Unceasing Prayer in an Uncertain World

The late 800s and early 900s were not a good time for Western Europe. From Rome to the French Riviera and south to Sicily, towns and monasteries reeled from repeated raids by pillaging, enslaving Saracen (Muslim) pirates. North of the Alps, royal government under Charlemagne's successors wavered and faltered, leaving the monasteries along rivers vulnerable to Viking raiders and northern slavers.

These were the real “Dark Ages.” In what we now know as France, local strongmen simply took matters into their own hands. Christian discipline suffered. Worship became haphazard. The church nearly succumbed to factions and to the greed of secular rulers who tried to dominate it.

Under these circumstances, the “unceasing” round of prayer that had characterized monks from the beginning became the shaft of light and hope in the darkness. Nowhere was this more evident than at Cluny, located in west-central France. Protected by geography, it was out of reach of invaders coming up the Rh™ne, Seine, Loire, or Garonne rivers.

Benedict's Rule had outlined a balanced life of work and prayer, but in a tottering world beset by anxiety, Cluny focused attention almost entirely on the stable rock of prayer as the “work of God” par excellence. At this immense monastic complex on great feast days, the monks prayed nearly without ceasing.

A Ramshackle Spiritual Empire

When Duke William I of Aquitaine founded the monastery at Cluny in 910, he chose for its leader Berno, the abbot of Baume, a Benedictine monastery in the Jura mountains west of the Rh™ne basin. Baume had maintained the strict Benedictine life promoted by Benedict of Aniane under imperial sponsorship a century earlier. In a bold move, Duke William deliberately forfeited future control over his new foundation —ensuring that Cluny would be free of the secular powers that controlled much of the church at that time.

In a charter dated September 11, Duke William wrote, “For the love of God and of our Savior Jesus Christ, I give and deliver to the Apostles Peter and Paul,” in other words, to the pope, “the village of Cluny” and all the lands belonging to it “on condition that a Regular Monastery be established.” He thereby placed the monks under the only real protection that mattered: the court of heaven in the person of the two great apostle-martyrs of Rome. He also stipulated freedom from oversight by the nearby bishop. Although William of Aquitaine could not have known it, the single monastic house he founded at Cluny set the switches for a millennium of monastic life.

Abbots grounded in Baume's solid Benedictine life guided Cluny in its formative first three decades. Cluny became a massive, self-sufficient monastic complex and soon came to be seen as a model monastery. Its flourishing life of prayer helped spark what are known as the “Benedictine centuries” (900-1100) and stimulated Benedictine reform and renewal from Spain and Italy to

Germany and England. Existing monasteries seeking to return to their first fervor came under Cluny's authority (67 of them by the early 1000s). The mother monastery's piecemeal addition of new daughter houses (called “priories”) produced what church historian C. H. Lawrence described as a “ramshackle spiritual empire.”

Praying Around the Clock

What was life like for the Benedictines of Cluny in the later 900s and 1000s? Historian Joan Evans gives us a vivid picture in her book Monastic Life at Cluny, 910-1157 (Oxford, 1931). Time was measured not in hours on a clock but in hours of prayer. During the long nights from November to Easter, the night office (Vigils) began at two in the morning; during the spring and fall, it began before dawn as a prelude to morning prayer. When the bell rang for Matins, monks got out of bed, dressed, and washed in the cloister before proceeding to the abbey church. Cluny observed strict silence 24/7, except for a half-hour in the morning and a few minutes at midday.

Praying burned calories in an unheated church. A profound bow to the high altar required the same energy as toe-touch calisthenics. Monks normally stood during the Psalms. They were permitted to rest briefly by half-sitting on the “misericords” (“mercies,” or ledges on the back of choir stalls), except during Lent. Cluny added its own specific rules (the Customs of Cluny) to Benedict's Rule—one of which called for a monk to walk around the church with a lantern, peering to see if a brother who appeared to be nodding off was asleep. If the lantern-bearer discovered eyes closed in meditation instead of sleep, he bowed in apology. Otherwise, he held the lantern closer until the somnolent monk woke up.

