship—he was bishop and politician, but from our perspective, his first vocation was surely his writing. A quick search online will turn up free and reasonable translations of his Proslogion and Cur Deus Homo?, two of his most famous works that are, even in my own training as a priest and theologian, still read.
I wholeheartedly recommend the Proslogion in particular. At first glance, the book looks like a little philosophical argument, trotting out some ideas about God in a way that seems very medieval. But part of reading Anselm is paying attention to the words that come first, and Anselm begins the book in prayer. As a college student, I thought: ‘blah blah blah,’ let’s move on to the good stuff. Now, I’m quite sure that’s wrong. Prayer is, quite simply, the point.
Anselm does not, I think, intend any of his writing to be read apart from prayer. He makes arguments, sure, but the words that come first shape how we are to hear them. Anselm isn’t being disingenuous—he believes that if we are to talk about God, we can only do so by addressing God first. We can only talk about God if we set the context first—preparing our hearts for a divine reality that we cannot wholly name. Anselm isn’t afraid to express his confusion and frustration before inviting us to come along and see what we think. By beginning in prayer, Anselm has a strange way of turning the whole text into prayer.
This shouldn’t seem so strange. When our family fights, we talk about love first because our fights are, after all, that love being expressed in another modality. The best ideas are the love of God expressed in another modality. The best thoughts and understandings are simply prayers deployed by other means. Is it more surprising that fights can be expressions of love, or that medieval philosophy can be an expression of love?
When love is spoken first, it changes everything that comes after.