When one of Anskar’s men suggested to his face that he could work miracles, the medieval missionary replied, “Were I worthy of such a favor 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.”
Anskar (or Ansgar, or Oscar) was born in 801 and died in 865. About forty years of his life were spent in service to Christ and His church, under no amount of luxury. His lot was the mission to a barbarous northern Europe, where he was appointed archbishop of Hamburg (the church’s missionary headquarters in that area) and eventually deemed “the apostle of the North” — not just for his sacrificial work done there but for the inspiration he provided to those who were moved to follow in his footsteps.
By the time Emperor Charlemagne died in 814, he had spread Christianity by the sword as far north as Saxony (northern Germany), but the Danish and Scandinavian peninsulas remained untouched. It was when the emperor’s gaze extended to the barbaric north that Anskar entered into the picture. But first, a few words about what is to come in this article are in order.
What we want to provide here are several long excerpts from the only surviving book we have that describes Anskar’s life and work. The oldest manuscript we have of this writing is from the tenth century. Apparently, however, it was temporarily lost to the world about five hundred years ago. When it was finally uncovered, Charles H. Robinson translated it from the original Latin in 1921 (published by The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts).
The Life of Anskar was written by his companion and immediate successor, Rimbert. He too made several missionary journeys to Denmark and Sweden and carried on with his mentor’s work. Rimbert describes a man of godly character—transparent humility, unflinching courage, complete devotion, and an unwavering belief in a loving and overruling providence. It is a testimony not merely of the efforts of a single man but of God who in His grace and wisdom used these pioneering efforts as a foundation for the spread of the gospel into northern Europe.
In this first excerpt, we get a glimpse of the way Anskar was viewed by those who knew him best.
Having enjoyed for a long time, through God’s favour, the services of their good pastor, and having been instructed by his preaching and example and supported by his merits and intercessions, we, who have now been deprived of his presence, have carefully considered how far we ought to grieve on our own account and how far we ought to give thanks on his behalf.... For this reason we believe that we ought indeed to give thanks for the recompense that has been granted to him; whilst, in view of our own loss, we must needs pray that we who, as men, have been deprived of so great a pastor, may be found worthy to receive divine help from heaven. Amid the difficult circumstances in which we are placed we rightly perceive what we have lost, and understand what reason we have to grieve on our own behalf. Whilst he was still alive it seemed as though we lacked nothing, for in him we rejoiced to possess everything. For kings respected his holiness, the pastors of the churches venerated him, the clergy imitated him, and all the people admired him (chap. 1).
As is the case in many medieval hagiographies (embellished historical narratives), Anskar is described as one who received direct revelations. Rimbert writes:
His sanctity and piety tended to increase from his earliest youth and at each stage in his life he tended to increase in holiness. For in his infancy he received from heaven spiritual revelations, and by the grace of the Lord he frequently received celestial visits which admonished him to turn away his thoughts from things on earth and to keep his whole heart open to heavenly influences (chap. 2).
Anskar was a monk at the monastery at Corbie, and he ultimately assumed a position of leadership.
There was built in former times in this part of Saxony the monastery which was first founded by your authority and direction and, having by God’s help been completed at a later time, was called New Corbie.... To this place then, God’s servant was first sent in company with other brethren in order that he might perform the office of a teacher. In this task he was found so commendable and agreeable that, by the choice of all, he was appointed to preach the word of God to the people in church. So it came about that in this same place he became the first master of the school and teacher of the people (chap. 6).
Rimbert devotes a number of pages to the events that led to Anskar’s mission to the north.
After this it happened that a king named Harald, who ruled over some of the Danes, was assailed by hatred and malignity, and was driven from his kingdom by the other kings of the same province. He came to his serene majesty the emperor Ludovic and asked that he might be thought worthy to receive his help so that he might be able to regain his kingdom…. At length, by the assistance of divine grace, he [Ludovic] brought about his [Harald’s] conversion, and when he had been sprinkled with the holy water of baptism he himself received him from the sacred font and adopted him as his son. When, then, he desired to send him back to his own land in order that he might, by his assistance, seek to recover his dominions, he began to make diligent enquiry in order that he might find a holy and devoted man who could go and continue with him, and who might strengthen him and his people, and by teaching the doctrine of salvation might induce them to receive the faith of the Lord…. At the king’s command Anskar was summoned to the palace, and the abbot explained to him everything that had been done, and told the reason for his being summoned. He replied that as an obedient monk he was ready to serve God in all things that were commanded him. He was then brought into the presence of the emperor, who asked him whether on God’s behalf and for the sake of preaching the gospel amongst the Danish peoples, he would become the companion of Harald, whereupon he replied that he was entirely willing (chap. 7).
Accordingly the servants of God, who were with him, and who were stationed at one time amongst Christians and at other times amongst pagans, began to apply themselves to the word of God; and those whom they could influence they directed into the way of truth, so 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 (chap. 8).
Anskar’s later mission to the Swedes was difficult. Rimbert describes pirate attacks and pillaging. Eventually, Anskar was named the archbishop in these regions, and he continued to establish the churches that had been planted, withstanding all manner of opposition.
The life that he lived involved toils which were accompanied by constant bodily suffering: in fact his whole life was like a martyrdom. He endured many labours amongst foreigners apart from those within his own diocese, which were caused by the invasions and ravages of barbarians and the opposition of evil men, and in addition the personal suffering which, for the love of Christ, he never ceased to bring upon himself
According to Rimbert, Anskar died of dysentery at the age of 64.
When the morning came and almost all the priests who were present had celebrated Mass on his behalf and he had received the communion of the body and blood of the Lord, he lifted up his hand and prayed that God in His goodness would forgive whoever had done him any wrong. Then he began to say over and over again the verses, “According to Thy mercy think thou upon me, according to Thy goodness, O Lord,” and “God be merciful to me a sinner,” and “Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” And when he had said these words many times and could not continue through lack of breath, he ordered one of the brethren to continue saying the same words in his behalf, and so, with his eyes fixed on heaven, he breathed forth his spirit which had been commended to the grace of the Lord (chap. 41).