“Every faithful and pious soul no doubt comes closer to meriting the love and glory of Almighty God the more he hears good about another. … Along this [earthly way to our heavenly homeland], blocked as it is by many errors and great difficulties, the examples of holy men … have been present to us from the beginning of the world. If we follow in their footsteps we will the more eagerly seek the joys of eternal happiness and the more surely attain them.”
Thus begins the Life of St. Norbert, composed by Norbert’s friend and disciple Blessed Hugh of Fosses. The moral of his introduction is that the Christian faithful should not just politely admire St. Norbert from a safe distance; rather, they must love this man of God and imitate his holy example in their own souls. If we would like to reach heaven and rest in its delights, then we too ought to love St. Norbert of Xanten. Having learned his story, we should follow him in word and in deed to our common eternal beatitude in Christ Jesus.
St. Norbert was born in the last quarter of the eleventh century, in present-day Germany. The son of a count and the courtier of an archbishop, he enjoyed every benefit the world had to offer. Urbane and lettered, handsome and wealthy, the young Norbert succeeded in all his endeavors and won the approval of all his fellows. And yet, despite his professional proximity to Holy Mother Church, St. Norbert was living not for the City of God, but for the perverse and fleeting City of Man. Seeking human respect and worldly pleasures, Norbert abandoned the heavenly Jerusalem to secure his citizenship in sinful Babylon.
Out of love for Norbert, our merciful God intervened. One day in 1115, while Norbert was on his way to commit deadly sin, a sudden bolt of lightning diverted him from his evil path. Blessed Hugh comments, “The Lord above is compassionate in calling back and not slow to change, as if he were saying, ‘Norbert, Norbert, why are you persecuting me?’” Like St. Paul a millennium before, Norbert immediately converted to Christ Jesus, and then gradually increased in the fire of divine love.
In his newfound humility, Norbert submitted himself to prayer and to the guidance of a holy local abbot. When at last his hour had come, Norbert revealed exteriorly the good works that God had been effecting in him interiorly. The first step was to renounce the “old man,” which he did to great evangelical effect on the day of his ordination. Standing before the entire church of Cologne, all his old colleagues and peers, Norbert shocked everyone with the undeniable evidence of his conversion. Dramatically stripping off his luxurious, worldly fashions, Norbert put on the simple garment of poverty, and he received to himself the sacred vestments of the Savior's royal priesthood. From that day forward, Norbert would be counted amongst the pauperes Christi, the poor of Christ.
Before long, Fr. Norbert’s fame as an itinerant preacher of the gospel had spread throughout the land. Having sold all he had and given everything to the poor, he traveled on foot to spread the good news of repentance. After the model of our Lord, Norbert gathered disciples to himself as well. Friends and brothers in Christ, they worked together in unity and love for the salvation of souls, joining Norbert in his holy cause.
But just what was this holy cause? What were Norbert and his followers finally going to do with themselves? What sort of life would he establish for them to lead? He knew that returning to the worldly snares of the secular canons was a mistake, but should they become monks, or hermits, or anchorites, or something else altogether? Norbert was unsure what God desired for him and his fledgling religious community.
All this remained uncertain, until one day St. Augustine appeared to Norbert in a vision, and he held out his own rule for Norbert’s men to follow. “I, whom you see, am Augustine, bishop of Hippo. Behold, you have the rule which I have written, under which, if your confreres, my sons, fight well, they will stand secure before Christ in the terror of the last judgment.” The answer from above was clear: the Norbertines would be canons regular, under the Rule of St. Augustine.
On Christmas Day 1121, St. Norbert and his first followers made their religious profession according to this holy rule in the valley of Prémontré, France. The site was set apart for them by the Lord and specified in another vision, this one to Blessed Hugh. Vowing poverty, chastity, and obedience, the men committed themselves to sing the praises of God in fraternal community at this particular place, in this particular church.
Thus from the beginning, the liturgy was central to their common life in Christ. Their Norbertine charism was to be based upon the original example of the Church at Jerusalem, where the Lord’s apostles gathered in prayer with Mary the Mother of God. St. Luke describes this life in the fourth chapter of Acts: “Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” Adopting this apostolic life, the Norbertines established themselves in particular ecclesial communities, united in liturgical prayer, holding all things in common, for love of God and neighbor.
St. Norbert would go on to found many other monasteries across Europe during his life, similarly grounded in apostolic brotherhood. But because Prémontré was the birthplace of the new Order, Norbertines in all places often have been known under the title of “Premonstratensians.” And because St. Norbert clothed his canons in simple white habits like those of the holy angels of the Resurrection, habits which were miraculously presented to him by the Blessed Mother herself, religious in his Order would sometimes be called the “White Canons” as well.
In 1126, St. Norbert was summoned away from the simple apostolic life he had established, in order to serve the Church as a formal successor to the apostles. At the request of Pope Honorius II, he became the archbishop of Magdeburg, Germany. Yet even as an esteemed prince of the Church, Norbert stayed true to his religious vows. With his Premonstratensian brothers always close to his side, he set about reforming his diocese and correcting its sinful excesses, especially with regards to the place’s unholy clergy.
St. Norbert faithfully fulfilled his duties both as founder of the Norbertine Order and as archbishop of Magdeburg, until at last he went to sleep in the Lord on June 6, 1134, worn out by his austerities and travels on behalf of Holy Mother Church. His feast is celebrated throughout the universal Church every year on that day.
After Norbert’s death, Blessed Hugh administered and codified Norbert’s teachings for the fledgling community at Prémontré, and he was elected first abbot general of the Order.
At its peak in the early fourteenth century, the Norbertine Order numbered over 10,000 members. Today there are about 1,200 Norbertines in communities throughout Europe, the Americas, Africa, India, and Australia.
Our Holy Fathers, Sts. Augustine and Norbert, pray for us.
Mary, Queen of the Order of Prémontré, pray for us.