St Anskar came from a noble family of Amiens, Picardie, in modern France, who may have been close in some capacity to Charlemagne. While still a boy, he received the first of many ‘celestial visits which admonished him to turn away his thoughts from things on earth and to keep his whole heart open to heavenly influences’. According to St Rimbert, the Mother of God appeared to St Anskar, who had previously indulged in childish games with his fellows, saying, ‘If you desire to share our companionship, you must flee from every kind of vanity, and put away childish jests and have regard to the seriousness of life; for we hate everything that is vain and unprofitable, nor can anyone be with us who has delight in such things.’ Apparently, the boy took this to heart, and spent more time in ‘reading and meditation and other useful occupations’, eventually receiving tonsure in the Benedictine monastery of Old Corbie in his native region (Chapt. II).
But it was a second set of experiences that seem definitely to have fixed St Anskar on the path of sanctity. The first was the death of Charlemagne, at which, upon hearing the news, the Saint was ‘affected with fear and horror’. St Rimbert tells us:
Accordingly he put aside all levity and began to languish with a divinely inspired remorse; and, devoting himself wholly to the service of God, he gave attention to prayer, watching and fasting. By these virtuous exercises he became a true athlete, of God, and, as a result of his persistent severity, the world became dead to him and he to the world. (Cf. Gal. 6:14)
When the Day of Pentecost came, the grace of the Holy Spirit, which was at this time poured forth upon the apostles, enlightened and refreshed his mind, so we believe; and the same night he saw in a vision that he was about to encounter sudden death when, in the very act of dying, he summoned to his aid the holy apostle Peter and the blessed John the Baptist.
In the east, where the light rises, was a marvellous brightness, an unapproachable light of unlimited and excessive brilliance, in which was included every splendid colour and everything delightful to the eye. All the ranks of the saints, who stood round rejoicing, derived their happiness therefrom. The brightness was of so great extent that I could see neither beginning nor end thereof. . . . 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.’ (Chapt. III)
Apparently, St Anskar served for a time as ‘master of the school dedicated to St Peter’ (Chapt. IV), but in 822 he was sent to the foundation of New Corbie far to the north, in the Sollinger Wald in Westphalia in what is now Germany. It seems his services as a schoolmaster and homiletician were desired there, a fact which St Rimbert emphasises in his concern that St Anskar not be thought to have violated St Benedict’s clear command of stability in RB 58—‘But let him understand that according to the law of the Rule he is no longer free to leave the monastery . . .’ (The Rule of St Benedict in English and Latin, trans. Justin McCann [Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic, n.d.], p. 131). (Chapt. VI)
It was at New Corbie that St Anskar came to the attention of King Harald 'Klak' Halfdansson from Denmark, who had been converted to Christianity at the court of Charlemagne’s son and successor, Louis the Pious. Upon returning to Denmark, King Harald took the holy man and his companion, Autbert, with him to build a church and school and to teach his people the new Faith (Chapt. VII). But while St Rimbert tells us 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’ (Chapt. VIII), St Anskar was soon summoned before Louis again. Having been told not even ‘to stop and shave’ (believed to be a reference to renewing his tonsure, one should note), he arrived to receive the king’s request that he go with an embassy to Sweden to preach the Gospel there. Thus, as Christopher Dawson observes, ‘Christianity first penetrated into Scandinavia through the work of St Anskar’ (Religion and the Rise of Western Culture [Garden City, NY: Image, 1958], p. 85). (Chapt. IX)
appointed him as his legate for the time being amongst all the neighbouring races of the Swedes and Danes, also the Slavs and the other races that inhabited the regions of the north, so that he might share authority with Ebo the Archbishop of Rheims [a co-consecrator of the new bishop], to whom he had before entrusted the same office. (Chapt. XIII)
St Rimbert tells us that his elder faithfully administered his diocese, converting many of the heathen by the example of his life. He also redeemed young boys from slavery to educate them and train them to serve the Church—a good work which has been depicted in the illustration above (Chapt. XV). According to Butler, St Anskar continued to oversee missions in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden (the last being administered by an auxiliary bishop), built churches, and founded a library, giving himself over to this labour for thirteen years. But in 845, Vikings destroyed Hamburg, and the bishop and his flock barely escaped with their lives (Chapt. XVI). Soon after, as the bishop of Bremen had fallen asleep in the Lord, that see was joined with Hamburg into a new archbishopric under the oversight of St Anskar (Chapt. XIII), who continued to foster missions in various parts of the North.
It is interesting to reflect that St Anskar carried out many of his dangerous missions among the Northern heathens with the expectation that he would likely be martyred, in accordance with the commandment he had received from God as a young man (related in Chapt. III). But while the opportunity to shed his blood frequently eluded him, St Rimbert tells us, ‘The life that he lived involved toils which were accompanied by constant bodily suffering: in fact his whole life was like a martyrdom’ (Chapt. XL). At last, in his old age, St Anskar also began to suffer from a final martyrdom—a wasting illness which tormented him slowly over the course of some months. Having arranged for a glorious celebration of the Feast of the Meeting of Our Lord, this holy hierarch fell asleep in the Lord the very next day. Even though he did not meet a violent end, according to St Rimbert (Chapt. XLII), his can still be held to have been a martyr’s death:
For day by day, by tears, watchings, fastings, tormenting of the flesh and mortification of his carnal desires, he offered up a sacrifice to God on the altar of his heart and attained to martyrdom as far as was possible in a time of peace. And inasmuch as the agent, though not the will, was lacking in order to bring about the visible martyrdom of the body, he obtained in will what he could not obtain in fact. We cannot, however altogether deny that he attained actual martyrdom if we compare his great labours with those of the apostle. In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils from his own race, in perils from the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in lonely places, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren ; in labour and distress, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings; often, in cold and nakedness ; besides those things which are without, that which came upon him daily, the care of all the Churches. Who was weak and he was not ? Who, was offended and he did not burn? (Cf. II Cor 11:26-9)
Reader Isaac Lambertson has written a beautiful Service for St Anskar. The first verse of Ode VI of the Canon reads, ‘The rivers and seas of the North were honoured to bear thee on thine apostolic journeys, O Ansgar, disciple of Christ, for the ship of thy soul was propelled by the Holy Spirit.’ Here, in conclusion, is the dismissal hymn of the Saint:
Ever moved by love for God and man, O Ansgar, like the apostles thou didst journey afar to bring salvation to the benighted, offering up thine afflictions upon the altar of thy heart, in thy toils and distress bearing witness unto thy Saviour like a martyr, enduring perils on land and at sea for His sake, undaunted by temptations and tribulations. Wherefore, pray with boldness, that our souls be saved.