Feminist theologian Marjorie Procter-Smith criticized the classical 20th-century liturgical movement as being exclusively initiated and led by men in general and priests in particular, in contrast to the women’s movement as started and directed by women.1 However, women such as Dorothy Day, Therese Mueller, Mary Perkins Ryan, Justine Ward, and many others offered distinctive and substantial contributions to the liturgical movement. Although recent scholarship has sought to give greater visibility to women’s integral contributions to the movement,2 this renewed attention doesn’t often extend to the movement’s roots in 19th-century France.
Students of the movement will recognize the pivotal role that Dom Prosper Guéranger, the “father of the liturgical movement,” played. Besides restoring Benedictine life at the monastery at Solesmes after the French Revolution, this great Benedictine contributed to the revival of Gregorian chant, historical scholarship on the origins of the liturgy, and renewed appreciation to liturgical time in his popular commentaries on the liturgical year. Less well known is another Benedictine, Mother Cécile Bruyère (1845-1909), the founding abbess of St. Cecilia, the first women’s monastic foundation of the Solesmes congregation. Although her contributions are often overlooked in most historical accounts of the liturgical movement, she not only anticipated many of the theological emphases of the 20th-century movement and the Second Vatican Council, but she also articulated a distinctively contemplative and liturgical spirituality worthy of revisiting today.
Mother Cécile was born Jeanne-Henriette “Jenny” Bruyère to a well-to-do French bourgeoise family in Sablé-sur-Sarthe in western France. While her father was an irate man who despised religion and never attended Mass, her mother was a devout Catholic from whom she received much of her religious education and formation in the meaning of the liturgical feasts. In her autobiographical memoirs, which are strikingly similar in tone and content to St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul, she displayed an intuitive awareness of God’s presence at an early age: “I was beginning to think, to talk, and I already had a precise notion (my Lord) of Your presence everywhere. When I was taken to church, although the hour was quite early, I would be very still and quiet, in great tranquility, for as long as we remained there.”3 Nevertheless, Bruyère did not have a docile character, but was often described as proud, stubborn, and prone to bouts of anger and scrupulosity. The course of her life changed when she came into contact as a young girl with Dom Prosper Guéranger. Her mother’s family owned a country house by the sea that they visited near Solesmes, and Guéranger’s influence spread over the family as he converted and married many of its members and became pastorally involved in their lives.
When Bruyère came down with a fever and was unable to make her First Communion, her aunt asked Guéranger to personally prepare her, thus beginning a relationship of spiritual direction and spiritual friendship that would continue for the rest of their lives. Upon Bruyère’s First Communion, Guéranger gave her a piece of cloth from the tomb of St. Cecilia, resonating with her secret desire of preserving and consecrating her virginity to God. Bruyère’s account of Guéranger as a spiritual father is very moving and reveals a tenderness and spiritual depth of a figure that was often perceived as polemical and “war-like” (a play in French on his last name, “Guerre-anger”). In addition to her spiritual formation, Guéranger taught her Latin, which was not typically a part of the classical curriculum of women at the time, simply because she expressed a desire to understand and take an active part in the prayers of the Church.
Foundation of Saint-Cecile
In the context of Guéranger’s spiritual direction, Bruyère grew in a deeper desire for a contemplative life shaped by the Benedictine liturgical spirituality Guéranger had revived in the restoration of the monastery of Solesmes (rather than the traditional path towards Carmelite spirituality for aspiring nuns in France at that time). Although Guéranger never intended to initiate a women’s foundation to Solesmes, he perceived Bruyère’s spiritual charism of leadership among a group of lay women involved in apostolic work called “The Great Catechism.” In 1866, these women gradually formed a sort of pre-novitiate under Guéranger’s direction, and, at the young age of 22, Jenny was entrusted as the superior of the new foundation. Guéranger formed them in a liturgical spirituality that was largely absent in women’s cloistered spirituality at the time: how to pronounce the Latin well, sing Gregorian chant, and understand the rubrics of the Mass. As he instructed them on how to live from the Divine Office, the feasts of the liturgical year and the saints, and the Rule of Benedict, he also worked at raising funds to further develop the fledgling foundation on a more permanent structure on a hill a few minutes’ walk from Solesmes.
