Daily Life in Cluny – Source of Living Water for Christendom

Beauty is a point of honour for a monk of Cluny. Pulchritude must shine through in his buildings, his liturgy, his deportment and even in his most ordinary actions, such as eating a meal.

A time of wars and anarchy, the 10th century was a crucial moment in European history. The civilizing campaign begun by Charlemagne needed a new impetus. On the other hand, in the ecclesiastical field, a reform of customs was urgently needed to combat simony, the immorality of the secular clergy and the decadence of Western monasticism.

It was God’s good pleasure that, in this historical context, the accomplishment of these great religious, cultural and social endeavours did not depend on one man, but on an entire congregation.

A pure distillation of Benedictine monastic virtue, Cluny played a fundamental role in shaping the Middle Ages, exerting its authority and influence over entire nations and bringing about profound moral, intellectual and even artistic transformations.1 With saintly abbots for almost two centuries, it was only a matter of time before its scope extended even to the Chair of Peter: St. Gregory VII and Blessed Urban II, popes who are essential to understanding medieval splendour, were from Cluny.

A new congregation emerges

In 910, however, the name Cluny meant nothing more than a broad valley donated by William of Aquitaine to Abbot Berno, where a monastery was founded that would develop in the skilful hands of Odo, his disciple.

The strict observance that was to mark the Cluniac charism had begun to bud in Odo’s soul a year earlier when, on seeing his confreres’ disregard for the rule, he had left the community where he had been brought up, in search of a place that shone for its monastic fervour. He finally found what he was looking for in Berno and his monks. Heading a group of religious after the abbot’s death in 926, he turned this then anonymous valley into the cradle of what could be called “the Cluniac empire”.

Pure distillation of Benedictine monastic virtue, Cluny played a fundamental role in shaping the Middle Ages, influencing entire nations

Indeed, the hand of God rested on that group of consecrated people, which grew in number and ardour year by year. Soon, along with strict discipline, a distinctive spirituality was to take form.

Based on an ideal of profound intimacy with Our Lord Jesus Christ, the monk of Cluny sought, in some way, to transcend material realities in order to live according to supernatural ones. As well as cultivating a deep devotion to the Redeemer, the Blessed Virgin and the Papacy, one of the main objects of of his meditations was the invisible but real struggle of the Angels against evil spirits.

If it is true that these religious detached themselves from the world, they did so not only to anticipate Heaven, but also to join the angelic hosts and turn the cloister into a battlefield. Thus, their labours, their prayers and even their hours of rest were not only direct acts of praise to God, but also effective blows against the ancient adversary.2

The oblates

This struggle was not only fought by experienced monks. The ranks of Cluniac monasticism often included very young members, the oblates who, offered to religion by their parents when they were young, began the path of the evangelical counsels from an early age. Treated with the utmost respect by the professed religious, these little monks were integrated into community life as authentic members and took part in various activities common to all.

“It is difficult indeed,” it was said, “to imagine a king’s son in his father’s palace being treated with greater care than the least of the children at Cluny.”3

In fact, minors were not required to follow the same austere customs as their elders; enrolled in a special regime, they were given clothes and food more suited to the needs of their young age. They were also constantly accompanied by the magistri puerorum, “novice masters” who watched over them with great attention and vigilance. In liturgical ceremonies, for example, it was not tolerated for the fabric of an oblate’s habit to touch the habit of another monk.

Based on an ideal of union with God, the monk of Cluny sought to transcend material realities in order to live according to supernatural ones

Once they reached maturity, each oblate had to choose between the world or the cloister. Those who chose to live in the world could congratulate themselves on having acquired a solid religious and moral formation, along with a discipline of mind and body forged in monastic austerity in all their daily acts. Those who chose religious life, once admitted as novices to the Order, began a long and demanding formation curriculum.

