Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
Saint Odilo Sold Precious Objects
to Feed the Hungry
Definition of a Balanced Man
Saint of the Day, Monday, October 9, 1972
Today is the feast of St. Leonard, Confessor and Founder. With Cardinal Vives, he founded the Propaganda College for the conversion of the Gentiles. We are in the novena of Our Lady Aparecida.
St. Leonard tenaciously fought Protestantism, which was beginning to take hold in Italy. The Gradual of the Mass proper to his feast attributes to him these words from the Psalms:
“My heart was aflame, my bowels were moved; the zeal of your house devoured me (Ps 68:10).
You made my mouth like a sharp sword; You protected me in the shadow of your hand and made me as a chosen arrow” (Is 49:2).
The phrase is beautiful, but I think we should finish the Saint Odilo commentary first:
During the years of misery, he broke many sacred vases and distinguished pieces of jewelry, including Emperor Henry’s own crown, to give to the poor. He deemed it unworthy to keep these objects when the poor for whom Christ had given His blood were hungry. His solicitude extended to material goods he conscientiously managed.
His work earned the monastery an increase in prosperity that everyone could see. Not only did he have the church built, but he endowed it with precious ornaments. He also extended Church lands. To distribute useful objects, he wisely decided that each month the religious in charge of stocks would give everyone what they needed, and so the convent would always be at peace. In doing so, he made sure his brethren would not be in need, assuring their tranquility.
While applying his mind to these material issues, he kept a constant concern for interior values. His fervent soul sought to promote fervor in observance.
He suppressed many superfluous refinements from the monastery and introduced everything that could favor religious life. While forbidding all things barely useful, he always sought the dignity and sanctity of the Church of Cluny in everything and through everything.
An example of unusual mobility and endurance, he traveled with a numerous retinue. He never let retreated in the face of heavy snows, flooding rains, or overflowing rivers.
He always encouraged his entourage by subjecting them to the most harrowing trials of courage and endurance. Thanks mainly to his continuous efforts, he was a true man who drags others both on the country’s roadways and along the paths to sanctity in the cloister.
Not only did he never stop, but one gets the impression that he undauntedly carried out his task throughout his life despite all the difficulties and misfortunes of the time.
This excerpt from St. Odilo’s biography shows several different aspects of his soul. The first aspect is Saint Odilo, the almsgiver. One would say that a man so tough, brave and courageous, by the very fact of his toughness, would be hardly prone to mercy and kindness.
This is a mistake the children of the Revolution often make when they consider things of the Church and of the Counter-Revolution. They do not understand that all virtues are related to one another, just as all vices are related to one another.
So, one must suppose that a person who authentically has a virtue must possess the extreme opposite virtue, something which I have stated several times.
For example, when you see a very brave man, you get the idea that he is unmerciful. And when you see a very merciful man, you get the idea that he is not brave. Now, if a very brave man is really brave for supernatural reasons and has bravery according to the spirit of the Church, his bravery in no way hinders mercy. Instead, it prepares his soul for mercy.
On the contrary, if a man is very merciful with supernatural mercy rather than natural philanthropy, that mercy prepares his soul for bravery.
Here you have Saint Odilo, a man with an iron temper, displaying a motherly heart to the point of taking apart sacred vessels to help villagers cope with hunger and misery. That means that he takes apart sacred vessels destined for the altar: pyxes, ciboriums, monstrances, other objects to sell the material to appease the people’s hunger.
By admirable harmony, you see how this same man is a great steward of earthly goods. He is no spendthrift but a steward of earthly goods who has raised his monastery to a high degree of prosperity. He built a large part of the church and made it magnificent and famous throughout Christendom. With the money he earned, he bought other sacred vessels, ready to dismantle them if necessary.
There is nothing in common between Saint Odilo and someone like Bishop Helder Câmara, who advocates that bishops wear a wooden cross, ordinary rings or no cross and no ring, running counter to the so-called luxury in worship. He is against luxury because he is egalitarian and likes base, trivial things without elevation or value. Not St. Odilo. He likes these things to such an extent that he does his best to make and save money and promotes and buys luxurious things when he has money.
But he has a wise hierarchy of values. He knows perfectly well that there are times when you must have these things, but as they exist for God’s service, there are also times when you must renounce them. One such time was the famine they had to contend with at that point in the Middle Ages.
Why did famine set in? In the Middle Ages, because of barbarian invasions – which, as you know mark the transition between Antiquity and the Middle Ages, the Roman roads, which were well-made and extensive, had largely fallen apart. Bridges fell without anyone repairing them, and entire roads lost their usefulness and began to be invaded by grass, erosion, etc. so that communications were hugely impaired.
On the other hand, during the Middle Ages, there was a very large increase in population, so people tried to move to uninhabited places served by insufficient roads. While this situation changed in the end of the Middle Ages, in Saint Odilo’s time, the means of transportation were very insufficient.
Because of that, each place lived on what today is called a closed economy. In other words, each area comprising, say, the monastery and at most four or five rural properties around it – was obliged to produce everything necessary to feed its inhabitants.
When there was bad weather, epidemics, or something like that, the land did not provide enough food, and people starved. They could not do, for example, what Russia does today: it sends to the United States for the wheat it fails to produce.
A spell of bad weather, a prolonged winter or something else, harms a wheat-producing region, so there is no wheat and no bread or little bread, and people starve to death. And starve they did because they had no one to turn to.
