Dom Gueranger: prophet of Ecclesial Renewal
A Sister of Ryde FAITH Magazine July-August 2006
One of the last acts of Pope John Paul II was to mark the occasion of the bicentenary of the birth of Dom Prosper Guéranger, who restored monastic life at Solesmes and whose writings on liturgy, ecclesiology and monastic life would leave a rich legacy from which we and the rest of the Church still draw benefit today. In a letter to the Abbot of Solesmes signed in a shaky hand and dated 23 March 2005, ten days before he died, Pope John Paul “gave thanks for the work accomplished by this religious.” Referring to the 1000 monks and nuns of the Solesmes Congregation, he desired that they
One of the lowest points in Benedictine history was at the beginning of the nineteenth century. As a result of the French Revolution and the work of Napoleon, Benedictine life on the Continent had been almost wiped out. Before the Revolution there were about 1500 Benedictine abbeys in Europe. Afterwards there were about thirty, much reduced in size and relaxed in observance. In France there were no masculine Benedictine houses at all. Renewal came because a young seminarian, Prosper Guéranger, fell in love with the early Fathers of the Church and the monastic ideal. “I have everywhere sought what was thought, done and loved in the Church in the ages of faith.” On the day of his ordination in 1827, he wandered out to the ruined Abbey of Marmoutiers:
He did not realise that he was to be one of those zealous men.
Extraordinary Appointment: Abbot of Solemnes
On 11 July 1833, after more than 40 years of eclipse, he restored monastic life at Solesmes. Just 4 years later, in 1837, the Constitutions of his fledgling community were approved by Pope Gregory XVI, who even gave him the authority to launch a Benedictine Congregation from Solesmes. After a fortnight’s retreat at St Paul’s-outside-the-walls, his first stay in a Benedictine house, he made his solemn profession and was appointed abbot of Solesmes, without ever having made a novitiate or been a simple monk. He knew monastic life only from his wide and deep reading and his instinct for monastic good sense. His understanding of monastic life was a charism in the truest sense of the word.
In an age which—if it thought about monastic life at all—focused on peripheral features such as the extremes of De Rancé’s Trappists or the intellectual work of the Maurists, Dom Gueranger went straight to the essentials: a life of prayer, obedience, frugality, withdrawal from the world in order to focus on the “one thing necessary”, lived in community under an abbot. His enthusiasm for the liturgy and the encouragement he gave to his monks in the restoration of Gregorian chant—these were not mere expressions of optional spiritual tastes but sprang from his insight into the Christian life.
Liturgy, the Spiritual Heart of the Church
For Dom Guéranger the monk is someone who tends towards God and who invites others by his example to tend towards God. The monk is a contemplative, and his contemplation, like that of the angels, expresses itself in a life of praise. In praising God, the monk is a sign to all in the Church of their primary duty to pray. According to Dom Guéranger the spiritual heart of the Christian life was the liturgical prayer of the Church. To recover the practice—and even the concept of daily prayer shaped by the liturgy—he published the first volume of L’Année Liturgique in 1841.
This work, original in form and content, is a 15-volume commentary on the texts of the Mass and Divine Office for each day of the year. Historical sketches, sermons of the Fathers, poetry and hymns from Eastern and Western liturgical sources, along with explanations of the ceremonies, draw the reader into the mysteries of Christ during the various liturgical seasons and feasts. Although the book springs from Dom Guéranger’s great erudition, his aim was to help people pray. The opening words of the first volume are as follows:
Dom Guéranger could see in his day the dangers that came from the general lack of liturgical awareness among the faithful: a narrow subjectivism, the risk of error and distortion, spiritual mediocrity. In addition, there was (and is) in unofficial prayer books the danger of inadequate or even erroneous expressions of the truths revealed by Christ to his Church. The heresies of Jansenism, for example, with their view of a distant God, impossible to please, and a Christ who died not for all but only for a special few, had been able to infect much of French Catholicism (and then repel many into violent atheism) because of the widespread use in France of 'improved' liturgical texts which had not come from Rome. To counter both these shortcomings Dom Guéranger presents the prayer of theChurch:
Tne admirer of the work was Cardinal Manning who called it “the fruit of that spirit of prayer and retreat characteristic of Benedictine life, a prolonged meditation on the wonderful order of divine worship.” Another fan, Adolphe Baudon, president of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, told Dom Guéranger that when he was in Rome during Holy week at the Sistine chapel, he saw the famous pianist Liszt following the ceremonies with L’Année Liturgique: “He was overjoyed when I told him of the forthcoming publication of the volume three of Paschaltide.”