In beginning the women’s foundation, Guéranger anticipated future ecclesial and liturgical developments. While the post-Tridentine practice largely consisted of bishops assuming direct responsibilities for religious communities of nuns, these bishops often didn’t understand or fully appreciate their congregation’s spirituality. In light of this, Guéranger advocated for the creation or a co-jurisdiction shared with the bishop in order to bring the nuns back under the influence of the Benedictine monks who could better help cultivate their spiritual charism. In practice, Guéranger did not think of himself as the “superior” of the nuns but fully entrusted the power and governance of the women’s foundation to Bruyère, believing this better reflected the ancient office and role of the Abbess. Guéranger also set a liturgical precedent by reviving an ancient tradition during the nun’s ceremony of profession. Guéranger combined the rite of monastic profession with the rite of the consecration of virgins as it was described in the Roman pontifical, even though this rite had fallen into practical disuse by the 15th century. In reviving the rite of the consecration of virgins, the Abbey of St. Cecile started a precedent among monastic orders that spread and was later recommended by Pius XII’s apostolic constitution Sponsa Christi as “one of the most beautiful monuments of the ancient liturgy.”4
Abbess and Mother of Souls
Bruyère received the abbatial blessing and enthronement in 1871, four years before the death of Abbot Guéranger in 1875. Her biographer, Dom Guy Oury, notes that Guéranger’s guidance and spiritual direction, ultimately culminating in encouraging her to lead on her own, helped form this once stubborn but gifted girl into a true mother of souls, a fact overwhelmingly noted by both the nuns and monks of Solesmes. Her character traits bear a resemblance to Teresa of Avila: she had a dynamism, liveliness, humor, simplicity, and attentiveness to details. She gave pride of place to the Office and joyful recreation, always reminding the nuns of the essentials in the spiritual life: “If you are in need of a good word, open your breviary, your Old Testament, your psalms; therein is our spiritual direction, and it is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit; we do not have need, as elsewhere, of so many spiritual directors.”5 Under the direction of Bruyère, the abbey grew in influence and was viewed as a model of Benedictine life, leading to the establishment of two other foundations in her lifetime.
Although Bruyère’s description of her interior life as Abbess bears witness to her growth in the unitive way of contemplative prayer, her life in the world was marked by many challenges. The first challenge was with a new bishop who didn’t like the independence in governance that Guéranger had given her and wanted matters back under his control. Bruyère fought this, preparing a brief that shows the relevant historical tradition in favor of the way the monastery was governed, and her appeal was ultimately upheld by the Pope Leo XIII. Another issue arose from the spiritual influence she had, not only over her own nuns, but over the monks of Solesmes as well, who streamed to her for spiritual guidance. The abbot approved of this, and the novitiate at Solesmes almost took place at the feet of Bruyère, whom the monks came to in order to encounter the thought and spirit of the departed Guéranger.6 However, two monks resented her spiritual authority, and blamed her for interfering in the election of their new abbot. They claimed she was trying to bring back to life the monasticism of the medieval abbey of Fontevrault, in which the abbess was the head of the order, having the monks as well under her jurisdiction. However, they took this all the way to the Pope Leo XIII, who enforced harsh separations between the monasteries until they could sort out the situation. Even after a visitation found the accusations baseless, the modernist Albert Houtin published a calumnious account accusing Bruyère of “moral hysteria.” It should be noted that Houtin produced this account after he had left the priesthood and sought to settle scores with the hierarchical Church.
