St. Odo: A Life of Humility and Austerity

Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis.

Weekly General Audience September 2, 2009

During his general audience on Sept. 2, Pope Benedict XVI resumed his catechesis on the great writers of the medieval Church in the East and in the West. He focused on St. Odo, who was born around the year 880 and was the second abbot of the abbey at Cluny.

At the beginning of the ninth century, Cluny was a center for an influential movement of Church reform, and Odo, through his example and teaching, did much to further this spiritual renewal throughout Europe. He was influenced by the monastic virtues of contemplation, detachment from this world, and a longing for the world to come.

Odo was particularly devoted to the Eucharist, emphasizing the real and substantial presence of Christ under the species of bread and wine. He was truly a spiritual guide for his troubled times, blending personal austerity with a constant and joyful contemplation of Christ’s infinite mercy.

Dear brothers and sisters,

After a long pause, I would like to resume my presentation on the great writers of the medieval Church in the East and in the West, since their lives and their writings are like a mirror in which we can see what it means to be a Christian.

Today, I would like to speak about another beacon from that era, St. Odo, the abbot of Cluny. He was part of a monastic movement in the Middle Ages that was responsible for the amazing diffusion throughout Europe of a lifestyle and a spirituality that was inspired by the Rule of St. Benedict.

During those centuries, cloisters were emerging and multiplying in an extraordinary way, with branches throughout the continent that widely spread a Christian spirit and sensibility.

St. Odo, in particular, brings us back to the monastery at Cluny, which, in the Middle Ages, was among the most illustrious and famous of these monasteries and whose magnificent ruins reveal even today signs of a glorious past that was intensely dedicated to asceticism, to study, and, in a special way, to a worship of God that was distinguished by its decorum and beauty.

Odo was the second abbot of Cluny. He was born around 880 in the area between the Maine and Touraine Rivers in France. His father dedicated him to St. Martin, the bishop of Tours, and Odo spent his entire life in the beneficent shadow and memory of this man and died near the saint’s tomb.

Prior to his decision to consecrate himself to the religious life, he experienced a special moment of grace, which he himself described to another monk, John the Italian, who later became his biographer.

Odo was still an adolescent — about 16 years old — when a prayer to the Virgin Mary came spontaneously to his lips on Christmas Eve: “My Lady, Mother of mercy, who on this night gave birth to the Savior, pray for me. May your glorious and singular act of giving birth, O most pious one, be my refuge” (Vita sancti Odonis, I,9: PL 133,747).

The title of “Mother of Mercy,” with which the young Odo invoked the Virgin at that moment, would turn out to be the title with which he would always address Mary, whom he also called “the only hope in the world ... thanks to whom the gates of paradise were opened” (In veneratione S. Mariae Magdalenae: PL 133,721).

At that time, he came across the Rule of St. Benedict and began to observe parts of it, “bearing, though still not a monk, the light yoke of monks” (ibid, I, 14: PL 133, 50).

In one of his homilies, Odo praised Benedict as “a lantern that shines in the dark state of this life” (De sancto Benedicto abbate: PL 133,725) and described him as a “master of spiritual discipline” (ibid: PL 133,727).

With deep affection, he pointed out that Christian piety “honors him with the most sincere tenderness” in the awareness that God has elevated him “among the supreme chosen Fathers of the Church” (ibid: PL 133,722).

Fascinated by the Benedictine ideal, Odo left Tours and entered the Benedictine abbey at Baume as a monk, later going on to Cluny, of which he would become abbot in 927. From that center of spiritual life, he was able to exercise a vast influence on the monasteries of the continent.

His guidance and reforms benefited various monasteries throughout Italy as well, among them the Benedictine abbey of St. Paul Outside the Walls.

Odo visited Rome more than once and traveled as far as Subiaco, Montecassino and Salerno. In fact, he was in Rome in the summer of 942 when he fell ill.

Feeling that the end was near, he was intent on returning in order to be near the tomb of St. Martin in Tours, where he died during the octave of the saint on Nov. 18, 942.

His biographer, while highlighting Odo’s “virtue of patience,” offers a long list of his other virtues, such as detachment from the world, zeal for souls and a commitment for peace among the local churches. Odo also greatly aspired for a harmonious relationship among the king and his princes, the observance of the commandments, a concern for the poor, as well as the education of the young and a respect for the elderly (see Vita sancti Odonis, I,17: PL 133,49).

He loved the small cell where he lived, “away from the eyes of everyone, concerned only with pleasing God” (ibid, I, 14: PL 133, 49). Nonetheless, he never failed to exercise his ministry by word and example as a “superabundant spring,” while “lamenting the world as immense misery” (ibid, I, 17: PL 133, 51).