Sainte Thérèse received her first initiation into the liturgy, Scripture and the lives of the saints through L’Année Liturgique. It was read at Buissonets, the Martin home: “During the winter evenings at Les Buissonets we used to play draughts, then the board was whisked away and you or Marie would read out some of The Liturgical Year to us followed by a few pages from some other good and fascinating book.”
Dom Guéranger’s purpose in these volumes was to deepen the understanding of liturgical texts, especially the scriptures, which he saw as the chief requirement for renewed participation. “This liturgical prayer,” he wrote in the preface, “would soon be powerless were the faithful not to take a real share in it… It can heal and save the world, but only on condition that it be understood. Be wise, then, ye children of the Catholic church, and obtain the largeness of heart which will make you pray the prayer of your Mother.” Dom Cuthbert Johnson, Abbot of Quarr, comments:
It is important to remember in all this that The Liturgical Year was the work of a monk who preferred nothing to the work of God; Dom Guéranger the liturgical theologian cannot be separated from Dom Guéranger the monk who celebrated, prayed and chanted the liturgical year in choir with his brethren before taking up the pen. “How can anyone remain cold when singing about such things?” he would exclaim when commenting on the beauty of a text. His liturgical theology happened at the altar and in the choir stalls. It was lived by a community before it was written down.
Dom Guéranger would not have become the beginning of the revival of the liturgical spirit in the church if he had remained a seminary professor. Instead he did the one thing which alone could save the liturgy from the hands of intellectuals, archaeologists and reformers: he revived the Rule of St Benedict and founded a monastic community.
The True Originator of The Liturgical Revival
He realized that before all else the liturgy had to be lived, and that the Rule of St Benedict was a practical way of life, of which the liturgy was the foundation: "Without Dom Guéranger, no Solesmes; without Solesmes, no Beuron; without Beuron, no Maredsous; without Maredsous, no Mount-César; and without these two, no Abbot Marmion and no Dom Lambert Beauduin.” In spite of extreme poverty, limited resources, many setbacks and Dom Guéranger’s fragile health, Solesmes slowly prospered, thanks to the abbot’s spirit of faith and supernatural confidence that nothing could shake. Foundations were made, at Ligugé and Marseilles. Perhaps his most successful was for women at Ste-Cécile, Solesmes.
The origin for this community lay in Dom Guéranger’s typically kind-hearted offer to undertake the First Communion preparation of a little girl who had missed making her First Communion with her class-mates because she had been ill.
The child was eleven year old Jenny Bruyère. Dom Guéranger became a family friend and to Jenny a spiritual father, helping her break out of her shyness and obstinacy and also fostering her intellectual development. In 1866 she and a few others began a community of women along the same lines as the monks of S. Pierre (The titular name of Solemnes). Jenny—or Mère Cécile as she had become—was the superior but Dom Guéranger was the novice master, visiting the little community each day to inculcate all the best of monastic tradition.
Champion of Educated Female Religious
Outsiders were surprised when he insisted that the nuns learn Latin so as to better understand what they were chanting in choir. In spite of the poverty of the community every nun was given a Bible: this is the same period as St Thérèse of Lisieux who never had a whole Bible to read.
There was the same emphasis as at S. Pierre on drawing spiritual nourishment from the purest sources—the liturgy, the Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church—and the same interior liberty of spirit. Today the Congregation of Solesmes numbers 32 monasteries, 24 houses of monks and 8 of nuns, including Quarr Abbey and St Cecilia’s Abbey on the Isle of Wight.
Dom Guéranger’s work of monastic revival radiated far beyond the confines of Solesmes. The founders of the influential Beuron Congregation in Germany studied monastic life at Solesmes before reviving it in Germany and, later, in Belgium. His ideas entered the English Congregation through another enthusiastic disciple, Dom Laurence Shepherd, monk of Ampleforth and chaplain at Stanbrook, who translated his work into English.
