Words on the Word

The Blessed Abbots of Cluny

There are good reasons why a Cistercian should celebrate the Blessed Abbots of Cluny with special attention and devotion. First of all, he finds in the lineage of Cluny such radical, attractive, humane instances of monastic sanctity. The early Cistercians were aware of this. Not long ago, I had occasion to read a thirteenth-century Cistercian collection of Exempla. In it, I found that very many examples for good featured black monks, whereas exemplars emphatically not to be followed were home-grown. This provides a corrective to an opinion that has sometimes been current among certain Cistercians. According to this line of thinking, the relationship between Cluny and Cîteaux (or really, Clairvaux) is defined once and for all in Bernard’s Apology to William. Few monastic texts have been read and cited with more spite than that display of rhetorical pyrotechnics. Leaving aside its context, leaving aside Bernard’s variegated relationship with Cluny, we can safely deduce a lesson of universal application: few spiritual tendencies are deadlier, more barren, more boring than the desire just to do better than someone else, be it the monastery across the valley or the brother or sister next to me in choir. Any reform movement, be it the micro-enterprise of reforming my own life, must exercise caution in this respect. Movements of reaction cannot sustain us for long. They may have great initial impetus. But they have no power to give life over time. So they peter out, turned in on themselves, pickled in self-righteousness, sad caricatures of ideals once held high. From which fate may the Lord preserve us! The only motivation that keeps religious and their institutes on the narrow, luminous path to life is a singleminded longing to put on the Lord Jesus, to acquire the forma Christi. Once we make some headway, we discover how endlessly rich that splendid form is: how full of variety, novelty, and surprises. Any narrow-minded attempt to define perfection in terms of black and white, or black versus white, turns out to be quite absurd. The Church’s garment, we discover, is not the monochrome patchwork duffle we would tend to turn it into, but a multi-coloured seamless robe, woven to perfection, with each tread supporting and enhancing the solidity and beauty of the whole. So as we rejoice in our remembrance of the holy abbots of Cluny, let us give thanks for the graces God gives us in the Church, not least for the complementarity of charisms in the wider Benedictine familia, defined by charity, united in friendship, subsisting in peace. Amen.