Wednesday, February 3, 2010

St. Anskar, Apostle to Scandanavia

In most parishes today the memorial of St. Blaise, bishop and martyr is celebrated, but this is also the memorial of St. Anskar (also referred to as Ansgar, Anschar, Anscharius, and Scharies). Because of the popularity of the blessing of throats through the intercession of St. Blaise, St. Anskar often is forgotten. For those of us of Danish descent, this seems unfortunate. St. Anskar is a great model for all of us, particularly those of us who are clergy. Many do not know much about this great Saint, so I will provide some biographical information from the Internet Medieval Sourcebook:

When one of Anskar's followers suggested to him that he could work miracles 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." No one can read the "Life" written by Rimbert his disciple and successor which, after being lost for five hundred years, was fortunately rediscovered, without feeling moved to thank God for the accomplishment of the miracle for which Anskar had prayed. He was a good man in the best and truest sense of the term. In the character presented to us by his biographer we have a singularly attractive combination of transparent humility, unflinching courage, complete self devotion, and unwavering belief in a loving and overruling providence. The claim to the title Apostle of the North, which was early made on his behalf, rests not upon the immediate outcome of his labours, but upon the inspiring example which he bequeathed to those who were moved to follow in his steps. For whilst the Missions which lie planted in Denmark and Sweden during the thirty-three years of his episcopate were interrupted after his death by the desolating raids of the Northmen, those by whom the work was restarted gratefully recognised him as their pioneer.

Anskar, who was born in 801, was trained in the monastery of Corbey near Amiens and had been transferred with other monks to the monastery of New Corbey near Hoxter on the River Weser, which was founded in 822. By the time of Anskar the spiritual life of the Benedictine monasteries had sunk very low, but the Benedictine monastery of Old Corbey in which he had been trained and which owed its origin to a colony of monks who had come from the stricter Columbanian monastery at Luxeuil, had preserved its early tradition unimpaired. In the new monastery Anskar was placed in charge of the monastic school and, he was also accustomed to preach to the public congregation. From early childhood he had seen visions and dreamed dreams, which created in him the desire to lead a religious life, and his thoughts were perhaps turned in the direction of missionary enterprise by the accounts which must have reached him of the work accomplished by Boniface and his successors. His definite resolve to devote his life to this object dated, as his biographer tells us, from a time immediately after the death of Charlemagne, when he had recently taken the tonsure and had become a monk. About this time he had a vision in describing which Anskar says, " 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."


His biographer adds, " As a result of this vision, which I have described in the words which he had himself dictated the servant of God was both terrified and comforted and in the fear of the Lord he began to live more carefully, to cleave day by day to good deeds, and to hope that by the mercy of God, in whatever way He might choose, he might be able to obtain the crown of martyrdom." [Chap III] The greatest disappointment in after life which Anskar experienced was caused by the fact that his expectation of martyrdom founded on this vision was not literally fulfilled.


The first two years (826­8) after his arrival in Denmark were not productive of great visible results, but he laid a foundation for subsequent missionary work by starting a school for the training of Danish youths who might become the evangelists of their own countrymen. The twelve boys with which the school opened were either purchased by Anskar or presented to him by the king.


As his life drew to its close he was much distressed that the vision which he had seen many years before, in which, as he thought, it had been foretold that he would die a martyr's death, had not been literally fulfilled. Shortly before his death, however, he bad another vision which assured him that it was through no fault of his that the crown of martyrdom had been withheld. At the same time his friends reminded him that the hardships and dangers which lie had experienced had in effect made his whole life one continuous martyrdom. He died on February 3, 865, at the age of 64, more than half his life having been spent in missionary work in Denmark and Sweden and within the limits of his own diocese.

His whole life was characterized by rigid discipline and self­denial : he wore a haircloth shirt by day and night, and in the earlier part of his life he measured out everything that he ate or drank; he chanted a fixed number of Psalms morning and evening, and would also sing Psalms as he laboured with his hands, and chant litanies as he dressed, or washed his hands, and three or four times a day he would celebrate Mass. Of all that he received he gave at once a tenth part to the poor and every five years he tithed his income afresh. Wherever he went in his diocese he would eat nothing till some poor persons had been brought in to share his meal and during Lent he would wash their feet and would distribute amongst them bread and meat.

Although his biographer attributes to him the working of a number of miracles, Anskar himself never claimed to possess this power. Adam of Bremen, referring to the hospital founded by Littgart at Bremen, states that Anskar was wont to visit it daily, and is said to have healed very many by his speech and by his touch.

In the Liturgy of the Hours used in Scandanavain countries there is this beautiful hymn in honor of the great Saint. Praying this hymn is a fitting way to honor him on this, his feastday.

Most noble father, Anskar,
Restore us by thy grace,
And those who wander now afar
In Christ's own bosom place.

In holy strife contending
Thou did'st the faith proclaim
To Danes and Swedes declaring
The honour of His name.

An unbelieving nation
From thee the light receives,
The teachings of salvation,
It now with joy believes.

Thou to God's sheep hast given
The food they fain would claim,
And earnestly hast striven
To glorify His name.

To the great King thou bringest
When earthly strife doth cease,
The talents thou receivest,
With manifold increase.

To Father, and His only Son
Be laud and honour given
To Holy Spirit, Three in One
In earth and highest heaven.