Saint Norbert, Bishop and Confessor
The helpful influence of the Holy Ghost is more and more multiplied, along the Church’s path. It seems as though He would show us today, how the divine power of His action is not crippled by lapse of years: for here we have, twelve centuries after his first coming among us, miracles of grace and conversion quite as brilliant as those that marked His glorious descent upon earth.
Norbert, in whose veins flowed the best blood of emperors and kings, was, from the very breast of his mother, Hedwige, supernaturally invited to a nobility loftier still: yet did he devote, to the unreserved enjoyment of pleasure, three and thirty years of a life that was to number but fifty in all. The Holy Ghost at length hastened to the conquest. There bursts a sudden storm, a thunderbolt falls right in front of the prodigal, throwing him to the ground and making a frightful chasm, between him and the point whither, a moment ago, he was hastening in pursuit of new vanities that needs must fail, as all others had done, to fill the hopeless void in his heart. Then, in the very depths of his soul resounds a voice, such as Saul once heard on his way to Damascus: “Norbert, whither goest thou?” Like another Paul he replies: ” Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? ” He is answered: ” Depart from evil and do good; seek after peace and pursue it.” Twenty years later, and Norbert is in heaven, seated amidst pontiffs, upon a glorious throne, and all radiant with that special brilliancy, that distinguishes the Founders of the great Religious Orders, when they have reached the eternal Home.
Deep are the traces left by him on earth, of his few years of penitential life. Germany and France receive his preaching; Antwerp is delivered from a shameful heresy; Magdeburg is rescued by this her Archbishop, from the irregularities that were sullying the House of God: such are his works; and though these alone would have sufficed to a long life of holiness, yet they are not the only titles, nor the most brilliant which Norbert has to the Church’s gratitude. Before being called, against his will, to the honours of the episcopate, this once gay courtier, made choice of an uninhabitable solitude amidst the forests of the diocese of Laon, wherein to devote himself to prayer and to the maceration of his flesh. The renown of this holy penitent gained rapidly; and Premontre soon beheld her swampy marshes invaded by a vast multitude, formed of the fairest names of picked nobility, pressing thither to learn the science of salvation, from the lips of the saintly anchorite. There too, did Our Lady show to him, in vision, the white habit wherewith his disciples were to be clothed; and Saint Augustine, in like manner, delivered to him his own Rule. Thus was founded the most illustrious branch of the Order of Canons Regular. They add to the obligation of solemnizing the Divine Office, the austerities of an uninterrupted penance; and devote themselves, moreover, to the service of souls, by preaching and the administration of parishes.
In the foregoing century, the episcopacy and papacy had been raised by the monks, from out the reach of feudal servitude; and Norbert was now raised up, to give the needed completion to their work. Although, on principle, the monastic life excludes no sort of labour useful to the Church, the monks could not (however numerous they might be) quit their cloisters, in order to undertake charge of souls. Yet, great were the wants of the lambs of the flock, at that time, for many unworthy pastors of secondary order, slaves to simony and immorality, still continued to lead astray the simple laity. The religious life was alone capable of raising the priesthood from such degradation, whether on the pinnacles of the hierarchy or amongst the lowest degrees of sacred Orders. Norbert was the man chosen by God to effect, in part at least, this immense work: and the importance of his mission explains the sublime prodigality wherewith the Holy Ghost multiplied vocations to his standard. The number and rapidity of foundations, permitted succour to be promptly and everywhere afforded. Even into the far East did the light of Premontre reach, almost at its first dawn. In the eighteenth century, notwithstanding the devastations of the Turks and the ravages of the pretended Reform, the Order, divided into twenty-eight provinces, still contained, in nearly each one of its houses, as many as from fifty to one hundred and twenty Canons; and the parishes that continued under their care, might be counted by thousands.
Nuns, whose holy life and prayers are the ornament and aid of the Church militant, occupied from the very beginning, the place deservedly their due in this numerous family. In the time of the founder, or soon after his death, there were more than a thousand of them, at Premontre alone. Such an incredible sum gives us an idea of the prodigious propagation of the Order, from its very origin. Norbert moreover extended his charity to persons, who like Thibault Count of Champagne, would gladly have followed him into the desert, but who were retained by God’s will in the world; he thus made a prelude to those pious associations, which we shall see Saint Francis and Saint Dominic organizing, in the thirteenth century, under the name of “Third Orders.”
