Saint Odo of Cluny, Abbott

November 18

Today is the feast day of Saint Odo of Cluny.  Ora pro nobis.

On Christmas Eve of the year 877, a pious but childless Christian nobleman of Aquitaine implored Our Lord, by the fecundity of His Holy Mother and His Incarnation, to grant him a son. His prayer was heard; Saint Odo of Cluny (Odon) was born, and his grateful father, in a prayer offered him — still an infant in his arms — to Saint Martin of Tours (†400) to be his spiritual son.

Odo was later taught by a wise priest, then was placed in the court of the Count of Anjou and that of the Duke of Aquitaine. There he was influenced by the passions which reign in courts, and neglected his prayers to think only of games, hunting, and military pursuits. But God did not abandon him, and he was haunted in his dreams by the dangers of a disordered life. He prayed to the Blessed Virgin and begged Her one Christmas Eve to lead him on the narrow path of sanctity. 

Though vowed by his father to St. Martin in babyhood, he was given a military training and became a page at the court of Duke William. But the exercises of war and hunting were unendurable to him, and he was permitted to fulfill his father’s vow by becoming a canon of the church of St. Martin at Tours. In this office he was in the companionship of worldly ecclesiastics. He revolted from the careless life which for a time he had practiced with them, and studied Virgil, till, warned by a dream of serpents in a jar, he abandoned the poets for the Prophets and Apostles. With Bible study he now mingled an exaggerated asceticism, keeping himself in a narrow and unfurnished cell.

He also read the Benedictine Rule, and proposed to become a monk. But the life of the monks at Tours, like that of the canons, was shocking to the earnest young ascetic. Odo now spent a period at Paris in the study of logic and music, and then returned to Tours to teach and write. But he soon set forth in quest of a suitable monastic home and we find him, in 909, entering with a companion Berno’s monastery at Baume. Here he distinguished himself by his humility, and in recognition of his learning was appointed master of the cloister school. He bore with invincible patience the hostility of unfaithful monks, and gained the complete confidence of Berno. At Berno’s command he was ordained a priest. When Berno died, early in 927, the monks of Cluny unanimously chose the saintly teacher of Baume as their abbot; and the better element of the Baume community followed him to Cluny.

With ripened gifts Odo devoted himself to the upbuilding of the young institution. In his first year of office he secured from Rudolph, the ruler of Burgundy, a charter which reaffirmed the terms of Duke William’s donation, and strongly emphasized Cluny’s immunity from all secular and ecclesiastical interference. The monks were exempted from tolls in the markets, and numerous valuable manors were added to the monastic property.

Gifts and privileges, the world’s subversive reward to piety, now came to Cluny in a swelling stream. Numerous charters granted by kings and popes multiplied the guarantees of the monastery’s immunity from interference. Grants of property, villas with their serfs, churches with their revenues, and other sources of income, were made by wealthy laymen and women for the good of their souls. Bishops handed over church properties on an arrangement of easy annual payments of dues.

From King Rudolph and the pope, the privilege of coining money was granted to the abbey. And in 931 Pope John XI presented to Cluny the extraordinary privilege of receiving from any disorderly monastery any monk who wished to amend his life, and harboring him until such time as his own monastery should be reformed.


John of Salerno notes the practice of certain hours of silence; but this was modified by the use of a language of signs, by which “grammarians of the fingers and eyes” might become articulate. When St. Benedict in his Rule admitted the use of signs, he probably did not foresee the expertness that would be attained in this art where extended silences were enforced. “If the monks were deprived of the use of the tongue,” John thinks, “those signs would suffice for all that they need to convey.” (Detailed codes of the sign language are contained in the sources of later monasticism; apparently some nunneries excelled in its use.) Great care was taken for the dignity of the services, and in accordance with the practice of Benedict of Aniane, the psalmody was extended beyond that of early Benedictinism.

Cluny was mounting to greatness. Pope John’s suggestion that degenerate monasteries were to be reformed, was to be carried out in hundreds of instances through the influence of the Cluniacs. Odo saw the beginning of this widespread restoration, and he was the traveling organizer of the movement.

Odo carried the movement into Italy, where many abbeys had suffered from raiding Saracens and predatory nobles. Alberic, then in control in Rome, and Pope Leo VII, invited him. Alberic in so doing may have been chiefly concerned to take from the hands of his political opponents the monastic properties they had seized. In the winter of 936, Odo, in peril and great hardship, first crossed the terrifying Alps. He was accompanied by John of Salerno whose description of the journey shows high admiration for the humility and charity of his master.

The fame of Odo had preceded him, and he was greeted by throngs of common people and beggars. He became intimate with the folk, and liked to get children to sing in payment for the alms he distributed. Once, to relieve poverty, he bought laurel berries at an excessive price; and when asked by his companions what he intended to do with the berries he uttered a torrent of amusing explanations, making them laugh till they could not restrain their tears.

St. Odo of Cluny. Choir stall in St. Maria (Buxheim)

Odo found Rome in a state of turmoil, and measures of pacification had to precede reform. Before he died he had made four protracted visits to Italy, and had achieved important successes. In Rome three monasteries were restored, and one, St. Mary’s on the Aventine, was founded by Odo. The historic house of St. Benedict at Monte Cassino, which had been wrecked and deserted, was planted anew. The reform was extended to a number of houses in southern Italy.

Enfeebled by malaria and fatigue, and knowing that his work was ended, Odo set out from Rome to use all his remaining strength in a journey to the shrine of his patron, St. Martin of Tours, and there, November 18, 942, he died an edifying death.

It remained for Odo’s great successors, Odilo (994-1048) and Hugh (1048-1109), to consolidate and extend the empire of Cluny. Odilo wrought the enlarging connection into a completely integrated order, monarchically controlled by the abbot of Cluny. Hugh built the vast and impressive abbey church, that celebrated monument of Romanesque architecture. The order grew till it included nearly a thousand houses, and as many others felt the stimulus of its example.

Image: Das Chorgestühl in der Klosterkirche des ehemaligen Kartäuserklosters Buxheim: Odo von Cluny (7)

Research by REGINA Staff


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