Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Bruno, Confessor, Founder of the Carthusians

[Saint Bruno]Article

A.D. 1101

The most pious and learned Cardinal Bona, one of the greatest lights, not only of the Cistercian Order, but of the whole church, speaking of the Carthusian monks, of whose institute Saint Bruno was the founder, calls them, “the great miracles of the world; men living in the flesh as out of the flesh; the angels of the earth, representing John the Baptist in the wilderness; the principal ornament of the church; eagles soaring up to heaven, whose state is justly preferred to the institutes of all other religious Orders.” Saint Bruno was descended of an ancient and honourable family, and born at Cologn, not after the middle of the eleventh century, as some mistake, but about the year 1030, as the sequel of his life demonstrates. In his infancy he seemed above the usual weaknesses of that age, and nothing childish ever appeared in his manners. His religious parents hoping to secure his virtue by a good education, placed him very young in the college of the clergy of Saint Cunibert’s church, where he gave extraordinary proofs of his piety, capacity, and learning, insomuch that Saint Anno, then bishop of Cologn, preferred him to a canonry in that church. He was yet young when he left Cologn, and went to Rheims for his greater improvement in his studies, moved probably by the reputation of the school kept by the clergy of that church. 2 Bruno was received by them with great marks of distinction. He took in the whole circle of the sciences; was a good poet for that age, but excelled chiefly in philosophy and theology, so that these titles of poet, philosopher, and divine, were given him by contemporary writers by way of eminence, and he was regarded as a great master and model of the schools. The historians of that age speak still with greater admiration of his singular piety. 3 Heriman, canon and scolasticus of Rheims, resigning his dignities, and renouncing the world to make the study of true wisdom his whole occupation, Gervasius, who was made archbishop of Rheims in 1056, made Bruno scholasticus, to which dignity then belonged the direction of the studies and all the great schools of the diocess. The prudence and extraordinary learning of the saint shone with great lustre in this station; in all his lessons and precepts he had chiefly in view to conduct men to God, and to make them know and respect his holy law. Many eminent scholars in philosophy and divinity did him honour by their proficiency and abilities, and carried his reputation into distant parts; among these Odo became afterwards cardinal bishop of Ostia, and at length pope, under the name of Urban II. Robert of Burgundy, bishop of Langres, brother to two dukes of Burgundy, and grandson to King Robert; Rangier, cardinal archbishop of Reggio, (after Saint Bruno had refused that dignity,) and many other learned prelates and abbots of that age mention it as a particular honour and happiness, that they had been Bruno’s scholars. Such was his reputation that he was looked upon as the light of churches, the doctor of doctors, the glory of the two nations of Germany and France, the ornament of the age, the model of good men, and the mirror of the world, to use the expressions of an ancient writer. He taught a considerable time in the church of Rheims; and is said, by the author of his life to have been a long time the support of that great diocess; by which expression he seems to have borne the weight of the spiritual government under the archbishop Gervasius. That prelate dying in 1067, Manasses I. by open simony got possession of that metropolitical church, and oppressed it with most tyrannical vexations and enormities. Bruno retained under him his authority and dignities, particularly that of chancellor of the diocess, in which office he signed with him the charter of the foundations of Saint Martin aux Jumeaux, and some other deeds of donations to monasteries. Yet he vigorously opposed his criminal projects. Hugh of Die, the pope’s legate, summoned Manasses to appear at a council which he held at Autun in 1077, and upon his refusing to obey the summons, declared him suspended from his functions. Saint Bruno, Manasses the provost, and Poncius, a canon of Rheims, accused him in this council; in which affair our saint behaved with so much prudence and piety, that the legate writing to the pope, exceedingly extolled his virtue and wisdom, styling him the most worthy doctor of the church of Rheims, 4 and recommending him to his holiness as one excellently qualified to give him good counsel, and to assist him in the churches of France in promoting the cause of God. The simoniacal usurper, exasperated against the three canons who appeared in the council against him, caused their houses to be broken open and plundered, and sold their prebends. The persecuted canons took refuge in the castle of the count of Rouci, and remained there till August 1078, as appears by a letter which the simoniacal archbishop at that time wrote against them to the pope.

