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An Attempt to Change: Reform Movements in the Early Middle Ages

Watch Week Two Day One

Last week we saw the church and state join hands with the coronation of Charlemagne. In the centuries that followed, if often looked as if the church had gotten so caught up in her dealings with the kingdoms of the world that she’d forgotten her job to prepare for Christ’s kingdom. Fortunately, not everyone was happy with that state of affairs. Reform names what happens when those unhappy people, through God’s Spirit, renew the church to cleanse her of corrupt or empty practices. Today we’ll take a look at a monastery, a monk, and a pope who strove to do just that.

A Monestary

In AD 910 a duke in France decided he wanted to start a monastery that would exist under the authority of the pope instead of under local politics. Along with its different political setup, that monastery, named Cluny, also sought reform by focusing on worship. At one point, they were reading almost the entire book of Psalms in a day. The initial monastery at Cluny exerted a reforming influence on a number of monasteries around it. While the individual monks didn’t own much, with time the monasteries themselves accumulated a sizable amount of wealth from a variety of donors. While this unfortunately led to corruption and decline, overall Cluny and the Cluniac reformers offered hope for reformation in the church at a time when it looked its most corrupt.

A Monk

A man named Bernard of Clairvaux served as a persuasive public figure for another monastic movement, the Cistercians, who had been inspired by the monastery at Cluny.Bernard made the mistake of offering support for the crusades, but he also served as a “promoter of spirituality, author of hymns, defender of orthodoxy, and assistant to popes.” In his public engagement with both political and religious leaders, he demonstrated a type of monastic reform that engaged with the world instead of fleeing from it. Instead of living the stereotypical monk’s life as a quiet recluse who reads and prays in the confines of his cell, Bernard chose to have messy conversations and opinions on worldly a airs, even the crusades. That is likely what he meant when he said: “The story of Martha and Mary in the Gospel shows that the contemplative life is to be preferred. Mary chose the better part . . . But Martha’s part, if that is our lot, must be borne with patience.”

A Pope

One proponent of reform even landed in the office of the pope. In 1073 a monk named Hildebrand took on the papal name Gregory VII. One of his major pieces of reform was to get rid of a practice known as lay investiture, which allowed civil leaders to appoint bishops who served their own interests. The emperor at the time, Henry IV, wasn’t happy when Gregory got rid of lay investiture, and Henry refused to comply. The two men spent years wielding their powers to try to force each other to acquiesce. In the end, Gregory excommunicated Henry, and Henry found his support eroded. In his lifetime, Gregory achieved his goal of trying to move the church from the influence of political control.

Within all three of these men—Cluny, Bernard, and Gregory VII—we see sin and righteousness waging a battle, just as Paul promised (Romans 7:21–25). Cluny desired purity of worship—and great wealth. Bernard desired engagement with the world—and violence toward his enemies. Gregory VII desired church to be free of politics—and to win at all costs. If you are currently a part of a reform movement, what are you doing to ensure that Christ is exalted before yourself and the desires of your flesh?


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In your own life, how do you see sin and righteousness at war?

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