Near the end of her life, the volatile political situation in France led to the eviction of the contemplative monastic orders which were viewed as lacking any utilitarian contribution to society. The nuns had to move to a foundation in England where Bruyère eventually died in exile in 1909. Weakened by the baseless attacks on her character, the uprooting of her monastic community, and failing health due to anemia, she spent the last six years of her life in a silent offering of herself to God in her cell. In all these events she did not fail to trust the workings of divine providence: “We are quite simply in the divine hands of him who has deigned to take seriously the offering of all our being which we so often renew. Isn’t it only just that among the members of our Lord Jesus Christ there be some who consent to be attached to the same cross as He, to die with Him, according to the will of the Heavenly Father and for the adorable purposes of His intentions?”7
Her Teaching: Letters and Conferences
Bruyère’s spiritual and liturgical contributions are visible in the extensive correspondences she maintained through her letters, her conferences to her nuns, and her influential, widely circulated book on prayer, The Spiritual Life and Prayer According to Holy Scripture and Monastic Tradition. Her letters were a central part of her ministry of spiritual motherhood, and many of the letters she sent to monks were kept and treasured by them their entire lives. These often included encouragements to root one’s spiritual life and monastic vocation in the liturgical life of the Church. In a letter to a young monk she extols the formative capacity of the liturgy: “Oh! Mark well, my brother, come to know profoundly the liturgical prayers and all that makes up the public prayer of the Church, and no one will be able to remonstrate with you in matters of doctrine…. With this, one can form priests and saints, and I reckon that if this were the basis of education in theological schools, it would bring about the development of souls. Poetry, music, and the arts would play their part, as much as the intelligence and heart, and instead of producing either ‘nullities’ or ‘specialists’ we would see the emergence of ‘men,’ that is, intelligent creatures, complete and able.”8 To another, she gives a similar exhortation: “My dear little brother, run well after the fragrance of the perfumes that our great King has left behind Him in His church, by which I mean, always profit by the Holy Scriptures and the sacred liturgy.”9
Bruyère also advocated for a spiritual nourishment on the primary sources of scripture and the liturgy in her conferences with her nuns, several of which were transcribed. Many of her conferences were given directly on Scripture, and she worked through the Old Testament book by book. Unlike other religious of her time, she ensured her nuns had not only a psalter and New Testament but an entire Bible. Regretting that Catholics viewed scripture as a remote “museum-piece” or as part of an apologetic arsenal against Protestants, she instead revived the ancient monastic practice of lectio divina, a meditative, prayerful “chewing” on the Word of God which sees the Word as a profound source of spiritual nourishment. Bruyère’s nuns were even accused by certain critics as “not praying” simply because they did not practice the discursive, methodic type of mental prayer which had grown in popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries, even though their own lectio reflected a more ancient and universal monastic practice.10 As Bruyère often reminded her sisters, “If the Holy Spirit doesn’t feed your soul himself, you must look for food by reading the Holy Scriptures.”11
Her conferences thus advocated a return to the primary sources of sanctification: the celebration of the liturgy and sacraments, knowledge of the scriptures, and the doctrines of the Church. She lamented that Catholics of her era derived their spiritual nourishment from innumerable devotions rather than a spiritual encounter with Christ in the liturgy, a choice she compares to preferring to drink from a “bottle” rather than the ocean: “That is the reason for our existence, we who are daughters of St. Benedict. We must prefer this life of the Church to all possible and imaginable devotions. To live from the life of the Church; to observe above all what the Church enjoins us to do, to desire but one thing: to live this life to the fullest…. What would you say of someone who, being able to satiate himself in the ocean, prefers to drink from a bottle? He would say: ‘but this is water from the sea, it is enough for me.’ Well! I prefer the ocean. If you prefer the bottle, I leave it to you.”12
Bruyère challenged her sisters to remember the Rule of Benedict’s admonition to prefer nothing to the opus Dei, to God’s work in us and for us in the liturgical life of the Church. In an era suffused with the utilitarian understanding of the Enlightenment that the monk or nun needed to perform some sort of active work of charity or scholarship to contribute to society, Bruyère deepened Guéranger’s articulation of the contemplative charism of Solesmes. In her conferences she insists on the primacy of the Divine Office, prayer, and the quest for God above all things and their apostolic fruitfulness for the salvation of the world. In many instances, her conferences echo Thérèse of Lisieux’s “little way,” highlighting the beauty of mundane, ordinary things done with extraordinary love for the glory of God: “Who can say how much merit and recompense God has reserved for us by our accomplishment of the most humble of our daily duties? We belittle these things too much. Who has organized our life as it is? Was it not the Creator Himself?…If the good God had wanted something else for us, he would have made us differently.”13
The Spiritual Life and Prayer
The main distillation of Bruyère’s teaching on the spiritual life and its essential foundations in the Bible and the liturgy can be found in her work The Spiritual Life and Prayer According to Holy Scripture and Monastic Tradition. While Guéranger had advocated for the primacy of the Divine Office, liturgy, and lectio divina in private conferences to his monks, his thoughts on these subjects remained unpublished. Bruyère’s intent was to engage in a thoroughgoing ressourcement of the monastic tradition and write the book on prayer Guéranger would have written had he the required time and desire to do so.