Before this time Saint Bruno had concerted the project of his retreat, of which he gives the following account in his letter to Raoul or Ralph, provost of Rheims, to which dignity he was raised in 1077, upon the resignation of Manasses. Saint Bruno, this Ralph, and another canon of Rheims named Fulcius, in a conversation which they had one day together in one Adam’s garden, discoursed on the vanity and false pleasures of the world, and on the joys of eternal life, and being strongly affected with their serious reflections, promised one another to forsake the world. They deferred the execution of this engagement till Fulcius should return from Rome, whither he was going; and he being detained there, Ralph slackened in his resolution, and continuing at Rheims, was afterwards made archbishop of that see. But Bruno persevered in his resolution of embracing a state of religious retirement. Serious meditation increased in him daily his sense of the inestimable happiness of a glorious eternity, and his abhorrence of the world. Thus he forsook it in a time of the most flattering prosperity, when he enjoyed in it riches, honours, and the favour of men, and when the church of Rheims was ready to choose him archbishop in the room of Manasses, who had been then convicted of simony and deposed. He resigned his benefice, quitted his friends, and renounced whatever held him in the world, and persuaded some of his friends to accompany him into solitude, who were men of great endowments and virtue, and who abundantly made up the loss of his two first companions in this design; he seems first to have retired to Reciac or Roe, a fortified town and castle on the Axona or Aisne in Champagne, the seat of Count Ebal, who had zealously joined Saint Bruno and others in opposing the impiety of Manasses. After some time he went to Cologn, his native country; and some time after, was called back to his canonry at Rheims; but making there a very short stay, he repaired to Saisse-Fontaine, in the diocess of Langres, where he lived some time with some of his scholars and companions. Two of these, named Peter and Lambert, built there a church, which was afterwards united to the abbey of Molesme.

In this solitude Bruno, with an earnest desire of aiming at true perfection in virtue, considered with himself, and deliberated with his companions, what it was best for him to do, spending his time in the exercises of holy solitude, penance, and prayer. He addressed himself for advice to a monk of great experience and sanctity, that is, to Saint Robert, abbot of Molesme, who exhorted him to apply to Hugh, bishop of Grenoble, who was truly a servant of God, and a person better qualified than any other to assist him in his design. 5 Saint Bruno followed this direction, being informed that in the diocess of Grenoble, there were woods, rocks, and deserts most suitable to his desires of finding perfect solitude, and that this holy prelate would certainly favour his design. Six of those who had accompanied him in his retreat, attended him on this occasion, namely, Landwin, who afterwards succeeded him in the office of prior of the great Chartreuse; Stephen of Bourg, and Stephen of Die, both canons of Saint Rufus in Dauphine; Hugh, whom they called the chaplain, because he was the only priest among them, and two laymen, Andrew and Guerin. Saint Bruno and these six companions arrived at Grenoble about midsummer in 1084, and cast themselves at the feet of Saint Hugh, begging of him some place in his diocess, where they might serve God, remote from worldly affairs, and without being burdensome to men. The holy prelate understanding their errand, rejoiced exceedingly, and received them with open arms, not doubting but these seven strangers were represented to him in a vision he had the night before in his sleep; wherein he thought he saw God himself building a church in the desert of his diocess called the Chartreuse, and seven stars rising from the ground, and forming a circle which went before him to that place, as it were, to shew him the way to that church. 6 He embraced them very lovingly, thinking he could never sufficiently commend their generous resolution; and assigned them that desert of Chartreuse for their retreat, promising his utmost assistance to establish them there; but to the end they might be armed against the difficulties they would meet with, lest they should enter upon so great an undertaking without having well considered it: he, at the same time, represented to them the dismal situation of that solitude, beset with very high craggy rocks, almost all the year covered with snow and thick fogs, which rendered them not habitable. This relation did not daunt the servants of God: on the contrary, joy, painted on their faces, expressed their satisfaction for having found so convenient a retirement, cut off from the society of men. Saint Hugh having kept them some days in his palace, conducted them to this place, and made over to them all the right he had in that forest; and some time after, Siguin, abbot of Chaise-Dieu in Auvergne, who was joint lord of the same. Bruno and his companions immediately built an oratory there, and very small cells, at a little distance one from the other, like the ancient Lauras of Palestine. Such was the original of the Order of the Carthusians, which took its name from this desert of Chartreuse. 7 Some have dated its institution in 1086, others in 1085; but it is clearly proved by Mabillon 8 that Saint Bruno retired to this wilderness in June, 1084, as one of his epitaphs, and Sigebert of Gemblours, a contemporary writer, expressly mention. Saint Hugh, by a charter dated in the month following, forbade any woman to go into their lands, or any person to fish, hunt, or drive cattle that way. They first built a church on a summit, and cells near it, in which they lived two together in each cell, soon after single, meeting in church at matins and vespers: other hours, prime, tierce, sext, none, and compline, they recited in their cells. They never took two refections in a day except on the greater festivals, on which they ate together in a refectory. On other days they ate in their cells as hermits. Pulse was given them in a certain measure on days when it was allowed them.

