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.

6 thoughts on “The Pope on Medieval Monasticism

  1. Bud+

    When I read the Thornton quote, a question struck me. Is the current trend among many younger Christians towards a more traditional faith and practice, such as exemplified by the New Liturgical Movement blog (not to mention your readers!), part of a run-up to a more elaborate liturgical life? In 50, 100 or 150 years, will there be another movement to purify and simplify the liturgy that looks back on our time as the beginning of many accretions that need to be cast off? I know these trends are cyclical, and I’m curious if our part of the cycle is the upswing, so to speak?

    My take on it is that what younger clergy and religious are interested in is a simplicity and stability that can only be found by being focused on God and grounded in tradition. So perhaps enriching BCP use with catholic material is a way at arriving at something that can be permanent and relatively unchanging, rather than constantly trying to respond to or embody the current zeitgeist. Having a few more moving parts in your traditional mass is simpler than trying to figure out if you’re going to try to pack the kids in with a folk mass, hip-hop mass or U2charist.

  2. Joe Rawls

    The Clunaics got out of control and clearly made the Cistercians inevitable. Still in all, I’d like to get into a time machine and go to a conventual solemn high Mass in Cluny III.

    Your idea for a seminar sounds outstanding.

  3. Paul Goings

    There are a few places in Christian Proficiency where I think Thornton is just too grim for words, and I think that the same is true of this passage. If the offices of the English ’28 B.C.P. (or the American ’79) can be compared with any of the Cluniac arrangements, I’ll eat my hat!

  4. Derek the Ænglican

    Hi Bud,

    We are on an upswing, I think. The issue is *always* one of balance… How much is enriching and how much is confusing? The answer is different for different individuals, families, and communities. That being said, I think there’s an acceptable range of additions.

    The key for me is that any additions should add real spiritual and theological value, preferably ones tested over a period of centuries rather than a half-hour of thought. There must be a fundamental stability to liturgy that the fad-of-the-week impulse completely misses.

    You and me both, Joe!

    I agree, Paul. Last I recall neither the Proposed ’28 nor the ’79 recommend saying three different forms of Lauds back-to-back. As a starter…

  5. brian m

    Am I right to assume that the oldest forms of the Cistercian breviary are still more “enriched” than the classic BCPs? Doesn’t the latter lean closer to the Quinones Breviary which the church rejected?

  6. Derek the Ænglican

    Yes, Brian M, that is most certainly true.

    My recollection is that the Cistercian liturgy looks brief and pared down in contrast to the Cluniac ordines, not necessary in comparison to what moderns would consider “simple liturgy”.

    Here’s the Quinones Breviary. I’ve glanced at it but have not done a properly thorough study of it yet.

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