The vicissitudes of history do produce remarkable results. We can in some moments see the meetings of great saints all in one, fleeting moment of time’s plodding expanse. I am speaking about the life of St. Bruno (1030-1101) whose feast we celebrate today.
The Church in St. Bruno’s time was, quite simply, a mess. During Bruno’s lifetime the Church saw several popes and several more anti-popes. The Church saw the open persecution by political figures who claimed to be Catholic but who used the Church as a foil or a shield in order to advance political aims. The Church saw monks and priests who, with children to support, would unabashedly work to sell their spiritual “talents” to the marketplace, which is called simony. It saw the leading bishops of France reject the demands of the pope to excommunicate their King for open adultery. It saw a great deal of turmoil and many souls who had simply lost heart.
All the same, the Church in St. Bruno’s time was stupendously blessed by the likes of St. Robert of Citeaux, founder of the Cistercians, St. Hugh of Grenoble, who single-handedly reformed that diocese despite constant feelings of personal failure, St. Anselm of Canterbury, the founder of scholastic theology, and Blessed Pope Urban II, who called the first crusade and who succeeded in confirming the reforms of the clergy so desperately needed by the Church.
St. Bruno was no slouch either, of course. He is the founder of the Carthusian order which still exists to this day and is the only ancient order (1,000 years counts as “ancient” in my book) that has never been reformed or that’s needed it. You can see his legacy in the astounding film Into Great Silence which came out as a documentary in 2005. It is a stunning piece of film-making that ought to be required viewing for any Catholic or someone thinking about becoming Catholic. In this little corner of the world, men still sit, stand, kneel in silent prayer communing with Our Lord Jesus Christ. The trailer is found below.
At any rate, what is so delightful about St. Bruno is the nonchalance of his zeal, his off-handed heroism. A bright man, well educated at Rheims, he taught and eventually became the head of the college at Rheims for upwards of twenty years. All the while he longed to leave and be alone with Christ. He was raised to the position of chancellor of the diocese, which he took, but which involved working with a totally corrupt bishop. He did his duty, but eventually spoke out against the bishop. All the while he longed to leave and be alone with Christ.
He eventually did get the chance to leave and with six companions visited St. Hugh of Grenoble who had had a dream about the seven travelers who visited him. St. Hugh gave them the desert of Chartreuse, a cold, isolated place in the mountains of southern France covered most of the year by snow. St. Bruno loved it.
He stayed there with his brother monks. They lived, in the Camaldolese tradition, in separate cells, more like huts really. They gathered together only for prayer twice a day, Matins and Vespers, but would not speak to each other. On high holy days, they would eat together and converse. Their labor was to do not much else but to pray and copy books. Imagine that. They just prayed – in silence unless it was one of the two hours of communal prayer – and copied books.
Poor St. Bruno only lasted six years there before a former student of his who just happened to be Blessed Pope Urban II asked him to come and help him in Rome, and there was a great deal of work to be done. St. Bruno complied. All the while, though, he longed to leave and be alone with Christ. It was because of Pope Urban’s request, however, that St. Bruno’s Carthusian order, named after Chartreuse, spread to Italy and beyond. The pope eventually allowed Bruno to set up another house in Calabria on land generously given by Roger, Grand Duke of Sicily, who would later visit the monastery often in order to live and pray with the monks. But there in Calabria, Bruno wrote his friends back in Chartreuse about how to live their lives and how to deal with certain problems. Though never setting out to found an order, and never having written a Rule, he fathered a way of Christian living which Cardinal Bona called
the great miracles of the world: men living in the flesh as out of the flesh; the angels of the earth, representing John the Baptist in the wilderness; the greatest ornament of the Church; eagles soaring up to Heaven whose state is justly preferred to the institutes of all other religious orders.
St. Bruno was finally with Christ, alone in the valley of Calabria at last. He died on October 6, 1101, and his last words were faithfully taken down.
One of the funny little bits of St. Bruno’s story is that he’s never been formally canonized. The Carthusians – proper monks that they are – never wanted to bring attention to themselves, so they never petitioned. It was only until 1514 that they asked Pope Leo X if they could celebrate his death as a feast, and 1674 that Clement X extended the feast to the whole Church.
At any rate, St. Bruno is an example to us of the kind of simple heart that desires little more than a child does in the middle of the night as they lay in the dark. Bruno desired only his Father and the Mother of God, Our Lady. He yearned merely for a moment at their side so that he might whisper in their ears how much he loved them and perhaps for a small embrace in the darkness to know that he was still treasured.
Bruno did all that needed to be done during his life, fulfilling every wish put to him. But all along he wished to leave and be alone with Christ, in the brilliant silence of love’s everlasting hope, and thank God he did.