|The former Cluniac Priory Church|
in Paray le Monial, a miniature of the
Mother Abbey of the Congregation at
Duke William “the Pious” established the Abbey in 910 and he granted it exemptions from any secular entanglement. He renounced any rights over the abbey that he or his heirs might claim. It was normal at the time when establishing a monastery that the benefactor retained the right to name the Abbot or to demand that in time of war the monks furnish a certain number of knights to fight for the benefactor. It was even usual that the benefactor founding the monastery could claim a certain percentage of future donations—but William renounced any such claims. Only the popes had any claim to the Abbey’s loyalty and they, fortunately (given the state of the papacy at the time) were far away.
The monks, for their part, were determined to devote themselves entirely to the opus Dei—the Work of God—which meant prayer. In the original vision of Saint Benedict for monks, the life of the monastery was to be divided between prayer and work—ora et labora. At Cluny the life was almost entirely prayer—the laus perennis, unceasing praise. The ceremonies were very elaborate and carried out with exquisite perfection; thus they consumed most of the monk’s day. The solemnity of the worship drew many generous gifts on behalf of patrons who wished the monks’ prayers for themselves and for their deceased loved ones. The generosity of their benefactors permitted the monks to commission beautiful vestments, vessels, and decorations for their church. It also permitted them to hire workers to do the manual work of the monastery and free the monks for prayer. The Abbey Church—actually the third Abbey Church which was built between 1080 and 1130 was the largest church yet built; it was mostly destroyed in the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century.
Cluny drew huge numbers of vocations which enabled them to make many new monastic foundations. Traditionally among Benedictine monasteries, such daughter houses themselves become independent abbeys, but Cluny devised another system in which the Abbot of Cluny was superior of all the foundations and each daughter house sent representatives to an annual chapter at Cluny which made legislation for all the houses affiliated to it. This is where the idea of a “religious order” develops in the Western Church and it permitted a uniform standard of religious observance to be maintained among all the houses. Many independent abbeys, including those of nuns, voluntarily surrendered their independence to Cluny and became part of this monastic congregation.
Cluny was not known for austerity as some later religious orders such as the Cistercians or the Carthusians would be, but neither was their life lax. The focus of Cluniac life was the maintenance of a dignified and all-encompassing public prayer that seemed never to end, the monks taking shifts in the Church to enable the elaborate services to be carried out in meticulous detail. Nevertheless, in a Church that had sunk into such great decay of morale and morals Cluny was a bright shining light of clergy who were seeking something other than their own personal power, wealth, pleasure, and comfort. It would provide generations of Church leadership that would be responsible for the reform and renewal, not only of monastic life but of the Church itself in the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries. Their foundation at a time when the Church, from the papacy down to the village priests, was pretty rotten is a lesson that Reform and Renewal do not have to come from above but most effectively come from personal renewal of ordinary men and women.