The thunderstorm that changed everything blew in suddenly as Norbert of Xanten rode his horse to the German village of Freden in the year 1115. Rain slashed mercilessly at the nobleman’s fancy coif and clothes, drenching him to the bone. Then lightning flashed, the horse bucked, and Norbert went flying.
Norbert hit the ground, lost consciousness, and awoke to experience a spiritual conversion that led him to become an itinerant preacher, and eventually establish an abbey and found the Norbertine order.
It was quite a change for the once-pleasure seeking nobleman, whom one medieval biography calls “frivolous.”
“Until then, I call him an opportunistic cleric,” Father Andrew Ciferni of Daylesford Abbey says. “He put ordination off. He was leaving his options open – you know, maybe he could find the right lady, or whatever – and he was plugged in.
“(Then) he has this conversion experience, and it’s like boom – ‘All right, I want to be ordained a deacon and a priest on the same day,’ which is absolutely forbidden. But I think he just browbeat the Archbishop of Cologne” to get what he wanted.
“It seems to me like in many ways he would have been accustomed to having things his way,” says Father Brad Vanden Branden, prior of St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere. “There was a real expectation on his part that he had something to say and that people should listen.
“I get the sense he was a very zealous person. That was both good and bad. It made people uncomfortable. He called them out in public for their faults. But he had this mission to accomplish.”
After his fall from the horse, Norbert disposed of his estate and gave his wealth to the poor. He became an itinerant preacher, often traveling barefoot – even in snow and ice – and begging for bread for nourishment.“He’s got disciples. They’re traveling barefoot in the snow. The first disciples die of overexposure,” Ciferni says.
“He’s preaching everywhere without a license to preach. He’s wearing the very simple woolen robes of a monk but he’s not a monk and he has violated church law by being ordained a deacon and a priest on the same day. He’s wearing the very simple woolen robes of a monk; but he’s not a monk, and he has violated church law by being ordained a deacon and a priest on the same day. So, he’s called to a council to be reprimanded, and, lucky for him, the cardinal running the council is on his side. [So] he goes down to the south of France and gets a license to preach anywhere he wanted.”
“Norbert was extremely charismatic,” Ciferni said. He was wealthy, handsome, thin, and somewhat tall, according to an early biography. “He had a compelling way of speaking. He was like a magnet. People were drawn to him spontaneously,” Ciferni said.
In 1119, Pope Calixtus II asked the Bishop Bartholomew of Loan to look after Norbert, settle him down, and keep him in the service of his diocese. Norbert was run-down. He was asked to establish a house to recover his strength and lower his profile. He chose Prémontré, a lonely, marshy valley in France, shaped in the form of a cross.
“It’s interesting because when he became the archbishop in a certain sense, he reverted to the creature comforts of his pre-conversion period,” Ciferni says. “Because he had really no choice. Because that’s how archbishops lived. He winds up in this position of trying to keep peace between the pope and the emperor. Once again he is a reconciler and peacemaker.”
Like St. Norbert, Norbertines to this day set out to bring peace and reconciliation to others. The call to religious life and the Catholic priesthood is a Norbertine’s vocation set out by God. The Norbertine charism teaches us to live like St. Norbert and to help others restore peace in their lives, peace with others and peace with God. If you find yourself pulled to religious life, and a life like St. Norbert, contact Abbot Domenic A. Rossi for further information at email@example.com or call 610-647-2530.