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Monasteries at Citeaux and Cluny:

Responses to Mediocrity

Trying to have it both ways. Storing up your treasure both in heaven and on earth. Following both God and your own desires. Sin. Or, to borrow a line from the title of a book: addicted to mediocrity. These are all ways to describe the attempt to be a Christian while at the same time following the pleasures of the world. Jesus warned against it, but people still struggle with it: they always have and they always will: the struggle is nothing new. In the 800s, though, the problem had grown such that it consumed most Christian leaders.

From priests to popes, many of the Catholic leaders in that century widely misused their positions: in the study of Christian History, the 800s is known as one of the low points in spiritual authority. But then in 910, in the town of Cluny, France, a group of monks gathered and formed a monastery in order to combat the spiritual laxness which they saw in the Church.

The founder of this abbey was William I the Pious. He donated land to a group of monks from a group called the Benedictines. Now, it was common for wealthy landowners and nobility to establish monasteries, but they usually maintained some control over it. This helped lead to corruption as the monks attempted to follow God while keeping the nobleman happy. This led to other abuses, such as monks committing fornication and adultery, an all too common problem in that time. (In the 800s, one of the popes even had children.)

But William tried a different tactic: he did not place any expectations on the monks other than to pray for him. This allowed the monks to avoid the political gamesmanship of keeping the earthly boss happy while serving the other Boss (God). They were able to focus on serving God.

These Benedictines had grown out of the teachings of a man named Benedict who lived 300 years earlier. He wrote a set of guidelines for monasteries, called a Rule. Over time, though, the regulations in the Rule had become loosely administered. The monks at Cluny decided to restore the original Rule in order to drive out the mediocre form of Christianity which had become too common.

They were very successful. The Cluny abbey began other monasteries as more people participated in the revitalized Christian movement. By the mid-1000s, the movement begun in Cluny had grown to hundreds of monasteries and thousands of monks. A new abbey was built in Cluny which was the largest Christian building in the world until St. Peter’s Basilica was built in Rome in the 1500s.

You would think this was great news, and you would be right. But over time the movement became weighed down as it gained wealth, influence, and power. Even as the Cluny movement was at its height, it had already begun to fade. Eventually it was only a shell of its former self as it grew wealthier and lost sight of its original message.

But then, in 1098, in the town of Citeaux, France, a group of monks gathered and formed a monastery in order to combat the spiritual laxness which they saw in the Church; the movement would be called "Cistercian." This movement would eventually grow large, with hundreds of monasteries and thousands of monks. For reform does not grow, burn bright, then die out, it is always alive. It just moves from one group to another once mediocrity sets in.

©2007 Mark Nickens All Rights Reserved