In addition to reciting the entire Psalter over the course of a week according to Benedict's Rule, the monks sang additional Psalms in intercession for the benefactors and friends of the abbey after each of the day's seven hours of prayer. They sang—not merely recited—two solemn Masses each day. On feast days, the monks made great processions through the corridors of the monastery with candles and incense and sang extended hymns, antiphons, and responsories.

The heavy round of prayer left little time for manual labor. Lay brothers and hired employees performed most of the field and artisan work required to sustain a self-sufficient monastic community. Still, on any non-feast day between Pentecost and November, after abbreviated morning prayers, the abbot was free to announce, “We shall go to work with our hands in the garden.”

As the monks walked, they chanted the Psalms omitted from morning prayer. When they arrived at the field, they bowed to the east, begged God's aid just as they did in church, sang a Kyrie Eleison (“Lord, Have Mercy”) and the Lord's Prayer, and proceeded to hoe beans while chanting Psalms. After a noonday break, they returned (in formal procession both coming and going) to the same combination of prayerful weeding. During a rest period, the abbot gave a homily on the value of manual work to the soul.

Open Hands

Despite being cloistered, Cluny maintained ties with the surrounding culture. Guests came constantly and found lodging in the abbey's guesthouse. The “almonry”—the monastery's welfare office—gave money and food to the poor. On Thursday of Holy Week, each monk received a new pair of shoes (made in the monastery cobbler's shop). In imitation of Christ, he washed the feet of a poor man, who then received the monk's old shoes as a gift.

Abbot Odilo (d. 1049) instituted a day of prayer to commemorate all who had died believing in Christ. This met a deep need in a society filled with so much death and was greeted enthusiastically by the surrounding populace. Eventually what started at Cluny became the Feast of All Souls, still celebrated by Catholics on November 2.

For people facing huge political and cultural changes, the monastery's elaborate liturgy and constant prayer brought a little bit of the peace and permanence of heaven down to earth.

From the Cloister to the Streets

Cluny and her many daughter monasteries gave way to the new religious orders of the 1100s: Cistercians, Praemonstratensians, Carthusians, Canons Regular. In the 1200s came the mendicant (“begging”) orders —Franciscans and Dominicans—who lived in the emerging cities and shortened their liturgical prayer life in order to spend more time on the streets pastoring and inspiring devout lay people. They were followed in the 1500s by new teaching and nursing orders, also active on the streets.

But nearly all of the new orders adopted aspects of Cluny's centralized organization aimed at keeping the secular authorities from interfering in the monasteries' internal affairs. Founded as a refuge for unceasing prayer in tumultuous times, Cluny both epitomized the self-sufficient, prayer-filled, cloistered community of Benedictine tradition and pointed the way toward new trends among religious orders for centuries to come.

By Dennis Martin

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #93 in 2007]

Dennis Martin is associate professor of historical theology at Loyola University in Chicago.
Next articles

Re-Monking the Church

Many Catholics and Protestants are looking back to Benedict for the community and spiritual intensity they can't find in modern culture.

Chris Armstrong

The Original Do, Re, Mi

Julie Andrews made it popular, but the real musical genius behind this singing aid was a medieval monk.

David Neff

"You have not labored in vain"

After a crushing political defeat, William Wilberforce nearly gave up his fight to abolish the slave trade. But a life-changing letter from John Newton sent this Daniel back into the lion's den.

Kevin Belmonte

Faith of Our Mothers

The history of the church would have looked very different without these famous moms.

Elesha Coffman
Show more

Subscribe to magazine

Subscription to Christian History magazine is on a donation basis


Support us

Christian History Institute (CHI) is a non-profit Pennsylvania corporation founded in 1982. Your donations support the continuation of this ministry


Subscribe to daily emails

Containing today’s events, devotional, quote and stories