The Liturgical Year: Saint Odilia, Virgin and Abbess

detail of a stained glass window of Saint Odilia, by Burckhardt, 1899; Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Bas-Rhin Scherwiller, Alsace, France; photographed on 19 August 2015 by Ralph Hammann; swiped from Wikimedia Commons13 December

On this 13th of December, we have the fifth of the Wise Virgins whose bright lamps light us during Advent, to the crib of Jesus, their Spouse. Odilia did not shed her blood for him, as did Bibiana, Barbara, Eulalia, and Lucy; her offering was her tears and her love. Her wreath of lilies blends sweetly with the roses, which form the crowns of her four companions. Her name is held in special veneration in the east of France, and beyond the Rhine. The holy hill whereon her tomb has rested now these thousand years, is still visited by numerous and devout pilgrims. Several Kings of the Capetian race, and several Emperors of the House of Hapsburg, were descendants of the father of our Saint, Adalric or Atticus, Duke of Alsace.

Odilia was born blind. Her father insisted on her being removed from the house, for her presence would have been a continual humiliation to him. It seems as though this affliction was permitted by Providence, in order that the action and power of divine grace might be the more clearly manifested in her regard. The little exile was taken from her mother, and placed in a monastery. God, who designed to show the virtue of the holy sacrament of regeneration, permitted that her baptism should be deferred until she had reached her thirteenth year. The time at length came for Odilia to be made a Child of God. No sooner was she taken from the baptismal font, than she recovered her eye-sight, which was but a feeble figure of the light which faith had lit up in her soul. This prodigy restored Odilia to her father and to the world; and from that time forward, she had to defend, against unceasing attacks, the virginity which she had vowed to God. Her personal beauty, and her father’s wealth and power, attracted to her many rich suitors. She refused them all; and her father himself built a Monastery on the rocks of Hohenburg, wherein she served her divine Lord, governed a large community, and gave relief to every sort of suffering.

After a long life spent in prayer, penance, and works of mercy, the day came which was to reward her for it all. It was this very day, the 13th of December, the feast of the holy virgin Lucy. The Sisters of Hohenburg, desirous of treasuring up her last words, assembled round their saintly Abbess. She was in an ecstasy, and already dead to the things of this life. Fearing lest she should die before she had received that holy Viaticum, which leads the soul to Him who is her last end, the Sisters thought it their duty to rouse her from the mystic sleep, which, so it seemed to them, rendered her forgetful of the duties which she had to perform. Being thus brought to herself, she turned to the community, and said to them: “Dear Sisters, why have you disturbed me? Why would you again oblige me to feel the weight of this corruptible body, when I had once left it? By the favour of his divine Majesty, I was in the company of the virgin Lucy, and the delights I was enjoying were so great that no tongue could tell them, nor ear hear them, nor human eye see them.” No time was lost in giving her the Bread of life and the Chalice of salvation, which having received, she immediately rejoined her heavenly companion, and the thirteenth day of December thus united into one the feasts of the Abbess of Hohenburg and of the Martyr of Syracuse.

The Church of Strasburg, which honours Odilia as one of its greatest glories, has the following Lessons for this feast. By giving them a place here, we do not adopt the statement they contain with regard to the Rule which was followed in the Monastery of Hohenburg. Mabillon, who proves that Saint Odilia followed the Rule of Saint Benedict, shows that the Canonical Rule, as it was called, did not exist at that time.

Odilia, the glory and the protectress of her country, was the eldest child of Adalric, Duke of Alsace, and of Beresind his wife. Being born blind, she was repudiated by her father; but the mother, with more compassion, had her nursed privately. Later on, she was sent to the Monastery of Baume, not far from Besancon, where she was educated, and instructed in the holy Scriptures, and grew in age and wisdom. When an adult, she was baptised by the holy Bishop Erhard, and was on that occasion miraculously cured of her blindness. After the lapse of some years, she was recalled to her father’s house, and became the object of his affection. During this time, she despised all that the world loves, preferring poverty to the greatest wealth, and leading a hermit’s life, amidst all the distractions of her father’s palace. She rejected, with great resolution, all the offers of marriage which were made to her, and, after a long and hard contest, obtained her father’s consent to devote herself for ever to God, with several other virgins. For this end, Adalric built, at his own cost, a church and monastery on the top of a high hill, and richly endowed it with land and possessions. It was at his request that Odilia was appointed to govern the monastery.