It is hard to represent the wonderful life of those holy anchorites in their desert. Guibert of Nogent says, they passed the six days of the week in their separate cells, but spent the Sunday together. At parting, each took with him one loaf and one kind of pulse for his subsistence the rest of the week. Every thing amongst them was extremely mean and poor; even in their church they had neither gold nor silver, except a silver chalice. They scarcely ever spoke to one another but by signs; for they obliged themselves to perpetual silence, that their whole conversation might be with God. They spent a considerable part of the day in reciting his praises, and seemed to have no other use of their bodies than to afflict and humble them with austerities. Labour succeeded prayer. It was their chief employ to copy pious books, by which they endeavoured to earn their subsistence, that they might not be burdensome to any. Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluni, fifty years after Saint Bruno, writes of them: “Their dress is meaner and poorer than that of other monks; so short and scanty, and so rough, that the very sight affrights one.—They wear coarse hair shirts next their skin, fast almost perpetually; eat only bran bread; never touch flesh, either sick or well; never buy fish, but eat it if given them as an alms; eat eggs and cheese on Sundays and Thursdays; on Tuesdays and Saturdays their fare is pulse or herbs boiled; on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays they take nothing but bread and water; and they have only one meal a day, except within the octaves of Christmas, Easter, Whitsuntide, Epiphany, and some other festivals. Their constant occupation is praying, reading, and manual labour, which consists chiefly in transcribing books. They say the lesser hours of the divine office in their cells at the times when the bell rings; but meet together at vespers and matins with wonderful recollection. They say mass only on Sundays and Festivals.” 10 This manner of life they followed without any written rule; though Mabillon thinks they conformed to that of Saint Benedict in most points, which were compatible with their plan of an eremitical life. 11 But others, with Bue the Bollandist, find no resemblance, and say the practices were peculiar to their institute without being borrowed from any other in particular. Saint Bruno left his disciples fervent observers of those customs and practices which he had established among them. Guigo or Guy, fifth prior of the Chartreuse, in 1228, drew up in writing an abstract of their customs. 12 Several general chapters have added new statutes; of which a complete code was compiled in 1581, and approved by Innocent XI in 1688. This may be called the Rule of the Carthusians. Voltaire copies this remark of Fleury, of the Maurist monks in the Literary History of France and others, that this is the only ancient religious Order in the Church which never had any reform, and has never stood in need of any, which is owing to their entire sequestration from commerce with the world, and to the extreme vigilance of superiors and visitors in never allowing a door to be opened for mitigations and dispensation to creep in. “The Carthusians,” says Voltaire, “entirely consecrate their time to fasting, to silence, to solitude, and prayer; perfectly quiet in the midst of a tumultuous world, the noise of which scarcely ever reaches their ears; knowing their respective sovereigns no otherwise than by their prayers in which their names are inserted.” This institute has been regarded by the pastors of the Church as the most perfect model of a penitential and contemplative state, in which persons devote themselves to the most perfect sanctification of their souls, and by their tears and prayers endeavour to draw down the divine mercy on sinners and on the whole world.

