On 2 September 2009, Pope Benedict XVI presented Saint Odo of Cluny. Pope Benedict XVI’s predilection for the monastic tradition was then, and remains, a blessing for all of us who strive to follow Saint Benedict’s “little rule for beginners.” This discourse is best read in the context of Pope Benedict XVI’s message at Heiligenkreuz in 2007 and again in Paris at the Collège des Bernardins in 2008.
Silverstream Priory, under the patronage of Our Lady of the Cenacle, was especially blessed in coming to birth during this most “Benedictine” of pontificates. The rich teachings of Pope Benedict XVI on monastic life are integral to the formation of the young men who will present themselves, “truly seeking God.”
What It Means to Be Christians
Dear brothers and sisters: After a long pause, I would like to take up again the presentation of the great writers of the Eastern and Western Church of the Medieval era because, as though in a mirror, in their lives and writings we see what it means to be Christians.
Rise and Multiplication of Cloisters
Today I propose to you the luminous figure of St. Odo, abbot of Cluny. He is situated in the monastic Middle Ages that saw in Europe the amazing spread of life and spirituality inspired in St. Benedict’s Rule. During those centuries there was a prodigious rise and multiplication of cloisters that, branching out over the continent, spread through it the Christian spirit and sensibility. St. Odo takes us, in particular, to a monastery, Cluny, which during the Middle Ages was one of the most illustrious and celebrated. Even today it reveals with its majestic ruins the footprint of a glorious past because of its intense dedication to ascesis, study, and, in a special way, divine worship, enveloped in decorum and beauty.
My Lady, Mother of Mercy
Odo was the second abbot of Cluny. He was born around 880, on the border between Maine and Touraine, in France. He was consecrated by his [spiritual] father, the holy Bishop Martin of Tours, in whose beneficent shadow and memory Odo passed all his life, ending it at last near his tomb. His choice to consecrate himself in the religious life was preceded by an experience of a special moment of joy, which he mentioned to another monk, John the Italian, later his biographer. Odo was still an adolescent, around 16 years old, when one Christmas Eve he sensed how a prayer to the Virgin came spontaneously to his lips: “My Lady, Mother of Mercy, who on this night gave birth to the Savior, pray for me. May your glorious and singular birth be, Oh most merciful, my refuge” (Vita Sancti Odonis, I,9: PL 133, 747).
Blessed Virgin Mary, Only Hope of the World
The name “Mother of Mercy,” with which the young Odo then invoked the Virgin, was the one he always wished to use when addressing Mary, also calling her “only hope of the world … thanks to whom the doors of paradise have been opened to us” (In Veneratione S. Mariae Magdalenae: PL 133, 721).
Saint Benedict and His Rule
Around that time he began to reflect more profoundly on the Rule of St. Benedict and to observe some of its mandates, “bearing, though not being a monk, the light yoke of the monks” (ibid., I,14: PL 133, 50). In one of his sermons, Odo referred to Benedict as “light that shines on the dark stage of this life” (De Sancto Benedicto Abbate: PL 133, 725), and described him as “teacher of spiritual discipline” (ibid.: PL 133, 727). He revealed with affection that Christian piety “with most lively gentleness remembers” him, aware that God has raised him “among the highest and chosen Fathers of the Holy Church” (ibid.: PL 133, 722).
Fascinated by the Benedictine ideal, Odo left Tours and entered as a monk in the Benedictine abbey of Baume, to move later to that of Cluny, where he became abbot in the year 927. From that center of spiritual life, he was able to exert great influence on other monasteries of the continent. Benefiting from his guidance and reform were also several monasteries in Italy, among them that of St. Paul Outside the Walls. Odo visited Rome more than once, also going to Subiaco, Montecassino and Salerno. It was in fact in Rome where, in the summer of the year 942, he fell ill. Sensing he was close to death, he made every effort to return to his St. Martin, in Tours, where he died during the saint’s octave, on Nov. 18, 942.
Concerned With Pleasing God Alone
Underlining Odo’s “virtue of patience,” his biographer gives a long list of his other virtues, such as contempt for the world, zeal for souls, commitment to peace for the Churches. Abbot Odo greatly aspired to concord between the king and princes, the observance of the Commandments, care of the poor, correction of youth, and respect for the elderly (cf. Vita Sancti Odonis, I,17: PL 133, 49). He loved the cell where he resided, “far from the eyes of everyone, concerned with pleasing God alone” (ibid., I,14: PL 133, 49).
A Source to Water the Hearts of the Faithful
However, he did not fail to exercise as “superabundant source” the ministry of the word and of example, “weeping over this world as immensely wretched” (ibid., I,17: PL 133, 51). United in only one monk, comments his biographer, were the different virtues existing in a scattered way in other monasteries: “Jesus, in His goodness, basing Himself in the monks’ different gardens, was forming in a small place a paradise, to water from His source the hearts of the faithful” (ibid., I,14: PL 133, 49).