Through the nuns of Ste Cécile Dom Gueranger’s ideals were transmitted to the nuns of Jouarre, Stanbrook and Sainte Croix, Poitiers, among many others. But despite the many demonstrations of esteem for himself and his work, he remained deeply humble. Overhearing his secretary Dom Berengier comparing Solesmes to Cluny in front of some visiting monks, Dom Guéranger was dismayed: “You think only of playing a role, of cultivating an image! A monk must think of God and how to serve the Church.”
“The Incarnation with all its immense consequences”
At the heart of both his work on the liturgy and his monastic life was the mystery of the Incarnation. In the first constitutions Dom Guéranger wrote for his nascent community, we find these words: “Adoring the mystery of the incarnate Word with all its immense consequences, this Congregation confesses this mystery present in the Eucharist and rejoices to see it manifested under the symbol of the most loving heart of Jesus.” This devotion to the mystery of the incarnation had as its first immense consequence in the life of Dom Guéranger a great love for the Church. This was “his ruling passion”, according to Dom Laurence Shepherd, a monk of Ampleforth and Dom Guéranger’s devoted friend and disciple :
"His deep love of the Church was in fact only a consequence of his love of Christ, and, for Dom Guéranger, that is the root, the basis of every monastic vocation. To prefer nothing to the love of Christ, to follow Christ means to be attached to the Church, his Bride, his mystical Body. For Dom Guéranger there is a close and vital connection between the monastic life and the Church. “The life of a monk is intimately linked to that of the Church.
"The monastic life, like the Church itself, is a prolongation of the Incarnation: God has done nothing greater than the Incarnation of which the Church is the prolongation. Now the Church has a heart: the religious state. That is the most complete manifestation that there can be here below of the mystery of the Incarnation, by its exact reproduction of the life of Christ."
e sees St Benedict as heir to a tradition that plunges its roots into the gospel itself: “Monasticism is a form of Christianity as old as the Church herself. It was born in the East with our faith... The monk is simply someone who takes his Christianity seriously.” His devotion to the mystery of the Incarnation also underpinned his great struggle against Jansenism:
The Incarnation also lay behind Dom Gueranger‘s contributions in his Mémoire sur l’Immaculée Concéption (1854) and Monarchie Pontificale (1870) to the formulation of the two great dogmas of the nineteenth century: the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the absolute purity of the sedes sapientiae; and the infallibility of the Holy See, the absolute integrity of the cathedra sapientiae.
The Roman Church
Jansenism was also Gallican and anti-papal. Dom Guéranger’s vision of the supernatural character of the Church made him implacably opposed to the Gallicanism of recent centuries where the French Church’s claim to independence from Roman “interference” had too often degenerated into Erastianism. Like many other clerical and lay writers of his time, he sought to protect the Church against political control from both modern secular regimes and traditional Catholic monarchies by calling for dependence on papal leadership. These writers were called 'ultramontane' because they looked for leadership 'over the mountains' from Rome.
These men, like Ullathorne, Manning and Faber in this country, were responding to widespread social upheavals and frequent attacks upon the Church. It was against this background that he affirmed the Church’s universality, her unity and her liberty, because her existence and rights come from God. In all this, Dom Guéranger never confused unity and uniformity. The Church, he maintained, was a most diversified organic body, but one in which the members did not live except by being joined to the principle of unity, in the successors of Peter.
Not all ultramontanes thought alike, and Dom Guéranger’s strong attachment to the Holy See was not naïve, sentimental or blind. When in 1856 he narrowly missed being raised to the cardinalate, he wrote to his friends:
“You will never know the happiness one feels at not being made a cardinal. I think I would have died of boredom and above all, exile… I love our excellent Pius IX very much, but I love him more from afar than from near.”
Dom Guéranger was also keen to bring out the contrast between the permanence of the Church and the upheavals of nations and states. He himself had lived under six different political systems and had seen France shaken three times by revolution: “Her permanence without alteration or adulteration is the miracle of history; and it is enough to compare her with anything founded by men to realize that she is not human.”