Saint Bruno is styled by the writers of that age Master of the Chartreuse, and sometimes prior; for being the person who led the rest into that course of life, he was looked upon by them as their superior; and as he was the most learned, so he also excelled them in the fervour of his charity, compunction, and humility. Saint Hugh, who at first received him as his child, became so great an admirer of his virtue that he took him for his father and spiritual director; and without regard to the difficulty of the ways, he often went from Grenoble to the Chartreuse, to enjoy the heavenly conversation of Saint Bruno, and improve himself by his advice and example. That holy prelate felt an inexpressible joy in his heart as often as he heard any new novice had joined these true disciples of the cross; a joy which was often renewed in him; for their example awakened many from their spiritual lethargy in the world, and persons of all ages, even young boys, ran to the desert to take up the cross of Christ in their company. The Count of Nevers, a lord of singular piety, made a long stay with them to learn to serve God with new fervour, and returned praising God for the wonders which his right-hand works in the hearts in which he dwells. He sent them soon after a rich present of plate, but they sent it back with excuses that it was useless to them. He then sent them a large quantity of leather and parchment for their books.

Saint Bruno had not governed this congregation six years when Pope Urban II who had formerly been his scholar at Rheims, being informed of the holy life which he led, and being, from his own personal acquaintance, fully convinced of his great prudence and learning, sent him a severe order to repair to Rome, that he might assist him by his counsels in the government of the Church. The humble monk could have scarcely met with a more severe trial of his obedience, or made a greater sacrifice. Nevertheless, without further deliberation, he set out in 1089, having nominated Landuin prior at the Chartreuse. The Pope himself at the same time had recommended that house to the protection of Siguin, abbot of Chaise Dieu. The departure of the Saint was an inexpressible grief to his disciples. They to whom the greatest austerities were pleasures, and the most hideous desert a paradise, whilst they enjoyed the presence of such a guide and master, found their rocks insupportable without him. The saint endeavoured in vain to comfort them, promising them he would do whatever lay in his power to return to them as soon as possible. Several of them protested they would never be parted from him, and these he took with him to Rome. The rest, soon after he had quitted them, left the Chartreuse; but, as they continued to live together, they were soon prevailed upon by Landuin to return to their former habitations, of which the monks of Chaise Dieu had taken possession upon their leaving it. Saint Bruno was received by the Pope with all imaginable tokens of esteem and affection. His holiness kept him in his palace near his person, and consulted him in all weighty affairs of religion and conscience. By his order also the saint’s companions had an apartment assigned them in the city where they endeavoured to live as they had done in the desert; but they soon found it was not so easy a matter there to devote themselves wholly to their holy meditations, pious reading, singing psalms, and fervent prayer, in which consisted all their satisfaction. They could not shun distracting visits, nor observe such silence as they had done among the rocks, which was so useful to them. This alteration drew tears from their eyes, and made them sigh for the solitude they had quitted. They complained to Saint Bruno that they found not in the city what they sought. The saint ardently desired to conduct them back to the mountain of the Chartreuse; but not being able to obtain that leave for himself, he prevailed that they might return to that desert, where the rest of their companions had already recovered the possession of their former cells, which were restored to them by the abbot of Chaise-Dieu to the great joy of Saint Hugh, and of Hugh archbishop of Lyons, legate of the holy see, who both conducted them back, and saw them again settled there.

