Peter the Venerable

Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis.

Weekly General Audience October 14, 2009

During his general audience on Oct. 14, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about Peter the Venerable, a prominent Churchman from the early 12th century who served as abbot of the Abbey of Cluny. His life was characterized by a contemplative spirit, inner tranquility and rigorous asceticism, combined with a capacity for warm friendships.

Peter nourished a deep love for God and for his neighbor, including those outside the Church, especially Jews and Muslims. He also fostered devotion to the Eucharist and to the Blessed Virgin Mary. His theology was rooted in prayer, which he passed on to his fellow monks.

Dear brothers and sisters,

Peter the Venerable, whom I would like to speak about in today’s catechesis, takes us back to the famous Abbey of Cluny in all its decorum (decor) and splendor (nitor) — to use some terms that recur in texts referring to Cluny itself.

This decorum and splendor was admired, above all, in the beauty of its liturgies and in the extraordinary way its monks reached out to God. However, above and beyond these aspects, Peter the Venerable is a reminder to us of the holiness that was characteristic of the abbots of Cluny.

At Cluny, “there was not a single abbot who was not a saint,” Pope Gregory VII affirmed in 1080. Among them is Peter the Venerable, who embodied some aspect of all the virtues of his predecessors, even though under his direction Cluny was beginning to experience symptoms of a crisis as new religious orders like the one at Citeaux arose.

Peter is an admirable example of a man who was rigorously ascetic with himself yet understanding toward others.

His Life

Born in 1094 in the Auvergne region of France, Peter entered the monastery of Sauxillanges as a child, where he became a professed monk and eventually prior. In 1122, he was elected abbot of Cluny, a position he held until his death on Christmas Day in 1156, the day on which he always hoped to die.

“A lover of peace,” his biographer Rudolph wrote, “he attained peace in the glory of God on the day of peace” (Vita, I, 17; PL 189, 28).

Everyone who knew him praised his dignified meekness, peaceful equilibrium, self-control, righteousness, loyalty, lucidity and his special aptitude for mediation.

“It is in my particular nature,” he wrote, “to be somewhat lenient, which comes from my habit of forgiving. It is my custom to tolerate and forgive” (Ep. 192, in: The Letters of Peter the Venerable, Harvard University Press, 1967, p. 446).

He went on to say: “With those who hate peace, we wish, as much as possible, to be always peaceful” (Ep. 100, l.c., p. 261). “I am not among those who are not happy with their lot …” he wrote about himself, “whose spirit is always anxious or doubtful and who lament because others rest while they are the only ones at work” (Ep. 182, p. 425).

With his sensitive and affectionate disposition, he was able to combine his love for the Lord with tenderness towards his family members, especially his mother, and towards his friends. He cultivated friendships, especially with his monks, who regularly confided in him because they were certain of being heard and understood.

According to the testimony of his biographer, “he despised and rejected no one” (Vita, I,3: PL 189,19), and “he appeared amiable to everyone. In his innate goodness, he was open to everyone” (ibid., I,1: PL, 189,17).

This saintly abbot serves as an example for monks and for other Christians even today, with its frenetic pace of life in which episodes of intolerance and a lack of communication, as well as division and conflict, occur so frequently.

His witness is an invitation to unite our love of God with love for our neighbor and to never cease renewing bonds of brotherhood and solidarity.

This is what Peter the Venerable did when he was responsible for guiding the monastery at Cluny during a period that was far from peaceful due to a variety of reasons both within and outside the abbey. He managed to be strict yet endowed with deep kindness.

“One can get more from a man by tolerating him than by irritating him with complaints,” he would say (Ep. 172, l.c., p. 409).

Because of his position, he had to make frequent trips to Italy, England, Germany and Spain. Being forced to abandon his quiet contemplative life was a burden for him.

“I go from one place to another. It leaves me breathless, makes me uneasy, and torments me to travel here and there,” he confessed. “My mind wanders, beginning with my own problems before wandering off to those of others, causing great agitation within my soul” (Ep. 91, l.c., p. 233).

Even though he had to navigate the powers and the potentates that surrounded Cluny, he succeeded in preserving his habitual sense of peace thanks to his moderation, magnanimity and realism.

Bernard of Clairvaux, with whom he maintained an ever-growing friendship despite their differences in temperament and perspective, was among those to whom he related.

