By CAROLE BRESLIN
Studying the history of the Church or simply reading about the saints, we find that the development of spirituality through the centuries is strikingly consistent. Just as the understanding of doctrine has become more clearly defined through the centuries, spiritual practices have become more and more understood with such saints as St. Teresa of Avila, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Therese of Lisieux, and St. Francis of Assisi.
A noble from western Germany, St. Norbert, came before all of them — around the turn of the 12th century. Yet his life reveals that he started a third order and did a retreat with a general Confession similar to the third order of Franciscans and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.
Also like St. Ignatius, St. Norbert was a courtier, having been born (in 1080) of very noble lineage. His father, Heribert, count of Gennup, was related to the emperor, while his mother, Hedwig of Guise, was of the House of Lorraine. As such, he seemed to have little no motivation to do anything but enjoy the life at court.
Nevertheless, most likely because of his family connections, he received minor orders, the subdiaconate, and became a canon of St. Victor at Xanten, the place of his birth. Eventually, he became the almoner of the emperor, Henry V. He enjoyed the life of the nobility.
The next stage of his life is reminiscent of the conversion of St. Paul. Norbert and his companions were riding their horses through a forest during a storm, when there was bright flash of lightning. The horse reared with fright, dumping its rider on the ground. St. Norbert lay on the ground completely unconscious for more than an hour.
Finally, he came to and — like St. Paul — he exclaimed, “Lord, what wilt thou have me do?” Then he heard a voice say to him, “Turn from evil and do good: Seek after peace and pursue it.” Also like St. Paul, he experienced an immediate conversion, returning to Xanten for a life of prayer, fasting, meditation, and a lifetime examination of conscience.
In 1115, Archbishop Frederick of Cologne ordained Norbert. Since he had appeared in lambskin tied by a rope for his Ordination and practiced other austerities, he became known as an eccentric and was denounced to Pope Gelasius II. However, when Norbert presented himself to the Holy Father — having walked barefoot to kneel at his feet, given his general Confession, and offered to do whatever penance the Pope asked of him, the Pope told him to go and preach the Gospel.
He, barefoot in the middle of winter, set out with his companions to Valenciennes. Sadly, his companions all fell ill and died. Soon, the archbishop of Cambrai met him and, astounded at the change in the young man, released his chaplain, Hugh, to follow Norbert. Hugh later became the head of the order that Norbert would establish.
When the Pope died, Norbert sought to renew his papal commission. Instead he met with the bishop of Laon, who convinced him to come and reform the canons regular of St. Martin’s at Laon. Not surprisingly, the order resisted, whereupon the bishop offered a piece of unproductive land to Norbert and his 13 followers. This became known as Prémontré. By Christmas Day 1121, there in the valley, Norbert had 40 companions, all of whom made their vows.
Despite its austerity, the order spread quickly to other countries, becoming widely popular among both men and women. With two nunneries and eight abbeys, Norbert went to Rome in 1125 to seek approval from Pope Honorius II. Upon his return, the canons of St. Martin’s who had previously rejected him then sought to join him.
The concept of a third order for the laity most likely began with St. Norbert when Theobald, count of Champagne, asked to be admitted to the order. St. Norbert refused him, sensing that he should remain a layperson. Theobald accepted this decision when St. Norbert gave him the white scapular and a set of spiritual practices to observe.
When Theobald had arranged a marriage, he took Norbert with him to Germany to conclude the details. During this journey, they stopped at Speyer where the emperor was having a meeting. The representatives from Magdeburg begged the emperor to name Norbert their bishop. Thus Norbert became a bishop.
As Norbert was dressed in his usual simple garb, barefoot, and appearing to be destitute, the porter at the bishop’s residence refused to let him in, sending him to join the other beggars outside. When those who had followed him heard of this, they protested. Yet Norbert remained calm and told the man, “You have judged me more truly than those who brought me here!”
As Norbert worked to reform the many transgressions in his see, he met with great resistance. In fact, two or three times he barely escaped those who sought to kill him. Finally, Norbert decided to leave the city and abandon the people to their own devices. It was not long before they realized just how much they needed Norbert and begged him to return. From then on they were submissive to his authority.
He spent the rest of his time implementing the needed reforms, while at the same time overseeing the Premonstratensian houses through Blessed Hugh.
In 1130, when Pope Honorius II died, a schism developed in the Church as two different men claimed the papacy. Pietro Cardinal Pierleone took the name of Anacletus II — he was favored by the Romans. Gregorio Cardinal Papareschi took the name Innocent II, being favored by the French. With the support of St. Bernard, St. Hugh of Grenoble, and St. Norbert, the emperor, Lohair, declared his support for Pope Innocent II.
Despite the support of most of Europe, with the Romans supporting the antipope Anacletus II, Pope Innocent was unable to enter Rome. It was through the persuasion of Norbert that Lohair entered the city with the Pope in 1133. This marked the culmination of Norbert’s activities for the past 20 years. In that short span of time, he accomplished more than many do their entire lives. He died on June 6, 1134.
Pope Gregory XIII declared Norbert a saint in 1582. In 1627, his remains were moved to the Premonstratensian abbey in Bohemia. His feast day is celebrated on June 6.
Dear St. Norbert, lover of poverty, model of chastity and obedience, help us. Obtain for us, we pray, the grace to resist temptation, to sacrifice our wants and desires, and to lead pure and holy lives. May we follow your example of spiritual poverty so that we, too, may win more souls for the great Kingdom of Heaven. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)