The tumult of a court grew every day more insupportable to Saint Bruno, who had tasted the sweets of solitude and uninterrupted contemplation, and trembled amidst the distractions of the world. The pope had too great a value for such a friend to grant his request of returning to the Chartreuse; he even pressed him to accept the archbishopric of Reggio in Calabria; but the holy man excused himself with so great earnestness, and redoubled his importunities for the liberty of living to himself in solitude, that his holiness at length thought he could no longer offer violence to his holy inclinations, and consented that he might retire into some wilderness in the mountains of Calabria. The saint found a convenient solitude in the diocess of Squillaci, where he settled in 1090, with some new disciples whom he had gained in Rome. Here he betook himself to the exercises of a solitary life with more joy and fervour than ever. Remembering the engagement which his ancient friend, Ralph, the provost of Rheims, had made to embrace a solitary life, he wrote him from this desert an elegant and tender letter, inviting him to his hermitage, putting him in mind of his promise and the obligation he had taken upon himself, and giving him an agreeable and cheerful description of his desert, and of the uninterrupted scenes of pure joy and delights which he and his companions found in it. From the turn of this letter it sufficiently appears how far the saint was from the least disposition of melancholy, moroseness, or harsh severity. Gaiety of soul, which always attends virtue, is particularly necessary in all who are called to a life of perfect solitude, in which nothing is more pernicious than sadness, and to which nothing is more contrary than an inclination to excessive pensiveness. Those who labour under that weakness, ought generally to be judged unfit for a state of strict perpetual solitude; for which great fervour, which allows no moments for sloth, is likewise an essential disposition. Landuin, prior of the Chartreuse, went into Calabria to consult Saint Bruno about the form of living which our saint had instituted at the Chartreuse; for those disciples were desirous not to depart in the least point from the spirit and rule of their holy master. 14 Saint Bruno wrote them an admirable letter, full of tender charity and the spirit of God, which he sent them by Landuin when he returned in 1099. In this letter he instructed them in all the practices of a solitary life, solved the difficulties which they proposed to him, comforted them in their afflictions, and encouraged them to perseverance and watchfulness against all the attacks of their enemies.

The principal works of Saint Bruno are Comments on the Psalter, and on Saint Paul’s Epistles, both of which are demonstrated 16 to be the genuine productions of our saint, and answer the character given of Saint Bruno, that he was one of the most learned men, not only of the age in which he lived, but of most others. He understood both the Hebrew and Greek languages, and was versed in the writings of the fathers, especially those of Saint Ambrose and Saint Austin. He is a strenuous advocate for the doctrine of Saint Austin with regard to the mysteries of divine grace. In his Exposition of the Psalms he clears the literal sense, but always refers it to the spiritual, applying every thing to Christ and his Church, as the sense principally meant by the Holy Ghost. A judicious modern critic writes thus of this work: 17 “Whoever shall attentively read this Commentary, will agree that it would be hard to find a work of this kind which is at the same time more clear, solid, and full, and more concise. If it were better known it would be more made use of. Persons would be convinced that it is an excellent work to give the key for the true understanding of the psalms, and that the author was master of all the sciences, and filled with the spirit of God.—It were to be wished that this Commentary were put into the hands of all the faithful, especially of persons dedicated by their state to the duty of public prayer.” The elegy in fourteen verses, On the contempt of the World, or on the last things, which was composed by Saint Bruno, is engraved under the picture of the saint in the choir of the famous Chartreuse of Dijon. It is a feeling complaint of the general insensibility of men in thinking so little on a happy and a miserable eternity, and is inserted in several Latin prayer-books. Several other comments on the scripture and other writings, have been ascribed to this saint, but belong some to Saint Bruno, bishop of Segni, others to Saint Bruno, bishop of Wurtzbourg, who both flourished in the same age.

