Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Good Person

St. Anskar (c. 796-865)
Benedictine Monk
Missionary Bishop to Denmark and Sweden
Archbishop of Hamburg and Bremen

For the past couple weeks I've been working my way through a fascinating historical book by David Levering Lewis, God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215.  I'm smack dab in the middle of his account of the reign of Charlemagne, very much a contemporary of Anskar.  In fact, there's conjecture that Anskar's father may have had some standing at the king's court.  The connection of the book with Anskar is intriguing because the former recounts the rather long history of Charlemagne's dealings with the Saxons, Danes, and Swedes.  A particular thorn in the side of Charlemagne was Widukind, a Saxon warlord with whom the king did battle on a number of occasions.  Problem was, though, that Wily Widukind always managed to escape, usually to the Danes where he found support.  In one of the amazing turnarounds of history, Widukind's luck ran out around 785, and some say that, having seen the handwriting on the wall as Charlemagne continued to devastate the Saxon people, Widukind actually allowed himself to be captured. Charlemagne, by this time inescapably enmeshed in his relationship with Pope Adrian and the Roman Catholic Church, spared Widukind's life, but insisted that he turn from his pagan practices and be baptized.  The king of the Franks even volunteered to be Widukind's godfather! Widukind, apparently a man of complete extremes, laid down his weapons for good, influenced his Saxon compatriots to join him in embracing the faith, and himself became a faithful son of Holy Mother Church.  Perhaps not the ideal way to gain converts, but, hey, it worked!  

Anskar was probably born in Corbie, near Amiens, around 796.  At age four his mother died, and he was entrusted to the care of the Benedictine monks at the monastery of Corbie, a not-unusual tradition.  It seems that he was professed as monk in his early adolescence.  I could tell you what his biographer, Rimbert, says about his life there, but its full of visions, visions, and more visions.  In my advancing years, I've become increasingly skeptical about some hagiographies.  According to most of them the saint of choice was of sterling character, holy beyond what any of us could probably aspire to: in other words, and unreal person.  So I'll spare you that stuff.   With Anskar we'll just have to live with an information gap!  

In 826, when Anskar was about thirty years old, 12 years after Charlemagne's death, King Harald of Denmark converted to Christianity, which probably delighted Charlemagne's successors, and surely lessened their military grief. The times, they were definitely a' changin'.   Anyway, Harald, in his new-found zeal, decided he needed some missionaries.   Anskar led a group to Schleswig and tried to start a school there.  Political conditions and ingrained lack of receptivity of Christianity in the people led to Anskar's being run out by the pagans, who burned his school to the ground, and his moving on to Sweden.  There he's reputed to have built the first Christian church in Scandinavia, at Björnskö.   Between 826 and 865 Anskar's labors in Denmark, Sweden, and northern Germany were responsible for a good measure of success for the Church.   In addition to preaching the gospel, he built hospitals and bought back captives, persuading the chief men of  the country north of the Elba to give up the slave trade, a source of great profit to them.

Emperor/King Louis the Pious, Charlemagne's son, named Anskar as abbot of Corbie and the first bishop of the new diocese of Hamburg in 831.  After he was consecrated in 832, he visited Rome where Pope Gregory IV made him Archbishop and Papal Legate to the Scandinavians and Slavs, because of which he became known as the "Apostle of the North".  Anskar founded a monastery and a school at Hamburg, Turholt Abbey becoming the center of his operations. In 845 the Norsemen destroyed Hamburg and Anskar fled to Bremen.  By this time the missions in Sweden had collapsed because of the invasion of the Vikings and the expulsion of Gautbert, first bishop of Sweden, whom Anskar had helped consecrate.

King Louis the German of the East Franks made Anskar bishop of Bremen, from where he now conducted his missionary outreach in the North, sending missionaries to Sweden again in 851.  He himself visited there a few years later and converted Haarik II of Sweden.  The Church of Sweden honors Anskar as its apostle, and he serves as a symbol of the historic friendship and present-day connection between the Anglican Churches and the Church of Sweden.  

Anskar died in 865 and was buried in the church of St. Peter's, Bremen.  There's an interesting footnote to Rimbert's Life of Anskar which seems to indicate that Anskar was well-aware that he was as human as the rest of us and was no goody-two-shoes, as Rimbert tends to portray him.   Rimbert, in winding up his account of Anskar's life says: "Wherefore let no one be surprised that he did not attain to that [physical] martyrdom which he so greatly desired and which, he thought, had been promised to him, for it cannot be proved that this was promised as he himself interpreted the word martyrdom.  In the case of visible martyrdom pride might affect the mind..."  The footnote to this observes: "Anskar himself admitted that he had been specially affected by the temptation to indulge pride."  

It is said that one time, when some of Anskar's friends were talking of miracles for which he was supposed to have been responsible, he said, "If I were worthy in my Lord's sight, I would ask of Him to grant me one miracle -- that He would make me a good person."  Certainly not a prideful statement there.  Makes you kinda like a saint like this, no?!

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