Cluny: “Militia” of the Heralds of the Lord

Carrying out the reform of the Benedictine order, the Cluniac impulse begun in the 10th century would spread throughout Europe in the succeeding decades. Cluny would become the mother abbey of numerous reformed monasteries that would live under the superior of the Burgundian abbey.

Gaudium Press English Edition

Newsdesk (24/06/2022 4:02 PM, Gaudium Press) The traveler who today, going a little way off the road from Paris to Lyon, will visit Burgundy, cannot but be saddened if he has a sense of fidelity. It is true that some reminders of past splendour still remain, such as the palace of Pope Gelasius, the churches of Saint Marcellus and Notre Dame, the abacial palace, and many Romanesque houses with their old-fashioned charm. What is missing, however, is the essential: the gigantic church which, for centuries, raised the glory of Cluny to the sky[1] in the arrows of its seven belfries.

An act of unparalleled vandalism had this masterpiece of Romanesque art demolished in France from 1798 to 1812. The monastery no longer exists; of its gardens and buildings, which covered a rectangle 450 by 350 meters, only a few secondary buildings remain. Of the seven belfries, only one remains standing, the one at the southern crossroads of the great transept, called “of the holy water”; flanked by the square Clock tower, it rises so nobly, so impressively with its thirty meters high, with the double row of arches at its octagonal base, that it is almost enough on its own to evoke the ancient grandeur. It was a grandeur that resulted from so much work and such a firm hold on fidelity, that without a shadow of doubt it is legitimate to admire in the history of this construction a providential intention.

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For two centuries, superiors who were saints

When William the Pious, Duke of Aquitaine, donated in 910 a piece of land from his fief of Mâcon to St. Bernon, Abbot of Baune, so that he could settle there with twelve companions, he certainly did not think he was doing any more than other feudal lords of his time who, for love of God and for the salvation of their souls, made similar foundations. But the good fortune of the new abbey was to have at its head, almost continuously for two centuries, and each for a long time, superiors who were saints: Saint Odon (926-942), Saint Maïeul (954-994), Saint Odilon (994-1049), and Saint Hugo (1049- 1 109), all differently but with one and the same heart, devoted to the great idea of monastic reform-that is, quite simply, monks totally faithful to their vows.

Virtues combined with strict discipline

Life at Cluny was a fully Benedictine life, the rule lived in all its demands, but also in all its intelligent and human simplicity.

The use of time was minutely regulated; the hours of prayer and work were strictly determined, although manual labour was declining in importance in favour of the liturgical office. The food consisted of vegetables, some flour derivatives, a little cheese and fish, but never meat; there was wine every day. Silence was absolute, and the monks had to communicate with each other by means of signs. The rule of chastity was observed with a rigor that the Christian world of the time was far from knowing.

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One detail showed – if you will – the advancement of the monks of Cluny over those of their time: the extraordinary cleanliness required of the novices, which is why Saint Odon had lavatories and towel rails installed in the convent. Finally, charity also occupied a place of honour: every day many poor people and travelers sat at the monks’ table, and there were constantly eighteen old men who were supported by the convent and whose feet were washed daily. Thus a true Christian militia is constituted, endowed with an absolutely new character.

A new and implacable force

Chosen for the most part from childhood, from among the sons of the peasants who attended the monastery’s school, subjected to humility and obedience, accustomed to despise the world, these monks of the Cluniac tradition could be compared in their time to “an immense army of the Lord’s soldiers, hierarchical, possessing in the person of the abbot of Cluny a unique and powerful commander,” an army whose group spirit was driven by faith to an extraordinary intensity: individually, the monk of Cluny is nothing, but collectively he is conscious of being the herald of the Lord. “Cluny is the new force, pure and implacable, destined to destroy the rotten frames of Christian society and make virtue and the fear of God reign everywhere, despite all the simonious and debauched bishops.“[2]


Excerpted, with adaptations, from: DANIEL-ROPS, Henri. History of the Church of Christ. The Church in Barbarian Times. São Paulo: Quadrante, 1991, p.591-593.

[1] Abbey located in eastern France, founded in the 10th century by Saint Bernon. Carrying out the reform of the Benedictine order, the Cluniac impulse would spread throughout Europe in the following decades. Cluny would become the mother abbey of numerous reformed monasteries, which would live subject to the superior of the Burgundian abbey. By 1100 or so, there would be 10,000 monks living in 1,450 houses dependent on Cluny in France, Britain, Spain, Italy, and Germany.

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[2] POGNON, E. L ‘an mille. Paris, 1947.

Compiled by Roberta MacEwan


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