St. Maïeul, fourth abbot of Cluny – Priory of St. Peter and St. Paul, Souvigny (France); in background, chapel of the Abbey of Cluny

But how did the day-to-day life of these men, who renounced everything and lived only for God, unfold? Let us take a few moments to explore the cloisters and Romanesque galleries of this sacred and mysterious world, and find out what happened between the first and last bell rung daily in a Cluniac community.

First praises

The day begins at around half past two in the morning, when the ringing of the bell summons the monks to the first liturgical hours of the Divine Office: Matins and Lauds. In the dormitory, the monks rise and put on their habits and then head to the abbey church.

The ogives, lit only by the flickering light of candles in the penumbra, echo the eight psalms chanted by the community, followed by three sung readings taken from Sacred Scripture and the works of the Fathers of the Church, thus concluding the first nocturn, the initial part of Matins. The second nocturn is very similar, with six psalms and one reading. Some prayers have specific names: the familiares are four psalms recited for the intentions of relatives and acquaintances; the prostrati are ten psalms that the monks pronounce lying face down throughout Lent.

Throughout the ceremony, a monk walks through the ranks with a lamp, making sure that no one is succumbing to fatigue. If he finds someone asleep, he wakes him up by shining the light on their face. But if the procedure has to be repeated three times, the drowsy religious must take on this task in order to stay awake…

After chanting the hours prescribed by the rule for this time of day, the monks rest until five o’clock in the morning, when they begin the hour Prime of the Office.

Once again, psalms and responsories alternate, while little by little the sun tints the stained glass windows of the church with the colours of dawn.

Then the first Mass is celebrated, always sung, preceded by litanies with specific intentions, among which kings, princes, bishops, abbots and friends of the Order are mentioned. On Sundays, the Holy Sacrifice is followed by a rite in which holy water and salt are sprinkled throughout the monastery.

Daily chapter

After Mass, everyone gathers in the chapter hall to begin one of the central acts of monastic life: the chapter. This is a meeting that opens with the reading of a chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict – hence its name – and is then taken up with more concrete matters: the admission of a novice, the correction of some fault or even the expulsion of an unworthy member.

During the session, the abbot can denounce any public fault that has disturbed or scandalized the community, summoning the offender to the centre of the chapter hall to ask for forgiveness. Sometimes, the better to help him repent of his error, he is excluded from common acts until the abbot sends someone to whisper in his ear: “You are absolved.”4

At the end of the chapter, the abbot announces: “Ad opera manuum ibimus in hortum.”5 Then everyone leaves in procession to the cloister, where the work for that day will be assigned and commence.

Labour: a “liturgical act”

Ora et labora:6 this is the axiom that defines Benedictine spirituality. And, in fact, circumstances demanded that the same hands that came together to pray be employed in the support and maintenance of the Order.

The monks were to live with the pulchritude and decency befitting those who know they are children of God and brothers of the blessed

There were various tasks to be performed: looking after the house, copying books, cultivating the land… The latter is particularly interesting because, for a Cluny monk, working in the fields was a veritable “liturgical act”.

Monks chanting Psalms – Getty Center, Los Angeles (California)

At the singing of the litanies, everyone arrives together at the cultivation site. The prior began the work with prayers such as the Kyrie Eleison and the Our Father. While they are ploughing, they recite psalms for the faithful departed, followed by a reading commented on by the superior during the work.

Finally, they return to the monastery, once again in procession.

Sacrality in daily acts

Beauty was a point of honour for the monk of Cluny. The acts of his life had to be carried out with the pulchritude and decency befitting those who know themselves to be children of God and brothers of the blessed. This ideal shone through in his buildings, his liturgy and his deportment – even in the most ordinary actions, such as eating a meal.

There were two meals a day for the religious: lunch, around midday, and dinner, served in the late afternoon. After the second Mass, the major Mass, which was more solemn – on great feasts, it was lit by almost five hundred candles! – the ringing of the bell announced that the community should go to the refectory. After each monk had washed his hands – the Cluniacs were especially zealous about personal hygiene – they awaited the arrival of the abbot. The abbot began the meal by chanting the Benedicite. No one was to eat before the abbot gave the signal for the monk lector to begin reading a text.