In one single monk, his biographer observes, the various virtues that were spread throughout all the other monasteries were found together: “Jesus in his goodness, drawing from the many gardens of monks, created a paradise in one small place in order to irrigate from its spring the hearts of the faithful” (ibid., I,14: PL 133,49).

In a passage from a sermon in honor of Mary Magdalene, St. Odo of Cluny tells us how he envisioned monastic life: “Mary, seated at the feet of the Lord and listening attentively to his words is the symbol of the sweetness of contemplative life, whose flavor, the more it is tasted, more and more leads the soul to detach itself from all things visible as well as the tumult of worldly concerns” (In ven. S. Mariae Magd., PL 133,717).

It is a concept that Odo confirms and develops in his other writings, which show his love for the interior life, his vision of the world as a fragile and precarious reality from which a person has to uproot himself, a constant tendency to detach himself from things he found to be sources of worry, an acute sensitivity to the presence of evil in the various categories of men, and an intimate aspiration towards the eschatological.

This vision of the world may seem rather remote from our vision of the world, but considering the fragility of the world, Odo’s concept is a concept that values an interior life that is open to others and to love of neighbor, thus transforming a person’s life and opening the world to the light of God.

One aspect that merits particular attention is the devotion to the body and blood of Christ that Odo, in the face of a widespread negligence that he vigorously deplored, cultivated with conviction.

Indeed, he was firmly convinced of the real presence of the Lord under the species of the Eucharist by virtue of the “substantial” conversion of the bread and wine. “God, the Creator of everything, took bread, saying it was his body that he offered for the world, and distributed wine, calling it his blood,” he wrote. “Yet,” he adds, “it is a law of nature that change occurs at the command of the Creator,” and that is why “nature immediately changes its usual condition: without delay the bread becomes flesh and the wine becomes blood.” At the Lord’s command, “substance is transformed” (Odonis Abb. Cluniac. occupatio, ed. A. Swoboda, Leipzig 1900, p.121).

Unfortunately, he notes, this “sacrosanct mystery of the body of the Lord, which constitutes the entire salvation of the world” (Collationes, XXVIII: PL 133,572) is often celebrated with negligence.

“Priests,” he warned, “who come to the altar unworthily, soil the bread, that is, the body of Christ” (ibid, PL 133,572-573). Only those who are spiritually united to Christ can worthily receive his body in the Eucharist; in any other case, eating his flesh and drinking his blood would not be beneficial, but a source of condemnation” (see ibid., XXX, PL 133,575).

All this invites us to believe with a new force and depth in the truth of the Lord’s presence. The presence of the Creator among us, who delivers himself into our hands and transforms us as he transforms the bread and wine, transforms the world in the same way.

St. Odo was truly a spiritual guide both for monks and for the faithful of his time. Faced with the “immensity of vices widespread throughout society, the remedy he clearly proposed was that of a radical change of lifestyle based on humility, austerity, detachment from the ephemeral and adherence to the eternal” (see Collationes, XXX, PL 133, 613).

Despite the reality of his diagnosis of the situation of his time, Odo did not indulge in pessimism: “We do not say this,” he made clear, “in order to cast into despair those who wish to convert. God’s mercy is always available; it simply awaits the hour of our conversion” (ibid: PL 133, 563).

“O, the ineffable depths of divine mercy!” he exclaimed. “God pursues sin yet he protects sinners” (ibid: PL 133,592).

Sustained by this conviction, Odo of Cluny loved to contemplate the mercy of Christ the Savior, whom he described in a very thought-provoking way as a “lover of men” — amator hominum Christus (ibid., LIII: PL 133,637).

Jesus took upon himself the scourges that were meant for us, he observed, in order to save his creatures who are his work and whom he loves (see ibid: PL 133, 638).

Here we see a trait of this holy abbot that is almost hidden at first glance under the rigor of his austerity as a reformer: the profound goodness of his soul.

He was austere but, above all, he was good, a man of great goodness, a goodness that came from contact with God’s goodness. Odo, according to his contemporaries, radiated around him the joy with which he himself was filled.

His biographer attests that he had never heard from the mouth of any man “such tenderness of words” (ibid, I, 17: PL 133, 31). His biographer recalls how he would invite the boys he met along the way to sing with him and then gave them little gifts. “His words were full of exultation,” he adds. “... his lightheartedness infused intimate joy into our hearts” (ibid, II, 5: PL 133, 63).

Thus, this vigorous yet lovable medieval abbot, who was an impassioned reformer, nourished in his monks and in the lay faithful of his time through his resolute activities a desire to proceed rapidly along the path to Christian perfection.

Let us hope that his goodness and the joy derived from faith and joined to austerity and opposition to the world’s vices, may touch our own hearts and that we, too, may discover the source of joy that flows from God’s goodness.

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