The very structure of Bruyère’s work manifests a liturgical “frame” to the spiritual life. In this respect, Bruyère’s work differs in tone and emphases from standard scholastic spiritual theology textbooks written around the time, such as Adolphe Tanquerey’s The Spiritual Life. While Bruyère includes a standard account of the purgative, illuminative, and unitive stages of classical treatises on the spiritual life, a consideration of the sacraments and liturgy at both the beginning and end of the work serve as “book-ends” to remind the reader that they serve as both the “source” and the “summit” of the spiritual life.
One of the central themes pursued from the very beginning of her text is what the Second Vatican Council later referred to as “the universal call to holiness,” a familiar theme in our contemporary theological context but scarcer in spiritual literature of the late 19th century. “The secrets of the spiritual life,” she reminds us, “are not reserved exclusively for a few chosen souls, as people too often believe, nor for those only who make religion their specialty. All men are created by God; all are called to save their souls; all are regenerated by the same means…. ‘One Lord, one faith, one baptism.’”14 In fact, Bruyère grounds her entire account of the spiritual life as the unfolding and actualization of the graces received at baptism.15 For her, the heights of contemplation must not be relegated to extraordinary visions or mystical raptures given to a select few but the progressive growth in the likeness of Christ available to all through communion in the sacramental life of the Church. The sacraments are the certain and authentic “means instituted by God for enabling man to attain to holiness, without there being any need to look for extraordinary means…. They communicate God to man and hence they all tend to divine union; they are provided with the energy necessary to bring it about, and they enable us fully to attain our end.”16 Rather than a doloristic spirituality of “suffering for suffering’s sake” popular in certain strains of Romantic spirituality of the time, Bruyère articulates a theology of divinization and desire for happiness which prompts the human being to search for God and ceaselessly gaze upon him who imprints himself upon us in the depths of our soul.17
Bruyère also treats a number of themes that would receive further attention later in the 20th-century liturgical movement. In an age where the divine office was often viewed strictly as a burdensome external, canonical obligation to fulfill rather than an intimate encounter with Christ, Bruyère draws attention to the mutually enriching relationship between private, silent, mental prayer and liturgical prayer: “Thus, by a double current, which consists in praying mentally the better to celebrate the Divine Office, and seeking in the Divine Office the food of mental prayer, the soul gently, quietly, and almost without effort arrives at true contemplation.”18 While many in Bruyère’s time viewed the liturgy merely in its rubrical and canonical dimensions as the external, official worship of the Church, she insists on the preeminent spiritual role the liturgy has in fashioning us into “true adorers” of the Lord “in spirit and truth” (cf. John 4:23-24). She challenges her readers to live a life permeated by the spirit of the liturgy such that our hearts and voices unite with the hymn of praise and love the Word Incarnate offered on earth to his eternal Father.19 In this way, the “heart becomes an altar where God alone dwells, and offers to his Father a sacrifice of adoration, of praise and of love.”20 For Bruyère, we are assimilated to the mysteries of Christ’s life through the sacred liturgy, and these mysteries must be reproduced in the sanctuary of the human heart such that we can say, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).21