The diet prescribed by the rule was austere, but not miserable. There was a variety of vegetables, breads, cheese and fish. Wine was served every day.7

During the meal, the strictest silence prevailed. If a monk wanted to ask for something, he had to use a meticulous system of signs, making the gesture that corresponded to what was wanted. The serving monks, on the other hand, followed certain rules: never touch the food being served or breathe on the platters. These seem like basic details at first glance, but considering that they were practised in a society that had just emerged from the barbarism of the previous centuries, it becomes clear what a great step forward they were.

End of the day and rest

At four o’clock in the afternoon, the habits once again fill the abbey church for the singing of Vespers and, later, of Compline. At the end of a normal day, a Cluniac monk will have recited around two hundred and fifteen psalms.

In the evening, the most rigorous period of silence begins, which will only end with the chapter of the following day. This is the time of the final prayers, when the monks enter into special recollection. The bustle and noise of the day ceases, giving way to an environment favourable to communication with the supernatural world.

Through example and moral authority, Cluny extended its influence throughout Europe, penetrating the council of kings and the pontifical court

Finally, the moment of rest arrives. The monks spent the day in community, and the rule of Cluny prescribed that they should do so at night. In this way, in a common dormitory, everyone would be witnesses to the honesty of their brothers and watch over each other’s behaviour during the twenty-four hours of the day. A peculiar custom that dates back to the beginning of monasticism was to keep a lamp alight in the dormitory throughout the night, symbolizing the continuous vigilance of the faithful and prudent Catholic who, even at night’s rest, is never found without the lamp lit.

In the monastery, now submerged in a sacred silence, the whole community sleeps the repose of the just, awaiting the next tolling of the bell, which will once again summon them to the nocturnal office.

A spring of living water

The reader will certainly be impressed by the harsh regime of life of these monks: intense labour, only two meals, long recitations of hundreds of psalms, short and interrupted nights, rigid discipline… However, we must bear in mind that, alongside such an arduous journey, it was not uncommon for the monks to receive all manner of heavenly consolations and even extraordinary mystical graces. Divine Providence is moved by the sight of such sacrificial souls and never ceases to lavish favours on them to sustain them.

Dedication of the high altar of the abbey church of Cluny by Pope Urban II, in the presence of the abbot St. Hugh – National Library of France, Paris

In fact, the fundamental role that religious orders play in the Mystical Body of Christ requires a life of sacrifice. These institutions not only aim to sanctify their members, but also to spread blessings and graces throughout society, which is why they can determine the course of entire historical eras.

This is what happened with Cluny, which, in a short space of time, through the strength of its example and the moral authority of its superiors – six successive abbots, with a very long period of rule, were canonized – extended its influence throughout Europe, penetrating the council of kings and the pontifical court, to the point where its monks were defined by Dr. Plinio as the source of living water from which flourished the best of what the Middle Ages produced. ◊



1 Cf. CHAGNY, André. Cluny et son empire. 4.ed. Lyon-Paris: Emmanuel Vitte, 1949, p.4.

2 Cf. DE VALOUS, Guy. Le monachisme clunisien des origines au XV ͤ siècle. 2.ed. Paris: A. et J. Picard, 1970, t.I, p.III.

3 Idem, p.303.

4 Cf. EVANS, Joan. Monastic Life at Cluny. 910-1157. New York: Archon Books, 1968, p.85-86.

5 From the Latin: “Let us go and do some manual labour in the garden.”

6 From the Latin: “Pray and work.”

7 Cf. DANIEL-ROPS, Henri. História da Igreja de Cristo. A Igreja dos tempos bárbaros. São Paulo: Quadrante, 1991, p.592.



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