01 December 2009

'He Renewed the Beauty of the Monastic Order'—St Odo of Cluny

Today, 18 November on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Odo (879-942), Abbot of Cluny. St Odo seems to be little known among Orthodox, even for a Western Saint. He is the author of the Life of St Gregory of Tours (printed in Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers, by St Gregory of Tours, trans. Hieromonk Seraphim [Rose] & Paul Bartlett [Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1988], pp. 35-63), and Fr Seraphim notes that while much of the Life is composed of paraphrases and summaries of St Gregory’s own statements about himself, ‘the Abbot’s own comments show him to be a man of spiritual perception himself’ (p. 32). Here is the account of St Odo's life from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Second Abbot of Cluny, born 878 or 879, probably near Le Mans; died 18 November, 942. He spent several years at the court of William, Duke of Martin at Tours. About 909, he became a monk, priest, and superior of the abbey school in Baume, whose Abbot, Bl Berno, was transferred to Cluny in 910. Authorized by a privilege of John XI in 931, he reformed the monasteries in Aquitaine, northern France, and Italy. The privilege empowered him to unite several abbeys under his supervision and to receive at Cluny monks from abbeys not yet reformed; the greater number of the reformed monasteries, however, remained independent, and several became centres of reform. Between 936 and 942 he visited Italy several times, founding in Rome the monastery of Our Lady on the Aventine and reforming several convents, e.g. Subiaco and Monte Cassino. He was sometimes entrusted with important political missions, e.g., when peace was arranged between King Hugo of Italy and Alberic of Rome. Among his writings are: a biography of St Gerald of Aurillac, three books of Collationes (moral essays, severe and forceful) a few sermons, an epic poem on the Redemption (Occupatio) in several books (ed. Swoboda, 1900), and twelve choral antiphons in honour of St Martin.

Benedict XVI recently spoke about St Odo in an audience at the Vatican (see Vultus Christi for the full text), where he observed, among other things:

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 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).

Leonard von Matt and Dom Stephan Hilpisch, OSB, helpfully summarise the reforms initiated by St Odo (Saint Benedict, trans. Dom Ernest Graf, OSB [Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1961], p. 169):

The first point of Cluny’s programme was a faithful observance of the Rule of St Benedict and the solemn celebration of the liturgy, this being a monk’s primary task. On the other hand, Cluny insisted on the independence of the monastery: there was to be no interference by the secular authority. The monasteries were to form a confederation with central government and were to be at the service of the Church.

Distinguished abbots, men like Odo, Majolus, Odilo and Hugh, executed this programme with prudence and vigour so that, within a short time, Cluny exercised a mighty power of attraction, not only in France but likewise in England, Italy, Germany and Spain.

Referring to the reformers of Benedictine monasticism in the 10th century, Christopher Dawson writes (Religion & the Rise of Western Culture [Garden City, NY: Image, 1958], pp. 122-3):

These men were not mere self-centred ascetics, but prophets of righteousness who defended the weak and the oppressed and spoke boldly against evil in high places. We see this, above all, in the writings of St Odo, the second Abbot of Cluny (927-942), who was one of the greatest of the early leaders in the reforming movement.

In his article, ‘The Contribution of the Orders’, in The Flowering of the Middle Ages, ed. Joan Evans (NY: Barnes & Noble, 1998), George Zarnecki tells us that when St Odo arrived at Monte Cassino to institute his reforms there and enforce the rule, ‘he was met by armed monks ready to resist the unwanted interference’ (p. 49). He goes on to write: ‘It is a measure of Odo’s courage and saintliness that in an age when only brute force was understood, he gained entry, as testified by his contemporary and biographer, John of Salerno, with the disarming words: “I come peacefully—to hurt no one, injure no one, but that I may correct those who are not living according to rule”’ (p. 49). Thus it was that when St Nilus of Calabria visited the great monastery in 981 (see this post), he was met by a disciple of St Odo, Abbot Aligern, and it was the Cluniac form of Benedictinism that he saw there.

Frederick Artz refers to one of St Odo’s achievements that seems to be rarely mentioned: his important role in the history of Western music. Artz points out that the Abbot’s Dialogue on Music ‘contains the first systematic use of seven letters for pitches and the first clear discussion and illustration of organum. The whole book is much more specific than any earlier work on music, and it shows that musical theory is moving away from philosophy and that it is beginning to consider, in a more first-hand way, actual musical production’ (The Mind of the Middle Ages: An Historical Survey, AD 200-1500, 3rd rev. ed. [Chicago: U of Chicago, 1980], p. 220).