Scarce was this abode of sanctity established, when many sought for admission, and, as it is related, the community numbered no less than 130. At the commencement, no special rule was followed; the imitation of Odilia was their rule. When afterwards, it was deliberated on which of the two rules should be adopted, the Monastic or the Canonical, this latter was preferred by the discreet Abbess, as being better adapted to the circumstances of the place.

To all around her she was indulgent: to herself alone she was severe. Her only food was barley-bread and water, to which she sometimes added a few herbs. Her contemplation of divine things was continual; she gave to it the greatest part of the night, and spent the rest in sleep. Her bed was a rough skin, and a stone her pillow.

To this she added a maternal solicitude for the poor and sick, for whom she built another monastery, and also a large hospital at the foot of the hill, that so they might have readier assistance in their various miseries. She placed there several of the nuns to take care of the poor inmates; not only so, but she, every day, visited them herself, fed them, and comforted them, and hesitated not to dress with her own hands the loathsome sores of lepers. At length, weighed down by age and merit, and knowing that her death was at hand, she assembled her sisters in the oratory of Saint John the Baptist, and there exhorted them to continue firm to their holy engagements, and never to leave the narrow path which leads to heaven. Having received, in the same place, the Viaticum of the Body and Blood of Christ, she departed this life on the Ides of December (December 13), and according to the more probable opinion, in the year 720. The body of the holy Virgin was buried in the same oratory, and her tomb became immediately an object of the greatest veneration of the faithful, and was celebrated for the miracles which were wrought there.

The ways of God in your regard, O holy Virgin, were admirable indeed, and he manifested in you the riches and the power of grace. He deprived you of sight, that so your soul might the more eagerly cling to his own infinite beauty; and when afterwards he restored you your bodily vision, you had already made choice of the better part. The harshness of your father deprived you of the innocent pleasures of home; but it prepared you to become the spiritual mother of so many noble virgins, who, following your example, trampled on all the vanities of the world. You chose a life of humility, because your heavenly Spouse Jesus had humbled himself for our sakes. You imitated him also in his being our divine Deliverer, and taking upon himself all our miseries, for you had the tenderest compassion on the poor and the sick. You took on yourself the care of a poor leper, that had been abandoned by all else; with a mother’s courage you fed him, and affectionately dress his loathsome sores. And is it not this that our Jesus is coming down from heaven to do for us; to heal our wounds by embracing our human nature, and to nourish us with that food, which he is preparing to give us at Bethlehem? While the leper was receiving your loving care, the frightful disease, which excluded him from the society of his fellow-creatures, suddenly disappeared; a delicious odour came from his whole person, whereas before, none but a saint like yourself could have borne to approach him. Is it not this which Jesus is coming down to do for us? The leprosy of sin was upon us; his grace heals us, and man regenerated sheds around him the good odour of Christ.

In the midst of the joys which you are now sharing with Lucy, remember us, you that were ever so compassionate to the needy! We cannot forget the tears which you shed, and the prayers you offered up for the soul of your father after his death, and by which you delivered him from purgatory, and open the gates of heaven to him that had banished you from his house. You are no longer in the land of tears; but thine eyes are opened to the light of heaven and contemplate God in his glory; pray therefore for us, for your prayers are now more powerful than heretofore. Think of us who are poor and infirm; obtain the cure of our maladies. The Emmanuel, who is coming to us, tells us that he is the Physician of our souls, for he has said: “They that are in health need not the Physician, but they that “are ill.” Ask him that he cure us of the leprosy of sin, and make us become even like unto himself. Pray for France, your country, and help her to maintain the purity of the Catholic faith. Watch over the ruins of the Holy Empire. Heresy has disunited the members of that great body; but it will once more flourish, if our Lord, propitiated by such prayers as yours, vouchsafe to bring Germany back again to the true faith and to submission to the Church. Yes, pray that these glorious things be brought about for the honour and glory of your Divine Spouse, and that nations, now weary of their errors and disunion, may unite together in propagating the Kingdom of God upon earth.

– from the book The Liturgical Year: Advent, by the Very Reverend Dom Prosper Gueranger, Abbot of Solesmes, translated from the French by the Revered Dom Laurence Shepherd, Monk of the English-Benedictine Congregation, 2nd edition; published in Dublin Ireland by James Duffy, 15 Wellington-Quay, 1870