Saint Bruno being settled in his desert in the diocess of Squillaci had no thoughts but of living unknown to men; but, as retired as he was, had not been long in this new hermitage, when Roger, sovereign count of Sicily and Calabria, discovered him one day as he was hunting in that wood. The prince having conversed with him, was so moved by his virtue, that he was extremely desirous to testify his esteem for him by some remarkable favours; but a love of poverty, and a spirit of disinterestedness would not permit the holy man to take advantage of his generosity in accepting any rich presents. The monastery De la Torre in Calabria, was the second of the Order. 19 Saint Bruno established in it the most perfect spirit of humility, contempt of the world, retirement, and mortification, continuing by his counsels and instructions at a distance, to direct the monks of the Great Chartreuse in all spiritual and temporal emergencies. The time being come when God had decreed to reward the labours of his servant, he visited him with a sickness about the latter end of September, 1101. When the holy man perceived his death to draw near, he gathered his monks about his bed, and in their presence, made, as it were, a public confession of his life; then made a profession of his faith, which his disciples copied from his mouth, and preserved. It is very clear and explicit on the mysteries of the Trinity and Incarnation, and in condemning the heresy of Berengarius, which had lately raised great troubles in the Church. The holy man thus expressed his faith of the sacrament of the altar: “I believe the sacraments which the Church believeth, and in particular that the bread and wine consecrated on the altar are the true body of our Lord Jesus Christ; his true flesh, and his true blood, which we receive for the remission of our sins, and in the hope of eternal life.” 20 He had more fully explained this doctrine of the Church against Berengarius, in his comments on Saint Paul. 21 He resigned his soul to God on Sunday the 6th of October, 1101. An account of his death was sent by his monks of La Torre in an encyclical letter to all the neighbouring churches and monasteries, according to the custom, to recommend the souls of persons deceased to their prayers. 22 Near two hundred answers to this letter are extant, and contain the highest eulogiums of the extraordinary virtue, wisdom, and learning of Saint Bruno. 23 Lanuin, a disciple of our saint in Calabria, succeeded him in the government of the monastery De la Torre, and was highly esteemed by Pope Paschal II. Fleury is mistaken, 24 in confounding this Lanuin with Landuin of Lucca, whom Saint Bruno left Prior of the Great Chartreuse, and who was succeeded by Peter, a native of Bethune in Flanders, who had been the saint’s disciple at Saisse Fontaine, with Lambert, who was prior at De la Torre after the death of Lanuin. 25 Saint Bruno was interred in the cemetery of the church of the blessed Virgin de Torre; said by some to have been translated to that of Saint Stephen; but improbably; for they were discovered in the former place in 1515. Pope Leo X. had granted in the preceding year an office in his honor to his Order; which is called an equipollent beatification, his eminent sanctity and many miracles after his death not standing in need of the formalities of a scrutiny. In 1623, Gregory XV. by an equipollent canonization extended his office to the whole Church. A bone of his jaw with two teeth was sent to the Great Chartreuse; a finger to the Chartreuse at Paris; and little portions to the Chartreuses of Cologne, his native city, and Friburg.

The motto of Saint Bruno are these words of the Psalmist. My eyes prevented the watches: I was troubled, and I spoke not. I had in my mind the eternal years. Lo! I have gone far off, flying away, and I abode in the wilderness. 27 This constant meditation on eternity often broke his rest, and made sleep to flee from his eyes; this animated him with fervour in his retirement, and perpetual penance, and made him watch whole nights in sighs and tears to implore the divine mercy. In this solitude his employment was sometimes to pour forth his soul in songs of praise, and to entertain himself on the sweet motives of the divine love; sometimes the remembrance of eternal joys comforted his soul, and gave him already a kind of foretaste of them; and he often considered the terrors of the divine judgments, and the eternal torments prepared for sinners, being strongly affected with the dread of that which is of all others the most grievous, the pain of loss, or the everlasting privation of God. In a feeling meditation on this subject, he puts the following words in the mouth of a damned soul: “Add new tortures to the racks which I endure: may a million of fresh executioners tear me for all eternity, provided I be not totally deprived of my God. The most piercing flames will be to me soft roses; the fury of devils agreeable embraces; the horrible shrieks of those dungeons a pleasant harmony; these frightful prisons delightful palaces, could I but be freed from what I feel by the loss of God.”

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Bruno, Confessor, Founder of the Carthusians”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. CatholicSaints.Info. 18 December 2013. Web. 25 November 2017. <>