The World: A Fragile and Precarious Reality
In a passage of a sermon in honor of Mary Magdalene, the abbot of Cluny reveals how he conceived monastic life: “Mary who, seated at the Lord’s feet, with an attentive spirit listened to his word, is the symbol of the sweetness of contemplative life, whose taste, the more it is savored, so much more induces the soul to be detached from visible things and from the tumult of preoccupations of the world” (In ven. S. Mariae Magd., PL 133, 717). This is a concept that Odo confirms in other writings, which reflect his love for the interior life, his idea that the world is a fragile and precarious reality from which one must be uprooted, a constant inclination to detachment from things regarded as sources of unrest, an acute sensitivity to the presence of evil in the different classes of people, a profound eschatological aspiration. This vision of the world might seem quite far from ours and yet, Odo’s is a conception that, seeing the fragility of the world, values interior life open to the other, the love of neighbor, and precisely thus he transforms life and opens the world to the light of God.
Meriting particular attention is the “devotion” to the Body and Blood of Christ that Odo always cultivated with conviction, in face of widespread neglect which he sharply deplored. He was firmly convinced of the real presence, under the Eucharistic species, of the Body and Blood of the Lord, in virtue of the “substantial” conversion of the bread and wine.
He wrote: “God, the Creator of everything, took bread, saying that it was His Body, and that he would offer it for the world, and distributed the wine, calling it His Blood; therefore, it is the law of nature that the mutation take place according to the Creator’s mandate, consequently, nature immediately changes its usual condition: Without a doubt, the bread becomes flesh, and the wine becomes blood”; at the Lord’s command “the substance changes” (Odonis Abb. Cluniac. occupatio, ed. A. Swoboda, Lipsia, 1900, p. 121).
The Sacrosanct Mystery of the Body of the Lord
Unfortunately, notes our abbot, this “sacrosanct mystery of the Body of the Lord, in which consists the whole salvation of the world” (Collationes, XXVIII: PL 133, 572), is celebrated with negligence. “Priests,” he warns, “who approach the altar unworthily stain the bread, that is, the Body of Christ” (ibid., PL 133, 572-573). Only one who is spiritually united to Christ can participate worthily in his Eucharistic Body: In the opposite case, to eat his flesh and drink his blood would not be to his benefit, but to his condemnation (cf. ibid., XXX, PL 133, 575).
The Real Presence of the Lord
All this invites us to believe with renewed force and depth in the real presence of the Lord. The presence of the Creator among us, who gives himself in our hands and transforms us as he transforms the bread and wine, thus transforms the world.
St. Odo was a real spiritual guide both for monks and for the faithful of his time. In face of the “vastness of vices” in society, the remedy he proposed with determination was a radical change of life, based on humility, austerity, detachment from ephemeral things and adherence to the eternal (cf. Collationes, XXX, PL 133, 613). Despite the realism of his time, Odo did not yield to pessimism: “We do not say this,” he specifies, “to precipitate those who wish to convert into despair. Divine mercy is always available; it awaits the hour of our conversion” (ibid.: PL 133, 563). And he exclaims: “Oh ineffable heart of divine mercy! God persecutes faults but protects sinners” (ibid.: PL 133, 592).
Christ, the Lover of Man
Supported by this conviction, the abbot of Cluny loved to reflect on the contemplation of the mercy of Christ, the Savior whom he evocatively described as “lover of man”: “amator hominum Christus” (ibid., LIII: PL 133, 637). Jesus has taken upon himself the scourges that correspond to us — he observes — thus to save the creature who is his work and who he loves (cf. ibid.: PL 133, 638).
A Man of Goodness and Joy
A characteristic of the holy abbot appears here that at first glance is almost hidden under the rigor of his austerity as reformer: the profound goodness of his soul. He was austere, but above all he was good, a man of great goodness, a goodness that comes from contact with divine goodness. Odo, his contemporaries say, spread all around the joy with which he was filled. His biographer attests to never having heard from the mouth of man “such sweetness of word” (ibid., I,17: PL 133, 31). His biographer recalls that he used to invite children whom he met on the road to sing and then give them a small gift, and he adds: “His words were full of exultation … his mirth infused in our heart a profound joy” (ibidem, II, 5: PL 133, 63).
Amiable and Passionate
In this way the vigorous and, at the same time, amiable Medieval abbot, passionate about reform, nourished with incisive action in the monks, as well as in the faithful of his time, the intention to advance with diligent step on the way of Christian perfection.
The Source of Joy that Springs from the Goodness of God
May his goodness, the joy that comes from faith, united to austerity and opposition to the vices of the world, also touch our heart, so that we too will be able to find the wellspring of joy that springs from the goodness of God.