Thursday, May 7, 2009

Cluny: In Search of God's Lost Empire

By Edwin Mullins, Novalis, CAD 29.95, 239 pages.

This excellent and highly readable book offers a panorama of medieval religious and political history, since the Benedictine Cluny-monastic movement played a central role in European life in the tenth to twelfth centuries. Cluny, like the Cistercians, Franciscans, Dominicans, and lesser-known communities, reflects the fact that the Roman Church could always reform itself from within, and never needed a Luther or Calvin.

The author shows us how the Cluny network grew from not-so-humble origins into a transcendent leader of Christendom.

Cluny: In Search of God's Lost Empire comes with maps and beautiful sketches of Cluny-inspired architecture. The author, Edwin Mullins, tells the story without bogging himself down in academic jargon. Rather, he appreciates this history as if it's a fine glass of wine. He loves the spirit of the order and of the times, while remembering basic injustices done to various groups of people.

Cluny: In Search of God's Lost Empire combines scholarship with a poetic or spiritual outlook, something quite necessary to appreciate the elegance and depth of the medieval Christian period: “[L]isten carefully and we can hear the echoes of an extraordinary past. A thousand years ago this now-shattered place in southern Burgundy made an impact on the Christian world more profound and more enduring than that of any pope or emperor, or any ruling monarch of the day including the kings of France and England.”

The importance of Cluny for the cultural, agricultural, economic, and social development of Europe can't be overstated, and Mullins argues the case, again from page one: Cluny's monks “inherited a Europe that lay in ruins and proceeded to rebuild it, laying many of the foundations of Christian culture and civilization. For more than two centuries Cluny was the spiritual heart of Christianity.”

The story of Cluny is the story of that bygone era, Christendom, a high point in many ways for Catholics and their spirituality of community, masculinity, discipline, and symbolism.

Cluny: In Search of God's Lost Empire outlines the importance of symbolism for the medieval—and therefore Cluniac—mind. First was the importance of liturgy: “[T]here was always time in Cluny for ritual-daily life in the abbey was controlled by it. Whether it was the total silence observed throughout the period of Christmas, or the daily reading of a chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict..., every hour, every day, every season at Cluny had its all-controlling ritual and ceremony.”

Second was the importance of architecture, especially Romanesque: “[I]dentified by such features as rounded arches and windows, simple classical columns with carved capitals, and usually a rounded apse beyond the altar at the eastern end.”

Mullins again emphasizes the enduring heritage, religious and otherwise, of Cluny: “To this day many of the towns and villages in the region possess Romanesque parish churches in a distinctive Burgundian style, which owes its origin ... to the power and initiative of a succession of abbots of Cluny.”

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