Feast of St. Bruno


Young and smart, Bruno was a rising star of eleventh-century European culture. A master at Rheims, he taught grammar and poetry, then philosophy and theology. He became head of Rheims before age thirty. The most promising young men flocked to be Bruno’s pupils. Praises were heaped on him: He is “a gem of wisdom, a luminary of the Churches.” “His outstanding wisdom is the subject of universal praises—his command of language excels Virgil’s, Plato’s renown pales beside Bruno’s.” The sun shined brightly on young Bruno during the climax of Europe’s dark ages.

But all that would change for Bruno.

His archbishop died and was succeeded by Manasses, a warped soul who obtained the see by simony. Bruno tried to work with him, but Manasses sold benefices and sold church property. Bruno opposed him. Manasses confiscated Bruno’s property. And Bruno left for exile.

After a Church council condemned Manasses, Bruno returned to his former position. But it no longer held allure for him.

Although Bruno had always been a devout man, something happened during his period of exile when his earthly life had fallen apart. He lived for awhile with two friends, Radulphus Viridis (Ralph Green) and Fulcius Monoculus (Fulk One-Eye). They talked about the world’s deceitful pleasures, something Bruno must have acutely felt at that moment in his life. They vowed to leave the world and embrace he monastic life.

So Bruno returned to his academic duties, but left after only one year. He and six companions looked for a place to pursue a quiet, contemplative life. After a few years, they settled at a wild solitary spot called the Chartreuse. There they lived in poverty, self-denial, and silence, each apart in his own cell, employing themselves by copying books. Bruno thus started the Carthusians, an order called to a life vastly different than Bruno’s young life as a rising star.

The Carthusian life of St. Bruno obviously contrasts severely with the modern life. The Carthusian lived largely by himself; the Modern lives a life constantly among others. The Carthusian devoted his life to prayer; the Modern prays, if at all, only when he gets a chance. The Carthusian had no possessions; the Modern has many possessions. The Carthusian wanted no possessions; the Modern desires more and more possessions. It would never occur to the good Carthusian to dream of more possessions, whereas such dreams keep the Modern humming.
But on this last point the Carthusian and Modern have a common ground, though it’s rarely realized, a common ground shared by all men: The desire for nothing.

The Modern concocts imaginary needs and strong desires. Most people have always done this. It is a fundamental aspect of our crazy existence as immortal creatures in mortal bodies, as creatures living in a finite world but called to the Infinite Lord. We are fed signals for the divine—which can be nothing less than the signal for “more”—and our bodily-influenced psyche interprets it as a signal for more earthly things, whether it be money, reputation, or any one of thousands of earthly desires or perceived needs.

Dreams mentally satisfy this relentless stream of desires and needs. We intuitively think that the dreams, if attained, would satisfy the yearning for more. Once attained, we think we will be secure, in want of nothing, the restless craving satisfied once and for all.

For this reason, the dream for everything is really a dream for nothing. Even the dream for material wealth is a dream for nothing. When Jesus told the rich young man to sell all he had, Jesus intended, in the words of Clement of Alexandria, that the young man “drive from the soul the vain thoughts about wealth, the excitement and distress related to it, the worries that are the thorns of existence and that suffocate the seed of life.” This is the meaning of spiritual poverty.

Ironically, spiritual poverty is the state of mind desired by the restless and ambitious man who dreams of great wealth. The wealthy person (in theory) has no needs and therefore desires nothing: Having all, he has no need to desire; he has no want. The dream for everything is just a mutated form of religion’s call to spiritual poverty. The wealthy man, in our imaginations (and only in our imaginations, for a spiritual gift like poverty cannot be obtained solely through material means), detached from the world like a serene Carthusian monk.

There are numerous repercussions of this irony.

First, the most-obsessed success monger is merely the ignorant flipside of St. Francis of Assisi. The monger is seeking the same thing sought by St. Francis, but in the dumbest way possible. Spiritual poverty is reachable by anyone, anywhere, in any state of wealth.

In a related vein, material wealth cannot bring the presumed and desired peaceful state of mind. The peaceful state of mind is a spiritual state that cannot be attained solely by material means. If you spend years striving for material security, you may reach your goal, but be no closer to spiritual poverty, and therefore no closer to the underlying goal you thought you would attain by accomplishing your overt goal. The serene rich man—a rarity—is the man who earned great wealth, but then realized that it did not bring peace (i.e., spiritual poverty), and so he sought it elsewhere. The rich man has that advantage over the rest of us (he experiences the vacuity of wealth, and therefore is not charmed by its allures and therefore is better able to dispatch the ambitions and restlessness stirred-up by the prospects of wealth), but we are more blessed if we attain this understanding without the experience. If nothing else, we can start experiencing spiritual poverty now, without spending the next years striving for material wealth first, and thereby spinning our wheels in pursuit of our true goal.

And, perhaps more importantly in this age of mass dreaming and imagination, it should be remembered that, when dreams collapse, you shouldn’t collapse with them. A dream is a solace, a balm over a desire that is not satisfied and is burning a hole in you. A dream, even if fulfilled, is not a cure for the burning desire because another desire will take its place. When the dream collapses, shrug it off and accept the spiritual poverty that you’ve sought all along, the poverty you could have had years ago if you weren’t seeking it in all the wrong places, the spiritual poverty that Bruno obtained when he finally left his worldly wealth behind in favor of the Chartreuse.