Review: Sainte-Odile: The Mount and its Graces, by Patrick Koelher

Patrick Koelher, Sainte-Odile. Le mont et les grâces, Éditions du Cerf, Paris, 2018, 240 p.

Father Patrick Koehler, the rector of Mont Sainte-Odile since 2010, has just published a book to introduce the Jubilee which will celebrate in 2020 the 1,300th anniversary of the death of Saint Odile (also known as Odilia or Ottilia), the patroness saint of Alsace.

Patrick Koelher

At the beginning of each chapter, the author offers excerpts from the Vita sanctæ Odiliæ virginis and refers as well to scenes depicted in a 15th century tapestry hanging in the buildings where the relics of the saint are preserved. He also uses situations to share some of his pastoral experiences in relation with the relics, at Mont Saint-Odile and in the places where he previously exercised his priesthood.

In the Catholic style, it is a book full of testimonies and “emotions”, as noted by a critic. The life of the saint is considered in the light of current experiences.

This book gives us the opportunity to recall the importance of saint Odile in the Orthodox world, as she was an Orthodox saint of the first millennium. Father Makarios of Simonos Petra wrote a notice on her in his Synaxarion for December 13/26, when she is commemorated. Her life and troparion were published in Russian, for the many pilgrims from Russia who go nowadays to Mont Saint-Odile to venerate her relics, where a monastery founded by the saint was built.

This beautiful place, located near the town of Obernai on a hill overlooking the plain of Alsace, also attracts Orthodox pilgrims from France, Switzerland, and other European countries, including Greece, where a complete liturgical service (Little Vespers, Vespers, Matins, Divine Liturgy) was composed for this saint. Relics of saint Odile are venerated in several Orthodox churches, among others that of the Pantokrator Monastery on Mount Athos, and icons representing her are found in many Orthodox sanctuaries.

Many Orthodox faithful have been cured of ophthalmic diseases, sometimes very serious, by the intercession of the saint who was born blind and recovered her sight in her childhood thanks to a miracle. These miracles often imply applying some of the water that flows from a miraculous spring located below the sanctuary, at the edge of a forest road leading to Niedermunster, a second monastery founded by the saint and now in ruins. In connection with one of these miracles, a very beautiful akathist to the saint was composed in French by Claude Lopez-Ginisty.

Jean-Claude Larchet is the author of this review, written originally in French.

Life of Saint Odilia as found in Butler’s Lives of the Saints:

ST ODILIA, or OTTILIA, Virgin (c. a.d. 720)

 

There lived in the time of King Childeric II a Frankish lord of Alsace named
Adalric, married to a lady named Bereswindis. To them was born, near the end
of the seventh century, at Obernheim in the Vosges Mountains, a daughter who
was blind from her birth. This was a matter first of irritation and then of un-
reasoning fury to Adalric ; he regarded it as a personal affront to himself and a
reflection on the honour of his family, in which such a misfortune had never
happened before. In vain did his wife try to persuade him that it was the will of
God, decreed in order that His almighty power might be made manifest in the
child. Adalric would have none of it, and insisted that the babe should be slain.
Bereswindis was able at length to turn him from this crime, but only on condition
that the child should be sent away and nobody told to whom it really belonged.
She fulfilled the first part of this condition, but not the second, confiding the baby
and its history to a peasant woman who had formerly been in her service. When
this woman’s neighbours asked awkward questions, Bereswindis arranged for her
and all her family to go away and live at Baume-les-Dames, near Besan^on, where
there was a nunnery in which the girl in due course could be brought up. Here
she lived until she was twelve years old, without, for reasons not explained, ever
having been baptized. Then St Erhard, a bishop at Regensburg, was warned in
a vision that he was to go to the convent at Baume, where he would find a young
girl who had been born blind ; her he was to baptize, giving her the name of Odilia,
and she would receive her sight. St Erhard thereupon consulted St Hidulf at
Moyenmoutier, and together they went to Baume. They found the girl and
baptized her, giving her the name of Odilia (Ottilia, Othilia, Odile), and when he
had anointed her head St Erhard touched her eyes with the chrism and at once
she could see.

