Archbishop and Founder of the Premonstratensian Order
Norbert, the celebrated founder of the Premonstratensian order, was born of very illustrious parents at Santen, in the Duchy of Cleves. As he grew up, he was very eager in the acquisition of knowledge, but he also led a vain, frivolous life, in which he continued even when he was a canon of the Church in his native place. He lived for some time at the court of Frederick, Archbishop of Cologne, and also at that of the Emperor, where he had opportunities to enjoy the pleasures of this World to which he was so much attached. The Almighty, however, who intended that Norbert should become a great Saint, made all this very distasteful to him by the following event.
Norbert went, one clear, bright day, with his servant, to Freden, a village in Westphalia. He had not gone very far upon his way when suddenly a terrific storm darkened the sky, and a flash of lightning struck the earth just before the feet of the horse which Norbert was riding. He was thrown down, and remained lying on the ground almost an hour, more dead than alive. As soon as he had somewhat collected his scattered senses, he arose with the help of his servant, but sinking again upon his knees, he cried like another Saul: “Lord, what dost thou wish that I should do?” An audible voice replied: “Avoid evil and do good.” And immediately Norbert determined to change his whole conduct and obey the heavenly command. Accordingly he repaired to the monastery of St. Siegebert, and began his conversion by a general confession, which he made with a flood of repentant tears.
Soon after, he received the order of priesthood, so as to be still better secured against the frivolities of the world and to remain more constant in the service of the Almighty. He prepared himself during forty days for his first holy mass, by prayer, austere fasting and other penances; and he had no sooner said it, than he ascended the pulpit and preached with such power and pathos on the vanities of the world, that all his hearers were deeply touched. For three years he continued his penitential life; then resigned his canonicate, gave his fortune to the poor, and went to Pope Gelasius II., who was at that time in Languedoc, and begged most earnestly for permission to preach repentance wherever he could find an opportunity. He obtained the holy father’s consent and went on his mission barefoot, in the depth of winter, from place to place. His life and his whole appearance were in harmony with his sermons; for, after having entered the priest-hood, he had laid aside his costly garments, and wore a long mantle made of sheepskin, which was fastened round his loins with a cord. He partook only of lenten food, and of this so little that no one could understand how he could live. By his sermons he moved a great number of sinners to repentance, converted hardened heretics and united in love and harmony many embittered enemies.
The Bishop of Laon, in consideration of the great benefit derived from the sermons of St. Norbert, requested him most earnestly to remain in his diocese and to select, as a dwelling for himself and his companions, any place agreeable to him. The Saint chose a dreary, solitary spot in a barren valley called Premontre, where stood a half-ruined chapel. The bishop bestowed the place upon him with pleasure and gave also the means to renew the chapel and build a small monastery near it. St. Norbert, with thirteen companions who desired to live under his direction, made his abode there as soon as the buildings were completed, and thus was laid, in the year 1121, the first foundation of the celebrated order which, after the valley, was called the Premonstratensian order. The holy founder received the rules and the habit in a vision from Saint Augustine.
In the space of a few years the number of his disciples increased so considerably, that he divided them into eight abbeys, which all became famous. Several other cities also humbly begged the holy founder to erect in their midst dwellings for his religious. Among these was the celebrated city of Antwerp, where Tanchelin had seduced many inhabitants with his heresy. This arch-heretic had almost entirely set aside the partaking of the holy Eucharist, because he denied the real presence of Christ, and had in its place led many to an impious life by his wicked teachings. No sooner had St. Norbert arrived at Antwerp than he refuted the heretic Tanchelin in a public discourse, to the great humiliation of the latter, and in a short time brought the poor deluded inhabitants back again into the pale of the true Church. In his sermons, he exhorted all to pay greater honor to the holy Eucharist and more frequently to receive it. The Canons of the Church of St. Michael offered the Saint this Church and also some houses for dwelling places, and requested him most earnestly to leave some of his religious there, that the people of the city might be kept on the path of righteousness; to which St. Norbert acceded.
Not long afterwards, when the Saint returned from Rome, whither he had gone to obtain the confirmation of his Order, he met the Emperor and many senators at Spire. At the same time there came some deputies from Magdeburg, who announced the death of their bishop, and desired a successor. The Emperor, who highly esteemed the Saint on account of his virtues and the miracles he wrought, would appoint no other than him. The Saint used all possible means to decline so high a dignity, but was obliged to accept it, and being received in Magdeburg with great rejoicings, he was consecrated bishop. Although now occupying so elevated a position, he changed nothing in his exterior, but led the same poor, humble and austere life. He labored earnestly to reform the abuses and vices that had crept in among the clergy as well as the laity, and at first excited against himself the hatred of wicked people, who conspired to kill him. An assassin whom they had hired for this purpose, went on Maunday-Thursday, to the palace of the bishop, under the pretext of wishing to confess, but keeping a dagger concealed, with which he intended to kill the Saint. Norbert, knowing by divine revelation, his wicked design, asked him what he wished, and the unhappy man, sinking tremblingly, at his feet, confessed his intention and begged to be forgiven. For a long time accustomed not only to pardon his enemies, but to return benefits for their misdeeds, the Saint hesitated not kindly to accept the man’s repentance.
