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 Rhône, 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 Rhône 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 ...

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