Finally, I’d like to make a brief comment about one of the more famous aspects of the Cluniac observance of St Benedict’s Rule. In his Introduction to Colm Luibheid’s translation of selections of St John Cassian’s Conferences (NY: Paulist, 1985), Owen Chadwick speaks of ‘the long and elaborate services designed by Cluny, apparently with the mistaken object of achieving the maximum amount of prayerfulness in the day by that method’ (p. 17). Chadwick rightly contrasts such an object (which he admits is ‘a noble ideal’) with St Cassian’s ideal of unceasing prayer as taught in Conf. X.8-10 (Luibheid, pp. 130-6), which echoes precisely the teaching of ‘eastern’ hesychasm. But it seems to me that we must be careful of making too much of this tendency in the Cluny of St Odo and his immediate disciples, if for no other reason than the indubitably ‘eastern’ St Nilus of Calabria found nothing objectionable to it when he was at Monte Cassino a mere forty years after St Odo’s repose, and, according to the Vita S. Nili 73, ‘marvelled at their discipline and their well-ordered pattern of existence and expressed greater admiration for their way of life than for ours’ (qtd. in Herbert Bloch, Monte Cassino in the Middle Ages, Vol. I, Parts I-II [Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1986], p. 11). While one must allow for a little courteous hyperbole, particularly in the last remark, I see no reason to doubt that St Nilus believed the ‘Cluniac’ monks of late 10th-c. Monte Cassino were adequately striving to attain unceasing prayer in their own way.

As for St Odo’s writings, I shall offer two passages. First, Dawson quotes from his Collationes some of St Odo’s ‘prophetic’ remarks about ‘robber nobles’ and ‘worldly prelates’:

How then are these robbers Christians, or what do they deserve who slay their brothers for whom they are commanded to lay down their lives?

You have only to study the books of antiquity to see that the most powerful are always the worst. Worldly nobility is due not to nature but to pride and ambition. If we judged by realities we should give honour not to the rich for the fine clothes they wear but to the poor who are the makers of such things—nam sudoribus pauperum praeparatur unde potentiores saginantur (for the banquets of the powerful are cooked in the sweat of the poor). (Dawson, p. 123)

Second, here is part of Fr Seraphim’s translation of the Preface to the Life of St Gregory of Tours:

It is right to venerate the memory of all the saints; but the faithful honor in the first place those who, whether by their doctrine or by their example have shone with great splendor than the others. Now, that the blessed Gregory, archbishop of the metropolitan see of Tours, was one of these, and that he is resplendent with this double merit, is proved by documents which are by no means of negligible authority. It is therefore surely necessary to describe, even though incompletely, his actions, so that the renown of such a man may not be eclipsed one day by a cloud of uncertainty. Without doubt it suffices for his glory that he has, high in the heavens, the testimony of Christ, Whom he wished to please; but among us would it not, nonetheless, be something culpable to keep silent the praises of the man who exerted himself to publish those of so many saints? (p. 35)

I conclude with the Roman antiphon for St Odo from the feast of the Holy Abbots of Cluny (from this post at Vultus Christi):

Odo arose full of the Holy Spirit,
and renewed the beauty of the monastic Order
throughout the world, alleluia.


timothy said...

Dear Aaron:

thank you for this wonderful post on St. Odo. I am a new Orthodox Christian, and I pray the Orthodox Benedictine Roman rite prayer, and I was about to pray Vespers and I saw that it was St. Odo's day today. But I didn't know if he was post-Schism, so I looked on google to find out, and I read your wonderful post! Thank you for helping proclaim the light of "the west" in the Orthodox Church. It is needed.

yours in Christ, a sinner,


Aaron Taylor said...

Dear Timothy,

Thank you for your kind words. It's always nice to get appreciative comments, even when they are nearly 5 months after the fact!

I really love doing this kind of post on Western Saints, because I firmly believe that the Western Saints need more in-depth treatment from a truly traditional Orthodox perspective. For instance, the issue over the disparity between hesychastic teaching and the common approaches to the notion of 'unceasing prayer' in the West seems to me like a big deal, and I don't know why more Orthodox don't mention it in contexts like this one.

In Christ,