One of the chief theological retrievals that contributed to an enriched understanding of the liturgical act in 20th-century liturgical theology was a renewed understanding of liturgy as an exercise of the priestly office of Christ. In a theologically rich last chapter of her text, entitled “There is But One Liturgy,” Bruyère meditates on the eschatological dimension of the heavenly liturgy described in the book of Revelation which is opened up for our participation through Christ’s priestly work. She marvels at how the Incarnation enables rational creatures to share in Christ’s praise and adoration of the Father. In baptism we become liturgical apprentices to Christ, the premiere liturgist, and join in his saving work on behalf of the world: “Thus the sovereign pontificate is eternal, and it is exercised forever; not only in the adorable person of the Son of God, but in that priestly tribe of which He is the Head, ‘a chosen generation, a kingly priesthood,’ wherein all are priests, although in different degrees, and all are called to concelebrate with the supreme Pontiff.”22 The pilgrim Church on earth shares not only in praise and adoration but anticipates Christ’s sacrificial love in the redeemed city of God: “During the days of her pilgrimage our Pontiff would not abandon His bride; and by a wonderful way, and with a wisdom all divine, He found the means of identifying the sacrifice of earth with that of heaven, since there is but one priesthood, that of Jesus Christ, but one sacrifice on earth and in heaven, but one victim, namely the Lamb conquering yet slain…. Thus the Church’s hierarchy on earth through the wonders produced by the Sacraments, presents to the ravished gaze of the heavenly citizens a faithful reproduction of that which takes place ‘within the veil, ad interiora velaminis.’”23
While originally intended as a private work for the edification of her spiritual daughters, the book was translated into German and English, achieving widespread praise and commendation among bishops, theologians, and monasteries across Europe. It was acclaimed as a “watershed book” for bringing Catholics to a transformative return to the primary sources of the Bible and the Church Fathers for their prayer at a time when a proliferation of devotions preoccupied the spiritual life.24 In this way, Bruyère’s return to the essential sources of sanctification anticipated the 20th-century movement known as resourrcement, and her advocacy for liturgy as the center of the spiritual life foreshadowed fundamental concerns of the 20th-century liturgical movement. Without agitating for the reform of rites or texts, Bruyère shared in the primary goal of the movement classically understood as “a movement towards the liturgy, a movement towards the Christ-life giving mysteries” in order to usher in the “renewal and intensification of Christian life through its primary and indispensable source, the sacred liturgy.”25 In our own time, when many liturgical discussions fixate on external forms or rubrical details, Bruyère’s liturgical spirituality reminds us that the ultimate purpose of the liturgy is to fashion us into true adorers of the Lord in spirit and truth. Then the liturgy becomes a true school of prayer and contemplation, for “in the sacred liturgy the Church’s children have all their mother’s learning: it is the most perfect way of prayer, the most traditional, the best ordered, the simplest, and the one that gives the strongest impulse to the freedom of the Holy Spirit.”26
Mother Cecile Bruyère’s substantial influence on the Benedictine monasteries who would be promoters of the 20th-century liturgical movement and the wide influence of her book on prayer throughout Europe’s ecclesial circles leads her biographer, Dom Oury, to argue that there are few women from the turn of the 19th century whose teachings have had such repercussions.27 Not only should Bruyère’s contributions find their rightful place in histories of pioneers of the liturgical movement, but her advice on living a life formed by the rhythms of liturgical life should resonate in the hearts of all who celebrate the liturgy faithfully today. “Our best formation is made,” Bruyère concludes, “when the part played by the liturgy is not limited to the actual celebration of the Divine Office but when our whole life is grounded upon it, when the content of our prayer, as well as the principles for the correction and sanctification of the soul, are drawn from it. In it will be found the surest commentary on scriptures, which are the true bread of the spirit after the Eucharist, and the true orientation of our piety.”28
Kevin D. Magas holds an MTS and PhD in theology from the University of Notre Dame. He currently serves as an assistant professor of dogmatic theology and Director of Intellectual Formation for the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, Mundelein, IL, where he teaches sacramental theology and liturgical studies. He lives in Mundelein with his wife and children.
