Daily Archives: November 12, 2009

The Pope on Medieval Monasticism

I could swear that Pope Benedict has been re-reading Leclercq’s Love of Learning and Desire for God.

A few weeks ago he talked about the Monastic/Scholastic distinction along similar lines as Leclercq; last week he compared and contrasted St Bernard with Abelard. Yesterday, his talk was on the glory that was Cluny.All of these are great—especially if you haven’t read Leclercq recently.

What the pope doesn’t get at in the last catechesis is one of the reasons I find Cluny so fascinating. In a very real sense, in the developed life of Cluny the liturgy overbalanced other aspects of the monastic life. Apparently, they could get too much of a good thing! I’d suggest that a central point of study in the development of monasticism and the place of liturgy in the regular Christian life consists of the conversation between what happened at Cluny and the rise of the Cistercians.

(The year I applied for a raft of academic jobs one of the seminars I dreamed up was a study of Cluny, the Carthusians, and the Cistercians as three separate ways of embodying the “pure monasticism” envisioned in John Cassian, then filtered through Benedict. I still want to do that…)

The way we consider and understand the relationship between Cluny and the Cistercians has consequences for how we (meaning here I in particular) wish to embellish the Prayer Book liturgies through catholic additions.

In light of this I felt myself quite challenged when I ran across a very similar thought in slightly different words a few months back in Thornton’s English Spirituality:

Both the Cistercian Reform and the English Reformation were movements towards primitive purity. In both cases the appeal is to an essential, workmanlike simplicity and against liturgical elaboration, against “medieval accretions” whether of Cluny or fifteenth century Catholicism. It is often said that the Prayer Book needs “enrichment”, which is a reasonable plea. But we must take care to avoid the errors of Cluny, which we failed to do, to take one example in the Offices of 1928 with their complicated list of alternatives.* The more recent liturgical movement follows the right pattern; away from Victorian Gothic, uselessly elaborate ceremonial, “fussiness”, towards Cistercian simplicity. It is Abelard not Bernard who more nearly represents the colorless puritanism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is in Abelard that we find the one-sided speculative strain without warmth and colour. Rightly or wrongly, we have sided with St Bernard, with the clear lines of English perpendicular against both Baroque and the whitewashed shed. (English Spirituality, 89)

* The alternatives in the Proposed 1928 English BCP are nothing compared to the American ’79 BCP.