Odilia continued to serve God in the convent, but the miracle of which she had
been the subject and the progress she now made in studies raised up the jealousy
of some of the nuns and they began to indulge in petty persecution. So Odilia
sent a letter to her brother Hugh, of whose existence she had been told, asking him
to do for her whatever his kind heart should suggest. St Erhard meanwhile had
acquainted Adalric with his daughter’s recovery, and that unnatural parent was
more angry than ever, flatly refusing Hugh’s request to have Odilia home and
forbidding the mention of her name. Hugh nevertheless sent for her, and it so
happened that he was standing with his father on a neighbouring hill when Odilia
arrived in a wagon, surrounded by a crowd of people. When Adalric heard who
it was and how she came to be there, he raised his heavy staff and with one blow
stretched Hugh dead at his feet. In his remorse he turned to his daughter and
was as affectionate to her as he had before been cruel. Odilia lived at Obernheim
with a few companions who joined her in her devotions and charitable works
among the poor. After a time her father wanted to marry her to a German duke,
whereupon she fled from home and, when she was closely pursued, a cliff-face at
the Schlossberg, near Freiburg in Breisgau, opened to admit and conceal her. To
get her home again Adalric promised her his castle of Hohenburg (now called the
Odilienberg) to turn into a monastery, and here she became abbess. Finding that
the steepness of the mountain was a discouragement and inconvenience to pilgrims
she founded an auxiliary convent lower down on the eastern side, called Nieder-
miinster, with a hospice attached.

It is said of the holy foundress that some time after the death of her father she
received a supernatural assurance that her prayers and penances had released him
from the state of Purgatory, and that St John the Baptist appeared to her and in-
dicated the site and dimensions for a chapel which she wished to build in his
honour. Other supernatural visitations and a number of miracles are also attributed
to her. After ruling the convent for many years St Odilia died on December 13,
about the year 720.

Such, in brief, is the legend of St. Odilia about whose life the truth is as elusive
as the popular veneration of the saint is definite. Her shrine and her abbey were
the objects of a great devotion throughout the middle ages ; they were favoured by
the emperors from Charlemagne to Charles IV, and among those who were drawn
to Hohenburg by devotion were St Leo IX, while he was still bishop of Toul, and,
it is said, King Richard I of England. The pilgrimage was no less popular among
the common people, and St Odilia was venerated as the patroness of Alsace before
the sixteenth century. Tradition pointed to a spring as having been by her
miraculously called from the rock for the convenience of the nuns and their pilgrims,
and its waters were (and are) used for bathing unhealthy eyes while invoking the
intercession of the once blind saint. The same custom is observed by pilgrims to
the Odilienstein in Breisgau, where the rock opened to receive her. After under-
going many vicissitudes the shrine of St Odilia and the remains of her monastery
came into the possession of the diocese of Strasburg, and since the middle of last
century the Odilienberg has again become a place of pilgrimage. Her relics are
preserved in the chapel of St John the Baptist, a medieval building on the site of
the one above referred to as built by St Odilia herself : it is now more commonly
called by her name.

The text of what has been proved to be a tenth-century Life of St Odilia has been edited
by W. Levison in MGH., Scriptores Merov., vol. vi (1013), pp. 24-50 ; and cf. Analecta
Bollandiana, vol. xiii (1894), pp. 5-32 and 113-121. But even here in the judgement of
Levison hardly anything can be accepted as reliable history. At the same time St Odilia
continues to be one of the most popular saints not only in Alsace but also in Germany and
France. There is a considerable literature concerning her, of which an idea may be formed
from the references in Potthast, Wegzveiscr, vol. ii, p. 1498, and in DAC, vol. xii (1936),
cc. 1921-1934. Much information may be gleaned from different volumes of the Archiv /.
elsdssische Kirchengeschichte, as for example an article in vol. viii, pp. 287-316 on ” Das
Odilienlied in Lothringen “. For the most part the devotional lives of St Odilia, such for
example as that of H. Welschinger in the series ” Les Saints “, are historically unreliable.
This last even treats as a serious document the forgery of Jerome Vignier which was exposed
by L. Havet in the Bibliotheque de l’£cole des Chartes y for 1885. On St Odilia in art see
Kunstle, Ikonographie, vol. ii, pp. 475-478, and C. Champion, Ste Odile (1931). At the
time of the battles of Verdun during World War I, St Odilia became very celebrated in
France through the attribution to her of a completely apocryphal prophecy. It was again
current, though less widely, during 1939-1945.