“We firmly believe that God is master of the world and of its history. But the ways of His providence are often unknown to us. Only at the end, when our partial knowledge ceases, when we see God ‘face to face’, will we fully know the ways by which – even through the dramas of evil and sin – God has guided His creation to that definitive Sabbath rest for which He created heaven and earth.” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #314)
910 AD The Founding of Cluny and the Revival of Religious Life
Charlemagne’s empire began to collapse after his death. Under the leadership of his son, the empire declined and things became worse when his three grandsons divided the empire. At the same time, they were under continuous attack from different invaders. In Charlemagne’s time, the danger came from the Germans, the Huns and the Muslims. Now they were under attack by Vikings from the north and the Magyars from the east. The Muslims were still causing trouble on the Mediterranean coast.
Within the Church there was also much chaos. Laymen with power and money began meddling into Church affairs. Charlemagne’s heirs quarreled with Rome and relations with the Church in the east were tense.
With constant threats from invaders and consistently weak government, people stopped relying on the emperors for protection. Instead they turned to wealthy landowners for help. Local clergy needed protection too and were willing to give up their properties to landlords in exchange for protection. Thus, the feudal system was born.
Wealthy laymen interfered in Church affairs, appointing bishops and other officials to further their self-interest. “The practice of simony – the buying and selling of Church positions – was rife, with prominent bishops and abbots paying large sums to feudal lords for appointments to desirable posts.” There was widespread clerical immorality with priests “marrying” and having both male and female concubines, among other sexually immoral practices. The Rule of Benedict which had been used by monasteries in the west since the sixth century was no longer in force. It seemed to be a hopeless time in the Church.
But then came William the Pious, Duke of Aquitaine. In the year 910 AD, he founded a monastery. The charter that was issued when the monastery was established read in part: “Desiring to employ, in a manner useful for my soul, the goods God has given me…I wish to maintain at my expense a community of monks…I therefore give…the land of Cluny…they will be neither subject to us…nor to any power on earth.”
The first abbot of Cluny, Berno became a saint. His main concern was re-establishing the Rule of Benedict. He was so successful in attracting men to join the monastery that many lords and princes gave him control of their monasteries.
After St. Berno came St. Odo then Bl. Aymard and St. Mayeul. All of these abbots worked tirelessly to build up the monastery as a place of worship, culture, learning, discipline and peace, all for the glory of God. Under the leadership of St. Odilo from 994 t0 1048, “Cluny reached perhaps the height of its power and influence.” He formed a system of united monastic houses all ruled by a prior who owed obedience to the abbot of Cluny. This put in place a system of accountability and protected the monastic houses from the dangers of isolation and possible interference by lay people. After St. Odilo came St. Hugh. He built Benedictine monasteries in places that did not have them, including England and Spain.
Drawing from other sources, our seminar instructor pointed out that at Cluny, monastic culture was able to develop unencumbered by outside interference. The four elements of monastic culture – devotion to heaven, sacred learning, ancient traditional spirituality and the study of liberal arts – flourished within its walls and then spread outward into larger society. Many fruits blossomed through life in Cluny: animal husbandry, farming techniques, the copying and binding of books, even Dom Perignon champagne. But Cluny’s greatest contribution was to the Liturgy where the arts , music and literature were elevated in the worship of God.
The monks of Cluny greatly influenced the development of Europe but they did so unintentionally. “The Cluniacs had no such grand scheme in mind when they first dedicated themselves heart and soul to leading pure monastic lives and escaping the corrupting influence of secular control.” Our seminar instructor reiterated that all the good that came out of Cluny and monastic culture was the result of the monks’ faithfulness and desire to serve God. Everything else was a “byproduct of their call.” Perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from Cluny is to serve God first and then we will be able to serve man well.