A Jubilee Partnership:
The Millenary of Solesmes and the 11th Centenary of Cluny

Fr Thierry Barbeau, OSB, Abbey of Saint Peter at Solesmes, France

solesmesexteOn 11th October, 2009, at the first Vespers of the Dedication of the abbey church, in the presence of Mgr Yves Le Saux, bishop of Le Mans, the Abbey of Solemnes solemnly opened a jubilee year in preparation for its thousandth anniversary, which will be celebrated on 12th October, 2010.

The monastery of Solesmes, on the bank of the Sarthe, on the frontier between Maine and Anjou, was created at the beginning of the eleventh century at the initiative and on the lands of the seigneur Geoffrey de Sable. The great abbey of St Peter de la Couture at Le Mans, to whom the new establishment was entrusted, sent thither the first Benedictine monks. For eight centuries Solesmes remained dependent on the Abbey of la Couture, of which it was a priory. The charter of this gift was drawn up on the occasion of the dedication of the new church of the monastery. It took place certainly on a 12th of October between 1006 and 1015. The year of the foundation received by tradition as the foundation- date, 1010, is pure conjecture.

Of the original buildings of the monastery there remains the great pile of the abbey church: the pillars and the arcades joining the nave to the aisles disappeared during the Hundred Years War, and were replaced in the nineteenth century by side chapels. Despite successive transformations which disfigured it, we can still say that the church where the prayer of the monks has been ascending for nigh on a thousand years is still that Geoffrey de Sable. If the reclining figure in the south transept which is held to represent him is considerably later, the body of the founder still rests, with members of his family and many others, both monks and benefactors, underneath the church which he had built in honour of St Peter ‘for the redemption of his soul and those of his parents, or those who went before him and those who come after him’.

The main stages of a thousand-year history

solesmesnordThe first two centuries of the history of the monastery were prosperous. The monks extended the clearance of the property and of the forest and developed the wine-growing which already then had established the reputation of the valley and was the foundation of the neighbouring villages.

After the destructions wrought by the Hundred Years War, Solesmes knew another distinguished period of its history. In the northern chapel of the transept of the church Prior Guillaume Cheminart had carved a depiction of the Burial of Christ, dated 1496, a monumental monstrance intended to hold a significant relic of the Lord’s crown of thorns brought to Solesmes in the Middle Ages and still brought out by the monks for the veneration of the faithful each year on Easter Monday. Over against this work of Dom Cheminart one of his successors, Dom Jean Bougler, had made between 1530 and 1556 an even larger iconographic presentation, the ‘Beautiful Chapel’ or ‘Our Lady the Beautiful’. This witnesses to the deep devotion to the Virgin Mary in which the decorative exuberance of the Renaissance expresses the privileged position of the Mother of God, commemorating in a particularly striking manner the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception. It is a masterpiece of French art of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but also a true pictorial theology. For many years the ‘Saints of Solesmes’ spread the renown of the Priory of Solesmes, and still today always amaze visitors and speak to their hearts.

In the course of the last two centuries of the Ancien Régime the monastery was affiliated to the Congregation of St Maurus. The conventual buildings were entirely reconstructed about 1720. This ‘Priory’ remains almost unchanged to this day, buildings in the classical style, in the continuation of which would be built at the end of the nineteenth century the new abbey whose well-known façade overlooks the Sarthe in the manner of a castle of the Middle Ages, reminding the onlooker of both the Palace of the Popes at Avignon and Mont-Saint-Michel.

The towering figure of Dom Guéranger

In 1833, after forty years of absence in consequence of the break-up at the Revolution, Dom Prosper Guéranger resumed monastic life at Solesmes with a few companions. A few years later, in 1837, the monastery was erected into an abbey and the head of the Congregation, constituted the heir of the ancient pre-Revolutionary Congregations of Cluny, Saints-Vanne-and-Hydulphe and Saint Maurus. Also at Solesmes in 1867 Dom Guéranger founded a convent, the Abbey of Saint Cecilia, with the help of a great nun, Mother Cecilia Bruyère (1845-1909), who became its first Abbess.

Dom Guéranger is the great figure who dominates the whole history of Solesmes. His work is more than a mere restoration. The Abbot of Solesmes had the real charism of a founder, and the monasticism which he presented to the Church of his day was a renewed monasticism. Dom Guéranger also played an essential role in the re-birth of Catholicism in the nineteenth century as one of the pioneers of the liturgical movement – among others by the restoration of the Gregorian chant from which the name of Solesmes has become inseparable – but also, as is less well known, by the renewal of ecclesiology. His disciples and successors, such as Dom Paul Delatte, third Abbot of Solesmes, always held the transmission of his heritage close to their hearts, making Solesmes above all a house of learning, prayer and holiness.

Since his death in 1875 Dom Guéranger rests in the crypt of the abbey church. His tomb is carved into the marble where the founder of the monastery, Geoffrey de Sable, also is buried among the benefactors and monks who have succeeded him during nearly a thousand years.

