The saint who showed what true reform of the Church is like

St Bruno by Girolamo Marchesi (Wikimedia)

It would be fatally easy to look back over this last year and to conclude that all was up with the Church: schisms, factions, scandals, fake news and corruption in high places – you name it, it is displayed in the Vatican for all to see. Yet I use the word “fatally” deliberately; you only have to look at the history of the Church to know we have been here before and thus to recognise that although the barque of Peter is old, creaking and leaking, she will never quite founder. We must not despair.

I have been reading an excellent and scholarly (rather than hagiographic) life of St Bruno the Carthusian, by Andre Ravier S.J., published by Gracewing (£9.99). It offers a salutary and hopeful lesson to 21st century Catholic pessimists: whatever the flagrant corruption of the Church in any particular age, God has a way of raising up extraordinary men and women as a sign of glorious contradiction to the world and to their worldly fellow Christians.

St Bruno was born circa 1030 in Cologne, dying in Calabria in 1102; yet despite the passage of a thousand years his travails seem very modern in many ways. Made director of studies for the schools attached to Rheims Cathedral in 1056, he was already outstanding for his learning and his moral authority. Ravier writes that simony (including the buying and selling of ecclesiastical offices) was rife in the Church at the time and that Bruno at first chose to fight it; but when everything was the same after the fight “his experience of human mediocrity prompted him to try to find the purity of Christian life in solitude.”

Ravier adds the interesting comment that “In every society, but especially in a corrupt one, such devotion to the word of God, such love of noble friendship, such integrity, destine a person to be, in a real sense, solitary.” For Bruno, in his early 50s it meant leaving a comfortable scholarly life in Rheims (offered the archbishopric, he had declined it) and in June 1084, accompanied by six companions, setting out for the wilderness of Chartreuse, in the mountains north of Grenoble. The seven men wanted to lead an eremitical life in common – a novel idea at a time when the religious life was either monastic or solitary.

What most challenged me about their choice of Chartreuse was that in a valley already conspicuously inhospitable, they rejected settling for the southern end where the sun did occasionally shine; instead they chose the northern end, overshadowed by the mountains, with its harsh climate, inaccessibility and very poor soil for cultivation. I was challenged because I know that in similar circumstances I would unhesitatingly have chosen the softer option. But then Bruno did become the (unintentional) founder of the Carthusians, the strictest religious order in the Church which, I was once told, has never needed to be reformed.

After six years at Chartreuse, God asked Bruno to make a great sacrifice; to leave the life he loved and had chosen, to return “to a world of intrigue and danger.” In effect, this meant responding to a summons by Pope Urban II to come to Rome in 1090 and help him govern the Church. He was permitted to resume an eremitical life in Calabria, where he died, never returning to the valley of his first love, Chartreuse.

As a moving coda to the life of St Bruno and the Carthusian order, in Fr Donald Haggerty’s book, Conversion (which I shall blog about at a later date) he relates the story that at the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939 two soldiers from the Communist Republican faction “were returning to their barracks after a night of drinking and cavorting with prostitutes. They were walking down a dusty road not far from a Carthusian monastery when the bells of the monastery began chiming loudly in the early morning light. With the bells ringing, their conversation halted, and they walked on in silence. The war ended not long after, and first one, then the other, joined this monastery.”

God had summoned them by bells. It reminds me I must resurrect the famous film about Chartreuse, Into Great Silence, which I have had for some years but never had the courage to watch all through. And the moral of this blog which began by surveying the Church this last year: we must remember that sanctity, not schism, is at the heart of Catholicism and we, too, were created for this purpose.