- Marjorie Procter-Smith, In Her Own Rite: Constructing Feminist Liturgical Tradition (Nashville: Abingdon Press 1990), 18-35.
- See Katharine Harmon There Were Also Many Women There: Lay Women in the Liturgical Movement in the United States, 1926-1959 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012).
- Dom Guy Marie Oury, O.S.B. Light and Strength: Mother Cecile Bruyère, First Abbess of Sainte-Cecile of Solesmes trans. M. Cristina Borge (Hulbert, OK: Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey, 2012), 8. The biographical details that follow here are drawn predominately from Oury’s account.
- Ibid., 135.
- Ibid., 280.
- To illustrate this point, when Guéranger died before finishing several volumes of The Liturgical Year, the monk charged with completing the series, Dom Lucien Fromage, submitted every page of the volumes he wrote to Bruyère to review whether they remained faithful to the spirit of Guéranger’s thought.
- Ibid., 326.
- Ibid., 225. As evidence of her influence, Dom Fernand Cabrol, the famous liturgical scholar and co-editor of the Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, said he never forgot the letter he received from her at his profession: “Assuredly you will not yet comprehend all the grandeur of this life that goes on blossoming and expanding into eternity, but its base rests solidly upon Christ, Who is its foundation and its Crown.”
- Ibid., 225.
- See ibid., 238-241; Pierre Pourrat, Christian Spirituality trans. Donald Attwater (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1955), 499-501.
- Oury, Light and Strength, 292.
- Ibid., 291.
- Ibid., 294.
- Cecile Bruyère, O.S.B., The Spiritual Life and Prayer According to Holy Scripture and the Monastic Tradition, trans. The Benedictines of Stanbrook (reprint: Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002), 1.
- She poetically extols the beauty of living out one’s baptism: “To live in the thought of our Baptism, of the nobility which it has conferred upon us, of the energies with which it has endowed us, of the obligations which it has imposed upon us, and to be ever striving more perfectly to fulfill these obligations—all this constitutes in itself a very extensive and important outline of perfection,” Bruyère, The Spiritual Life and Prayer, 53-54. This theme is treated in a profound way in David Fagerberg, Liturgical Mysticism (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Academic, 2019).
- Bruyère, The Spiritual Life and Prayer, 52.
- See The Spirit of Solesmes, ed. Mary David Totah, O.S.B., 2nd ed. (Herefordshire, UK: Gracewing, 2016), 150; The Spiritual Life and Prayer, 5-8.
- The Spiritual Life and Prayer, 144.
- Bruyère’s use of the imagery of liturgical prayer as a hymn of praise sung by Christ the Word as the “unique Cantor who gives a voice to the entire creation” anticipates language used in the Second Vatican Council’s theology of the divine office in paragraph 83 and The General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, paragraph 16. See The Spirit of Solesmes, 170.
- The Spirit of Solesmes, 170.
- The notion of an assimilation to the mysteries of Christ through the liturgy is a central theme in the spiritual writings of her contemporary, Abbot Columba Marmion O.S.B, particularly when she writes that “happy the souls that know how to work the treasure contained in the sacred liturgy, and this not for the sake of loving it with a sterile and purely external love, but that they may draw into themselves and reproduce the symbols and the forms which contain realities so full of life.” See The Spiritual Life and Prayer, 432.
- Ibid., 409.
- Ibid., 413.
- Oury, Light and Strength, 250.
- The Liturgical Movement, Popular Liturgical Library, series IV, number 3 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1930) 7, 9.
- Oury, Light and Strength, 239.
- Ibid., 388.
- The Spirit of Solesmes, 237.