The meaning of an anniversary

In his speech given at the opening of the jubilee year, at the first Vespers of the Feast of the Dedication on the 11th October, the Abbot of Solesmes, Dom Philippe Dupont, expressed himself thus: ‘The liturgy of the Dedication concerns not only the stone building whose anniversary of dedication it celebrates. It concerns primarily the community of monks and faithful who gather there several times a day to celebrate the mysteries of the Lord. Etymologically a church (ecclesia) is the place of assembly called together by the Lord. The materials of the Church of Christ are not the physical stones but ourselves, the living stones, as the apostle Paul reminds us, “You are citizens of the holy people, members of the family of God, for you have been integrated into the building which has the apostles and prophets for its foundation; and the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself.” (Ephesians 2.19-20).’

Father Abbot continued, ‘In the same way the milleniary of Solesmes celebrates not only the stones of the abbey church, but above all the community of monks who have succeeded one another during this long period, and who have given meaning to this place by their life wholly given to God in prayer and silence, in charity and work. This milleniary is not only an anniversary giving occasion to retrace thankfully the history of the past – that is already something special – it is a jubilee year which calls us to renew ourselves in Christ, to build the Church of Christ of which we are the members. In Christ every building rises harmoniously to become a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are the building-blocks to become by the Holy Spirit the dwelling-place of God (Ephesians 2.21-23). It is this to which we are all called to serve the Kingdom of God, the Church.’

The anniversary of a thousand years of Solesmes is the occasion to give thanks for the work of successive generations of monks who have responded to the call of God in this place. Above all it is an authentic jubilee year, stretching from 11th October, 2009, to 12th October, 2010, for which the Holy Father Benedict XVI has graciously granted a plenary indulgence to be received by all the faithful who visit the abbey church and who, having received the sacrament of reconciliation and Holy Communion, there pray for the intentions of the Sovereign Pontiff. So this year offers to all who desire it the grace of a real renewal of Christian life and an ever greater attachment to the Church.

The celebration of the milleniary of Solesmes bears also an important meaning, in the same way as that of the 11th centenary of the foundation of the Abbey of Cluny, also being celebrated in 2010. First of all, this is a fine opportunity to speak of the Christian roots of our culture, largely the result of the search for God, the quaerere Deum, to which St Benedict invites monks in his Rule, as Pope Benedict XVI recalled in such a masterly fashion in his great discourse on 12th September, 2008, at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris, and on many other occasions. It is an opportunity to stress the place always so essential which the question of God holds for the world of today and for human life tomorrow. Finally, in a world where God seems to be progressively disappearing from view and where many live as though God did not exist, the simple witness which permeates monastic life, is that God is God and that in all things he must be preferred and glorified – just as St Benedict also urges us.

clochersolesmesThe 11th Centenary of the Foundation of the Abbey of Cluny

The milleniary of Solesmes coincides with the 11th centenary of Cluny, founded in 909 or 9010. The monastery of Solesmes was never affiliated in any way to the Abbey of Cluny, but the Solesmes restored by Dom Guéranger became in 1837, by the express wish of Pope Gregory XVI, the legitimate heir of Cluny. Since then the monks of Solesmes have striven to remain faithful, though certainly in a more modest way, to the great Cluniac tradition of liturgical prayer – celebrated with all the solemnity you could wish – to prayer for the dead, to works of mercy, notably with regard to the poorest of the poor, and to hospitality.

It is a happy accident that the two anniversaries, of Solesmes and of Cluny, should be celebrated in the same year, as though echoing each other. They show in their own way how monastic life has never been lacking in the Church, and that at every stage of its history monastic life is ceaselessly renewed, as Dom Guéranger liked to underline. That is why a Monastic Day has been planned at Cluny for 14th June, 2010, included in the programme of festivities both of Cluny and of Solesmes. It will join the Benedictine and Cistercian abbots of France around Mgr Rivière, Bishop of Autun, for a Mass of thanksgiving in the parish church and solemn Vespers in the ruins of Cluny III.

The history of Cluny cannot be recounted here even in a résumé, nor can the life of the monks of Cluny. The extraordinary development of this Burgundian abbey can be explained by the exceptional historical situation in which it found itself in the tenth century. But its prodigious rise can also be explained by the total liberty, both on the spiritual and on the temporal plane, which the abbey enjoyed at its origin. In fact Cluny was under the direct dependence and protection of the Church of Rome. Consequently a whole series of privileges came to be accorded to it, which amounted to the constitution of a veritable autonomous body within the Church and society, the Ecclesia cluniacensis.

Nevertheless, the greatness of Cluny, or rather ‘the secret of Cluny’ (to use the title of that splendid book by Raymond Oursel), essentially resides in an almost unbroken line of great abbots, whose long and fruitful tenures of office presided over the destinies of the abbey for nearly two and a half centuries. But definitively the great secret of Cluny, this centre of charity spreading far and wide, and making the Church and society of its time fruitful, is that there Christ was served with that preferential love for the Lord to which St Benedict still invites us today, ‘Nihil amori Christi praeponere’, to prefer nothing to the love of Christ.