When Dom Guéranger visited England in 1860, he called on Fr Faber who recorded the meeting in a letter:
Dom Guéranger in England
It was at Bath that Dom Laurence persuaded him to have his photo taken. From Downside they proceeded to Stanbrook, where the abbot said Mass, and then on to Birmingham where they visited John Henry Newman. One would have thought that a wonderful friendship would arise from this meeting between two men who were both so full of love for the Church, both alive to the issues of the day and both steeped in the Fathers—Dom Guéranger’s life had found its direction from his devouring the folios of the Maurists in his seminary library, while it was his studies in the Fathers which showed Newman the weakness of his Anglican position: “I saw my face in that mirror, and I was a monophysite.” In fact, the meeting was a non-event. To all the Abbot’sconversational overtures, Newman was “unresponsive” answering only in monosyllables, according to Dom Laurence.
From Birmingham, Dom Laurence and Dom Guéranger went on to York where they met Bishop Ullathorne who had missed them in Birmingham. The bishop regaled the abbot with Irish anecdotes in French. The abbot laughed heartily, noted Dom Laurence “not at the Irish wit but at the good bishop’s French.”
The tour ended in London where they were the guests of Manning and visited Faber. Their conducted tour of Westminster Abbey caused some anxiety to Dom Laurence, as Dom Guéranger expressed his feelings by kicking the tomb of Elizabeth I, and praying at Mary Stuart’s and that of Edward the Confessor. It was in his habit that he visited the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and the Tower, claiming proudly that “it was the first time that a monk in his habit has been in these places since the Reformation.”
A Cheerful Spontaneous Soul
To many of his contemporaries who knew him only from his writing, Dom Guéranger seemed solemn and imposing. Mgr Fayette Bishop of Orleans, with whom Dom Guéranger had often crossed swords over liturgical questions, spoke of his impressions of the Abbot of Solesmes to a Jesuit who knew him well:
“I’m sorry my Lord, he is actually rather short , and plump rather than thin.”
“But at least he is dark, with jet-black hair, and looks stern and humourless?”
“I regret to tell your Lordship that Dom Guéranger is very fair, with blue eyes, a constant smile, and that he is full of life and extremely amiable.”
He loved variety and was the sworn enemy of uniformity and rigidity. “He made an excellent Benedictine,” wrote a childhood friend, “but he would have been a terrible soldier.” He cautioned Dom Maurus Wolter against the temptation of turning Beuron into a German Solesmes, insisting that local conditions should be seen as an expression of God’s will. Later he resisted all attempts at centralizing the Benedictine Order: “What makes for the strength of the Jesuits would be our danger… A monastery is a living being. The day we become centralized will be the end of all possible reform; living spontaneity will be destroyed, only to be replaced by administrative machinery, perfect in its way, which might imitate life, but which would not be true life.”
A Tender, Loving Superior
He was wholly devoted to those in his care, admitting that “I am often more like a mother than a father.” At his funeral one of his monks, Dom Lemenant des Chesnais, prior of the monastery at Marseilles, said, “Each of us believed himself uniquely loved by him.” His door was always open to his monks, and one recalled how, as a young abbot, he did not hesitate to kneel and ask pardon when he lost patience. “When I get to heaven,” he used to say, “God will not ask me whether I have written books, but whether I have taken care of the souls entrusted to me... Love alone will give you the inexhaustible resources with which to lead them to God,” he counselled a convent superior.
The Human Touch
As a consequence of his ability to “plumb the depths of the heart” as one retreatant described Dom Guéranger, and by his sympathy and affection towards all, he exerted an influence over a large and varied circle that included men and women, young and old, the marble cutters whose works were near the abbey, the foremost spirits of the Catholic revival—Montalembert, Lacordaire, Louis Veuillot, Alfred de Falloux, Joseph de Maistre, to name but a few. It was after a retreat to Solesmes and with Dom Guéranger’s encouragement that Lacordaire decided to restore the Dominican order in France. St. Pierre Julien Eymard, founder of the Blessed Sacrament Fathers, was also a frequent visitor who sought out the abbot’s counsel.
That Dom Guéranger was well aware of the human condition is shown by remarks such as this in a prayer to the Holy Spirit:
Worn out by his work and unflagging devotion, Dom Guéranger died on 30 January 1875, less than 70 years old. On learning the news of the death of the Abbot of Solesmes, Pope Pius IX declared, “I have lost a devoted friend, and the Church a great servant.” He paid a remarkable tribute to his life and work in a Brief addressed to the whole Church: “Among the men of our time who have been most distinguished for their devotion, zeal and learning no one has more right to acknowledgement than Prosper Guéranger.”
