Remembering, Thinking, Imagining: Augustine, Anselm, and Rowan

by Graham Kings

Date added: 20/08/2018

This paper was first delivered at the London meeting of the All Souls Club (6 June 2018) and published first on Covenant and then on Fulcrum.

On the day of Pentecost, at 9 o’clock in the morning, I was about to get off the number 188 bus at the stop nearest our church, St. Matthew’s at Elephant and Castle. I was surprised to see a man at the bus stop in a smart suit cuddling a woman in a long white dress, which looked like a bridal gown. It seemed a bit early in the morning for a wedding, but I thought perhaps they were returning after a long reception the night before.

As the bus drew closer, the bride turned out to be a beloved, white cello case. Our minds sometimes see strange things.

In April, our middle daughter, Miriam, married Munene, a childhood friend from Kenya who has lived in England since 2009, and our family had recently been engrossed by their wedding photos. In my thoughts on the bus, my memory worked on my imagination.

In this paper I will be using prose and poetry to begin exploring the concepts of remembering, thinking, and imagining and drawing on three theological bishops as fellow explorers: Augustine of Hippo for memory; Anselm of Canterbury for thinking; and Rowan late of Canterbury and now of Cambridge (legally of Oystermouth) for imagining.

Remembering: Augustine

My nephew, Joe Grimwade, is studying for a PhD at the University of Cambridge in the Faculty of Classics. He is focussing on memory in the works of Cicero and Augustine. Following discussions with him, I reread Confessions, especially Book X, and moved on to Robert Lane Fox’s excellent biography, Augustine: Conversions and Confessions (Allens Lane, 2015) and reread Peter Brown’s magisterial classic, Augustine of Hippo (Faber and Faber, 1967).

Lane Fox develops his theory that Augustine dictated his Confessions, rather than writing them, and did so within a short period, Lent 397. I drew from my memory and thought of John Henry Newman and of Ernst Gombrich. I sent Robin a message on March 5:

Dear Robin,

Apologies for emailing out of the blue.

I have just finished your Augustine: Conversions and Confessions and enjoyed it immensely, especially your considered argument that Augustine dictated his Confessions within a short time during Lent.

This makes a lot of sense to me. A couple of resonances:

J.H. Newman wrote his white-hot Apologia within about 10-12 weeks and was conscious of Augustine’s Confessions.

I heard Ernst Gombrich lecture in the Cambridge Union sometime and he was asked how he wrote The Story of Art. He said he didn’t and paused. His questioner was flummoxed. He went on, “I dictated it.”

Lane Fox kindly and promptly replied:

Thank you so much for this fascinating email. I knew none of it. It reinforces my view, which the French simply refuse to discuss. I used to dictate my gardening columns for the Financial Times and improvised 1200 words in 50 minutes.

In the first nine books of Confessions Augustine delves into his memory and dictates his story, as in all the books, as an address to God. In Book X he reflects on the meaning of memory and uses a range of words: chamber, treasury, womb, palaces, fields, storehouses, caverns (which reminds me of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan[1]), stomach, store, caves. He dictates:

Great is the power of memory; it is an awe-inspiring thing, my God, a profound and limitless multiplicity. And this thing is the mind, and this I myself am. What then am I, O my God? What is my nature? It is various and manifold and immeasurable: behold the numberless fields and caves and caverns of memory, each immeasurably full of an innumerable variety of things. Some of these things are there through images, as in the case of all physical objects; some through their immediate presence, as with the affections of the mind, which, even when the mind is not experiencing them, the mind yet retains (although whatever is in the memory is also in the mind). Through all of these do I run to and fro, hither and thither. (Confessions X.12)

Peter Brown mentions Augustine’s memory as well:

His memory, trained on classical texts, was phenomenally active. In one sermon, he could move through the whole Bible, from Paul to Genesis and back again, via the Psalms, piling half-verse on half-verse. … He never relaxes for a moment the impression of a mind of terrifying acuteness. (Brown, Augustine, p. 254)

I wrote the following poem while staying with Nicholas and Clare Wolterstorff at Yale University, and wrote out the final version of it in their visitors’ book, just before the taxi took me to New Haven airport. It was inspired by Wolterstorff’s first chapter of his book Divine Discourse, which I remembered hearing as part of the Wilde Lectures at Oxford in 1993. He reflects on the story of Augustine in the garden, hearing God speak first through a child’s song and then, back in his study, through Romans chapter 13.

Turning Point for Augustine

“Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Augustine, Confessions VIII, 7.

“Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” Romans 13:14

Stalking in the garden in the heat of the moment,
Reflecting on complexity of voluntary movement,
Slunk in listless and leaden despair,
Tangled, contorted and tearing his hair,
Rapping his head and wrapping his knees,
Rabidly ravaging under the trees,
Wanting to wait and waiting to want,
Weighing the longing of laying and font,
Augustine hears the Word of the Lord
Drifting, insisting the voice of a child:
“Tolle, lege: take it and read.
Tolle, lege: take it and read.”
Vocative discourse spoken by God,
Evocative sing-song challenge of a child.

Turning and turning he opens to read
The Word of the Lord in the words of St Paul:
“Lust and debauchery, revelry, rivalry,
Now is the time to wake from your sleep.”
Eloquent professor professes his call.

Now, no procrastination, delay;
Later is now, tomorrow today. (In Graham Kings, Signs and Seasons: A Guide for Your Christian Journey [Canterbury Press, 2008])

Thinking: Anselm

If remembering looks to the past, then thinking is done in the present. St. Anselm develops Augustine’s theology in his seminal phrase fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding).

St. Anselm was born in Aosta, northern Italy, in 1033 and wrote his Proslogion during the years 1077-78 when he was prior of the monastery at Bec, Normandy. In it, he propounded, in a logically a prioriway, what later was referred to as his ontological argument for the existence of God, defining God as something than which nothing greater can be thought.

In 1078 he was elected Abbot and in 1093 was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury, succeeding Lancfranc, his mentor and former Abbot of Bec. He died in 1109.

In July 2010, I had a five-day retreat in the monastery of Bec, Normandy, with four other bishops. We delighted in the living memory of Anselm, who combined contemplation with precision of thought.

Anslem includes in his first chapter of his Proslogion these words of invitation to contemplation:

Vaca aliquantulum Deo: et resquiesce aliquantulum in eo.

Abandon yourself for a little while to God and rest for a little in Him.

The longer quotation, for context, is:

Come now, insignificant man, fly for a moment from your affairs, escape for a little while from the tumult of your thoughts. Put aside now your weighty cares and leave your wearisome toils. Abandon yourself for a little while to God and rest for a little while in Him. Enter into the inner chamber of our soul, shut out everything save God and what can be of help in your quest for Him and having locked the door seek him out. Speak now, my whole heart, speak now to God.

Richard Southern, in his magnificent biography, Saint Anselm, A Portrait in a Landscape (Cambridge University Press, 1990), states:

If there is one quality which stamped Anselm’s thoughts more than another, it was the intensity which came from concentrated meditation. He wrote about everything as from a visionary centre. (Ibid. p. 443)

Southern succinctly describes his theological method:

His method was solitary and peaceful contemplation, and this thought grew not by the confrontation of opposites, but by meditating on the meaning of concepts. He aimed at rigour of construction linked with intensity of vision. (Ibid., p. 442)

Southern contrasts Anselm’s freedom of thought with the disputes of the medieval schools:

Anselm developed a method of his own, following the model of Augustine. Fundamentally, Anselm’s was not a dialectical method, though he made full use of dialectic. There is never in his works a moment of poise between two opposites, with a final solution emerging from confrontation. He reached his final solution in private, and used the literary device of debate, not to arrive at his conclusions, but to sharpen the formulation of his answers. Everywhere he aimed at precision of language, of argument, of definition: but only when prolonged meditation had already brought him to see the truth with instantaneous clarity. (Ibid., p. 114)

Eadmer, Anselm’s first biographer and fellow monk at Canterbury, records such a moment of clarity concerning Anselm’s ontological argument:

Behold, one night during Matins, the grace of God shone in his heart and the matter became clear to his understanding, filling his whole heart with immense joy and jubilation. (Vita Anselmi I:xix).

Southern links this to the instantaneous insight of the atheist Bertrand Russell:

Nothing is more surprising than the way in which this proof has united, at least temporarily, men of the most diverse temperaments and outlook. … Among recent philosophers none is further removed from Anselm in outlook, though perhaps not so far in qualities, than Bertrand Russell, who has recorded:

the precise moment, one day in 1894, as I was walking along Trinity Lane, when I saw in a flash (or thought I saw) that the ontological argument is valid. I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco; on my way back, I suddenly threw it up in the air, and exclaimed as I caught it: “Great Scott, the ontological argument is sound.” (Bertrand Russell, “My mental development,”in P.A. Schilpp, The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell [Northwestern University Press, 1944], p. 10)

Southern claims that Anselm’s famous argument in Proslogion

was not intended to be a proof of the existence of God, but a proof that the essences of Goodness, Truth, Justice, etc., which he had shown in the Monologion to be necessary attributes of God, must cohere in a single Being, and that Being, properly understood, cannot be thought of as non-existent. Underlying the “proof,” therefore is the presupposition that whatever cannot be thought of as non-existent without internal contradiction, must exist.