Many other brilliant examples of virtue are to be found in the history of his life, but space is wanting to report them all here. To sum it up in a few words, Saint Norbert was the Apostle of his time, a man standing high in the grace of the Almighty, who had abundantly bestowed upon him all apostolic gifts. Four months before his last hour, God sent him a severe sickness, which ended with his happy death, in the year 1134. This Saint is represented as holding in his right hand a monstrance, in his left his Archbishop’s staff and an olive branch. The first is a symbol of his defence of the real presence of Christ in the holy Eucharist, and of his zeal in leading the faithful to the adoration and frequent reception of the holy Sacrament. The second signifies his dignity as Archbishop, a dignity to which the Almighty had raised him against all his expectations, and it is also an emblem of the victory which he won over the world, the flesh and Satan. It is especially related in the history of his life that at his death several pious persons saw him ascend toward heaven with an olive branch in his hand. The Almighty, who often honors in this world those who endeavor to glorify His name, made St. Norbert greatly famed through the whole Christian world, by the many and most wonderful miracles wrought at his intercession.
St. Norbert defended the real presence of Christ in the holy Eucharist, and exhorted the people to pay greater honors to the divine mystery and to receive it more frequently. You, without doubt, believe all that the true Church teaches of this sacrament. But do you honor it duly and receive it frequently? How do you conduct yourself in the church where it is kept? Can one conclude from your behavior that you believe in your heart what your lips profess? I cannot: for when I perceive that you are too indolent to bend your knees before the Blessed Sacrament, that you cast your eyes hither and thither, talk, laugh and jest. I must suppose that you do not really believe in the presence of Jesus Christ, your Saviour and Judge; or I must think that your deeds belie your words. Of the faith of the devils St. James says: “The devils believe and tremble” (James ii.). Is it possible that you do not fear and tremble in the presence of your God and Judge? Must not one conclude from it, that your faith is worse than that of the devils? And what have you to say in regard to your receiving the blessed Sacrament? How often does it take place? With how much devotion? What is your preparation for it? How long and in what state of mind do you prepare for it? How long does your thanksgiving after Communion last? Examine carefully your conscience, and resolve to do better in all those points in which you find yourself deficient.
“Flee from evil and do good.” Thus spoke the voice from above in answer to Norbert’s question: “Lord what dost thou wish me to do?” To this voice, Norbert yielded obedience until the end of his life, and went thus into the home of a happy eternity in heaven. Eternal are the joys, eternal are the honors and possessions of the inhabitants of heaven. They never end, but endure to all eternity. Oh! how great must be the happiness, to dwell forever in heaven! A Saint is free from all pain forever, from all sorrow, all fear, all anxiety! A Saint has an everlasting abundance of all imaginable and more than imaginable joys. A Saint enjoys the society of other Saints, nay even the sight of God Himself, and all this without end. He is happy for evermore, ceaselessly happy! How different is the happiness of the happiest man in this world! It is short, uncertain, never unalloyed, always accompanied by fear or grief and soon passes away. On the contrary, the bliss of heaven is certain, perfect, free from all sadness or fear and is everlasting, unending. As many years will pass as there are grains of sand on the sea-shore, atoms of dust in the air, drops of water in the ocean, and yet the happiness of a Saint will not be ended, it will be still as great as when he first entered heaven.
But for whom is such a happy eternity prepared in heaven? For you, my reader, for myself, for all human beings; for, we are all created to go to heaven. Those who do not go thither will not have fulfilled God’s commandments. What are His commandments? Read what the voice from heaven said to Norbert: “Turn from evil and do good.” Obey this voice and you will surely go into eternal bliss. Or tell me, does God ask too much for a happy eternity? “No work which repays us with everlasting glory ought to be too hard for us, no time ought to seem too long,” says St. Jerome. What then will you do? Oh! turn from evil and do good.
Lives of the Saints: Compiled from Authentic Sources with a Practical Instruction on the Life of Each Saint, for Every Day in the Year by Rev. F. X. Weninger. Permissu Superiorum. New York: P. O’Shea, Publisher, 67 Barclay Street and 42 Park Place. 1876.