The Liturgy thus condenses the life of this great servant of God:
Norbert, born of parents of the highest rank, thoroughly educated in his youth, in worldly knowledge, and then a member of the imperial court, turned his back upon the glory of the world, and chose rather to enlist himself as a soldier of the Church. Being ordained priest, he laid aside all soft and showy raiment, clad himself in a coat of skins, and made the preaching of the word of God the one object of his life. Having renounced the ecclesiastical revenues which he possessed and which were very considerable, he distributed likewise his patrimony among the poor. He ate only once a day and that in the evening, and then his meal was of Lenten fare. His life was of singular austerity, and he was used even in the depth of winter, to go out with bare feet and ragged garments. Hence came that mighty power of his words and whereby he was enabled to turn countless heretics to the faith, sinners to repentance, and enemies to peace and concord.
Being at Laon, the bishop besought him not to leave his diocese, and he therefore made choice of a wilderness, at a place called Premontre, whither he withdrew himself with thirteen disciples, and thus he founded the Order of Premonstratensians, whereof he received the Rule in a holy vision, from Saint Augustine. When, however, the fame of his holy life became every day more and more noised abroad, and great numbers sought to become his disciples, and the Order had been approved by Honorius II. and other Popes, many more monasteries were built by him, and the Institute wonderfully extended.
Being called to Antwerp, he there gave the deathblow to the shameful heresy of Tauchelin. He was remarkable for the spirit of prophecy and for the gift of miracles. He was created, (albeit against his will,) archbishop of Magdeburg, and as such, was a strong upholder of the discipline of the Church, especially as regards celibacy. At a council held at Rheims, he was a great help to Innocent II, and went with other bishops to Rome, where he repressed the schism of Peter de Leon. At last, this man of God full of good works and of the Holy Ghost, fell asleep the Lord, at Magdeburg, in the year of Salvation eleven hundred and thirty four, on the sixth day of June.
Thou didst indeed know how to redeem the time (Eph. v. 16), as was fitting in those evil days, wherein thou thyself, O Norbert, led away by the example of the senseless crowd, hadst for so long frustrated the designs of God’s love. Those years, at first refused by thee to the true Master of the world, thou didst at length return unto Him, multiplied a hundredfold, through those countless sons and daughters thou didst train up in sanctity. Even thy personal works, in but twenty years’ space, filled the whole earth. Schism crushed; heresy confounded to the glory of the Most Holy Sacrament which it had already dared to attack; the rights of the Church, intrepidly defended against worldly princes and unjust retentions; the priesthood restored to its primitive purity; the Christian life strengthened on its true basis, namely prayer and penance; such and so many victories achieved in so few years, are due to the generosity which prevented thee from looking back, for one moment, from the day where in the Holy Ghost touched thy heart. Do thou make all understand that it is never too late to begin to serve God. Were it even, as in thy case, the evening-fall of life, what yet remains of time would quite suffice to make us saints, if we would but generously give that little, fully to Heaven (1 St. Pet. iv. 2).
Faith and Patience were thy cherished virtues; make them flourish once more, in this sad world of ours, which vaunts itself on doubting of everything, and with gibe and jeer hurries onward to the abyss of hell. Forget not, dear Apostle, now that thou art in heaven, the countries thou didst formerly evangelize: we implore this of thee, despite their forgetfulness, despite their criminal return to the deceits of the devil.
Holy Pontiff, Magdeburg has lost her ancient faith, and therewith, the precious relics of thy body, which she no longer deserved to possess: Prague is now the favoured spot of thy repose. But, whilst blessing this hospitable city, pray still for the ungrateful one that has cast aside her double treasure. O thou Founder of Premontre, smile once more on France, who derives from thee one of her fairest glories. Obtain of God, that for the salvation of these calamitous times, thine Order may recover something of its former splendour. Bless, few as they are, those sons and daughters of thine who, despite the ridiculous hostility of the powers that be, seek to shed once more their beneficent influence on France. May our own England benefit also of their return to her midst, and may their fruits be multiplied in every direction. Maintain thine own spirit among them; may they find in interior peace, the secret of triumph over Satan and his crew; may the full magnificence of the divine worship solemnly carried out, be ever unto their souls, as the dearly loved mount, whence Moses like, they may declare the Will of the Lord, unto the new Israel, the Christain people.
The Liturgical Year. 1904. Abbot Dom Gueranger, O.S.B. Translated from the French by Dom Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B. Imprimatur, 1910.