Following five days retreat at Bec with friends, I had four days of solitary retreat in Canterbury, joining in with the services at the Cathedral and staying at Greyfriars. The Franciscans first came to Canterbury in 1224. In 2003, Anglican Franciscans returned to Greyfriars.

I wrote the following poem, “A Prior Meeting,” during those four days. I was thinking that since we all (even atheists) meet God after we die, then God logically “cannot not be met.” Hence my development of the concept of God as someone than whom no one greater can be met. In the first line, the Latin tag solvitur ambulando means “It is solved by walking,” and implies “the problem is worked out in the doing.”

“Solvitur ambulando”
around the “cloister” meadow
of Greyfriars, Canterbury.

Five days in Bec, Normandy,
now, beckoned and called,
four days, silent, in Canterbury.

“Something than which
nothing greater can be conceived”
is God.

Quite a thought from Anselm,
a Prior and Abbot of Bec
and Archbishop of Canterbury,
echoing around the cloister
and through the centuries.

God cannot be thought of
as non-existent
without contradiction.

It seems too neat:
perfectly to define God,
in effect,
with the property of existence.
Kant couldn’t.

If conception is not earthed,
is it real?
God was conceived and earthed
in Nazareth.

Maybe “meeting” is the clue
which coheres?
The co-inherent meeting,
of Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
of Word and flesh,
of God and people.

“Someone than whom
no one greater can be met”
is God.

So, “God who meets” is
co-inherent not incoherent,
and cannot not be met.

Hail God, well met.
Quite an adventure,
coming across God,
in the meadow,
in the cool of the evening.

Imagining: Rowan

If remembering looks to the past and thinking is done in the present, then imagining may be seen as developing in the future something not yet in existence.

Rowan Williams is a poet as well as a philosophical and spiritual theologian. When he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 2002, some looked to Michael Ramsey or William Temple as theological predecessors, but I think we have to go as far back as Anselm for that.

Rowan made a key contribution to the book written by Anne Richards with the ecumenical Mission Theological Advisory Group, Sense Making Faith: Body, Spirit, Journey (Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, 2007). I commend the still developing website. I remember that we were trying to develop resources for sharing the good news of the kingdom of God with people who are drawn to spirituality rather than religion. We thought of basing it around the five senses.

Augustine explores the five senses of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting when discussing memory in Confessions X. For our volumes, Rowan was asked to write five haikus, which aresuccinct 17-syllable poems, based on a Japanese model. He suggested we should add a sixth chapter on a crucial sixth sense, Imagination, which we did.

Anne Richards explains this sixth sense:

All the information we receive from our senses tells us directly about our world and our place in it, but beyond this, we have mental worlds which are capable of using that information as a foundation for the imagination. (Sense Making Faith, p. 100)

Rowan’s six haikus introduce each chapter:

“Journey into Seeing”

A million arrows, I
the target, where the lines meet
and are knotted.

“Journey into Hearing”

Inside, hollowness; what is
comes to me as a blow, but not
a wound.

“Journey into Smell”

Not only servicing the lungs, the air
is woven, full
of needles.

“Journey into Touching”

The first task: to find
a frontier. I am not,
after all, everything.

“Journey into Tasting”

The strip of flesh
lies still, absorbs, silent; speaks
to all the body.

“Journey into Imagination”

Each door from the room says,
this is not all. Your hands will find
in the dark.

That final haiku reflects some of the key points Rowan makes in his book Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love (Continuum, 2005),in which he considers the works of the French Roman Catholic theologian, Jacques Maritain, the Welsh poet and artist David Jones, and the Irish novelist Flannery O’Connor.

Rowan reiterates the concept of “the excess of potential” (Ibid., p. 139): in other words there is always something more. He writes of art as “generative excess” and draws especially on Maritain’s phrase “things are not only what they are” (ibid. p. 156). In particular he finds nourishment in Maritain’s Mellon Lectures, published in Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (Bollingen Foundation, 1953).

Rowan comments:

Re-presentation assumes that there is excess in what presents itself for knowing, and that neither the initial cluster of perceptions nor any one set of responses will finally succeed in containing what is known.

With the help of my nephew, I have translated this concept into a Latin gerundive expression meant to resonate with the fides quaerens intellectum of Augustine and Anselm: semper plura quaerenda (“there is always something more to be sought out”). My wife, Alison, and I are planning to have it engraved on the fireplace of our Cambridge home when we move there in two years. It is the basis of our commissioning of seven paintings of Women in the Bible by Silvia Dimitrova, a Bulgarian Orthodox icon writer and painter, who lives in Bath. So far, five are complete: “Magdalene,” “Lydia,” “Priscilla,” “Sarah” and “Miriam,” and I have written an expository poem on each. We have two more to be imagined, painted, and set to verse: “Ruth” and “Esther.”

