Bruno shows us that true life in the following of Christ means putting ourselves in his hands, expressing in self-abandon a surplus of love.
Am I the only Catholic dad who wanted a boy named Bruno?
Like many couples, Nancy and I were sometimes at odds when it came to baby names. Our first was going to be baptized Maximilian Kolbe, but I made a last minute plea for “Benedict Joseph,” and our son was subsequently named for the homeless saint of Rome. Yet “Bruno” was rejected for our second son (too many circus and pop culture associations) as was “Edmund” (too many Narnia associations). And for the girls? “Walburga” was right out, despite my intense affection for the saint’s monastic legacy.
When God did bless us with a girl, however, we managed to swiftly settle on a namesake: Joan of Arc. One of our first dates had included a visit to the Cathedral in Pittsburgh where there is shrine dedicated to the warrior-maiden saint. Even at that early stage in our relationship, we boldly prayed before the stunning life-size statue of St. Joan regarding our possible united future – even asking that, were we to be married, that we’d be blessed with a girl with Joan’s fortitude and noble spirit. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened, and there’s no question that our Joan does her namesake proud in the chutzpah department.
So, why not Bruno for a boy? Could there be a better model of saintly derring-do?
St. Bruno was the founder of the Carthusians, an order of hermit-monks. He had received an education commensurate with a privileged upbringing, and later spent some time as a canon and teacher in Rheims. Bruno met with great temporal success, but he was reluctant to linger in the upper echelons of society for very long. Consequently, after turning down a bishopric, he embraced the cenobitic (communal) monasticism advocated by St. Robert of Molesme, founder of the Cistercians, although even this did not satisfy his longing for solitude.
Eventually Bruno made his way to the forested wilderness of the Alpine Chartreuse Mountains, and in 1084 he and a few followers blended Benedictine-style communalism with rigorous eremitic separation in their establishment of the Grande Chartreuse – the origin of the Carthusians in name and practice.
Unlike the Camaldolese, a reformed branch of the Benedictines that similarly combined cenobitic and eremitic elements, Bruno’s company of hermits did not live under a rule. Instead, the saint himself became a living rubric for his experimental foundation, and a steady trickle of new adherents were attracted by his radical example of single-minded devotion.
Bruno and his disciples lived, worked, and prayed in complete isolation throughout most of the week, coming together only on Sundays to celebrate the Eucharist and share a common meal. It sounds severe and even unhealthy to our modern sensibilities, but to Bruno and his crew, it was liberating. “Only those who have experienced the solitude and silence of the wilderness can know what benefit and divine joy they bring to those who love them,” he wrote enticingly to a friend. “There, God gives his athletes the reward they desire: a peace that the world does not know and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
Unfortunately, even as Bruno and his confreres flourished in the desert, the fabric of the Church’s hierarchy frayed, especially the papacy. Odo of Lagery, a former student of Bruno’s, became Pope Urban II in 1088, and he immediately faced numerous challenges to his authority and reforms. Urban knew of his old teacher’s thriving religious venture, and the Pope decided that a spiritual warrior was exactly the kind of ally he wanted at his side. Such was the request he made of the solitary Bruno in 1090, and the saint dutifully complied.
An antipope with considerable secular backing had usurped the throne of Peter in Rome, and so Pope Urban, along with Bruno and some other loyal companions, took refuge in southern Italy which was then controlled by sympathetic Normans. Obliged by the Holy Father’s insistence that Bruno stay close by, the erstwhile hermit founded another community, Santa Maria of La Torre, in Calabria. It is there that Bruno passed away, himself a monk in exile, on October 6, 1101.
This is the context for my particular enthusiasm for Bruno as a template for gutsy Christianity. He wanted God, period – and no manner of circumstance or interruption diverted him from that goal. Bruno had hungrily sought out a sequestered life in the outback because he was sure it was the best path to God, but the Lord had other plans in mind for him: removal from his secluded foundation, and attachment to a bustling papal court. Sure, he was disappointed, and he regularly begged the pontiff to allow him to return to the wilderness. When that didn’t happen, however, Bruno simply revised his game plan to correspond with the situation in which providence landed him.
It’s an outstanding illustration of a spiritual principle described by St. Francis de Sales. “You wish to take up the Cross,” de Sales wrote to Jane de Chantal, “but you want to choose your Cross.” Francis gently corrects his correspondent – and us:
No, my dear daughter; I desire that your Cross and mine may be solely the Cross of Christ; and as to its kind, or the way it is laid upon us, God know what He does, and why: it is all for our good.
That’s precisely what Bruno modeled for his community: a holy self-abandonment that wasn’t tied to a particular way of life or spiritual regimen. Whether in the rough austerity of the desert or the politically charged atmosphere of a royal court, Bruno lived out a detachment from the world that facilitated a laser focus on Christ. “Bruno deserves to be praised for many things,” his Calabrian confreres testified, “but especially for this: his life was always the same. That was typical of him.”
It became typical of his heirs as well. “More than any others,” his spiritual sons wrote on receiving news of his death, “we are afflicted and deprived of our consolation by the death of our beloved father. How is it possible to put limits on what we will do for this holy soul, so dear to us?” In addition to praying for the repose of Bruno’s soul, the aggrieved Carthusian family doubled down on their founder’s unique vision of religious life, seeking out the hidden places of the world so that they could expend themselves completely in quiet contemplation – no holds barred! Even so, the world wouldn’t leave them alone, and they, like their master, were challenged to heroically accept crosses they had not sought out.
Heroically? A bunch of hermit monks? Consider the example the English Carthusians of the sixteenth century – some four hundred years after the passing of their saintly founder. They, like all followers of St. Bruno, sought a life of solitude, despite their urban Charterhouse (a corruption of the word “Chartreuse”) in the midst of the London metropolis. When Henry VIII threw down the gauntlet of his ecclesial hegemony over Britain in 1534, the entire London Charterhouse steadfastly refused to submit and unabashedly asserted their fealty to the Holy See. As a result, three Carthusian priests were among the first to be martyred under King Henry’s authority in 1535, and by 1540 the entire community of eighteen men had been executed for their refusal to recant their Catholic allegiance.
So, yes, heroic hermit-monks, but what of us? Does self-abandonment to the crosses God might choose for us mean exile and execution?
Probably not, but heroism nonetheless – even for us clock-punching, mini-van driving, khaki-wearing dads. That’s why Pope Francis used the word “brave” when he spoke of inviting young people “to opt for marriage and the family.” The Holy Father has no illusions about marriage and family life – he knows it takes radical commitment and hard, often exhausting work. In truth, it takes a self-abandonment very much like St. Bruno’s, because there’s no telling what can happen once the vows are made. “We are not speaking about some romantic dream,” Francis explained. “The perseverance which is called for in having a family and raising it transforms the world and human history.”
And that’s a heroic legacy I hope to leave my own sons – regardless of their names.