In an age of schism and controversy, of public sins of the Church, there were major reforms seeking to renew the faith with the essentials of the gospel spirit. They started in the monastic movement.
The first involved a reform of the Benedictine rule, which was the default for monasteries and convents in the West from about the 6th century onward. As we have seen, many of the original monks were devout children of the wealthier classes who chose a life apart from the world, engaged in prayer and hard work as farmers, copyists and archivists, scientists and philosophers. With time, the lifestyle became weak and lax.
Into this situation, emerged the abbey of Cluny, France, which reformed the way of life of the many loosely organized Benedictines and almost built itself as almost a separate Cluniac order. The abbey, about 54 miles north of Lyon, in south central France, was established in 910 by William the Pious, duke of Aquitaine, who endowed it with his entire domain and placed St. Berno, then abbot of Gigny, in charge.
Berno introduced a revised and stricter form of Benedictine life, based on the ideas of the German St. Benedict of Aniane (745-821), who had experimented with a new monastic life at the Abbey of Cornelimünster and also tendered his ideas in writing and orally at the first great meeting of the abbots of the order held in Aachen in 817.
Benedictine houses previously operated more or less autonomously, even though they followed the same rule, but under the changes, subordinate houses in France, Germany, England and Scotland became answerable to the abbot at Cluny.
As for the monks’ activity, Cluny shifted the monastery from an agriculturally self-sufficient unit whose monks did physical work to houses of perpetual and specialized prayer and worship that hired people from the outside to do the traditional work of monks.
Cluny remained outstandingly wealthy as a community and a major center of the faith, second only to Rome; its abbey was the largest in Europe until the construction of the present basilica of St. Peter. Part of the idea of these humongous buildings was to inspire awe of the divine.
Another phase of reform was ushered in by St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), who founded the Cistercian Movement, which returned to the literal Benedictine rule and manual labor, especially fieldwork, for the monks and nuns at the abbey of Citeaux, from whose original Latin name, Cistercium, the order took its name.
The Cistercians also distinguished themselves from the Cluniacs, who wore black robes, by wearing white robes. This reduced in the popular mind the competition between the two monastic styles to a contest between Blackfriars and Whitefriars.
Although Cluny counted a good hundred or so houses, the Cistercians at their height in the 15th century claimed close to 750, most of them built in wilderness areas. These quickly became centers of ideas in agriculture, hydraulic engineering and metallurgy, quite apart from their role in reintroducing contemplative prayer—silent encounter and listening to God.
A Cistercian subgroup, those of “strict observance” (also known as Trappists, from the La Trappe Abbey in Normandy, where they started) do not take a vow of silence, but observe Benedict’s stress on quietude and lack of speech to encourage openness and listening to God. Trappists developed a kind of sign language to make speech almost unnecessary.
The Cluniacs and Cistercians suffered greatly during Henry VIII’s dissolution of monasteries during the Reformation in England and after the French Revolution, only to bounce back somewhat in the late 19th century. The best preserved and oldest of their monasteries, however, are in Germany.