Bernard called him “an important man occupied with doing important things” and held him in great esteem (Ep. 147, ed. Scriptorium Claravallense, Milano 1986, VI/1, pp. 658-660).

He described Bernard as a “beacon of the Church” (Ep. 164, p. 396) and “a sturdy and splendid pillar of the monastic order and of the entire Church” (Ep. 175, p. 418).

Concern for All People

With his deep ecclesial sensitivity, Peter the Venerable affirmed that the everyday experiences of Christian people must be experienced “in the depths of the heart” by all those who consider themselves to be “members of the body of Christ” (Ep. 164, l.c., p. 397).

He went on to say: “Those who are not nourished by the spirit of Christ do not feel the wounds of the body of Christ” wherever they may occur (ibid.). Moreover, he showed a great care and concern for people outside the Church, particularly Jews and Muslims.

In order to better understand Muslims, he arranged for a translation of the Quran.

“Amid the intransigence of men of the Middle Ages, even the greatest of them,” a modern-day historian has noted in this regard, “we admire here a sublime example of the meekness to which Christian charity leads” (J. Leclercq, Pietro il Venerabile, Jaca Book, 1991, p. 189).

A love for the Eucharist and a devotion to the Virgin Mary were other aspects of Christian life that the saint loved dearly. He has left us some writing on the Blessed Sacrament that is “one of the masterpieces of Eucharistic literature of all time” (ibid., p. 267).

He wrote some enlightening reflections on the Mother of God, in which he contemplates her in close relation with Jesus the Redeemer and his work of salvation. We need only consider the following inspired prayer that he wrote: “Hail, Blessed Virgin, who has made the curse flee away. Hail, Mother of the Most High, Spouse of the Gentle Lamb. You conquered the serpent, and you crushed his head when the God to whom you gave birth annihilated him. ... Shining Star of the east that puts the darkness from the west in flight, Dawn that precedes the sun, Day that does not know night. ... Pray to God whom you bore that he may absolve us of our sins and, after forgiving us, grant us grace and glory” (Carmina, PL 189, 1018-1019).

Peter the Venerable also had a passion for literature, for which he also had a talent. He used to write down all his reflections, convinced that it was important to use the pen somewhat like a plow in order to “sow on paper the seed of the Gospel” (Ep. 20, p. 38).

Rooted in Prayer

Although he was not a systematic theologian, he had, nonetheless, a great curiosity regarding the mystery of God.

His theology has its roots in prayer, especially liturgical prayer. Among the mysteries of Christ, he had a preference for the mystery of the Transfiguration, which prefigures the Resurrection.

In fact, it was he who introduced this feast to Cluny, composing a special office for it, which reflects the theological piety that is characteristic of Peter and the monastic order at Cluny and which is focused on contemplating the glorious face (gloriosa facies) of Christ, finding therein a reason for the ardent joy that was characteristic of his spirit and that was reflected in the liturgy at the monastery.

Dear brothers and sisters, this holy monk is certainly a great example of monastic holiness, nourished at the fount of the Benedictine tradition.

For Peter the Venerable, the ideal for monks to follow consists in “tenacious adherence to Christ” (Ep. 53, l.c., p. 161) through a cloistered life characterized by “monastic humility” (ibid.), hard work (Ep. 77, l.c., p. 211), as well as an atmosphere of silent contemplation and constant praise of God.

The primary and most important activity of a monk, according to Peter of Cluny, was the solemn celebration of the Divine Office, “the heavenly work which is most useful of all” (Statuta, I, 1026), which was to be accompanied by reading, meditation, personal prayer and the practice of penance that was observed with discretion (see Ep. 20, l.c., p. 40).

In this way, all of life is pervaded by a deep love for God and by a love for others, a love that is expressed in a sincere openness to one’s neighbor, in forgiveness, and in the quest for peace.

In conclusion, we can say that this lifestyle, associated with daily work, represents the ideal for monks, according to St. Benedict. Yet it can, to a large extent, also represent a lifestyle for all Christians who wish to become true disciples of Christ, characterized by their own tenacious adherence to him through humility, hard work and a capacity for forgiveness and peace.

Register translation

Representing the Holy Spirit that descended “like a dove” and hovered over Jesus when he was baptized.

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