Saint Odilo was placed before this alternative: either he dismantled the sacred objects and had them sold in faraway regions unaffected by the weather—again with great difficulty, crossing poor roads, etc. to procure and take the food to Cluny to feed the people, or they would starve to death.
In the face of this alternative, the solution was to sell those things. That is an entirely different economic situation from today. You now have many more resources to turn to because the economy is wide open. The weather generally produces lesser effects because agriculture is better protected against all the pests that used to decimate harvests in antiquity and the Middle Ages.
On the other hand, people today have a chance of being protected by the general wealth, which they did not have in Cluny. It was Cluny or nothing. The others were manual workers from Cluny. If a person is very hungry in São Paulo, he has a thousand bells to ring, and someone gives him something to eat. So much so that you do not see anyone starving to death in São Paulo. The situation in Cluny was very different.
Facing this situation, Saint Odilo did what he was supposed to do because human life is worth more than material treasures. He sacrificed material treasures for the sake of human life. And he went so far as to take apart even the glorious crown and relic of Emperor Saint Henry, a jewel of high symbolic value and probably high material value as well, to help the poor.
As soon as he got some money, he had the treasures restored to the House of God because the House of God deserves those riches.
Here you see a truly Catholic balance without fanaticism or unilateralism, in which all aspects of a problem are observed, and you find the point of equilibrium from which to draw the appropriate consequences and a perfect procedure to follow. It is wisdom, a virtue proper to a saint.
However, this is like a song full of harmonies that balance each other, and we must make the counterbalance again. St. Odilo, a man capable of accumulating a lot of money because of his economic production capacity, was very zealous to ensure his monks would not lack anything. He was right because material well-being avoids unnecessary worries and favors contemplation. Therefore, he did not hesitate to spend so that his monks could live well.
See, once again, his balance: He demanded that all objects destined for luxury or mere pleasure be removed from the convent because the it must live on austerity and, therefore, not have superfluous luxuries. What balance, lucidity, and wisdom concerning money! He is not ‘crazy’ about having or not having anything: he loves the virtue of wisdom and has it.
A worldly person might say, “a man who is so balanced must be a bit of a softie” because, as the world sees it, a very balanced man is incapable of extreme resolutions. When we hear that a man is balanced, we feel at the same time some admiration but suspect that he weighs so much the pros and cons that he never does anything with class or value.
Not so with St. Odilo. As you have seen, he traveled with numerous retinue and did not retreat in the face of any obstacles such as bad roads, overflowing rivers, wobbly bridges, all sorts of obstacles. He not only demanded that his people cross them (naturally, when not impossible) but was the first to face the obstacles, dragging others along by his example.
That is not the image of a balanced person out there. They see a “balanced” person as weak, unsure and unable to make decisions.
A Catholic mind is characterized by a superior balance whereby the person weighs all pros and cons and knows when he should make great moves or refrain not to make a mess.
Today’s text ends with this beautiful comment: “he was an entraineur,” meaning one who drags people along with his examples. When he passed a dangerous bridge, everyone passed with him, and not just on the road but in the convent as well. He fearlessly crossed great chasms, flew in the great skies of the spiritual life, and dragged his monks along. That is why he made the glory of Cluny.
How rare are men like that these days. How rare are men today who know that a man must be like that; how rare are men who, hearing that a man was like that, are filled with wonder and enthusiasm; how rare are men who, filled with admiration and enthusiasm, confide in Our Lady and say:
“If I ask Our Lady, I will be like that to the full degree I was created to achieve. I will not draw for myself a mega plan but will be everything I was born to be. Mother of Mercy, look not at my faults, weakness or mediocrities, nor at my past; look only at thy goodness and my misery. Help me and make me like that.”
How few are people like that! However, that is how it should be. So here is the intention for this Saint of the Day: that Our Lady may give us a soul like Saint Odilo’s, balanced and capable of all boldness, and with boldness capable of all balances. That is what we should want.
(Could you define true balance and “white heresy” so we can compare the two?)
The word “equilibrium” starts with “equi” -- I do not know what “librium” means here, but it must be “pound or weight,” meaning equality of weights.
People are led to the white heresy idea that a balanced man is one who always keeps the balances of his soul in the same static disposition inwardly, without ever having a great emotion, a great movement, a great impulse, or anything. Balanced souls are supposedly still, apathetic souls.
What is “balance? Undoubtedly, balance is knowing how to weigh things well, to weigh the pros and cons of things properly. But to know how to weigh the pros and cons well, one needs to understand that many things in life have immense pros and immense cons. And you need to have a huge soul to know how to gauge the immensity of the pros and cons.
And when you have to do something after having weighed the pros and cons, you must know how to distinguish between them. Once you do so, the balance is no longer in hesitation but in resolution.
A balanced man hesitates a lot until he has found the real point of truth. When he does, he is firm, has no more irresolution, and goes all the way to the end because he is sure of the value of his reasoning.
So, depending on the case, he is capable of the greatest risks, the greatest adventures, the greatest acrobatics, and also, if needed, the best strategic withdrawals, the best prudence, the foxiest moves, and of making himself tiny until it is time to become huge again.
It is always a weighing of pros and cons; he must have great intellectual sensitivity to weigh the pros and cons and draw a conclusion. And then make a big decision: If that is the way it is, if that is the truth, here I go! There are no mixed, contradictory or unhealthy solutions, and the thing goes to the end. That is a balanced man.