The Premonstratensians, just like the Dominicans, do their best to combine monastic and evangelical elements of the religious life. Like Martha and Mary, we sit in contemplation at Our Lord’s feet AND go out and preach his Gospel to the world.
Saint Norbert plays quite an important part in a fascinating era in Church and monastic history. In one of my favourite books on monastic history (Medieval Monasticism by C. H. Lawrence), Saint Norbert is written about in the same chapter as Saint Romuald, who established the Camaldolese Hermits. The chapter is entitled “The Quest for the Primitive.” The first centuries of the second millennium were a time when a great many reforms and experiments were happening in the monastic life. The Church’s Calendar recognizes Saint Norbert as a bishop, but he was also a hermit, a preacher, a wanderer, as well as a canon regular, to prove yet again that there are all kinds of ways to live the religious life, no matter which family we belong to.
Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches us that the highest form of religious life isn’t the contemplative life, or even the active life, but action that flows from contemplation; contemplation should always resolve itself in some kind of apostolic zeal, even if that is expressed in the life of the monastery or hermitage.
Saint Norbert is emblematic of the dynamic tension between the active and the contemplative elements of the religious life. Norbert started out as a secular canon, but he renounced his comfortable life for one of solitude and asceticism. He spent several years alternating between hermit and preacher. But he was missing one thing: community. It’s one thing to be a charismatic, wandering preacher; but it’s a whole other thing to live a life of charity with someone for 20, 30, 40, 50 years or more, and sit next to them in choir or refectory each day. Norbert established his first community at Prémontré in northern France, and soon enough disciples gathered around him. Norbert formed them into a group of hermits and preachers, very much in his own mould. The life he designed for them was a combination of community organized around the ideal of ascetical poverty with a ministry of evangelical missionary preaching. This, of course, is before the days of the mendicant orders, and in a way Norbert was importantly relevant to the Franciscans and the Dominicans in his longing for both evangelical poverty and evangelization. Norbert was called on to be the Archbishop of Magdeburg in Germany, and became more and more absorbed in missionary activity. It is his successor Blessed Hugh of Fosses who is credited with being the real architect of the Order. While Norbert based his original concept for himself and his disciples on the Rule of Saint Augustine, Hugh leaned a little more heavily on the Cistercians, especially the customs of the great abbey of Cluny, meaning less emphasis on the pastoral aspect and more on the monastic.
It has been said about Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta that she had a vocation within a vocation. Saint Norbert seemed to have a vocation within a vocation within a vocation: from canon to hermit-preacher to monk to bishop. As a community and as individuals we are always looking for convenient categories for our vocations: are we contemplative or are we active? Do we prefer the Rule of St. Benedict or the Rule of St. Augustine? But it doesn’t always work out that neatly. The English mystic Walter Hilton wrote about the Meddled, or Mixed Life. In some way community: solitude and evangelization, is a kind of universal archetype, and that, I think is what makes it so attractive. And yet, historically Orders like the Premonstratensians and the Dominicans have had a hard time holding the monastic and apostolic elements of the life together. Perhaps that’s because it’s so easy to see any of these elements as ends in and of themselves: solitude, community, or evangelization. But, of course, the end isn’t any of these: the end is absolute availability to God; the end is to be filled with the Holy Spirit; the end is not my will, but your will be done. Like the Prophet Jonah, we can try to go where we think we should go, or where we want to go, but we need to be careful. We might just get tossed into the sea and swallowed by a whale, and that whale will spit us out where God really wants us. And that “sign of Jonah” is, of course, a sign of dying to the self—and a rising to new life. Sometimes we have to die to our will in order to do God’s Will.
With Saint Norbert, we pray for the grace to love Jesus so much as to be willing to be carried off even to where we do not want to go, to what we do not want to do, so that our life with Christ may bear fruit in charity and evangelical zeal.
Saint Norbert, pray for us.