His last work was for Benedictine oblates, The Church or Society of Divine Praise. The day before his death he gave his last conference to the nuns of Ste Cécile. His body rests in the crypt of the abbey church at Solesmes; his heart, at his request, was placed at the foot of the altar at Ste Cécile. His cause has been introduced.
Our time needs Dom Guéranger as much as his own. In an age when spirituality too often succumbs to psychology or sentiment, Dom Guéranger’s perception of the great panorama of the divine plan, of the sanctifying value of the liturgy, as well as his great love for the Church makes him a prophet for our time:
Dom Guéranger‘s Liturgical Year in English has been reissued by The Saint Austin Press in 15 cloth bound, sewn volumes, complete with dust jacket and ribbons.
If you can read French, the best biography of Dom Guéranger is that by Dom Guy-Marie Oury of Solesmes, Dom Guéranger: Moine au coeur de l’Eglise (Editions Solesmes, 2000); though most scholarly it is full of interest and has lots of pictures. The only biography in English is Dom Louis Soltner’s Solesmes and Dom Guéranger, translated by Joseph O’Connor (Massachusetts, Paraclete Press, 1995) shorter and with no pictures but a useful introduction.
Much biographical material, however, together with pictures, is to be found in Sr Mary David Totah’s book, The Spirit of Solesmes (Burns & Oates, 1997, 266 pages) available from St Cecilia’s Abbey for £10. The Spirit of Solesmes is an anthology of the writings of Dom Guéranger, his second successor Dom Delatte,8 and his pre-eminent disciple, Abbess Cécile Bruyère. The Gifts of the Holy Spirit (St Paul’s Publications, 1998) combines in 141 pages two sets of reflections on the gifts, one by Dom Guéranger and the other by the former Archbishop of Milan and well-known spiritual writer, Cardinal Martini.
Dom Guéranger’s On the Immaculate Conception, written four years before the definition of the dogma in 1854, is about to appear for the first time in English. (St Michael’s Abbey Press, Farnborough).
 Where St Martin had founded the first monastery in Gaul in 372; it remained a monastic site until the Revolution.
 It would seem that the source of image of the eagle—a key image of her little way and which takes up much of Mss B of her autobiography, was taken from The Liturgical Year (cf. Oeuvres completes (Cerf, ) p. 1279, note 63). For the feast of St Alexis, Dom Gueranger wrote that “it is not necessary to pretend to equal the saints but to be inspired by their example... Although we are not commanded to follow the Saints to the extremities where their heroic virtue leads them, nevertheless, they still guide us along the easier paths of the plain. As the eagle upon the orb of day, they fixed their unflinching gaze upon the Sun of Justice; and irresistibly attracted by his divine splendour, they poised their flight far above the cloudy region wherewe are glad to screen our feeble eyes. But however varied be the degrees of brightness for them and for us, the light itself is unchangeable, provided that, like them, we draw it from an authentic source.” (Time after Pent Vol. 4, p,125.)
 Cuthbert Johnson, OSB, Analecta Liturgica 9: Prosper Guéranger (1805-1975): A Liturgical Theologian, Studia Anselmiana 89 (Rome: Pontificio Ateneo S Anselmo, 1984), p. 350.
 Damasus Winzen, “Gueranger and the Liturgical Movement,” The American Benedictine Review 6 (Winter 1955-56): 424-26.
5 Pope John Paul II in Vita Consecrata also presented the consecrated life as a special way of living out the Incarnation, “that form of life which He, as Son of God, accepted on entering this world” (16). The consecrated life is a “Christi-form life”; it constitutes “a living memorial of Jesus’ way of living and acting as the Incarnate Word in relation to the Father and in relation to the brethren. It is a living tradition of the Saviour’s life and message” (22)
 Apologia pro vita sua.
 St Paul’s Publications, 1998.
 The second abbot of Solesmes, Dom Couturier, had been Dom Guéranger’s trusted prior and in turn had had the vision to make the young Dom Delatte his own prior. After the monks had been violently expelled from the monastery in 1880 (with Dom Couturier himself dragged from his choir-stall by the police) he held the community together and even saw it grow, but in the circumstances had no time for writing.