Douglas Adams, the extraordinary Islington writer of extraterrestrial fiction, best known for his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, stretches our eyes and our ears with an imaginative, posthumously published description of the first movement of Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto.

When Bach wrote it, he put himself at the harpsichord instead of the viola he more usually played in ensembles. The harpsichord traditionally played a supporting role in this kind of group, but not this time. Bach let rip.

As you listen to the first movement, you hear something strange, new, and terrifying giving birth to itself. … a great horse being prepared for a Herculean task. … You hear it ticking over, trotting, having a little canter here and there, getting a bit frisky, and then taking a trial run as its helpers encourage it onward, keening with bated breath. It hauls itself back in again, does another quick circuit … and then the other instruments fall silent. It stands free and alone, pawing at the ground, breathing deeply, gathering its strength, trotting forward …

And then it makes its move – running … hurtling … flying … climbing … clambering … pushing … twisting … thrashing…pounding at the ground … pounding … pounding … suddenly breaking away, running onward desperately, and then, with one last little unexpected step up in the bass, it’s home and free — the main tune charges in triumphantly. (The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time [Macmillan, 2002]pp. 80-82)

Imagination stretches our minds and links art, music, novels, and poetry.

Rowan came to preach at St Mary’s Church, Islington, in November 2003 and took part in a moving question and answer session afterwards. He had recently returned from Istanbul and only just missed a bomb at the British Consulate there. The next month I reflected on his visit and wrote the following poem, which is on the Spiritual Journeys website:

Visit of Holiness

Only God is holy,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So any holiness we see
and experience in anyone,
is God’s own holiness,
shining out in God’s own child.

Of what does it consist?
Humility, profundity and silence.

Humility comes from the ground,
from being earthed in “humus.”
From dust we come and
to dust we shall return.

But the earth in the Lord’s and everything in it.
So even being earthed
is being rooted in God.

Humility is the pattern of Christ,
the shape of the Spirit
the mould of God.

Humility is attractive, a focus of God.
We are drawn in, delighted:
our petty selves are drawn out, transformed.

Profundity comes from the sea:
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
It also comes from way back, from afar,
from long­-past vocations and foundations,
from the wisdom of God and language of learning.

Out of the depths of
Hebrew Scriptures, Greek Gospels,
Church fathers and mothers of all ages,
We cry to you, O Lord.

Silence echoes the stars.
In returning and rest we are saved,
in quietness and trust is our strength.
For God alone our souls wait in silence.
We have calmed and quieted ourselves
like a weaned child with its mother.

Silence brings
peace amidst chatter;
stillness amongst clatter;
essence at the end of incessence;
space for God’s eloquence.


Remembering the past, thinking in the present, and imagining the future all interweave. We are thinking as we remember and imagine; we may have false memories and so imagine wrongly back into the past (this is an acknowledged danger in some cases of abuse); but we cannot remember the future —or can we? Perhaps in the Eucharist we do: the concept of anamnesis is indeed mind-stretching.

In the ultimate consummation of God’s kingdom, perhaps unfinished memories, thinking, and imaginative art will be completed? I conclude with a poem, written on Easter Day 2009, on three creative thinkers of immense imagination and art, who drew of earlier parts of their oeuvre and developed them. J.S. Bach’s son wrote poignantly on the manuscript of The Art of Fugue: “the composer died at this point.” Samuel T. Coleridge claimed that the memory of his Kubla Khan dream was interrupted by a man from Porlock calling at his front door and he could not get back into the memory after that. However, some consider that he may have been fabricating an excuse. William Turner notoriously never was satisfied with his work and would even keep adding extra touches to them, as they were being hung in exhibitions.

Finished in the New Creation

The flourishing hand of Bach,
interweaving the sum of his works,
leaves unfinished
his Art of Fugue,
interrupted, solely,
by the glory of God.

The measureless hand of Coleridge,
dreaming an early work,
leaves unfinished
his Kubla Khan,
interrupted, perhaps,
by the person from Porlock.

The impressive hand of Turner,
evoking multiple works,
leaves unfinished
his paintings in progress,
interrupting exhibits,
by adding light touches.

All are finished, completed, perfected,
in the new creation of God.



[1]Samuel T Coleridge, Kubla Khan:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Graham Kings

Graham Kings

Wood panel

Wood panel

A bronze